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Wow…has it really been two years already?  The last two years in Japan have been amazing, and it’s definitely safe to say that we have fallen in love with this country and the Japanese people.  It’s difficult to believe that time is going by so quickly and we only have one year left in this amazing place.  Even with a year left, I find myself beginning to miss things.  I have randomly said to James “How are we going to have a house without a tatami room?” “How am I going to survive without a heated toilet seat?” “What am I going to do when I can’t pick up sushi at 7-11?”

So I think it will be a difficult transition when we leave Japan, but the memories will be with us forever.  And in our last year, I am making a huge effort to not focus on what I will miss, but to instead cherish every moment here and enjoy all of these amazing experiences.  When I begin to look back on this last year, it has been filled with such great friends and moments that I just realize once again how blessed we are.

Some of our favorite moments from this last year in Japan:

Learning all of the traditional Japanese Bon Odori dances and performing them in various festivals around our city.

Hiking Fuji-san (again?!?!) with a great group of friends.  And while it was also miserable, I am so thankful we did it again.

Decorating our Christmas tree in our first Japanese home.  The tatami room made for a great Christmas room.

Visiting Hiroshima and Miyajima Island in southern Japan.  It was quite a moving experience.

Relaxing for a few days in Kyoto and really getting to know the city.  Finding these adorable geisha lattes!

Drinking green tea with my mom in Tokyo

You only have one year left to come and visit us!  We’d love to have you.

On a beautiful spring day in Kamakura, we happened upon this wedding party.  We had come to enjoy the sakura while they bloomed, but this beautiful bride was the highlight of my day.  She carried herself like royalty, taking perfect tiny steps, and making only slight movements.  Yet, she was beaming with happiness, and everyone was stopped in their tracks to witness such a special moment.

All regions in Japan claim to be famous for some indigenous industry, and tourists purchase the special local products to take home to friends and family. Takayama, a small ancient mountain town in Gifu Prefecture is famous for beef, wood working, special Spring and Fall Festivals, Sarubobos, and Sake Brewing.  In a late winter trip to the town, we wandered through wooden narrow streets and experienced fresh local sake.

Mountain water helped provide pure ingredients, and dozens of famous sake breweries still litter the old castle town’s downtown area occupying old wooden buildings with little to indicate a large brewing operation is taking place behind the walls.  After buying a few wooden sake cups at a touristy sake store, we wandered into a quiet street and approached an open door of what seemed like a brewery advertising tastings.

Inside we found a nice brewery owner and some other tourists trying sake in an open room, with industrial barrels and equipment in the back.  We pointed at three sake varieties to taste, not being able to read the type.  Angela and I have had a very difficult time finding sake we enjoy tasting, but soon found ourselves enjoying the best sake we have come across. Maybe it was the setting, but we quickly narrowed down our favorite and purchased a bottle to take home.  The owner gave us a pamphlet in English about enjoying sake for dummies.  Most of our best experiences with wine have come from visiting the actual wineries, perhaps we need to discover more sake breweries more local!  Problem is the natural water near Tokyo is not optimal for brewing…

But we did discover that breweries often hang a large grass ball outside their doorway, so we are now on the lookout.  This may be to signify they have started the brewing season, or is tied to the Shinto religion where sake is sacred, but we aren’t sure as both hypotheses were explained to us by local friends.

Japan has been teasing us for a few weeks with spring.  But thankfully, I think spring has finally arrived! (or at least is very close…) Our soap in our downstairs bathroom is no longer frozen, and we are able to walk into our closet without a jacket on.  We thought spring was upon us in early March, when the plum blossoms began to bloom, until winter decided to play with us one more time.  Mt. Fuji is still covered with snow, but the sakura are beginning to bloom, and that is a great sign of warm weather to come!

A year ago, I wrote a blog about everything I was feeling after the earthquake.  I was sitting in a Starbucks in Virginia, while James was still in Japan, reflecting on what felt like the longest few days of our lives.  I didn’t even touch it until last week, when I started editing it.  It feels strange to go back through the happenings of last year, and I can’t bring myself to edit it just yet.  But in the meantime, I want to remember everything we went through, and I want to use the blog to document our experiences.

So, I’ve taken our twitter feed from March 11th-14th, 2011.  From when the Earthquake hit to when James finally made it home.  I must say that the tweets made me seem like I was much calmer than I was. In fact, I remember typing a joyous tweet about James being in a shelter while I melted down crying about him being sick from the water and not having food.  In hindsight, I did a great job making it seem like I was all together.  When in reality, I was a disaster.  Thank goodness for adorable poodles and a great friend who brought me food and great company.

Please read the tweets starting at the bottom of the page, and work your way to the top.

Start reading from the bottom ↑

Heading back to work after time off is always hard, and leaves us anxiously checking the calendar for our next three day weekend.  The two weeks following New Years are tough to get through, but thankfully we reach a Federal Holiday commemorating Dr. King, providing a much needed break for all government employees come mid-January.  With both of us working long hours, we found ourselves desperately needing a weekend getaway.  The local travel agency on base offered a special to the west coast of Japan to visit the castle town of Kanazawa, famous for seafood, the gold leaf industry, and home to one of the top 3 most beautiful Japanese Gardens.

We put AJ in the kennel, picked up our train passes, and enjoyed a mix of Shinkansen and reserved local trains through the mountains west of Tokyo, and on to the Sea of Japan. We rode the train through the snow belt, enjoying fresh bento boxes and watching excited, tipsy snowboarders get off the train into a winter wonderland.  While our home near Tokyo does not get much snow, the surrounding country gets blanketed.  Much of Japan is truly a winter sports paradise, but we noticed stacks of wood logs and very steep roofs everywhere, indicative of how hard it really is to live there.

I had seen the Sea of Japan while on my emergency shelter/evacuation trip around the country after the March 11 earthquake, and had seen what looked like interesting villages.  Over the past year, I had been wanting to go back with Angela to visit, so we used this as an opportunity to visit the West Coast.  We got off at JR Kanazawa station and grabbed a taxi to our hotel in the inner city.  The west coast of Japan, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, sees less foreign tourists, but we were excited to visit the old, independent samurai town.  Kanazawa was the seat of a powerful Samurai clan, who maintained as much independence from the Shogun as possible, fearing his domain would be split and divided to diminish his power.  What we discovered for the next few days was a city built for defense, but that provided many luxuries for those the defenses protected.

We expected snow on the ground, but luckily it was just warm enough to melt the recent snow fall.  Kanazawa is famous for its rain and snowfall, and has developed ways to protect trees and bushes from the weight of heavy snow.  A majority of trees we saw were protected by a simple rope system which would break up the snow, saving the plant from damage.  In fact, this is what Kanazawa is famous for, and tour guides always include a picture or two of these tree pyramids. I assume they remove the contraptions in the summer, so it must be a painstaking process.  But in Japan, this really does not surprise us.

Our hotel was in the historic city center, and we headed off on foot to explore, coming across a unique shrine with a bell tower, reminiscent of western architecture.  The shrine, originally funded by the local daimyo, had relocated near the castle in the late 1800s after the Meiji restoration, and like much of Japan was suddenly curious for western ideas and thoughts.  In Kanazawa, that meant building a bell tower near their largest shrine based on European and American designs.  Stained glass was incorporated, giving the shrine an odd feeling of being in old Europe.

After visiting the shrine we walked along an old samurai neighborhood with traditional mansions and walls lining the streets. Restored mainly for tourists, we enjoyed the walk through old Japan, something more difficult where we live due to the massive modernization following the Pacific War’s destructive conclusion.  Though we looked for the famous local seafood, we stumbled upon spicy curry, which is always a good pick on a cold day.

The next day we enjoyed a good morning of sleeping in and enjoying matcha lattes from Starbucks before heading into the cold rain to explore the famed Kenrokuen Gardens.  Walking towards the garden, we came across a truly unique experience.  We noticed an old looking shrine near the garden on fire, so decided to check it out.  It turns out the shrine was hosting another New Year’s event, in which people burn whatever possessions from 2011 they wish (mainly house decorations and home shrines, including images of bunnies from the year of the rabbit).  Locals would drive up, get out of their car, walk to the fire and throw out 2011. And in Japan, 2011 deserves to be burned away.

It really started to rain and got cold when we walked into the garden. Good thing we had hot hand pads in our shoes and on our backs to warm up our kidneys!  The garden was a private domain for the samurai lord and his guests until the late 1800s, which is amazing as the garden was truly remarkable with everything you would imagine a Japanese garden would have.  The garden’s picture spot is a stone lantern overlooking a man-made koi pond.  This lantern is unique due to its longer than normal stand, and is prominent in every advertisement of the area.

Tired of getting wet, we took a break inside a restored tea house in the garden and enjoyed matcha and sweets on tatami mats listening to the rain in a remarkable experience.  The rain actually let up and we decided to explore the old castle grounds.  Walking up through the outer gate, we expected to pay an entrance fee when a local retiree took pity on the wet foreigners and gave us a private tour of the castle park.

Our new personal tour guide spoke good English and was overjoyed to show us the renovations being done to turn the park into a full blown tourist attraction.  He walked us through a fully rebuilt defensive gate and showed us all the different techniques of how unique this castle was compared to others (all Japanese towns say theirs is most unique), but we did learn a lot about castle construction.  After a great private tour we finally sat down to dinner. We chose a quiet place near the castle that treated us very well, serving mochi udon and tempura.

After dinner we explored a famous geisha district north of the city that remains intact.  We enjoyed the stone streets and wooden homes, but remembered from Kyoto that it is hard to see a Geisha at work without going into the expensive establishments.  We woke up the next day with one goal: to find and tour a famous Buddhist temple nearby labeled as the “Ninja-Dera.”

The Ninja temple has no actual connection to ancient ninja assassins, but was built by the local daimyo as further protection against a potential invading Shogun intent to fully subjugate the realm.  The paranoid local lord helped fund this Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town to delay and warn of an attacking force. The building defied many edicts from the Shogun, and included many trap doors and hidden pitfalls for unsuspecting invaders (why an invading samurai army would attack a Buddhist temple and not just go around it was beyond me).

The temple was beautiful, and we could follow the tour though it was given all in Japanese.  The creepiest part was a suicide room, with doors that could not be opened from the inside once closed.  If a samurai failed he could go in there and would commit seppuku, or starve to death, in any case dying for failing.

Our trip over, we headed to the train station early to enjoy sushi salads and grab train alcohol.  Japan’s infrastructure is built to get you anywhere without driving, so we enjoyed a few drinks while looking at dozens of snow covered peaks on one side of the train and the Sea of Japan on the other.  All in all a great weekend away to recharge.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been snagged.

The content isn’t funny, but this picture makes me laugh.

By far my favorite escalator sign ever!

This February we traveled to Sapporo to experience the 63rd Snow Festival.  We had always wanted to visit Hokkaido, and booked a tour that included door to door transportation.  Experiencing winter weather in short bursts, we purchased snow boots and other items to prepare for the arctic temperatures.  The tour flew us out of Haneda airport in downtown Toyko on a short domestic flight north to Hokkaido.  And being in Japan, our plane was painted with Pokemon characters, it seems to make sense now.  Domestic air travel within Japan is a much more calm experience than American airports.  We did not have to take our shoes off for security and could even bring liquids on the plane with us.

They seriously had a “liquid” scanner to check your bottle of water, tea, beer, or canned coffee for explosives.  We observed the device with wonder as an indicator light would flash green after scanning a half empty bottle of water. Genius!  We had thought that Hokkaido is sort of like Alaska, but it definitely gets more foot traffic with over 45 large daily flights between Tokyo and New-Chitose (Sapporo’s hub).  We landed and had some time at the airport before our tours began.  Before stepping foot outside of the airport we were immediately presented with every specialty item Hokkaido is known for to purchase, from dairy products, chocolates, and beer.  Japan really understands that money drives tourism.

New-Chitose airport is about an hours drive from Sapporo, and our tour stopped by Lake Shikotsu on the way for their annual Winter Ice Festival.  Along the drive we entered forest full of deer.  Large, hairy deer littered the snowy forest.  Hunting must not be as prevalent this time of year (if allowed at all, Japan has very strict gun laws).  Lake Shikotsu’s ice festival was an experience you cannot have in America for fear of being sued by angry patrons.  Every year locals build frames for structures out of wood and steel pipes, then use sprinklers spraying lake water to cover them.

The result is large structures with differing themes.  We walked through tunnels of ice with green pine boughs decorating the sides, climbed to the top of a circular ice luge with artwork hanging inside, and paid our respects at an ice Shinto Shrine.  But nothing compared to the ice slides and ice rink for kids.  The ice slides were entertaining in we would watch children happily slide down the luge, stop, try to stand up and promptly fall again.  This happened over and over.  Nothing compared, however, to the controlled chaos observed on the ice rink.

Kids would strap on helmets (which is rare in Japan, at least for bike riders) and wait patiently on the side of the rink (no ice skates) for their parents to fling them into the middle of the rink.  Inevitably the sliding, shrieking, children would slam into another child, knock them over, both try to stand, then slip and fall again on the ice, and keep laughing.  It was marvelous to watch and a wonder to us Americans who watched parents willingly fling their precious children into strangers’ kids.  There was no crying or arguing, just controlled chaotic fun. We chuckled over the number of law suits that would arise from such activity in the states.

Cold we climbed onto the bus and fell asleep, waking up to our tour leader telling us to “wake up now!” This was after he told us to fall asleep while he read us boring facts about Sapporo (his words).  We checked into our hotel in downtown Sapporo, then headed to our final tour destination of the day, prepaid meal at the Sapporo Brewery Beer Garden.  The dinner was an American’s and a glutton’s dream, all you can eat and drink for 90 minutes.  Except you had to cook your own food on a burner on the table, which turned out to be awesome.

We took up the challenge and grilled up endless fresh, local scallops, lamp strips (a Mongolian cut the locals named eating “Ghengis Khan”) and some veggies for good measure.  Endless alcohol also puts everyone in good spirits and we had a great time, enjoying fresh Sapporo Classic beer on tap at the source.  Leaving the dinner in high spirits Angela, Brian, and I left the tour group and took a train to Sapporo’s nightlife district around Susukino Crossing.  We sampled a few bars, ran into several foreigners, and got a glimpse at large ice sculptures lining the streets set to be unveiled the next morning.

The next morning we awoke to fresh snow and realized the Super Bowl was being broadcast on NHK live.  So we watched the Super Bowl with Japanese play by play announcers while we got ready for the day.  It was a new way to watch the NFL in that there were no commercial breaks.  The announcers would zoom in on the team’s benches and talk away while America watched the ridiculously expensive ads.  When a big play happened, the announcers (who were having the best week ever in Indianapolis) would yell, such as when Tom Brady was sacked on the Patriots last drive: “SAAACK-UUUU!!”

After a brunch of local seafood (AMAZING) we walked a few blocks to Odori Park in central Sapporo, the site for most of the snow festival. Sapporo as a city is unique in Japan in that it is easy for American’s to navigate.  It was designed by Americans in the late 1800s on a grid pattern similar to what we find in the midwest, meaning addresses mean something… unlike in Tokyo where some streets are completely unnamed and/or were purposefully designed to stop an attacking Ninja force.

Great in 1598, but not so much in 2012.  In any case, we soon found ourselves in a large international crowd, walking around the park counterclockwise.  The Sapporo Snow Festival was started in the 1950s by a group of high schoolers who were bored or cold and built some large snow sculptures as a competition of sorts.  Somehow the Japanese military got involved and soon an international festival was born.  2 million people now visit Sapporo every February for the event, and we were three of them.

Of all the things to see, we came across Hawaiian Hula girls first. Seriously, there was a climate controlled building full of sand with hula girls.  The Japanese are obsessed with Hawaii, and we are further convinced of this every day.  Soon we came upon the big attractions, starting with a scale replica of the Indian Taj Mahal.  Every year Sapporo will build an international icon in snow, and this year the Indians had their famous building immortalized in snow.

The structure and details were amazing.  Next up on the “wow” factor was a replica Japanese castle.  This year they built a replica of a castle from Fukushima prefecture to show solidarity from the ongoing disaster there.  This sculpture was by far our favorite.  The detail of the stones and upper levels were simply awesome.

Continuing our walk around the park we saw hundreds of smaller snow sculptures, with many anime and Nintendo themed characters around. Reaching one end of the park we came upon the international competition area, and had some fun observing teams at work.  Many countries send teams to take a block of snow and build a design to be judged at the end of the week, somewhat similar to sand castle contests.

Teams from India, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, Hawaii, Taiwan, Oregon, and northern Europe wore team outfits and were hard at work.  Most used spray paint to mark where to cut the snow, but then whittled it down with small saws.  We wish we could have seen the final products, but some teams were clearly better than others (not sure why there were so many teams from countries that have absolutely NO SNOW).

Getting cold we started to purchase hot wine and sake and crab heads and warm crab legs.  As it began to get dark we came across the half of the park with lights on snow sculptures, upping the ante.  A crowd favorite was a gigantic Mickey Mouse and Magicians hat.  Behind that was an aquatic scene with fine detail on dolphins and a humpback whale.  Near the Sapporo TV Tower (every major Japanese city seems to have a gigantic metal tower with a mascot… why not?) we found a small park with ice sculptures based on designs children submitted.

One ice sculpture was lit up and set to music.  Looking around we found a little girl in a cage (a heated glass hut) playing the electric organ.  It seemed a little like child labor… but she was good!  Tired, cold and hungry we grabbed dinner along famed Ramen Alley in Susukino.  Sapporo is known as the creator of miso-ramen, and it was delicious, especially with large, fresh scallops.

Next we visited a string of ice bars.  Not every day you can literally have all your drinks on ice!  One hotel set up an elaborate ice bar outside their lobby, complete with ice stools and tables.  We ordered irish coffees and tequila sunrises, but they kept offering hot orange juice, which just seems gross to us, no matter how cold it is outside. A string of ice sculptures in the streets of Susukino were interrupted by magnificent ice sculptures.

While enjoying some hot wine at one ice bar, Angela got on the local news of a Russian affiliate as the reporter rattled on about the festival.  Some of the ice sculptures had fish and crabs frozen in them, and we realized that local restaurants had sponsored them and had advertisements with directions!  On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Odori Park to get some night pictures of the frozen Fukushima Castle lit up and ran into a delightful group from tourists from Hong Kong who had been snowboarding all week.

Our last day in Sapporo Angela and I woke up, checked out of the hotel, enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast, then headed out on an important mission.  We had to get a stamp in our Shrine book from Hokkaido, the second Japanese island we had visited.  We took a taxi to the Hokkaido Jingu Shrine, the largest shrine in all of Hokkaido, and discovered a beautiful garden covered in fresh snow.

A picturesque wet snow continued as we got our calligraphy stamp and walked through an old growth forest back to the city to catch a taxi back to our bus.  As a final tour event, we visited a ropeway, another singularly unique Japanese experience in that everywhere you go there is a ropeway of some kind.  The plan was to take a cable car to the top of Mt. Moiwa to see the entire city of Sapporo on the plain below you.  Except it was snowing, and became a blizzard/white out near the top of the mountain.

We spent an hour at the top, playing in several feet of snow but having no view but white.  After we got to the bottom to meet the bus again the sun came out, but our time in Sapporo was over.  The plane ride back was fast, and we were home in non-snowy Tokyo and back to work before we knew it.  All in all it was a great trip, and we would love to visit Hokkaido again!

Happy Year of the Dragon from our crazy little poodle.  Who also decided he didn’t like 2011 (Year of the Rabbit) on New Years Day.

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