Sunday, August 31, 2008

Goodbye Old Friend...

This week I said goodbye to a reliable, old friend - one who has been with me for about 8 years. My beloved Expedition was getting near her end... the transmission wasn't responding as it should, her brakes were squeaky and needed to be replaced, she costed more than $100 to fill up (even with the dropping gas prices) and the work needed to keep her running exceeded her net worth. I'd seen it coming for a few months, and kept nursing her along, not quite ready to let go.

I have to admit that I teared up a bit when the dealer drove her away. When I got home with my new car, tears till in my eyes, and confided this to my sister, she told me I'm nuts for feeling so glum about, of all things, a vehicle. But I loved that truck. It had been a huge part of my life these past eight years.

That truck had taken me safely, loaded with friends and/or family, on road trips all over the country - from Chicago to Pensacola, Myrtle Beach to Philadelphia, Atlanta to Iowa. We went tailgating, to weddings and funerals, bowl games and vacations. Both of my babies came home from the hospital, cradled in the center of that metal giant. Just two months ago she went half-way across the country, on a trip to New Orleans for business. She was a great truck.

I'm really going to miss my leather seats, 6 disc CD, pimped out speakers, and ample cargo space. I know, I know. All excesses I never needed. But all the more apparent when I dropped to a consumer-friendly crossover without a single bell or whistle.

I do realize this is something I should talk to my shrink about. I realize it's much deeper - that it's symbolic of all the things I'm losing and changing in my personal life right now. Stuff I'm not ready to talk about here, in cyberspace. All the same, that vehicle held a little bit of my heart. And held a huge number of happy memories. Over 150,000 miles of them.

Farewell, old friend - you've served me well!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The NIghtmare Remodel is Finally Over

The good news is that the garage is finished, and is now operable and functional space. Now to get the permits and such needed to use it. The other good news is that I no longer have to deal with All Exteriors, which is located in central Virginia. I'm including them as a label, in hopes that other unsuspecting persons cross this post and run away from these guys.

First off, the carpenter, Kevin, was great. The crew, for the most part was also good. But the owner, Mike, was rotten, through and through. He brought his crew on and began working them before I signed a contract, despite my insistence that he not do so (I should have known then!!). He cost more than everyone else. But he told me that the final product would be "top quality."

Well, if "top quality" means missing major items, hot water tanks put in places easily accessible by small children and in an entry way, crappy peal and stick vinyl laid crookedly, deviance from color schemes, unfinished and exposed wood on the exterior of the building, doors that don't close properly, missing keys from locks (which were installed upside down), warped and bubbled fascia, cigarette butts littering the area, people smoking in the new building, an office (equipment, files, furniture) covered in cement and drywall dust, a missing ceiling fan, areas of walls un-sanded and not primed, exposed exterior piping, fingerprints IN the painted doors, paint smeared everywhere on windows and doors, paint not applied to the interior and other general small grievances, well then, hell, it was a top quality job. A few samples posted for your viewing pleasure.

Angry? A bit. This guy wasted my time and money, and now I have to spend extra time to fix things. I'm unhappy with the finished product, and even more so with the process involved to get said job finished. I spent countless hours babysitting All Exteriors before I left, after I returned and even fighting with them while IN Japan (he insisted on working while I was away, then tried to swindle the money out of Kerinda in my absence prior to my approval AND completion of the job). He badgered and bullied my family... this mama bear was LIVID when I returned. Then, after a severe tongue lashing, the silent treatment and several snide comments about "quality," he did everything I requested, exactly as I asked (even if it took 3 tries) and finally I paid him and sent him on his merry way. Never to be seen again. I hope.

That's All Exteriors, folks. Owner, Mike Kersey. Don't use them!

Karma, baby. Karma.

Now, on to painting.... what matches Crap Brown carpet and Poo Swirl peel and stick? Perhaps a nice Chartreuse Puke? (Definitely not the 5 gallons of creamy yellow that I bought! Anyone need some yellow paint?).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

J2J V: Tokyo, Over and Out!

It's taken me days to find the time or energy to follow up with the final part of the Japan trip and to wrap up my thoughts. I'm still exhausted, but here goes on somewhat of a conclusion to our journey...

After leaving the serenity of Koyasan, we climbed back aboard the local bus, took the cable car, took the local train, grabbed an express train, sped along on the shinkansen (bullet train) and navigated the subway system that took us, 8 hours later, to our final destination, Tokyo. Unlike the rest of Japan that I had experienced, Tokyo was very Western feeling. Skyscrapers abounded in every direction, neon signs clamored for my attention and the subway system was like navigating along the noodles in a pile of spaghetti. I became wary and agitated, worried about pickpockets and speeding taxis. Basically, it felt like I was back in the US. But with a language barrier.

After navigating the subway to our approximate area of the city, we walked around cluelessly for about half an hour before giving up and getting a cab. Navigating Tokyo is next to impossible - most streets don't have names. Addresses go like this... 2-3-1 Yoyogi (our hotel's address). This means that it's in Yoyogi area, is in chome (or grid) 2, block 3, building 1. This may seem to make some sense, until you throw into the mix that blocks, buildings and chomes do not go in any order that a foreigner would understand. They were numbered as they were built. So 2 may be next to 32. Cab drivers don't have a clue - they rely on GPS. Locals don't know anything except their very small, local area of blocks. It's frustrating as heck to get around there.

Tokyo is a metropolis just like every other I've ever been to. Nothing really stood out to me. Perhaps it was the weariness of our long trip. Maybe it was my extreme homesickness for my girls and furry children. Or it could be that I was just sick of the language barriers, foreign food and lack of wi-fi. I felt disconnected and alone, drowning in a vast sea of strangers.

We did manage to get out and discover shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. We ate from a big bowl of boiling broth, into which we added vegetables from a salad bar, beef and pork, stirring and boiling it as we ate. I broke my meat ban big time, and payed for it dearly, but it felt great to have a meal I enjoyed eating after days of tempura'd leaves, boiled tofu and beans.

We also traveled across the city to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, which was built in 645 (and rebuilt after the Tokyo bombing of 1945). The story goes that in 628, two fisherman brothers netted a golden statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy. Sensoji was built to house the statue, and thousands flock there to seek her favor by burning incense.

The entrance to the temple boasted an impressive gate with a gigantic paper lantern hanging from its ballast. After walking through the gate and admiring its impressively fearful gaurdians, I was transported into a lane filled with colorful flags, legions of souvenir peddlers and a carnival-like atmosphere. The lane ended at the main gate to the temple, alongside which stood an impressive five-story pagoda.

We stopped inside the main gate to get our fortunes, which is accomplished by dropping 100¥ into a slot, shaking a container with sticks in it until one alls out, matching the Japanese-scripted number on the stick to a numbered drawer and removing your fortune. I pulled my drawer, and was instantly surrounded by onlookers oohing and ahhing - apparently I had pulled the best fortune one can obtain. Jason's luck was very different - he got the worst one possible. It was funny that ours were so different, with over 30-some in the mix that we could have gotten!

On our way out of Asakusa, we stumbled across a ferry dock, and on a whim decided to take a ride and see where it went. It took us to the Southern business district near Roppingi, where we were met by salarymen just getting off of work. We followed the masses into a subway station, stopping for a bottle of "Happy Hoppy" (couldn't resist that one!) in one of the plethora of eating and dining establishments in the underground malls that are scattered throughout Tokyo.

The final day we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to head down to Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world. I'd be lying to say we were thrilled about going. But, it was our last day there, and it was one of those things I thought I'd be disappointed about not seeing when I returned, so on we trudged. Well, actually we just called a cab. Though we knew it would cost about $30 each way, we were both too tired to try navigating it.

The market was impressive, with fishermen who had clearly been at sea quite some time scurrying around in their big, black boots. Deliverymen drove little carts like bats out of hell throughout the narrow corridors, and it was hard to stay out of their way. We finally found the auction and watched the strange hand signals, auctioneer calls and fish-tagging take place. Then we stopped at a little dive for some very-fresh sushi. It was good, but to be honest, sushi at 6 a.m. after more than a week of raw fish almost daily about did us in. Neither of us could finish our orders. I accidentally ate some fermented fish eggs which I think I can still taste from time to time in the back of my mouth.

We rushed back to the hotel, caught a shuttle (2-hours!) to the airport, rode a delayed flight out to Chicago, missed our connecting, landed another flight to DC, arrived, found our luggage had not, and waited around for an hour or so for Jason's dad to pick us up. Our luggage arrived the next evening on our doorstep. Thank you, United, for that special bonus at the end of a long trip.

All in all, Japan was a wonderful experience. I definitely recommend going. I do have some suggestions if you do decide to go, though:

  • Don't waste time learning too much Japanese. All they say to you is thank you, please, hello, goodbye anyway (remember, you are American, and therefore a Barbarian). Add in a request to find the bathroom "toire wa domo desu ka" in the mix, and you're good to go. Yes, you'll have a tough time. But really, you'll have a tough time even if you learn multiple phrases. It's just that different.
  • Ignore the advice about bringing lots of tissues to use as toilet paper. Everywhere I went, even public bathrooms in remote places, had toilet paper. Chalk that one up to myth.
  • Buy Frommer's at least a month or two before traveling. It was our constant companion on this trip.
  • Don't blow your nose in public. Or put your hands in your pockets. Or cross your arms. Or stare. Or wear shoes into a temple. A voice of experience, people.
Random observations
  • Despite having outstanding technology in terms of useless gizmos and extreme toiletry, there is no wi-fi to be found in all of Japan, apparently.
  • About 10% of Japanese women wear kimonos. I’m not sure why. Is it religious? For certain jobs? Or just a preference?
  • Men can push women around on the subways, as well as children. And that's ok. By them, at least. Not by me.
  • It's not fun to go to a foreign country where everyone is tiny when you are bordering ginormous and have huge breasts. You get openly stared at. Or at least your breasts do, because they're at everyone else's eye level.
  • It’s a more extreme culture shock than anything I have ever experienced before. Because there are few roman characters on maps and signs, it’s very hard to find what you’re looking for. Thankfully, I was addicted to mahjong on my computer for years, so I eventually matched the symbols to our guide maps/books, at least enough to navigate and find food.
  • English-worded shirts (with Roman letters) are extremely popular, but many of the sayings make no sense at all to us. Visit for some great examples. They're not exaggerating in the least.
  • Stop to read the English translations of signs when they are present. Hilarious. See photo at right for an example.
  • If you don't know how to say it in Japanese, try saying it in English, replacing the l's with r's. E.g. Coka-Cora. Seriously. Sank-you is also quite common. Many said "sank you" to us repeatedly.
Anyway, we're home, and I'm recovering. It was an exhausting trip, and there's no rest for the weary when you're a mommy that's been away for more than a week. Not to mention my contractor woes, which seem to be coming to conclusion early next week. I'm beat, and so happy to be back at home, with my children, animals and my pacifier (wi-fi and my MacBook Pro). Heaven.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

J2J IV: Koyasan has taken my heart

Our next adventure took us to Osaka, where we were completely confused by a new subway and rail system. We finally found the right line, which provided a two-hour train ride (both express and local) to the base of Mount Koya, or Koyasan as the Japanese call it. From there, we took a cable car unlike any other I'd seen up the side of the mountain, hopped in a bus and landed about 20 minutes later at our bus stop. It was breathtaking – gigantic hydrangeas and butterfly bushes lined our way, with bright bursts of lilies and the occasional glimpse of a water fall.

The mountain boasts more than 115 Shingon Buddhist temples in the village of Koya (5,000 people, 1,000 of which are monks), which was founded by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) about 1,200 years ago, who is said to still rest there in meditation.

Upon reaching our bus stop, we were immersed in a small village unlike anything else we had experienced in Japan thus far. We chose to stay at the Shojoshin-in Temple, a beautiful and ancient place. It was easy to find our host temple for the night, which was conveniently located at the entrance of Okunoin, a pathway that leads to the great Kobo Daishi’s shrine.

To be honest, we hadn’t a clue what to do upon arrival at the temple. We blustered around in search of the correct entrance, then figured out where our shoes went (no shoes in the temple). Thankfully we ran into some English-speaking guests who called an assistant to check us in.

We were almost an hour past dinner time (our train got stopped due to either a thunderstorm, accident or combination of the two – we had no idea what the explanation was as it was given in Japanese), but we still were able to receive our traditional vegetarian meal. Neither of us know most of the components of it, but it did contain beans, vegetable tempura, pickled vegetables, tofu, soup, watermelon and lots of seaweed/kelp type things. Some was very, very good. Others I am happy to have experienced but will never try again.

After dinner, we headed out to Okunoin, as we had read that it was something that must be seen at night as well as during the day. It was an incredible experience. The recent downpour had left the tombstones and monuments glistening, and the fresh air was tinged with incense and cedar. The shear number of carved stones was incredible... around 200,000 line the 1.6 km walk to the temple and shrine. We couldn’t see beyond the first few headstones, but knew that the depth of them must be incredible. I felt at peace and in awe to be walking down the very same path where emperors, samaurai and feudal lords had walked hundreds of years before. The path was lined with stone lanterns to lead the way, with trees leaning over the pathway, frogs creaking over head and gentle breezes tickling the back of your neck.

After our evening stroll, we headed back to our room, which opened onto a beautiful little Japanese garden. Our room was traditionally Japanese, complete with tatami mats, fusuma (sliding, paper lined doors) and communal bathing areas. We slept on futons on the floor, with the fusuma open onto a hillside Japanese garden, bringing in a nice breeze. I slept more soundly than I had the entire time here in Japan, lulled to sleep by the creaking boards, sweet incense and sounds of the wind outside. It's hard to describe the inner peace I felt that night - not just relief from the weariness of travel and modern life, but from some very personal and deep part inside me. In this foreign place so very different from my usual surroundings, my religious experiences or anything else I hold as my personal norms, it was strange to feel an undeniable sense of belonging.

In the morning I was woken by a bell calling us to prayers at 5:50 a.m. (Jason hadn't found the same inner peace, and had barely slept all night!) We splashed cold water on our faces and stumbled down with the rest of the tourists and henro (pilgrims) to watch the morning prayers, complete with chanting monks, strange rituals I did not understand, banging of cymbals and the ringing of a bell. Candles and incense burned, and the air around us shimmered with the light reflecting from the gold adornments, shiny black furnishings and elaborately woven rugs. It was magical, and I found myself lost in meditation, despite the language barrier and my lack of understanding. I was all too disappointed when it ended after what seemed like such a short time, but my feet were grateful – they were close to falling asleep. Sitting on the floor on tatami in the proper manner takes practice and flexibility, neither of which I’ve had. Time to take up yoga again when I get home.

We next were led to breakfast, which once again was served kaiseki style. We had seaweed, more tofu, more beans, more green stuff I couldn’t place. The tea was different than the previous night's green tea – I think Oolong? Again, I’m clueless as to what it was.

With the rhythms of the monks' chanting still ringing in my head, we headed out once again to walk to path in Okunoin. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and it was breathtakingly, achingly beautiful. The kind of beauty that you know you will experience only a few times in your life. The kind that makes tears spring to your eyes. I felt such peace and happiness in just being present and being there. It was incredible how much we could not see during the night that was visible the next morning. The path was much more populated, and I enjoyed watching the rituals at the various shrines, as well as the temple. Henro from across the country were there, easily identifiable by their white smocks and (sometimes) bamboo hats. We walked around Kobo Daishi's shrine, but were quickly shooed out of a side area – I guess we weren’t supposed to be there. Luckily we’re Americans, which equals barbarians to the Japanese, so I think we will be forgiven by the ancestors and those present in flesh as well!

I could not resist the temptation any longer to reach out and touch the mammoth trees, many of them hundreds of years old. The textures of the rough, flaking bark contrasted with the spongy, incredibly soft moss are now imprinted on my soul, along with the sights, sounds and smells of this incredible place.

This was one of those experiences I know I will carry in my heart until the day I die. It was all at once mystical, peaceful, magical, inspiring and awesome. If you ever get the chance to go to Koyasan, DO IT! No matter what your religious background, there is something that will undeniably move your spirit in ways you have not felt before. It is incredible.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Journe to Japan III: Kyoto and the Geisha

After three dull days of meetings in Otsu at Lake Biwa, we relocated to Kyoto, which has much more to offer in terms of sites, sounds, smells and people watching. Otsu was clearly a Japanese resort area, designed for Japanese. This meant there was little to do other than lay by the pool, bike or boat. All of these are fine recreations, but I couldn’t easily do any of these for fear of being seen skipping out on the meetings or potential dinner conversations that I was there for in the first place.

Our new diggs were a major upgrade at the Grand Prince Hotel of Kyoto. The hotel was located in the mountains, along a cedar-lined winding path. I was overcome with the fresh smell of cedar, something like jasmine and fresh, clean air (seemingly hard to find in the stifling Japanese summer). The shade of the trees and buzz of the cicadas added to the ambiance… this place was heavenly.

That evening I had to return that night for a special “congratulatory thanks and working dinner” with my fellow collaborators of the conference. I managed to navigate the transport system alone (took the subway, a rail line and a cab to get there). The dinner was traditional Japanese style, or kaiseki, in which multiple small dishes are served. It started with boiled tofu, sashimi, then sushi, tempura, Kobe beef, a pork dish, broiled salted fish, then moved on to Udon noodles, pickled Japanese vegetables, rice and concluded with some various fruits. The dinner was served over a two hour period, and I enjoyed the surprises each dish held. Although I’ve gone pretty much vegetarian over the past several months (still eat fish), I broke my self-enforced ban on meats and gave the Kobe beef a try. I’m so glad I did. The cows are massaged daily, fed beer and from all of this have the fat actually marbled into the meat, instead of separated as we see in American steaks. It literally melted in my mouth and was one of the best things I’ve ever had.

The following morning we hit the streets of Kyoto for a short time before I’d have to head back to Otsu for the evening. We went to Nijo Castle, which was first completed in 1603. Though low-lying and more functional than aesthetic, it was impressive none the less. We were mesmerized by the “nightingale” floors – the floor boards were designed to creak, making a sound that is similar to a nightingale’s song. This would alert the inhabitants of any intruders. We saw these boards at several places through out our travels.

From Nijojo we wandered the streets until we found a shopping and dining district, Teramachi. On pure accident we stumbled into a tiny sushi shop. The owner and (I think) his wife, plus one local were the only people there. They served us right on the sushi bar, and encouraged us to eat with our hands (I stuck with chopsticks, not a big fan of holding raw fish). The sushi was incredible. I’m going to miss it when I get back to the States.

My evening plans were to head back to Otsu one final night for the concluding banquet. I had been invited to sit on an honorary panel as part of a ceremony which included drumming on a beer barrel with wooden spoons. I ran out the door, walked to the subway, and jumped onto the Biwako line train just in time to make it to the dinner… so I thought. In actuality, I jumped on an express train that did not stop in Otsu, but went many kilometers beyond. Crap. It took me over an hour to get back to Kyoto, at which time it was too late for me to get a train to Otsu in time. I went back to the hotel, sad about missing the ceremony and conclusion of this project I'd been working on for more than four years.

When I got back to the hotel, I found that Jason had found ways to amuse himself while I was away, including Japanese whiskey, an in-room massage and that he had booked us for an onsen the next day. An onsen is a Japanese hot sulphar spring, and this one was on the other side of Kyoto, high in the mountains. The baths at this one were indoor, as well as outdoor, but all communal. Meaning lots of naked (though sexes are separated). I was not thrilled with this idea, given my heightened self awareness of my body (here in Japan I’m pretty much a sumo in comparison to most people). Thankfully we ran out of time so we didn’t make it up there to try it out. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed (once in a lifetime experience) or thankful (no nudity in public for me – yippee!).

The next day we woke up early and headed out once again to be Amerikajeen tourists. We stick out like sore thumbs here, and people often look at us and giggle. Some won’t sit near us on subways. I was feeling pretty self conscious about it all until I read that the Japanese are very shy and are afraid we’ll ask questions and they won’t be able to answer. Ohhh. That explains it. I’m glad I don’t stink (as much).

The weather is incredibly stifling here, hitting the 90s by 6 am or so (it gets light around 4:30). The humidity is unbelievable, and we found we broke into a sweat just walking out the doors of the hotel. We ended up walking over 8 hours that day, seeing historic sites (the Imperial castle grounds), visiting shrines and temples and stumbling into an area where Geisha still live and work. We caught a glimpse of one on the streets, but she was quickly surrounded by tourists (mostly Japanese) and squeals, and she ducked into a door and vanished as quickly as she appeared.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Journey to Japan II: Dining Fun

We haven't had much time to get out and do much here in Otsu, Shiga. Yesterday was my "big" (3 minute) speech of congratulatory welcome for the conference. I was nervous and didn't sleep a wink the night before... it's strange, because normally I'm fine with public speaking. I guess the difference was that I was on the other side of the world, speaking to an audience of which 2/3 did not speak the language I was presenting in. No pressure. I was told I did well, though, and as a result was inundated all day by smiling Japanese men who came up to me just to smile and say "Herro Kim-san" (I told them all they could call me Kim), then stand and stare at me. I get lots of attention here, that's for sure. I was self conscious most the morning, but then figured, ah, what the hell... so I'm a freak show. Might as well enjoy it!

I have received a few gifts already, and have been honored frequently by my Japanese hosts. I was feeling pretty high on life by the time our group lunch came around, but then made a bad decision in terms of seating. I sat next to someone I knew from the States, who was sitting beside a total lunatic. There were about 12 people at our table, and the lunatic proceeded to ask me about my background in microwave science (none), why I was there, etc. Clearly, he had issues about self esteem, so he was trying to make me look bad in front of my hosts and new friends. He then proceeded to tell everyone that he creates outstanding knives with handles made of microwave-dried wood (wow-wee) and that he buys mammoth ivory from Native Americans to make magic wands. Yes, he is an amateur magician. My passive-aggressive tendencies were too much for me to ignore, so I made several jokes at his expense, which others were laughing about later in the evening. Sorry buddy, messed with the wrong non-microwave-science chick.

Onward and upward... so yesterday's adventures were fairly minimal. Jason went out for long walks in the 95º+ weather with humidity making temps feel close to 110º. Then he came back for the Japanese tub, which is where I find him whenever I get back from meetings. He enjoyed being the center of attention, and said that he often had young children come up to him to say "herro" and giggle. It seems that he, too, is a freak show here.

For dinner we hit the hotel's barbecue. We had no clue what we were in store for. We were the only non-Japanese there, and it had a family, festive atmosphere. The menu, of course, was all in Japanese and our waiter and waitress didn't speak English. So we pointed to a couple of things (having no clue what they were) and tried to watch others eat so we'd know what to do.

A few moments after ordering we were served some edamame (yum! I know that one!) and cold beers that were somewhat like Miller lite in flavor. I have no clue what brand they were. Then they brought out a plate piled with all different things - steak, chicken-ish looking stuff, squid, bell peppers, cabbage, shrimp and other goodies. We tried our best to blend in and cook the stuff, then tried our hand at chopsticks. It's so much easier to eat sushi or noodles than small strips of beef with chopsticks, FYI. There was some sort of squash that looked like cantaloupe, tasted like sweet potatoes and was hard and somewhat crisp as well.

The best part was when I took a big bite of the squid's head, which apparently was attached to whatever endoskeleton thing they boast. It crunched, squirted down my throat and caused me to make a small scene while gagging on it. It tasted good, though, and I managed to recover and eat the tentacles, which I enjoyed.

I haven't seen any wildlife at all yet except for this little lovely creature that was crawling across the side walk last night.

We're now off to Kyoto, where ancient temples, castles and geisha-watching awaits. Now the fun begins! I have 2 more days of meetings, but will be skipping out on the mornings and showing up for the afternoon exhibit sessions and mandatory dinners. Tomorrow night I'm a part of a special ceremony that involves banging on beer barrels with wooden spoons. Another great honor for this silly American non-microwave scientist. Sayonara!

Side note: I have no clue what the bear means or what he is, but we see them everywhere, in big and small versions throughout the city we're in. Hmmm...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Journey to Japan, Part I:
Toire, Shinkasen and Pachinko

Our trip to Japan started on Saturday morning, leaving DC to Tokyo, with a stop at JFK. JFK was oh-so-much fun to stop at - because we were on an international flight, we had to exit our arrival terminal entirely, go to another terminal, get our international tickets, go through security all over again and then get on the plane for Japan. We had an hour to do that. We rushed to the plane withonly moments to spare, only to hear the announcement that our flight was delayed. And so our adventures began...

Our plane was a big ol' 747, which is much larger than anything else I'd ever been on. Despite its size (we were on the upper deck), six hours into the trip my butt was aching and my feet had swollen twice their normal size. After a little more than 13 hours of seated pleasure, we arrived in Tokyo and navigated the airport. Thankfully, many of the signs had English letters. In fact, to be honest, it was MUCH easier to navigate than JFK was!

You can guess where my first stop was once exiting the plane. Although the rest of the airport was very "Westernized," the bathroom is where culture shock began. This was what was awaiting me in the stall. It’s a hole in the ground with a splash guard. I wore a skirt to travel in, so it was a fun way to initiate myself into the squatting technique needed to use these things. And I’ve leared a few things along the way – “toire wa doko desu ka” means "where is the toilet?". Toire (pronounced "toy-ray"... see? you can learn Japanese, too!) are quite an adventure here.

In order to get to our first hotel, we first took a local express into Tokyo. Then we had to find the bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto. On the shinkansen they also had the hole-in-the-ground version of toire, which I'm sure is quite difficult to use when going over 180 miles per hour. Thankfully, they also had a Western toilet, which I decided was my best bet after that long day.

From Kyoto we took a local train to Otsu, which is where we are now. We arrived there at midnight, clocking in at just over 24 hours of continous travel. I wish we had photos of the trains, the down here and such, but it gets dark at 6 p.m. here, and we were too tired to think about cameras anyway. Once checking into our hotel in Otsu, though, we were met with our next discovery in the world of toire - the automatic, seat warming, bidet style. The handle features about six buttons, all of which are marked in Japanese. We're still figuring that one out a button at a time. You can adjust the heat, jet stream, angle, water temperature and a fan turns on the minute you sit down. These, I could get used to.

After taking a shower and hitting the deep, Japanese style tub, I crashed for about 10 hours. I can see why bathing is so popular here - after a long day in 90+ degree heat and humidity unlike anything I've ever experienced before, all I can think about is that bath tub. I need one of those at home, too.

View from Prince Otsu Hotel, Lake Biwa

Today was our first full day here. I got up late, then Jason and I went and walked around Biwaka (Lake Biwa) a bit, though there's not much to see. It's interesting that 7-11s are huge here - you find them more frequently here than in the US. The tea is great, and served with every meal. Oh, and the sushi... to DIE for. Unlike anything I've had in the US. And that's just the hotel sushi. I can't wait to get more rural.

The people here are super nice and courteous. Strangers stopped to help us find our way and many tried their best to understand our miserable Japanese attempts. We visited a local grocery store, just to try it out. It was fun to see what brands are here (Fanta, Pringles, Lipton, Koka Kora...). Everything, though, is in Japanese, and it's difficult to guess what some things are. There are vending machines on every corner, but very little soda. I think most of the stuff is juice, tea and caffe au lait... but it's all in Japanese, so hard to decipher what is what. We've tried a few snack foods, but I have no clue what they are. I had some tea that tasted like hay. And I had some sort of curry for dinner that looked awful but tasted great.

During our wanderings today, we also found a Japanese arcade. We were definitely the only caucasians in the joint. I tried my hand at pachinko, which I think is something along the lines of a marriage between a ping pong machine and slot machine. I have no clue how it works or what I was doing, but it was loud, noisy and a truly Japanese thing to do, so I did it. Jason found a bongo drum virtual machine which he played with for a while. One hundred yen goes a long way in one of those places (about $1).

It is fun to be in such a different culture. Though it looks very Westernized here in terms of architecture, and even fashion, it is definitely very different from the US.

We're here on Lake Biwa for 3 days for my conference, before heading on to Kyoto, which is a very old city that was Japan's capital for over 1,000 years. Hopefully I can sneak out of conferences a bit to see more, though there really isn't much to see where we are now. I'll update as I can... it's amazing that there's no Internet easily accessible in such a technologically advanced country. Heated toilets - no WiFi - go figure!