Friday, June 29, 2007

Back to the States for a Week

Hey everybody, I made it back to Japan safely (though exhausted). I want to start by saying thank you again to everybody who took care of me during my trip. Since I don't live in the US anymore, coming back is actually a little bit difficult. No car, no cell phone, and no residence makes meeting up kind of hard.

And on the subject of the difficulty of returning to the US, let me share a little story with you. So I just got off the plane (after a 19 hour journey), and was on my way out the door at customs when a TSA officer walked up to me and said "Hello, sir. Where are you coming from?" "Japan." I replied, sleepily. "How long were you there?" "Um, six months." Suddenly the officer got a devilish grin. "You've been in Japan for six months with only a backpack?" He said, but I got the feeling that he was already preparing the standard line "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to come with me." I blurted out "I'm only back for a week for the wedding..." The devilish grin evaporated. "Oh, you live in Japan. Have a nice day." I staggered out the doors of immigration, met my family and demanded burritos asap. Burritos were soon provided.

Well we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa, then headed down to good old Davis. In Davis I met up with Drake, Ralph and Diego, and we all headed to a party on top of the Physics building roof, where I met up with Ken, Bryn, Kyle, Rachel, Kari, Hope, and many others. There was tons of great food, and I had a fantastic time.
You know it is a good sign if you haven't seen friends in a year, you show up one day and it is like you never left. Well, fortunately that is the feeling that I got from everybody this trip. I also had no idea that so many people have been keeping up with my blog. Hearing some of the things you guys had to say about this blog was really encouraging for me. Thank you so much. Here is some of the awesome food.
Well, after the party I went home with Ralph and Diego and hung out at Ralph's house. When everybody but me went to sleep around 4am, I walked back to Kira's house and crashed on the couch until 7am, when everybody started getting ready to go to Kira's graduation.
UC Davis Commencement is so boring that it would have put me to sleep even if I hadn't been exhausted from being in front of a class for 5 hours every day the previous week, lethargic from traveling over 19 hours to be there, sleepy from only getting 3 hours of sleep and jet lagged. Good thing I brought a pillow.
Kira graduated. Every day brings a new surprise, doesn't it. After she walked across the stage and got the piece of paper that said her diploma would be mailed to her in a couple of months, I went to Drake's party. There I met his dad for the first time (Drake has been trying to get the two of us together for about 5 years now).
You might ask, "Did you have reverse culture shock?" Well, only one thing really shocked me. The size of the portions in America. I ordered a side salad at Pluto's and I just about couldn't finish it! Look at this table of food! These would feed a party of 25-30 in Japan. In the US, this was for a party of 15-20! Amazing. And that burrito I mentioned before? It nearly broke me when I ate it. To go from Japanese portions to American portions is a big shock. Japanese portions usually leave you saying "Aw, if only there were jut a little more..." and American portions leave you saying "Ahh! Ohh! I can't believe I ate the whole thing! I feel like I just ate a delicious rubber boot..."
Anyway, enough on food. That night I hung out with Ralph some more. We went to Slide Hill Park, and I did what I always wanted to do. And it was scary. I wouldn't do it again.
The next day I met up with Rachel and had another burrito. This time, I couldn't finish it. That evening Rick and Sean came down, took me to dinner, then ice cream. Then we met up with Ralph, went to Rick's house in Colma, and played Guitar Hero late into the night.
The next day Ralph, Sean and I went down to Davis. Sean went off to wherever it is that he goes, while Ralph and I caught the train down to San Jose. Our train was substantially delayed by the fact that the train in front of us hit a person, who they referred to as "a trespasser". We got to SJ, met up with Diego, ate at his favorite sports bar and went to his house (which was REALLY CLEAN, a fact which made me very proud of him). Again we chatted until chatting could not keep us conscious, went to bed and woke up. The next day I had breakfast with Diego, then went to Berkley to visit briefly with Olivia. She bought me Indian food, and I learned that she is planning of coming to Japan to teach as well! Best of luck, Olivia! Let me know how else I can help. Then I BARTed over to San Francisco and met up with Kerrie and Mary. Had ice cream at the regular place that starts with a G. Had Mexican food in the Castro (not exactly renowned for it's Mexican food, but they had a bathroom). Then drove up to the top of twin peaks, which I have never been to.
And got a group photo.
We spent the next 2 and a half hours looking all over San Francisco for a public restroom. We finally found one in this Chevron station. I just realized one major downside of converting the country to electric cars, which is one of my current goals. Gas stations will go out of business. And then where would we pee?
That night I stayed with Oriana and Josh and tried to impress on Oriana how much I loved the sweater that she knitted for me (I wore it every day of the trip). The next morning Josh took me to the airport.

I have another interesting TSA story. While standing in line for the security checkpoint, a guy tried to cut in line about 6 people in front of me. When a TSA employee told him to go to the back of the line, he pretended not to hear. Without even giving a warning, the TSA employee called security, who came, handcuffed the man who was now pleading to go to the back of the line, pushed him up against the departure screen and patted him down. TSA hauled him away. As if seeing someone get arrested for cutting in line wasn't enough, one minute later got to listen to the speech of the guy explaining the procedure for getting through the security checkpoint. What happened to the guy that was there 3 years ago, who cracked jokes and made light fun of the whole process. The new guy seemed to be an ex-Marine, very impressed with himself, and was not funny: "All liquids must be in a 1 quart bag. Amounts over 3 ounces are not allowed. This Aloe skin cream is over three ounces. Try taking it through. See what happens." Very unprofessional. No, juvenile.

Anyway, amazingly I got to Hawaii without being arrested. Here is uncle mowing the lawn, in preparation for his daughter's wedding.
The BBQ two days before the wedding.
The engaged couple, living in a temporary fish bowl.
The rehearsal dinner. Delicious.
So mostly by this point I was so exhausted that I spent a lot of the time sleeping. As a result, there are no good stories until the day of the wedding itself. Lisa, the bride, seemed quite nervous, so Kira took control of the situation and became Lisa's personal assistant. Ryan, Rebbeca and I, meanwhile, went to get the cake.
And I carried the cake all the way from Kona to the house. That is the story.
Beautiful day for a wedding.
Lots of hard work paid off.
Very nice set-up.
Here is Lisa in her wedding dress, having her picture taken.
It as a little bright, as you can see, but everybody is having a good time.
Jim and Lisa walking down the aisle.
And they are married.
And the paperwork makes it official.
So we began the celebration. Here is the cake.
The newly weds.
The party.
The Dancing!
And the flower toss. This got a little violent.
And that is the short version of how Lisa got married. Congratulations again, Lisa and Bobby, and allow me to share with you some of the things I learned this trip: 1) Great friends stay great. 2) Americans eat a lot. 3) Don't mess with the TSA! I'm convinced they have gulags somewhere is Montana.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


If you haven't noticed, I have developed something of a pattern. Every other weekend I seem to be taking a massive trip, having a good adventure and then resting the next weekend (when is when these posts mainly get written). Well, the weekend before last was one massive trip, and the adventure continued through the week. So, be sure that you don't have any other pressing business before you read this post, as it might take some time.

Well, I need to start by mentioning that Yuri has an identical twin sister named Eri. When you have a twin, it seems, it only makes logical sense to celebrate your birthday together. Since you are two people, it only makes logical sense to have a birthday that is double the intensity of a normal birthday. In other words, a huge trip got planned, and since all of the planning was done in Japanese, I agreed to go without really knowing what was going on or where we were going.

On Saturday morning at 5 am, Yuri, Eri, Waka, Sayaka and I left Takasaki on our way to wherever it was we were going. We drove past Miyogi-san and into Nagano, where we stopped at a rest stop. While everyone went to the bathroom I met "White" who was the friendliest little goat I have ever met. White acted just like a black lab and loved being petted. It made me want a goat.
Well, as it turned out, our destination was Kanazawa, which is north of Nagoya on the Sea of Japan. On the sea means fresh seafood (something almost impossible to find in Gunma). Yum.
We went to a fish market then checked into our Hotel, a cute little bed and breakfast named Petite Ivy. Then we took a walk around Kanazawa. As we walked the streets of the surprisingly intact old town (American bombing during World War 2 leveled all but a few Japanese cities) I remembered that Kanazawa was the one place that I had planned to go to before getting sick with Salmonella back in the summer of 2005. Fantastic! We happened to run into a free tour, and amazingly, the guide spoke very good English. Because I was there he conducted the rest of the tour in English, which both annoyed and amused the rest of the tourists in the group (all Japanese). Then we stopped for macha ice cream in a cute little shop. Here is Eri waiting for her ice cream.
Well, the next stop on the list was the Hyakumangoku Matsuri. "Hyakumangoku" translates to 1 million "koku", a medieval Japanese unit of rice measurement. 1 koku is essentially all the rice that an average person consumes in a year. In other words, in medieval times Hyakumangoku was a very rich area, since it gets its name from what the land was actually worth. Here are some of the tens of thousands of people lined up to see the parade.
This is a Shishi, a lion. My response was "really? Um, Ok."
These are fire fighters from all over Kanazawa. I couldn't figure out why they were carrying hooked poles at first.
Here is a Kabuki actor.
This guy is holding a treasure box on a pole. Oh... how embarrassing.
Lots of Samurai. About 500 actually.
A general.
This is what the poles with hooks are for, to hold the ladder for the acrobats.
Wow. 30 firefighters doing acrobatics on ladders in front of a castle. Not something you see everyday.
Here are those samurai in front of the castle.
And some of the thousands of dancers in the street on the way back to the hotel.
Ah, the hotel. If you ever go to Kanazawa, you must stay at Petit Ivy. While materially it is little better than the Best Western, the service is the best I have ever seen. Really. The best service I have ever had, and I have stayed in my fair share of places with good service. Basically, the hotel was what in many other countries you would call a Bed and Breakfast. The guy who worked reception came out to greet us in his cook's outfit carrying a knife, all ready hard at work at the night's dinner. Dinner, by the way, was supposed to be at 8, but we ran very late and ended up arriving at 8:45. Everyone who worked at the hotel (all 3 employees) stayed extra late to serve us our food, which they were still happy to present to us. The dining room had three tables and a bar, and felt like the inside of a beautiful boat. All of the walls were wood paneled and covered with a nautical theme. Very well decorated for a hotel that can't have had a very big budget for decoration. Here is the first course, clam chowder like soup cooked inside an apple. Fantastic.
And the hotel employees even went out and bought Yuri and Eri and birthday cake. A huge one. We decided to share it with the guy at the bar, who was the only other person in the restaurant.
We went to sleep and came down again for breakfast. Had breakfast and talked with the couple next to us. As it turns out, the couple next to us was also from Gunma, but moved away years ago. They had been married for 50 years. It was a fantastic breakfast, despite the lack of natto (which it seems is not as popular outside of the Kanto region).
The view from our room. The pillow can be seen at the bottom of the picture.
On Sunday morning we went to visit a temple which has the nickname "Ninja Dera" or Ninja Temple, for all the traps and countermeasures which it has built into it.
As it turns out, the Lords of Kanazawa were very smart men. They found it was better strategically, to appear weaker than they actually were. As a result, the castle was small in comparison to other castles, but the area surrounding the castle was filled with temples that were designed to hide troops. If an army invaded, the defending army could easily flank them as they attacked the castle. But the smartest thing that the ruling Maeda family seems to have done is not get into a war in the first place. They seem to have gone out on a limb to have good relations with most sides before and during the Edo period, and as a result became second only to the Kanto in terms of wealth for a period of history. And in Japan, wealth was soon followed by places to spend that wealth. Here is tea we had at one of Kanazawa's surviving tea houses.
Returning to the hotel for one parting shot with our host.
And of to Korakuen, one of the most famous gardens in Japan.
A twins moment.
Me having gotten too much sun.
Kanazawa Castle. The black dots are tiles, meant to strengthen the walls against gunfire. But in fact, some of the tiles are fake. They are only one layer thick, so you can stick a musket through and fire. A rather unpleasant surprise, and another example of the cleverness of Kanazawa.
That night, we ate a rather expensive meal at a seafood restaurant. And what do you think this is?
Puffer fish eggs. Yes, that's right. Eggs from the super toxic Fugu. "Now, Trenton", you might say, "Isn't the ovary the toxic part of the puffer fish" The answer is yes. And so is the skin. And the eggs. But, somehow somebody figured out (I don't know how) that if you leave puffer fish eggs fermenting in Miso for 5 years they become 99.9% non-toxic. Go figure. I wouldn't eat this particular dish again, but as a one time food it is not so bad. These squid, on the other hand, were.
But no matter, the Kanazawa trip was great.

Now, fast forward to Tuesday. Jeff, Yuri and I leave Shibukawa at 4:30, park the car in Saitama, get on the train and make it to the Tokyo Dome just in time for a concert.
The concert is great. Tokyo Dome has over 10,000 people on the stadium floor alone and probably another 25,000 in the seats. A 60 foot LED screen shows us the stage.
During the encore, about 5,000 people get out thier lighters.
Amazing. By the way, this is what we saw:
School the next day just never seems to end.

Just an update, for those of you that don't already know, I am comming to California on the 16th of June. Be sure to contact me so that we can hang out! Hopefully see you soon!