Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Long Road

[Preface: this is a combination story that describes our numerous road trips to Hiroshima and back to visit the Rising Sofubo™ (meaning grandparents, i.e. Naomi’s folks). The fecal explosion© episode happened three years ago, but it is still fresh in my memory.] 

January 2012
Just back from a trip to Hiroshima. Usually the return to Yokohama is an 800+ kilometer espresso-fueled crazy overnight drive for yours truly. Having read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in my youth, I reckon I have a bit of organic gonzo because of my self-professed endurance during abilities. Nonetheless, driving non-stop overnight avoids the 30 km-long traffic jams which choke the Tokyo area highways during Japan’s vacation periods. I grew up contending with long distances between cities in Canada. Road trips were a fixture in my teens and twenties. I thought: 800 clicks—psshaw!

Naomi’s parents are always concerned about my night driving proclivities. They convinced me once to try driving during the day “for safety”, especially because it was wintertime. So, I caved one time, and we left Hiroshima about mid-day. A colossal mistake. 

The first couple of hundred clicks went by quickly and easily. Driving between Hiroshima and Kobe was a snap. Once we reached Kobe, though, the population density inexorably constricted the expressway with more traffic and we were snagged in a jam at Nichinomiya (around the 1700 rush hour) which quickly became bumper-to-bumper.
After Osaka it's just a crapshoot

Between Kobe and Nagoya we entered the Maddeningly Slow Zone that sucked up my enthusiasm for driving and many hours.

Plus, Naomi and the Rising Daughters were awake in the car the whole time, meaning I could never listen to any music I like.
SpongeBob DVDs save the day & night
So, to sum up:
“Snared by Kobe; feeling harassed by Osaka; despondent/without hope by Nagoya”
- Motorcyclists passing us on the side and in between the middle lanes dressed in snowsuits
As we came down out of the mountains, some notes I took:
- Marina’s constipation mysteriously ends during our trip back. She triumphantly announces: “I got poo-poo,” and she did. I found out later that two doses of laxative the day before, administered to relive her six days of constipation, finally hit pay dirt. Trapped in the traffic more than 20 kilometers from the next service area/rest stop, and she delivered a diaper full of runny ka-ka that had already leaked into her baby seat and all through her clothes. Nasty stuff. We were all trapped in a moving biohazard until we reached the Valhalla of rest areas to clean up, reload, and relaunch for home.
Lies, damned lies, and highway traffic estimates
- 15 minutes to travel 2 kms at one point near Yokkaichi. Stuck for an hour nearly going nowhere.

- Where do these jams come from? No off ramps or merges with another highway…arggh.

- Bizarrely festive air to the frenzy of relieving bladders and bowels, buying crap food, and jostling for parking spots at the ubiquitous service areas which are still packed at midnight with bleary-eyed drivers seeking caffeine for the next leg of the journey.

Solo Trip Home (March 2013)
Instead of being stopped dead in a three-hour traffic jam near Nagoya amid the infamous “U-turn” rush, I breezed through it all, and solo to boot. Only slight lane weaving on the expressway due to fatigue, and virtually no Mad Max truckers. Although I believe I saw one tattoo-faced fellow lean out of his truck cab point his arm-mounted crossbow at me before speeding away.
The pinnacle of driving in Japan: cherry trees and Mt. Fuji!
Terrific shots of Mt. Fuji which I could take because the Voice of Reason was not in the passenger seat beside me.

Having made in back in one piece in the early morn, I saw how filthy our car was, inside and out. Without kids on board, though, all I had to do was roll down the windows and go through the local car wash and-- voila! – pristine. Shorn of its dirt and accumulated trash, with the toys populating the back seats washed away, I found I had a brand-new-looking car.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Oh, it has sprung all right

How do you know it’s spring? When the Wienermobile takes two laps at the Mazda Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey! 
Hot dogs, cars, and sunshine: spring is definitely in the air.
And yes for me that means baseball!

Jays: The only bad news is Marcus Stroman suffered a torn left ACL and will be out for the 2015 season. 
Japanese baseball: the Carp are always in my heart. But I am warming to the Yokohama Bay Stars: “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”


And how could I post without the mandatory shots of cherry blossoms (near my neighborhood).



Monday, March 30, 2015

Big Mahalo

- Visit to Hawaiians, last cruise in the Mazda3 - 

The Rising Family™ dispels the winter blahs by annually visiting the Hawaiians Spa Resort, a sprawling water park, hot spring and entertainment complex with a – you got it! — Hawaiian theme. 
It is located about a four-hour drive north of Yokohama. This year was the third time we’ve gone there, and this year is the spa’s 50th anniversary: Big Mahalo! What better way to shake off February’s cold embrace than with blue pools, waterslides and tropical drinks? 
Yessir, it works. Going to Hawaiians also has a do-the-right-thing element because we are contributing to the local economy, which is close to the area most ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. So we are doing a little good and having a ton o’ fun.

Besides, we just like it there and always have a good time. See for yourself:


How? We get up super early, motorvate up through Tokyo to the spa, and then spend the whole day and evening being transported to this little bit of Hawaii in northern Japan.
Every year I marvel at how easy it is to get everybody to sleep when the fun ends. The next day, on the way back we stop at the Hitachi Seaside Park, where we rent bicycles and ride around the place. When the wind isn’t gusting it’s quite nice; there are many amusement park rides as well. 
This year there were hordes of Chinese tourists due to loosened visa rules and because it was Chinese New Year. Now this is something relatively new, especially in places far off the beaten tourist track. I chuckled when watching these two very different Asian peoples interact. 

I chose a prophetic parking spot at the park. This was the last time we were to take our trusty Mazda3 on a long cruise, and we parked next to an exact copy of the Nissan model we ordered as our next car. 
 A nice touch to end another terrific weekend.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Random Acts of Photography

The premise is simple: capture some of the oddities that add to the flavor of our lives, particularly during weekend family outings. Here are a few.

Birthday Mayhem
A trip to Pureland (a.k.a. Hello Kitty Land) has become an annual January ritual that I will cop to secretly enjoying even though I am officially a functioning adult male. There is just too much excitement and joy in the air not to feel young and giddy. Great way to celebrate Lady E.’s birthday and kick off the new year. Check this out:
Since I snap most of the photos, I am only occasionally in them. So here are a few of the kids and me:

Exhibit A: Lady E. and me at Cocos, a family favorite for cheap eats. The girls favor this chain because their “getting dessert ratio” is high. 
Exhibit B: Marina making peace with me after throwing dried beans at my head with uncanny accuracy at early February’s Setsubun ritual. The idea is to throw beans at nasty demons (like daddy) to bring in good luck. Perhaps it is an old tradition for children to release stress?
Credit: B.Davis, jetwit.com
Cosmic Lady E.
As she gets older, Elena is exploring her own Doors of Perception. She can’t read Aldous Huxley yet, but:
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
 I'm stepping through the door
 And I'm floating
 in a most peculiar way
 And the stars look very different today

And this is Marina’s current worldview: feces, Doraemon and Anpanman.
(Interpret this any want you want to, folks.)

The Final Frontier
Leonard Nimoy died recently. The universe has gained what we lost—LLAP. I always liked his equanimity with being inextricably and forever associated with the role of Mr. Spock. Years ago Nimoy inspired my annual goatee-growing habit in February. Canadians, in their egalitarian way, have chosen to honor him by Spockifying $5 bills. I think it’s terrific! “Why not, eh?”

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Illuminati

Hey Infidels! Flashback to December 21, the winter solstice, shortest day and longest night of the year. We plot to counter the darkness with lights—many, many millions of them—through the Mother of all Festive Season illumination fiestas called “Jewellumination.” We opt for this day because Festivus was on a school day. I drink six cups of coffee prior to entering the cockpit of our car, strap in the Rising Family Members and we motorvate into the heart of suburban Tokyo, to Yomiuriland. It is an old-school amusement park operated and run by the Yomiuri Group, the parent of the Yomiuri media conglomerate which owns the eternally evil Yomiuri Giants baseball team. I choke back bile at the thought of my entrance fees somehow going to fund future Giants players’ paychecks, but relent for the kiddies, who are flying as high as I am just on anticipation, not caffeine.
Yadda yadda. We arrive at 1100 and man we are PRIMED. I brandish our tickets and we force our way into the park. 
Elena preens a little after showing her go carting skills. Equally competitive, Marina is smart and mean to her sister on the carousel, yet shows a neo-religious bent after exiting the haunted house and bursting into adorable tears. Naomi cackles, causing me to burst into tears myself. More coffee, hola! While navigating a rising tide of families and young couples, we wander around in the warmish sun, hitting the roller coaster, spider ride, racecars, and octopus tentacle gyrating g-force contraption. These attractions and rides emit hisses, CHUNKA-CHUNKA sounds, fueling the frenzy of consumption, which is tamed only by the incessant safety messages broadcast by bored teenagers who check our tickets and decide our fate. The backbeat is sounds of jingling pocket change and wallets creaking open to keep the party going.

I buy cotton candy for the kids after lunch, keeping their sugar levels optimal. The wife and I hoover espressos on the sly. Time going by fast. Elena and I board the special “Looping Starship” ride, which, at the top of its parabola, stops for about 30 seconds upside down. Cosmonauts! Marina burns holes into us with envious eyes as we exit the ship arrogant, insolent, and adrenalized!

I make amends with “M” by allowing her to take command of the teacup ride. Spins, and the lack of real food together with several hours of abusing caffeine, culminate in a bit of not-unwelcome vertigo. This prompts a thought—I should double-down get a higher view of the place! But we hit the Ferris wheel too early—first up at around 1600 because we were concerned about long lines. Elena got annoyed with me because I shunted her into the Ferris wheel capsule: hey old man I can get into this thing ON MY OWN. So she acted all pissy throughout the up-down arc, but we ignored it and snapped a few photos of the amusement park vista.
Just before 1700 it was getting dark and our Family Unit relocated to where the Jewellumination parade was going to kick off. I’ve captured a few images, both in my brain and in a video. This day will henceforth be known as The Day That Elena Discovered Taylor Swift.
video
Funky music. Amazing, splashy lights.The whole ensemble cast gyrating around the three parade cars and everyone—young couples, families and the park staff--all seemed to sip from the cup of Christmas spirit. It was just a treat to watch. I had another wave of caffeine hit just then so my memory is questionable, but I am pretty sure the Friendly Doggy Snowman morphed into a version of Harvey, the Irish spirit in the guise of a giant rabbit who was James Stewart’s mischievous chum in the movie of the same name.
 
The Parade became a sensory stew of thumping music, dancing snow queens adorned by colorful chem sticks, and bright LED lights dangling from the tree boughs all igniting at precisely the same time. This reached a rather pleasing crescendo of sounds and carnival smells: I saw Jefferson Airplane-style psychedelic blobs; my temporal lobe lit up in ecstasy; I heard gasps of delight and witnessed ear-to-ear smiles on the faces of nearly everyone around me.

After the parade events concluded, we took the illumination Light Tour throughout the entire park area. There were over 3,000,000 LED lights advertised and we saw 2,999,999 of them. My God the Japanese are thorough people—it was such an endless visual delight. Obvious care was taken EVERYWHERE to ensure the godliness in the gaudy. 
The spectacle of seeing the bandit roller coast seemingly float in the air, its bright colors whizzing around the darkened track way up in the black sky. The LED Light Tour took us about an hour and oddly I had REO Speedwagon as my internal soundtrack the whole time. 

Evening turned to night, and Marina and Elena got a bit cranky as their natural stimulants waned, shrinking Naomi’s cheerful vibe (but not destroying it). I chugged another coffee (cheapo 7-11 brew, but not bad) in the car as we exited the park, satiated and now fully primed for the holidays.
If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, I know for sure that heaven will be a viciously overcrowded version of Yomiuriland—a clean, well-lit place full of sunshine (LEDs at night), the squeals of happy kids and their pleased parents, and happy souls where everybody seems spontaneously joyful. Because that’s how I felt for days after this little adventure. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Crime and Punishment

Belated happy New Year. I am tardy to the party this year partly because I was apprehended by the police for breaking the law. Seriously. I confess to being a crook. A no good, ne'er do well hooligan and general scourge of society.
My crime, mind you, was not that serious. During a commute to the office last week, I was caught by an enthusiastic young policewoman for driving my scooter on the right side of a road’s center white line which separates opposing traffic lanes. For about 20 meters.
Scene of the crime
My punishment was a 6,000 yen fine -- 300 yen per meter – and I think one point subtracted from my license’s accumulated points.
Any loss of points means that I am condemned to sit through a two hour lecture on safe driving when I renew my license at the Driver’s License Center.  
I was tempted to beg for clemency due to the socially-acceptable canard that I was so busy and had to get the office, and the traffic jam was blocking the left side of the lane with only the 20 meters left to reach the scooter parking lot.

But I am an old gaijin now and know better. It is faster and easier to admit one's guilt than expend energy and brain cells arguing against the inevitable. Plus, I was guilty as charged. I took the Confucian cultivation of propriety route: admit guilt, show remorse, reflect on my misbehavior, show my deep shame, vow to improve—all done in about 30 seconds. This enabled me to process the paper faster, regain my freedom, and head on to the office.

Lesson learned? While not contributing to road safety at all, it is lawful and cheaper for me to get off my scooter and push it to the parking lot along the side of the road. Duh, winning!

This criminal masterpiece pales in comparison to another indictment and conviction in Hamada, Shimane prefecture, in 2009. This caper involved my arrest by a sharp young detective who tracked me down after a dogged pursuit of several meters. Upon being nabbed by the stalwart young crimefighter, I admitted to the heinous crime of not fully fastening my seatbelt while operating a vehicle in the parking lot of a mall. I endangered lives while puttering along in a line of cars at 5 km/h. I did the crime, so I paid the fine—the oh-so familiar sum of 6,000 yen. 
One gets used to it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Free Lunch Before Christmas

You know the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”? Let me tell you that sometimes there are semi-free lunches.

In mid-December, the Rising Family benefited from an online marketing campaign flogging timeshare condos in Hakone, a town not far from Mt. Fuji that is famous among Tokyoites as a weekend getaway destination famous for its onsen hot spring resorts and Lake Ashi-no-ko. 
My enterprising wife had entered an online “contest” offering this luxury experience and we “won.” The catch was that we had to meet with a sales representative of the luxury condo company for 90 minutes to view a video and hear his or her pitch. If we had gone on a weekday the cost of the room and three meals would be 100 yen. Weekends were so popular that the whole family would have to pay 6,000 yen.

Why not give it a try? we thought, skeptical though we are of anything reeking of too good to be true. But I am also merciless in applying my helpless/hapless gaijin act when necessary to get out of tiresome situations. So, if there was any whiff of a scam, we’d simply hightail it outta there before partaking of anything.

The entire weekend unfolding precisely as it was explained to us pleasantly surprised me. We got a weekend in a luxury apartment with a Jacuzzi and hot spring access, three terrific meals for the whole family, in a town renowned for its scenery, for the price of a tank of gas. 

Why did we deserve this bounty? Perhaps a pre-Christmas present from fate or Karmic payback? Beats me. All I know is our salesperson was pleasant and not-too-surprised to see a foreigner show up, we fulfilled our side of the bargain, as did he. Business completed…hello relaxation.

Elena indulged in the massage chair within ten minutes of entering the apartment. 
Naomi lauded the quality of the Japanese food. Marina and I were mesmerized by the UFO-like light vortex of the Jacuzzi at night.
We all considered ourselves lucky to have had this soothing and rejuvenating experience! The only downside is that it may be hard to convince the Rising Daughters to go back to camping when the weather warms up next summer.