Strength of Koi

Golden hues shimmer in the water.  Orange, red, yellow, brown, white and black swirl around. Translucent fins dance through the water, reminscent of scarves suspended in water.  I envision myself suspended in water. My thoughts ebbing and flowing like the dancing fins.  Shimmering light in golden hues surround me. I loosen up. I release control and let the water dictate my motion.

While I see grace in the koi, koi symbolize strength in Japan. They are known to climb waterfalls and swim upstream. They also have long lifespans and survive many different conditions. If you have never heard about koi invasion of the Illinois River, you can see a clip of their takeover here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLmJjRqXDCo. Koi is prevalent throughout Japanese art. The photo above is a prime example, with koi intricately carved into a single piece of wood.

As turbulent waters arise, I will aim for grace and strength like the koi. After all, every storm ends and calm returns.

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Art in Motion: Museum of Art in Atami, Japan

Staring at an artistc masterpiece for minutes on end.  Perusing ancient statutes, paintings, and handcrafted pottery. Sitting before a behemoth Miro or Picasso, mesmerized by bright colors. Hours on end staring at Van Gogh’s chunky brush strokes from every angle.  Days spent wandering museums from Amsterdam to Paris to St. Petersburg to New York City to Madrid. Then along came a baby.

My love of museums didn’t stop and I kept trucking. With my baby tucked in a baby carrier, we journeyed through the Louvre and the Norton Simon Museum. But then he turned into a rambunctious toddler . Once he wouldn’t stay in a baby backpack, I thought my museum wanderlust was resigned to stimulus overload at children’s museums. And then I had a second child and became scared of losing my kids in the whirlwind of motion at the kids museum.

Yet, at, here we are at an art museum at last. We are in Atchi, Japan, known for hot spring inns (onsen ryokans) that are centuries old. It is also known for MOA, Museum of Art, standing over the city on an oceanside cliff.  I don’t know what got into me but I decided to take the family to the museum. The sky looked with rain clouds waiting to burst, so we drove off to the museum.

The ride alone was worth the trip. We swerved through curvy local roads and spied on life outside the touristy resorts. Around every bend, ocean vistas appeared. The feeling of impending death on narrow, curvy roads in Japan never gets old. As the museum neared, we drive through a bamboo forest wonderland. The museum appeared, with Roman Greco columns of white. So….Japanese…

Museum of Art, MOA, Atchi, Japan

 

Suddenly the anxiety creeped up. Our relative was dropping us off with no car and two kids at an isolated museum. We would be there for hours with two nap-deprived kids. And onward we go!

The museum is sandwiched between a bamboo garden and an ocean side perch. There is not a bad view in sight. The vastness of the ocean and the high-in-the-sky bamboo dwarf  my stress. I am reminded that the world keeps on turning to the hand of an awesome Creator, and I start to settle into zen, kids and all.

Ocean Vista

This museum is like the Getty in Los Angeles; you can come just for the view and the grounds and have a wonderful time. Oh wait, there is art to be seen? Who wants to be indoors with this view?

Old me would grab a map and plot out a whirlwind tour through the key collections. New me is focused on finding the cafe. Nursing hunger pains! Plus, well-fed kids are less cranky. We find the restaurant which overlooks the museum gardens with floor to ceiling windows. Better yet, the food was so delicious, we ordered another round! The restaurant sticks with local ingredients and the freshness is clear. We had a pork meatloaf (in Japan, this is a hamburger) served on a sizzling black stone. It was surrounded by local mushrooms, radish, potatoes, eggplant, and onions, all sizzling in the pork juice. Everyone, baby included, indulged in it. Highly recommended! Go for the view and be surprised by the food.

image

The next stop was the tea rooms. The museum houses an indoor tea room constructed gilded gold. It is perfectly preserved. I loved it for the history and a love of all things tea. The boys loved it for it’s blinding shininess.

 

Golden Tea Room

 

Afterwards, we traveled outdoors to the other tea room, one that actually serves tea! The museum garden contains a classic summer residence with ancient Japanese architecture and gorgeous gardens. We could have spent all day there. The kids loved roaming the moss-sprinkled pathway, destroying the zen in the rock garden, and roaming around ancient corridors. I loved immersing myself in a bygone era and the serenity of the gardens. I am also a tea nerd, and loved drinking freshly made matcha (green tea powder) in the tea room overlooking the gardens.

Bamboo with Wild Lillies

 

Entry to the Gardens

Former Residence

Tea Room

Eventually, we went inside to see the art.  We spent all of our time in a temporary exhibit about light. The kids, and the grown ups, loved it. As a result, this is my only photo of traditional Japanese art forum the permanent collection:

Japanese art

In the end, my kids taught me a new way to enjoy museums. It turns out I am less cranky when I am well fed. The art was more enjoyable on a full stomach. But beyond that, they forced me to slow down and really live the experience. Did I see every masterpiece in the museum? No. Did I read about the history and symbolism in the pieces? No. Did I stop, breathe, stroll, and take in the grounds and residences like a local from the past? You bet.

Light art

When it came to the actual art, my son introduced me to the joys of more experiential art. We spent half an hour in front of an interactive screen projection where our sillouhettes controlled the movement of colorful balls (see the featured image of this post). My son ran back and forth between colorful light displays. As his face lit up with wonder, so did mine. He reminded me the world is magical and the best art is to be fully enjoyed. And whatever you do, take the scenic route. (This includes the museum’s endless elevator corridor, filled with colored lights and surround sound symphony music).

This elevator has at least four sections this long and seems to travel to the center of the earth.

This elevator has at least four sections this long and seems to travel to the center of the earth.

Ocean View Hot Springs: Getting My Zen On in Luxury

I am buzzing from the hot spring high. Fifteen minutes in the natural, hot, bubbly springs will loosen your muscles, soak away your cares, and force you to let loose. Then you hop out and get right back to the craziness of toddler, baby, and in laws. But it is such a nice way to bond as a family!

Traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans, are clustered throughout the country. Many ryokans also have hot springs, or onsen. The whole family dresses down (or dresses up in my Western view) into ukatas, which are casual cotton kimonos. They are so comfortable that many people sleep in them. There are no shoes allowed in the inn. Everyone wears slippers in the common areas and goes barefoot in the onsen and in their private rooms.

Once you change into your traditional Japanese pajamas, you head to the hot spring. As per my previous post, you get naked with the whole family (usually single gender but not always). You bathe before entering the springs. Today’s bath took place outdoors with an ocean view. Then, you slip into the hot spring and let your body adjust to the heat. Slowly, your body and mind unwinds. I take in the view of the bay and the city lights. Fifteen minutes later, it is time to cool off in the nude in the fresh ocean breeze. If I stay any longer, I run the risk of falling asleep. Then, bathe again. There are usually a variety of spa products to pamper yourself, and of course you can purchase them later if so inspired.

Once double bathed and fully refreshed, it is time for endless food in your room. Ryokans often serve eight to twelve courses, including sushi, wagyu beef (heavily marbleized), and an array of Japanese delicacies. Today we indulged in local, sweet lobster, both grilled and raw sashimi. Another specialty item was steamed abalone. We ate on pillows and a low rise table. It allowed the kids to run around the tatami floor in between courses. Relaxing fun for everyone!

For a little more self-indulgence, I took a nighttime dip in the onsen. Fully relaxed for bed….until my baby screamed for attention. Getting my zen on indeed!

Sashimi

Appetizers
Abalone steaming up!

Blending with the Locals

When it was growing up, my relatives told stories about growing up with a lively downtown and specialized stores. When people needed milk, they went to the dairy. When they needed meat, they went to the butcher. Sweets and bread were purchased freshly made at the neighborhood bakery. Salons, restaurants, boutiques, and bars were locally owned. You couldn’t just go to Target or Walmart and get all your shopping done.

Now, I am experiencing this way of life in person. The city of Iida, Japan is  a mix of old neighborhoods with specialized shops and the newer development of big chain stores offering one stop shopping. The outskirts of the little city are full of discount department stores with full grocery stores, hair salons, travel agencies, sweet shops, full service restaurants, mall-style food courts, rotating vendors of all sorts, and retail spots rented out to various boutiques. They even have an arcade, a book store, and a dollar store within them.  It is kind of like the Target and the mall having a baby together. I have literally spent six hours straight in these stores and not run out of things to do, all with a baby or two in tow.

Back in the historic downtown, another world awaits. A bygone era comes to life. The local train runs through the center at an old-fashioned pace. The nearest bullet train is over an hour away by car. The streets are lined with small shops topped by the owners’ homes. Many of the businesses are run by the elderly and many look untouched for thirty years. The camera shop still develops film and sells disposable cameras. There is a store just for. Japanese dishes in a hue of ceramic glazes. There is a liquor store, a tea store with tastings, and a small market just for fresh produce. If you want fish, you go to the seafood shop, chockfull of fish tanks and seaworld oddities. If cows are your thing, there is a genuine butcher shop with delicious homemade roast beef. There is shop to get your custom Chinese character stamp. There are separate tailor shops for men and women’s clothes. There are three ornate shop with intricate kimono fabrics where you can order a custom made kimono if your wallet is fat. One of the kimono shops even has a real koi pond and stream running through the shop.  Unfortunately, photons are obtrusive and inappropriate, so hopefully the verbal depiction is painting a mental picture.

Today, the baby and I passed the morning in a bakery shop run that remains unchanged for almost forty years. The hardwood floors are worn down from the many visitors. The decor is dark wood and burgundy, reminiscent of a Rat Pack steakhouse. As we devoured a savory pumpkin bun and chestnut cake, the owner asked about America and our path to the Japanese countryside.  The grandmother came out to play peek a boo with the baby. She even brought a blanket fresh out of the laundry to  keep him warm. When it came time to leave, the shop owner escorted me out, covering us both with her umbrella. She even directed traffic so we could safely pull out of the parking spot and face the rain.

We could all use a little more small town hospitality in our lives, even as an outsider.

Just do it! – Traveling with little ones

I love to travel. It is an essential part of what makes me who I am today. Travel is how I learned a language. Travel is how I met my husband. Travel is how I bonded with family. Travel forced me to reexamine my sense of normality and manners so greatly shaped by the culture that raised me. Whether I travel to a new part of town or a new country, I crave to grow through new experiences and new interactions. And then I became a mom.

I had one child. And then had another child. I wondered how I would travel. It was a challenge just to get to the grocery store and back with two kids. I suddenly craved routine and repeat experiences so I knew how to navigate with two kids in toe, where to change diapers, who smiled at kids and who grimaced and so on. I wanted the security of being close to home and close to the pediatrician and hospital just in case. I wondered how I would travel and who I would become if I always lived in a small bubble.

Fortunately, life necessitated that I pop the bubble early on. My husband is from a foreign country with relatives overseas that want to see their grand babies/nephews. My husband also travels for work and we want the family to enjoy those experiences together. Both of my kids flew internationally before age one. I even flew them both to Japan by myself once. Some parents are envious, others think I am crazy and think traveling with kids is no fun at all. Many people ask how I do it. So here comes the big secret…

Just do it! If you have kids, explore with them. Decide today is the day, pack up some snacks, wipes, sneakers for everyone, and a mode of transport (baby carrier, stroller, and/or backpack with a leash- don’t judge this last option unless you have at least two children you regularly care for without an extra adult to help you). Try a new restaurant, go to the museum you always wondered about, and if you can, hop on a bus, train, plane, or car to somewhere new. You will bond with your kids. You will both grow from new experiences. You will make memories you actually remember. You will be surprised at what you can see and share with your kids in tow.

I have been in Japan for almost a month. During that month, I have stayed in a ten mile radius, except for the trip to Tokyo with my sister-in-law. I decided it was time to explore. I am comfortable driving now and I can fully pronounce the name of my town in case I get lost. So, the baby and I went on an impromptu road trip. I heard a mountain town nearby was a popular destination, with vistas, parks, hot springs, and delicious fried pork (tonkotsu don). I simply followed the signs on the major roads until I reached the mountain town.

 

The ride alone was worth the trip. There were rolling green hills, vibrant wild flowers, and old Japanese homes. Little shrines and temples were sprinkled throughout rice paddies and old country roads. As the town neared, suddenly gigantic mountains appeared. They towered high above the smaller, green mountains. The rocky summits dwarfed the rest of the landscape and still have snow tops in July.

Komagane road trip

While there was a rope way to climb higher up, the baby and I were perfectly serene with an impromptu picnic near the visitor center. We ate between a babbling brook and a giant river chock full of boulders. A pedestrian only bridge crossed the river to a lush park. Lush trees and wildflowers were everywhere, providing ample shade and scenery. We crawled and walked around the forest by the riverbed.

Picnic in the forest

Boulder River

Afterwards, we retreated to air conditioning. We had the local dish of breaded pork with special sauce, tonkagetsu don, a cross between terriyaki sauce and a citrus vinaigrette. We sat on traditional tatami mats overlooking another mountain spring. The baby devoured the rice and also showered the tatami with rice. Like a good and courteous Japanese woman, I diligently cleaned it up. The accompanying miso soup had chunks of mochi-a delicious surprise.

Special sauce tonkagetsu don

Then it was nap time for the little guy. I drove through the mountain roads in peaceful silence. Any mom knows how precious it is to have quiet solitude! And with a mountain view- glorious! I even stopped at a local bakery and snacked on cream-filled French bread and freshly squeezed blueberry juice. This weekend I am branching out further and taking a road trip with both boys!

Before I left, there were a thousand fears running through my head. I thought about retreating to the security of home. I thought about doing more research and planning before taking the plunge. But you can’t make a great play sitting on the bench no matter how hard you strategize in your head. Some of the best travel moments are completely unscripted and I want my kids to have that adventurous spirit. So, if you’re a parent afraid to explore with your kids, or no kids but afraid of the unknown, don’t let fear hold you back. Grab a bag and just do it!

Hokkaido!

In Japan, identity and cache are strongly tied to each region. People are proud of where they are from. People want to know where there food comes from. Regional tourism is big business. Many Japanese travel to other parts of Japan or dream of visiting certain regions. Each region has a reputation for  certain characteristics and personality traits, like people from Osaka are known for being gregarious and funny because of its history as a merchant city long before Japan became more open to foreigners.  Food and drinks vary from different cities and prefectures.  Some products, like certain fish and seafood, are best from a particular region. Anyone heard of. Miyajima Oysters? They are from a small island called Miyajima that is adjacent to Hiroshima. Many other dishes and specialty items, like sake and baked goods, take a variety of forms and flavor depending on where they come from. Soup noodles like ramen are a prime example. The base of the soup (soy sauce, salt, miso, pork bone, black garlicky, etc.), type of noodle (skinny, chubby, straight, curly), and the toppings differ in each region. You can find many restaurants that specialize in cuisine from another region in Japan, kind of like a Texan BBQ restaurant in L.A.

What makes Japan unique? In the U.S., there is some regional variety, like  shrimp and grits in the south and creamy clam chowder in New England. There is a whole subculture about the different ways to make barbecue (Memphis vs.  St. Louis ribs). But Japan has about the same number of prefectures as the U.S.A. has states (47 vs 50) in the same land area as Montana. So imagine driving around a densely populated version of Montana and finding vastly different flavors and ingredients in each town. This will give you an idea of regional food in Japan. It is also a source of more cultural pride and emphasis than in American culture.

I personally have a crush on the food from Hokkaido and I’ve never even been there. Hokkaido is the most northern and the largest prefecture in. Japan.  It is an island separate from the main island of Japan (home to. Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, Osaka, and so on). A picture of its outline is below and the icon of its map can be found all over items in a Japanese grocery store. Hokkaido is known for delicious dairy products, premium seafood, and excellent produce. When I shop in the grocery store, I look for this mark of Hokkaido. I will buy items just because they are from Hokkaido and I have not been disappointed.  There are also restaurants and boutique food stores dedicated to Hokkaido food products and I hunt them down whenever I visit Japan.  If you are ever in a Japanese grocery store, look for the map!

Hokkaido

Today I am sharing my newest discovery from Hokkaido. It is a snowy white bun steamed to the texture of a cloud, airy and light. Inside, there is a gush of vanilla bean cream made from the prized Hokkaido milk. Delicious! Japanese sweets are less sweet than American desserts and thus perfect for my palate.

One day I hope to visit Hokkaido and eat delicious food straight from the hills and sea there. In the meantime, I will travel there in my mind with a one-dollar treat straight from my dream spot.  Traveling is a wonderful experience, but it is not always permitted with time and money restraints. We can all get a little taste of somewhere else by trying new foods, reading, meeting new people from other places, and splurging our spare buck on a new treat.  Wherever the day takes you, step a little out of the box and you may find something new in your own backyard, or grocery aisle.