The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List

October 29th, 2011

This is from the Secular Homeschooling Website. A friend sent this to me, and I had to post it because I feel JUST like this. Thanks so much for coming up with these!

Japan Trip – Day 10: Fish Comas, Fashion Crazed, and Finally Capable

October 23rd, 2011

You know that you are crazy about sushi when you hop on a train at 5:30am for some. That is precisely what Tony, Dakota, and I did on Day 10. We headed to Tsukiji. This is the world famous fish market. The absolute freshest fish and crustaceans are bought/sold just off the boat in Tsukiji. Sushi restaurants from all over the area come here each morning to load up on items for that day’s menu.

Tony & Dakota wanted to experience the BEST sushi that Tokyo (some say in the world) had to offer. That would be Sushi Dai. This tiny place is located in the many stalls just outside the market. Even with us getting to Tsukiji just after 6am, we had to wait TWO HOURS before the guys got in for breakfast. That’s right…TWO HOURS IN LINE!

What would be on the menu for the best sushi meal EVER? How about a sea snail so fresh that it is still moving when they serve it to you? Yup, they had that. They also had: fatty tuna, sea urchin, smoked eel, shrimp, red snapper, salmon roe, squid, flounder, and more.
They said the meal was AMAZING. At $80 for two people, I hope it was.

While my guys were having breakfast, I munched on my always faithful Clif bar (You didn’t think I came unprepared, did you?) and wandered around the market. I found a very kind dish vendor that sold me several items in a swirly, blue octopus pattern. I then grabbed a hot cafe latte out of a vending machine, and looked through the many booths filled with: vegetable/fruit, dried fish, paper, handmade knives and woks, books, tea, and herbs/spices.

After sushi breakfast and dish shopping, we were allowed to walk around the fresh seafood market (tourists are allowed to after 9am). For my artist eyes, this is an AMAZING site. It isn’t exactly a pleasant place if you have a sensitive nose, or are squimish about seeing fish chopped up and blood running on the ground. If you are okay with that, this is where the average citizen of Tokyo comes to buy their fresh seafood. I loved looking at the buckets of shellfish, tanks of eels, refrigerator units packed with 100lb.+ tuna, and a gazillion other ocean creatures. The place is constantly in motion with shouting vendors, rushing electronic carts hauling cases of product from one area to another, and customers looking for the best prices. This is definitely one of my favorite spots in Tokyo.

After Tsukiji, we went back to our hotel and took a much needed 1.5hr nap. Ahh! That’s better. After nap, we headed towards Shibuya. As I mentioned before, this is where the 20+yrs. crowd comes to show off their clothing, and catch the eye of the opposite sex. I loved looking at the crazy fashions everywhere I looked. Although Japanese women do not show breasts/cleavage AT ALL, they aren’t shy about micro skirts and Daisy-Duke shorts. I found myself blushing on several occassions when I looked at some of the clothes these girls were wearing. Yowza, ladies! Your Mom actually lets you out of the house looking like that? I find it curious that a culture so rich in grace, tradition, and history could allow their young women out “showing the goods”. I guess this is where Western culture really gets in your face. Stiletto hip boots, micro skirt, a short jacket, and an expensive Coach or knock off Louis Vuitton bag seem to be the norm. Of course, smartly dressed business women are also in abundance. As for fashion, pretty much anything goes here.

We caught a quick rice bowl meal for dinner, and then tried to decide what to do next. Dakota was feeling tired, and asked if he could go back to our hotel by himself. Let me just say, I really do try not to be too restrictive with our son. I really do. I know he is a teen, and close to becoming an adult. Even with that said, when my husband suggested that our son take the train back by himself, I internally freaked. That’s my baby boy! We are in a foreign country! Breathe Shan, breathe. Tony got Dakota a train ticket, directions where to be, and sent him on his way. He then assured me that our son had money in his pocket, a great sense of direction, and the brains to get to his destination. Ok, I can do this. Time for my baby to grow up a bit, and for mom to trust in him. Breathe, Shan, breathe.

ADULT CONTENT: Tony actually wanted to show me something just a few streets away from central Shibuya. This is the Love Hotel area of Tokyo. Let me explain. 30,000,000+ people live in the greater Tokyo area. As this area is incredibly expensive, many families live with their parents, grandparents, etc. Privacy is hard to come by when you are a couple in love. Couples can come to this part of town for a 60-180min. “Rest” or an all night “Stay”. This is one of the few places in town where couples can have some uninterrupted intimate time. A basic room costs about $40-$80 for 3 hours of alone time. Tony and I were curious about these places, so we walked into a few.

As most Japanese are pretty shy (just like me with things like this), they have an ingenious way of setting up a room for clients. You walk into a motel, and look at a board showing the interior of the rooms available. You can see what the rates are for hourly or for the night. You choose the room you want and walk up to the cashier. The glass for the cashier is blacked out, so they can’t see the clientele. You pay for your room, get a key, and are done. From what I saw in the room photos, most places were suffering badly from 1980’s decorating, but they were clean and well maintained. I guess if I lived with extended family and had no privacy, Tony and I would look forward to a haven such as this. It may sound skanky to an American, but I assure you that they aren’t. They provide a much needed escape from the screaming kiddos and mother-in-law in the next room. No, we didn’t book a room. We were just curious.

After our early day, we took a leisurely train ride back to our hotel, had a vodka cranberry in the hotel lounge, and went to bed. Tomorrow is going to be another busy day.

Japan Trip – Day 9: Fake food, ancient temples, and an interview

October 23rd, 2011

For a day 9 trip report see Tony’s blog here: Japan Trip – Day 9: Fake food, ancient temples, and an interview.

Valued Trees, Vibrant Trends, and Vintage Thrift – Day 8

October 22nd, 2011

*blurry eyes grab the bedside clock* Wow! We slept until 8:30? Woohoo! We are finally over our jet lag. It only took us a week to get our bodies acclimated. After waking up the guys, we headed to the hotel lounge for breakfast. Sadly, so did the rest of the hotel, so we skipped breakfast, and went wandering around Shinjuku.

After walking around the other side of this huge station, we decided to grab a quick pastry in a station grocer/bakery. Dakota wanted to call his friend back home, so we ran in to buy goodies. Besides a bagel for Tony, I had a green tea muffin, and Dakota had a waffle wrap filled with strawberries and cream. After munching breakfast outside, we walked down to the Tokyo National Garden.

This garden is quite large, and divided into three sections: English, French, and tradional Japanese (my favorite). Everywhere you look, there are well manicured lawns, flowers, ponds filled with koi & turtles, and a plethora of gorgeous trees (cypress, japanese maple, redwood, bamboo, and yupon to name a few). We strolled around the gardens for an hour or so, taking photos along the way. One of the highlights for me, was to see large orb weaver spiders in their intricate web strung between trees. They are a bit different here compared to the US. These have bright red tummies, and don’t seem quite as large.

After the park, we took the train over to Harajuku. Sunday is the day that the Tokyo teens come out to ‘show their stuff’. You will see crazy outfits like french maids, goth wear, wanna-be hair band looks in pleather, men in drag, people dressed up in furry costumes, etc. I guess it was a slow Sunday for outrageous, because we saw very few that were dressed up. The street was jam packed with teens, but not much was going on.

We decided to head to Yoyogi Park. Tony had read that folks get dressed up, and show off to the crowds (and each other) by dancing to loud 50’s music. Honestly, I couldn’t stop giggling when I saw these folks. There were three distinct circles of people (mostly 30+yr old guys) dressed in denim, leather, and sporting some SERIOUS Happy Days hair. Fonzy would’ve been proud. These folks blared 50’s type music (in Japanese) and were rockin’ out like there was no tomorrow. They were twisting, swinging, and even doing the splits. Where’s Dick Clark and American Bandstand when you need them? I know these folks were serious about their display of dancing genius. I just marvelled at it all and giggled.

We watched the performance for about 20min, and walked through the park. As we crossed over a bridge, we noticed a HUGE flea market/garage sale. Hello Christmas in October! Tony gave me about $100, and told me to have fun. He wasn’t feeling well, so Dakota and I walked around the market while Tony headed back to the hotel. I may not speak Japanese, but sign language is a universal tool. As it was getting close to sunset, everyone was starting to pack up. When we got through the place, I had spent $9 and gotten a skirt, jacket, dress, and two shirts. Call me Thrift Girl!

Dakota and I headed back to the station. We got a bit confused about which subway line to take, but we finally figured it out, and got back to our hotel. Tony was feeling much better, so we headed out for dinner.

My guys have been so nice this trip, and found restaurants that offer COOKED food. I’m not a fan of sushi or sashimi. We walked around West Shinjuku for a bit, until my guys found a sushi place for dinner. I decided to sit outside to write this blog, as I wasn’t hungry. The restaurant they chose consists of a circular bar in the middle of the building, where the patrons eat. Inside this bar are the sushi chefs. Between the chefs and the patrons is a carousel filled with different colored plates. On these plates are different types of sushi. Patrons see what they like when a plate comes around, grabs it, eats it, and stacks the plate next to them. When they’ve had their fill, they take their colored plates to the register. The plate color tells the cashier how much to charge for each item. Pretty ingenious, huh? My guys got their dinner, I got typing done, and everyone was happy.

We wrapped up the evening by finding a junk food market for goodies. We grabbed: Lime & Green onion Pretz pretzel sticks, cola and lemonade flavored gummy candy, banana/strawberry chocolate, and the Japanese equivalent of a Crunch bar (Meiji). One thing people don’t know about me is that I find product packaging interesting. One thing I collect are candy/soda/chip packages from other countries. I have a pretty good collection going for Japan between last and this trip. When we get home, I’ll find some large frames to display them.

We are taking an easier day tomorrow. I know my feet will appreciate it.

Japan Trip – Day 7

October 22nd, 2011

For a day 7 trip report see Tony’s blog here: Japan Trip Day 7: Octopus balls, Ancient Walls, and a Train that Hauls.

Giggles, Geisha, and Gag me with Red Bean Candy – Day 6

October 20th, 2011

Who ordered rain for today? It certainly wasn’t us. However, the day started with drizzle, and the forecast promised 90% chance of rain showers with possibly 2″ of rain. It was going to be a great day for photographs. Yeah, right.

We started off our day by grabbing a plain bagel (yes, bagel for $2.70 each) at a little boulangerie in the train station. We hopped on a bus, and headed to Kiyomizo-dera Temple. It was a steep hill climb up to the temple, but that wasn’t a big deal. The big deal was that it was class picture day for dozens of local schools. They come to the temple steps for a large school photo. There were hundreds of uniformed students of all ages everywhere we looked. How great is our timing?

The narrow road leading to the temple is lined with trinket, snack, and drink shops. Each shop was bustling with students wanting to spend their allowance. I’m sure the shop owners breathe a sigh of relief when the kids get on their buses.

As we reached the main temple steps, an older student asked if she could take our picture. We laughed, and agreed. Immediately, we had about 20 teens crowding into the shot with us. We were the tall Americans that came to see one of their sacred spots. It’s funny how even though we don’t speak the same language, we can share a laugh and a common respect for each other’s culture.

As the temple was extremely crowded with students, tour bus groups from China, and local tourists, we decided to head back down the hill. One of the snack shop clerks was offering free samples of a Japanese delicacy: Red bean candy. This treat looks like a small, thin green crepe filled with a dark, lumpy filling. The clerk barely spoke English, but he assured me that it was “good”. With trepidation, I took a tiny bite. To me, it was far from good. Maybe it was my taste buds. Maybe I’m missing something. I wanted to spit it out, but I swallowed the bite, and pitched the rest. Tony didn’t care for it either. Dakota wouldn’t try it, even with our coaxing.

We needed to rinse out the candy flavor, so we opted for Green Tea ice cream. After sharing a cone, we spotted a drink stand. This stand offered a variety of drinks that originated in Taiwan. What makes the fruit juice drinks unique, is that the bottom of the cup is layered in tapioca pearl balls. These black, marble sized balls, are slimy, chewy, and flavorless. We got the melon juice flavor, and shared. Interesting, sums it up. It is hard to chew your drink. I recently saw on a documentary that several of these tapioca pearl drink shops are opening in the US. Tony thinks they are too weird to become a trend. I’m still on the fence about them.

We walked down the hill, and caught a bus to Gion. This is the famous geisha district that was mentioned in the book Memoirs of a Geisha. Most of the geishas come out at night as they travel to their entertainment appointments. If you are extremely lucky, you will see one running errands during the day. Today, this area was full of camera toting tourists looking for a glimpse on the main road. We didn’t want any part of crowds.

We decided to walk through the narrow alleyways, away from the crowds. We walked around for about 30min. As we turned down a quiet alley, we spotted a geisha in full dress and make-up walking towards us. We were walking single file as the street was very narrow, and we didn’t have out our camera. I was the last in line, and as I passed the geisha, I smiled and she gave a shy smile back to me. It was like seeing morning sunshine on a delicate flower. I felt privileged to have been acknowledged by something so beautiful. Tony thinks that she was relieved that we tourists weren’t clammering for a photo of her. They are a lovely, and mysterious culture that doesn’t care to be photographed. After she walked past, our son took out our camera, and took her photo from the back. We all felt that we had been awarded a special glimpse that most tourists are never granted.

Later, we walked through the narrow side streets of Ponto-cho. This area is door to door sake bars and restaurants. I’m sure that it is magical at night all aglow with paper lanterns and exotic japanese sokyoku music playing in the background. Just like in Gion, you feel like whispering while walking down the narrow alleys during the day. Something in the atmosphere encourages you to keep quiet and enjoy the view around you.

At this point, the rain really started to come down (and I had lost my umbrella somewhere in Gion). We wondered over to Nishiki Marketplace. This is a covered market full of at least a hundred booths selling exotic, asian ingredients. Here you can find: fresh and dried seafood & fish, unusual fresh foods like rutabaga, persimmon, and quail eggs, fried foods like squid on a stick, fresh flowers, sake sets, silk, and incense. The sites and sounds are amazing, and I wish a had a few days to sketch the vendors, customers, and items for sale.

After walking the length of the market, Dakota found some colorful candy that tasted just like rock candy. He bought some to share with his friends back home. Tony found a booth selling Takoyaki (battered & fried octopus balls). As we had eaten soba noodles (which are delicious buckwheat noodles served hot or cold) when we first got to the market, Tony was too full to try them. We would try to come back tomorrow. I found a shop that roasted huge chestnuts. I had to sneak over for a free sample. They are nothing like roasted/canned chestnuts. These are hot, soft, and taste similar to a well done baked potato. Not bad tasting, but a bit strange.

On our way to the bus stop, we spotted another Chicago vintage/thrift store. As I’m a sucker for vintage, I had to check out their wares. Sure enough, I found another japanese jacket. This one was blue, and has a gorgeous scene of Mt. Fuji on it. It cost me $13, but it will be worn and loved for many years.

Today was a really busy day. I’ve tried 4 new foods today: red bean candy, tapioca pearl melon beverage, cold soba noodles & sauce, and roasted chestnut. Talk about an adventurous eating day!

We were all exhausted, so we headed back to the hotel for the night. Our hotel in Kyoto wasn’t the Hilton, but it offered a bed and shelter from the rain and humid temperature.

Day 5: With a bullet

October 19th, 2011

See the Day 5 trip report on Tony’s numberswiki.com

blog here: Day 5:  With a bullet

Sacred walls, famous malls, and batting balls – Day 4

October 16th, 2011

Thanks to our friend, Mr. Jet Lag, we started off this day quite early. Our train took us to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. There is a beautiful gravel path that leads you to the shrine. This is the most important Shinto Shrine in Tokyo, and it was built in 1920.

Before getting onto the shrine grounds, you need to cleanse your hands and mouth with water. There is a specific way of doing this: Grab the bamboo ladle full of water, pour water into your left hand, pour water into your right, pour water into your left and drink, tip the ladle heavenward and let the remaining ladle water cleanse the handle, and bow). You then walk through a huge Japanese cypress gate into a large courtyard. After strolling around the compound for a bit, we walked over to the main shrine to pay our respects. Here, you make an offering of a few coins, bow twice, clap twice, pray, and then bow. This is the same ritual throughout all the temples and shrines that we visited.

Upon leaving the shrine, we walked by an outdoor decorative sake display. Barrel upon decorative barrel were stacked up 20′ high. We had no idea why they were there, but they made a great picture.

Our next stop was Harajuku. This area was made known to Americans by Gwen Stefani, however, it is one of those places that you really need to experience first hand. By weekday, it is just a narrow 8 blocks full of trendy shops and eateries. On the weekend (especially Sunday) it is THE SCENE for wild clothing, make-up, hairstyles, and what is in fashion for those 20yrs old and under. On this quiet Wednesday afternoon, it was the place for me to find one of the only inexpensive clothing shops. For about $20, I walked out with a tunic, and 2 shirts with “interesting” translated saying on them.

Just a side note: Japanese are not fans of used or vintage clothing. Sadly, I am a BIG fan of both. Tony found that there was a rare vintage/thrift store in Harajuku called Chicago. They are mostly known for American style clothing. I saw average thrift woolen sweaters from $50+. I wasn’t interested in that, I wanted to dig through their vintage kimonos, obis, and yakuta (short jackets that are worn over traditional Japanese kimonos). Honestly, I could’ve spent HOURS in this store. Thankfully for my family, I only spent about a hour. I walked out with one long robe and three short jackets for about $35. SCORE!!!

We headed back to the hotel after our shopping trip for a much needed more info

nap. Waking up fully refreshed, we went around the corner for a bowl of noodles. One of the wonderful things about Japanese restaurants is that they display plastic replicas of their dishes in their front window. If you are not able to read their menu, you can SEE what you want to eat. Your server is happy to follow you outside so you can point to the meal you prefer. Where we chose to eat, was the equivalent of Japanese fast food. You decide on the meal you want and its designated number, walk just inside the restaurant and pay a vending machine for the meal, grab the ticket it gives, take it to the clerk, decide on the noodles you want, wait 5min or less, enjoy your meal. For about $8, you get: a large bowl of soba (buckwheat) noodles in broth, a bowl of rice topped with a crunchy pork cutlet covered in curry sauce, and glass of water. It is delicious, filling, and easy on your wallet. Honestly, it is one of my favorite meals here.

To finish off the evening, Tony treated us to a Japanese major league baseball game. On our way to the game, our train sat on the tracks for a 30min delay. Japanese trains are almost NEVER late. The reason for the delay? There was a “human accident”. Someone had committed suicide on the tracks. How sad.

When we got to the game, we bought our tickets right at the gate ($80 for 3 at the top of the Tokyo Dome). Let me just say that a major league game here is like going to the Super Bowl in the US. Games are filled with sexy cheerleaders, obnoxious mascots, crazed fans, ear-aching noise, junkfood, flashy Jumbotron images, and cute beer girls. Beer girls? That’s right. Dozens of petite, young women in vivid uniforms of every color RUN up and down the stadium steps to serve you beer at your seat. The crazy part is that each of them have a keg of beer strapped to their back. You signal to them, they fill a cup from their keg tap, serve you, take your money, and run away. I can’t even imagine how many calories those girls burn every game, not to mention how many steps they take. It is a marvel to witness.

We left the game before the 7th inning, as we needed to get up early to catch the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto. On our way out the door, I encouraged Tony to buy an EXTREMELY VIVID yellow baseball jersey for the Tigers. It will be a great reminder of our Japanese baseball game experience.

Japan Trip – Day 3

October 16th, 2011

For a rundown of day 3 of our trip see Tony’s blog here:Kabuki Too: Electric Boogaloo

Planes, Trains, & Soba Noodles – Our family back in Japan Days 1 & 2

October 14th, 2011

First of all, this trip blog is a collaborative effort by my husband and myself. We are taking turns by writing every other day. I’ll start us off with the first two days.

This is our 2nd visit to Japan. We made our first trip in April 2010. I suppose you could say that we fell in love with the country, food, customs, culture, and people immediately. When we got home, we started to dream of returning again.

We started off our journey by hopping on an American Airlines plane. My husband had saved up enough frequent flyer miles to put himself and I in Business Class (our teen son was in Coach). I have to say that any upgrade from Coach is wonderful. The seats really recline, and the meals, free alcohol, and staff treatment make the long flight much easier to bear.

We arrived at the Narita Airport about 3:00pm Tokyo time. As we had crossed over several date lines, we had miraculously jumped forward 14hrs. Yeah, we were going to be feeling that soon. We bought tickets for the Skyliner Express train (approx $90 for the 3 of us) to Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku is the heart of the Japanese financial district. Approximately 3 million people go through the station PER DAY. It is controlled chaos, and super easy to get lost in the crowd. I may be short at 5’4″, but my son & husband are easy to pick out in the crowds.

From Shinjuku, we walked the kilometer to our Hilton hotel. Ahhh! It felt wonderful to be on the ground, and to collapse on a bed. As we had been up for 25hrs straight by this point,we decided to grab a snack in the guest lounge, waste some time reading e-mails, and get to bed early.

Hello, JET LAG! If you’ve never suffered from jet lag, let me just fill you in on what you are missing. You can’t sleep when you are supposed to. You are dead tired during the day. You feel like a zombie with no energy for about three days. Your internal system is hungry at 3am, and your intestines are all mixed up. Jet lag is your punishment for a great vacation.

On that first night, I woke up at 3am FULLY awake. I layed in bed for 2hrs more, begging my brain to turn off. I never could go back to sleep. My husband and son woke up around 4:30am. We had an early 6:30am breakfast, unpacked, and headed to Akihabara, via the subway system.

Let me just say that the Japanese do public transportation EXTREMELY well. They pride themselves on having each and every train arrive on time. Should there be a delay, they will give you a note. That way you can show your teacher or boss why you were late. Trains are RARELY late. When they are, it is usually due to what they call “human accident” (someone has committed suicide on the tracks). The train stations, tracks, and subways are spotless. The trains may be very crowded, but people aren’t rude, don’t push, and are happy to give up their seat to the elderly, parents with small children, etc. That’s something you never see in the New York or Chicago train system.

Did you know that Akihabara translates to GEEK PARADISE in Japanese? Ok, it doesn’t, but it should. This district is full of electronic stores, robot assembly shops, and toy stores. There are alleyways full of tiny shops selling anything from tiny computer components to spyware for personal use. My husband and son could probably spend our entire vacation in this district. Electronic items (i.e. cameras, phones, games, computers, etc.) that are for sale here, won’t be hitting the US market for at least 6mo. Any geek would love a preview of future geek gadgets. My guys are no exception.

We did notice in Yodobashi (HUGE geek store) that prices are higher for electronics here, than in the US. We saw a 60″ plasma t.v. that goes for $3000 in the US, selling for $8000! Talk about a price increase!

After having lunch at Yoshinoya (Bulgoki-bowl of rice covered in grilled beef and onions), we headed to Kabukicho. This is an area of town that is filled with tiny restaurants and super loud Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is kind of like an upright pinball machine. As gambling is illegal here, you win stuffed animals when you hit it big on your machine. You then take your prize to the shop next door to the parlor, and exchange your stuffed toy for money. That way, it looks like you are selling your toy to the shop, instead of gambling. Interesting, huh? These parlors also blare music so loud, that you clearly hear it outside with their doors closed. We’ve never gone into a parlor, but our ears feel like they have.

We headed back to the hotel for a hot drink, and early bedtime. Ah jet lag, you are a cruel travelling companion. We also wanted to get a good night sleep, as we were seeing a Kabuki performance tomorrow afternoon. I was really looking forward to that.

For Tuesday’s blog, go to Tony’s blog. I’ll post the url tomorrow.