Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto:  Jody’s Birthday at the Robot Restaurant of Tokyo


“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”  ~Mae West

Jody takes leave every year for her birthday, and this year was no different.  Planning a trip to mainland Japan in celebration, I set our trip’s itinerary to be in Tokyo for her actual birthday after a short stay in Kobe.  I must admit, in hindsight, it’s hard to image a better way to rejoice in such a momentous occasion than a visit to Robot Restaurant, what Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown proclaimed as the “the greatest show on earth!”

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Well, no quite, but perhaps one of the greatest shows in all of Japan….

Street-Side Advertising

Street-Side Advertising

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-arriving-at-the-robot-showtokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-robot-masterThe Robot Restaurant, or Robot Cafe, is a short walk from Shinjuku metro station.  It should be, however, more accurately branded as a “robot cabaret” because of the music, costumes and dance, although it is TAME by any standard.  While bento boxes can be ordered to eat during the show, I (and almost everyone else) recommend a pass and instead purchase a large popcorn and canned “Strong” alcoholic drinks to satiate you in the short-term.  In other words, eat dinner in any of the nearby plethora of real, non-robotically-staffed restaurants.  Believe it or not, this is one of the most visited entertainment venues in Tokyo – check it out on Trip Advisor to see for yourself!

Free Pictures Outside!

Free Pictures Outside!

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-on-the-way-to-the-showIt’s almost impossible to even begin to describe the show which awaits hundreds of eager visitors and tourists every night in the Shinjuku Kabukicho entertainment district of urban Tokyo.  It’s been said that over 1 BILLION yen has gone into the establishment’s development and design.  And yes, that’s billion with a Capital “B,” equivalent to roughly $10 million USD, no small sum by any stretch of the imagination.  I spare no expense for Jody’s birthday.

Lounge View - I think there is where Liberace's soul resides.

Lounge View – I think there is where Liberace’s soul resides.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-robot-bouncer-at-the-entranceWhile I may not “buy” the validity of this legendary sum (pun intended), there certainly has been a Liberace-inspired sum spent on floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall décor, the pre-show lounge, costumes for the various and multiple performers, and for, of course, the robots themselves.

Another view of the Lounge

Another view of the Lounge

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-american-military-mighttokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-paradeThe show starts in the very corridors of the labyrinth which leads up to the lounge, then down to the basement, then back up to the show’s exit.  Seriously, every square inch of each of the narrow passages is covered with paint, decals, and 3-D models of everything ranging from geckos to heavily armed American army women in patriotic bikinis to skulls pierced with what else but unicorn horns….  And what may not be covered with what only an interior decorator on acid would devise is plastered with LED lights and video screens of every type.  Being herded tightly through these narrow halls is not for the claustrophobic!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-waiting-area-3tokyo-2016-robot-rest-pre-show-drinks-and-gaudy-seatingThe lounge is, well, one of the gaudiest places I have ever seen.  Two levels down from the street, it is equivalent to perhaps the absolutely worst cruise ship bar from the 1980s….combined with transformer-inspired overboard robotic lighting and displays from some dystopic future.  The place is decked out with gold swivel chairs shaped like gigantic underwater shells, over-the-top crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall mirrors with Asian animal motifs of every kind, neon sparkle in every overhead recess, and huge seamless video screens playing snippets of the most ludicrous Japanese video montages that one can conjure.

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In a Word: Creepy

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-crazy-interior-decorationstokyo-2016-robot-rest-evil-chic-and-her-heavily-armed-robotHanging out in the pre-show of the lounge is akin, I would think, to a mild trip on hallucinogenic mescaline.  No doubt it’s even more sensory overload when jet-lagged or new to Japan.  It’s really hard to believe or describe.  I imagine the owners providing a small army of 8-year old girls with unlimited crayons, glue sticks, glitter, bedazzles and all the chocolate and caffeine they could consume and let them loose to go absolutely crazy for 48 hours without sleep!  The overall theme seems to be “metallic & mirrored,” and the palette is from a migraine-inducing neon rainbow, if there was such a thing!  There’s live music played by costumed creatures, while two metallic bikini-clad vocalists were doing their best to sing soft ballads to spectators that should have been decked out in polyester leisure suits….  A drink – one cheap one – comes with your ticket.  It’s a dive-bar, longue-lizard vibe that probably can be created most anywhere…but sustain only in Japan.

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By the way, according to some accounts, one of the largest collections of Westerners in Tokyo can be found nightly at the Robot Show.  Be ready for many more gaijin than locals, but of many different tongues.  The place seems to be MUCH more popular with tourists rather than locals, or even visiting Japanese.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-waiting-for-show-time-couples-selfie

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-dancerstokyo-2016-robot-rest-armed-robot-and-evil-princessOnce the show floor is ready for seating, it seems like you go up three or four levels.  Entering a very long and narrow show floor that is much smaller than you expect, visitors are directed to squeeze into assigned but well-designed seating, complete with tabletop and cup holders to safely hold drinks and snacks to enjoy during the show.  Popcorn, booze and other munchies are sold prior to the performance’s start and during interludes in the action.  Oh, and take advantage of the complimentary coat check and lockers at the reception counter located across the street from the show-building itself.  The seating is TIGHT, as is most everything else in Tokyo.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-show-opener-robot-float-of-drummers

There is Barley Enough Clearance, Clarence!

The program opens with a huge robot-driven float, topped with bikini-clad troupes of taiko drummers alongside monster-masked characters beating on those iconic traditional Japanese drums.  The robot floats are so large and translate so close to floor-side seating that at times we had to duck to allow various robotic appendages to swing safely over our heads.  The rhythmic music, costumed characters and robotics result in loud, fun-filled, AWESOME sensory overload!

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed....

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed….

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-dancer-likes-big-buttstokyo-2016-robot-rest-transformer-inspired-robot-in-the-showAnd then the robots come out to play.  Robots of every kind.  Some shaped like huge curvaceous women.  Others akin to something out of the Transformer movies.  Then there are robotic sharks and snakes that battle robotic dinosaurs and futuristic tanks.  Some are commanded by fearsome masked male creatures, while others are ridden by Japanese women adorned in risqué fishnets and showgirl glitter, all flashing brightly colored LEDs and lasers.  Tron-inspired characters dash about in glowing Tron-like single-wheeled motorized bikes, between robots which seem to groove to the constantly beating drums, while Amazonian war princesses from the future vie for power and control.

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In other words, the show descends quickly into utter insanity of a kind to which only pictures can really testify in any believable fashion.  There is no linear story-line; don’t waste your limited time trying to understand, and instead just shake your head in amazement.

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They Really Should Invest in a Godzilla!

While the wildly-costumed performers scream and dance and pound on drums mere feet away, you become overwhelmed and confused.  Really, there is so much going on, seemingly deconstructed and without continuity that you have to ask yourself:  “what the hell is happening here?!”  It all seems ridiculously hilarious in true Japanese style, but also impressively pointless.  It’s what I would simply call “Tokyo Madness,” and it is deliciously enticing.

Birthday Girl!!

Birthday Girl!!

tokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-presents-from-the-robot-resturanttokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-robot-resturant-chips-presentAt one point a nameplate was brought out to mark “special guests,” and one was put directly in front of Jody.  She looked at me and went panicked and pale, I’m sure after instantaneously considering the measurable probability of having to do something “robotic” for her birthday in front of the gathered crowd.  But instead, a call-out was made to the birthdays in the crowd, and robot presents were delivered in a metallically colored gift bag.  Not wanting to miss a beat of the show, and being somewhat suspect (and even scared) of what we would find inside, we saved opening the bag for later.

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Part sci-fi movie and part campy Saturday matinée creature feature, it is one of the wildest but weirdest live shows I have seen.  Baffling yet entertaining, this onslaught of stimulation overkill can be one of the more outlandish Far East experiences to have while visiting Japan.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-robot-fight

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jodys-frontrow-seats-for-the-showNear the end of the show, colored flashlights are handed out to turn the already confused, drug-induced performance into something resembling an ecstasy-infused rave.  While you might be a little dazed at first to know what to do, by the end of the cabaret you’ll be waving your colored stick in encouragement for more!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-swingin-guitaristIn the end, the show not so much “works” as it is just “awesome,” in a way that just has to been seen to be truly understood.  This sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth.  The interaction of the show with the audience, the performing robots, the epic battles of good versus evil (still not sure who won), combined with the background fantasy fairyland videos and graphics and how good the popcorn actually is makes this comprehensively awesome.  Even the over-top-top bathrooms lend to the entirety of the show.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-drums-and-robotsWhile the tickets weren’t cheap at 6800 yen per person (roughly $65pp), the laughter than Jody and I shared on her birthday due to this show was and will remain priceless.  We will be talking about this incredibly fun evening for quite some time to come.  Remember, however, to correctly enjoy this bizarrely corny show, one has to be relatively lighthearted.  Don’t expect a cohesive story, or story at all.  Just expect the unexpected, accept the premise, and engage your sense of humor!

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It certainly made for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Jody, one of many we had during our latest Far East Fling (stay tuned for more!).

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Happy birthday Jody!  I’m already looking for an Amazonian bikini and taiko drum for you for Christmas for use in the production of my very own birthday cabaret in January!  You can use Roomba as your robot….

Show Closing....I Think....

Show Closing….I Think….

Fort Fornication: Father’s Day in Okinawa


“Never stop screaming, playing and laughing; it’s part of our childhood which will always be with us.” ~Romina Noriega

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 “It’s finally your turn!” read a small sticky note on the outside of what Jody insists on calling the “back” door to our condo (the “front” being our unbeatable view of the East China Sea). It was simply signed, “~The Katz”.

I stop and attempt to process this odd turn of events. “The cats can’t write!” Things that make you go hmmmmmm….

I’m not going to lie: I hesitated in opening the door. Finally my turn for what? But when I finally did, I heard Jody blurt, “Welcome to Fort Day!” Still confused, I walk slowly inside, placing my belongings down gently as I go. My moves are calculated and calm, I guess much like a cat. I can quite wrap my mind around the goings-on just yet. And when I moved into our place, I was confronted with, well, a whole lotta sheets, blankets and bling hanging from all along the ceiling in our living room!

Again Jody exclaims, “Welcome to Fort Day!” She jumps up to greet me with a great, big, fantastic smile! “Ah…uhm…thanks, I think?!” I respond somewhat hesitantly.

I'm not sure the same rules apply to forts for...catz.

I’m not sure the same rules apply to forts for…catz.

You see, our cats get forts built for them on a ROUTINE basis. Cool forts. Cave-like hideouts for Cleo using the pillows, sheets and bed spread in our bedroom. A Tomcat Tavern for Naka, a basic lean-to shelter made using the raised arms of our chair-and-a-half, decorative pillows, and throw blankets. Jody swears to me that she can tell when the cats want one make (I have my doubts). But the cats do apparently enjoy them.

And by “enjoy” I mean “sleep.”

Cleo's Highest Form of Entertainment

Cleo’s Highest Form of Entertainment

Our cats are just a wee-tad spoiled by Jody. Don’t’ get me wrong – I love my cats. But I acknowledge that they are cats. Not people, and certainly not our surrogate children. They are okay alone for the whole day, or even overnight (remember, they are CATS). They don’t need to be entertained for hours on end (they are INDOOR/OUTDOOR cats).

Jody did get me a Harley.  Of sorts....

Jody did get me a Harley. Of sorts….

But they get more packages in the mail than I do. God’s honest truth! Toys, foods, and at least a half-dozen devices to provide fresh water 24/7. Naka prefers drinking pooled water in my bathtub; Cleo still likes to drink from our sink faucets.  Check out Cat Condo for more on how the cats are spoiled, AND on their “other” castle-like fortification.

The Cat Castle

The Cat Castle

One of the things I teasingly and only half-seriously complain about is how no one ever builds a fort for me. Don’t you think that a grown man would enjoy a fort every now and then? Hell yes he would! I have told Jody about how I would build forts for my kids when they were growing up. When the weekend came, maybe once a month or so while the kids were both in single digit ages, we would build a huge fort in the living room, one that would usually include the TV. Sometimes the forts would have multiple rooms (of course with flexible walls), or have raised, vaulted ceilings. Other times they would consist of darkened tunnels or dimly lit caverns. No matter the construction, they were always a hit, just like they were for me when I was a boy growing up.

Pillow and Blanket Fort with my kids circa 1999.

Pillow and Blanket Fort with my kids circa 1999.

I can’t tell you the last time I built a fort. Probably way back in 1991 or 2000 here in Okinawa when I was stationed overseas with the Navy for the first time. And although I have had cats almost full-time since 1997, I never have built one for my feline friends.

Enjoying a fort with my kids.  I didn't build this one....

Enjoying a fort with my kids. I didn’t build this one….

So, come this Father’s Day, Jody decides to make good on my protest that the cats get to have all the fun. And in some small way, maybe, attempt to return to me a bit of my childhood and those special times spent with my children. Especially since my kids are not just grown and gone, but are on literally the other side of the globe where I don’t get to see them very often, and since my relationship with my kiddos at times remains strained since the demise of their parents’ marriage any years ago. How did she make good on righting my grievance?

Jody always wanted to be an architect.  Seriously.  Ask her!

Jody always wanted to be an architect. Seriously. Ask her!

Jody threw me a “Happy Fort Day!”

Adult-Sized, Living-Room Fort

Adult-Sized, Living-Room Fort

Okinawa Jun 2015, Father's Day, happy father's dayOkinawa Jun 2015, Father's Day, happy fort dayInside the fort was a mini-celebration befitting such a day and occasion. A low, small picnic table spread with gifts and wine, and lit by soft candlelight. Sitting on the floor enveloped in sheets and blankets, I opened a few gifts. Oh, and got a new Harley! Afterwards, while eating candy sampling about half a bottle of wine, we walked down the seawall to get fresh Napoli’s pizza to, you guessed it, bring back and devour in our fort. Oh, and to finish that bottle of wine. And start another….

Okinawa Jun 2015, Father's Day, celebration

What’s the main difference between “Fort Day” as an adult and as a child? Let me put it this way: “Fort Fornication” is how the citadel became to be known.

This would be Naka, our boy, who is missing the "jewels" necessary to fornicate in the forts built for him....

This would be Naka, our boy, who is missing the “jewels” necessary to fornicate in the forts built for him….

Jody enjoys the cats, and enjoys spoiling them. And to be fair, I adore how they are pampered by her. But of course Jody continues to spoil me, even though I often pout that I play second fiddle to the cats…which don’t even have thumbs…to play the fiddle. “Fort Day” will be a holiday of sorts that will be certainly celebrated more often.

Okinawa Jun 2015, Father's Day, Fort Master J

Pi Day in Japan, a Math-lete’s Dream!


“Curves:  the loveliest distance between two points.” ~ Mae West

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William Jones, an 18th century self-taught mathematician, was the first to realize that the decimal 3.141592…, the number approximating the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, never ends, but continues on randomly without any repetition. “The exact proportion between the diameter and the circumference can never be expressed in numbers,” he wrote. He recognized that this important proportion needed its own symbol, and thus began every math-lete’s love affair with pi….

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Saturday, March 14, 2015, was “National” Pi Day, a sometimes rational celebration of the irrational figure that describes the most sublime feature of circles. National Pi Day, although wholly unofficial, is a holiday that, in my opinion, serves three important if not incongruent purposes. For fellow mathletes like me, it’s a chance to celebrate a love of numbers naturally found in nature, proof that god in whatever form you believe (or not), is a geometrician. For those analogs challenged by this digital slant of the world, the holiday offers at the same time a chance to partake in the more literal if not delicious culinary desserts of the same-sounding homonym. And here in Japan, it coincides with the celebration of “White Day,” the Far East’s formal equivalent of Valentine’s Day, but this one only for the lady-folk. See White Day for a full explanation of how Japan interprets the West’s day of love and lovers.

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But this particular year hosts no ordinary Pi Day. In fact, March 14th of this year marks a once-in-a-century occurrence: at precisely 09:26:53 wherever you happen to be (local time), the date and time will read 3.14.15 9:26:53. I hear you asking, “Whoop-dee-do Basil, what’s it all mean!?” Those ten digits are exactly the first 10 digits of pi! This rather random coincidence ignites passion across the globe, and for most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime affair worthy of marking in some odd fashion or another.

What goes well with Alien Crop Circle?  Pi!  Or so it seems....

Crop Circles even enjoy Pi, or so it seems….

But what’s so special about the non-edible version of pi that seemingly connects so easily to so many people? It’s not like differential equations (i.e., calculus) are on anyone’s hit parade, or that a statistical two-tail alpha test of significance rocks everyone’s boat. No, pi strikes a chord with people of all backgrounds, educations, and cultures. Part of its allure lies in its very simplicity, infused with the mysterious flair of things supernatural: a circle, nature’s simple shape of infinite perfection, is defined by something that can never be known with complete precision, so much so that we represent it only as a symbol. Pi is not just irrational, it’s transcendental, and its infinite value holds true no matter the circle in question.

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Almost everything is in Japanese

Almost everything is in Japanese

Okinawa White Day 2015, Mary's leaf pies are deliciousOf course Pi Day every year coincides with “White Day” here in Japan, a fun-filled day of candies and gifts for girlfriends and wives (may they never meet), which Jody and I celebrate in style and excess in some surely rational approximation of what the Japanese irrationally may or may not do. It’s hard to even know what you’re buying when everything is in Japanese, none of which can easily be read (even the Google photo-translate feature fails miserably). Thank goodness for the samples which are openly displayed in most stores! Most of the photos featured here are from the gifts Jody received this White Day as small Far Eastern Flirtations reminiscent of my growing love for and steadfast commitment to her since first meeting back in the late summer of 2010.

White Day presents for Jody

White Day presents for Jody

Okinawa White Day 2015, 3-14 White DayAnd in that meeting there is even deeper meaning for us personally, one more delicious than pie, more intriguing than the most sublime mathematics, and certainly something worth celebrating often throughout the year. Our own personal Ultimate Pi Day, one of Epic proportions and profound meaning. You see, when Jody and I first met, it was for a “pie date.” Let me elucidate.

Flowers on White Day

Flowers on White Day

Okinawa White Day 2015, fun and delicious gummy-aid for nurse JodyMeeting online through Match.com in early 2010, Jody and I had corresponded on and off for about 6 months prior to her transfer from Cuba to Pensacola, Florida, which happened later that summer. We were certainly interested in each other, but the timing of Jody’s arrival combined with my own schedule and our uncoordinated travel plans proved a challenge that would frustrate any attempt in jump-starting any type of relationship.

White Day Wrapping!

White Day Wrapping!

Okinawa White Day 2015, surprise flowers fcee7d6bf94730deb82a971eb4776dbbBut I was eager to do just that. Besides being a woman with almost every quality I was searching for, and certainly there was clear and unambiguous chemistry present, Jody’s curves – from her enticing bluest of blue eyes, to the arc of her smile, to the sexy arch of her foot, to her fertility doll geometry – her curves come close to outstripping the very transcendental nature of pi itself! As Mae West so perfectly stated, “the loveliest distance between two points is a curve,” and Jody’s are any mathlete’s dream.

Spring Time Happy Joy Chocolates

Spring Time Happy Joy Chocolates

Okinawa White Day 2015, Gugelhupf cakeJody had arrived in town while I was away on a business trip, and the day after my return she was traveling up north on a couple of weeks of leave. While she was to be on leave, I was starting my own much-needed vacation, a 3-week trip to New Zealand to skydive, ice climb, and do other things extreme. It turned out that we had only one night consisting of just a couple of hours to try and hook up…but not for that kind of pie (wink). If we didn’t get a chance to see each other on that particular Wednesday night, it would be about 5 weeks until we had a chance to see each other again. Neither of us was willing to wait.

Cloisonné Tea Pot Gift Set

Cloisonné Tea Pot Gift Set

Okinawa White Day 2015, cupcake chocolates shpolaWe made plans to meet, and since she lived way out in “west-west Pensacola” (Beulah, FL), and because of the limited time we had to dedicate to a first date, we decided to meet locally for pie. Jody likes pie (and ALL kinds of desserts as it turns out!), and commented that she had had a hard time finding any good pie while stationed for the last 18 months at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Favorite Framed Photos for Jody's Office

Favorite Framed Photos for Jody’s Office

Okinawa White Day 2015, Warming Heart CommunicationSo, I chose a local diner mid-way between where we lived. It was an easy place for Jody to find in the dark back roads of quasi-Alabama, and an easy drive using simple primary roads. I believe we agreed on a time around 9 pm, and upon our arrival (we were both early – a good sign!), we found the diner closed…of course. Pensacola is a small, conservative town, and many local businesses close down early. This Mom & Pop joint was no exception.

White Day Far East Flirtations

White Day Far East Flirtations

Okinawa White Day 2015, beautiful chocolatesCracker Barrel was nearby, an eatery sure to have delicious homemade pie, but it too was also closing. In that part of town there are not many other options. Being out on a first-date, I needed desperately to leave a lasting impression while doing my darndest to woo this woman. I had a feeling that boyfriends, past, present and potentially future were part of her travels plans starting the very next day. Luckily for me, there was a Ruby Tuesdays nearby, and although I’m not one to turn to chain restaurants for food or value, this was one place that stayed open serving dependable, late-night dessert. We were quickly seated at a table for two, and our great love affair started right then and there, blossoming over the pie we were served. A truly epic Pie Day for the books.

Okinawa White Day 2015, Jody with her presents

Like my fondness for Jody, pi/pie days of every flavor have all become even more magically intoxicating. And as surely as pi continues on and on forever, so too does my love for this woman called “Wife.” Happy White Day Jody King!

At least there's chocolate with booze!

At least there’s chocolate with booze!

Now, if we only could find really GOOD pie here in Japan! (wink)

Happy White Day, Wife

Happy White Day, Wife

Dim Sum: Dinner and then Some


 Kuruma_Fuji_full_699193“Nothing can be more delicious than Jiaozi, as nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep.” ~Chinese proverb

 “Dumpling means, in essence, ‘reunion’,” our Chinese guide “Jason” explained as we were seated for a traditional Chinese dim sum dumpling meal during our stay in Xi’an, China. “And the dumpling banquet means generally the same thing.”

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the past 3

Chinese dumplings, particularly Jiaozi (餃子/饺子), are the traditional dish eaten on Chinese New Year’s Eve and at special family reunions. During these reunions, extended family members from afar may gather together to make dumplings. They are eaten again as a farewell feast to family members or friends who may not be seen for some time.

Other legendary mutant barbarians...who LOVE dumplings.

Other legendary mutant barbarians…who LOVE dumplings.

 

It seems that dumplings and China share a flavorful history together. A common legend goes that dumplings were first invented out of necessity in China during the era of the Three Kingdoms, around 225 AD. In this tale, a play on words is made between early mantou, a Chinese steamed bun and type of dumpling, and the homophonous word mántóu, meaning “barbarian’s head.”

Barbarian's head:  not so delicious.

Barbarian’s head: not so delicious.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, dumpling making tools of the trade WMrestaurant-2011-07-13-16-00-Leongs-LegendGeneral Zhuge Liang, a military leader and minister of the times, found his army’s advance blocked by a swift-moving and unfordable river after subduing a barbarian king and his unruly henchmen. A local barbarian lord informed spoke of times past when the barbarians would sacrifice 49 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river spirit, which would allow passage as the heads would effectively dam the raging waters. Liang, however, did not want to cause unnecessary bloodshed, and instead killed cows and horses and used their meat to fill buns shaped roughly like human heads. After throwing these surrogate tops into the river’s flow, the river spirit allowed him and his army to cross. To honor the event, Liang named the buns “barbarian’s head,” mántóu (蠻頭), which evolved into the present day’s more appetizing but perhaps less buoyant dumplings referred to as mantou (饅頭).

A variety of dumplings for dinner.

A variety of dumplings for dinner.

Guess what the filling is??

Guess what the filling is??

Duck-filled and fun.

Duck-filled and fun.

Dumplings are considered a special food in the Spring Festival, or Chinese (Lunar) New Year to which people are deeply and emotionally attached. On the eve of the New Year, dumplings become the centerpiece in any celebratory banquet. Eating dumplings at the New Year is a way of marking the occasion with wishes and prayers for happiness, fortune, and wealth. The dumplings’ very shape resembles an old Chinese currency called ingot (元宝), and the word jiǎozi shares the same pronunciation with 角子 (jiǎozi), which was a small jiao coin used in antiquity. Thus consuming these little delicacies has come to be associated with luck and fortune. For us, some of the shapes our dumplings came in reflected their fillings, particularly in terms of duck and pork. Yep, there were little piggies and majestic ducks staring us in the face! No translation needed there. In another humorous twist, when the dumplings are made on the eve of the Spring Festival, the Chinese will place a coin secretly into one. The person who finds it will likely have good fortune in the New Year, even if he or she has to spend it on tooth repairs….

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the past 3

Making dumplings is a community affair.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the pastChina 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, dumpling recipes and ingredients WMMaking dumplings is a labor of love requiring a fair amount of preparation. Thus, dumplings have come to symbolize reunions where there are many hands available to help in their crafting. As you might expect, many Chinese learn to make dumplings at a very young age, and enjoy a lifetime of reunions around a kitchen table, chattering and laughing while familial connections are assembled, much as the dumplings. In an analogous King Konnection, my mother would make chicken and dumplings fresh during our own family reunions, and lucky for me and my siblings, we did all enjoy in helping in her efforts. What is it exactly about the formality of making and consuming dumplings that crosses culture so well?

Dim Sum Dumpling Dinner

Dim Sum Dumpling Dinner

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, famous dumpling chain in ChinaChina 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, lazy susan family style dumpling dinnerDim sum (點心) is a style of Chinese food prepared as small bite-sized or individual portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum is usually linked with the older tradition yum cha (tea tasting), which has its roots in travelers on the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest and refresh. Teahouses were established along the roadside, and what started as a relaxing respite while traveling the road over the centuries has transformed into an often loud but fulfilling dining experience. While we arrived early at a famous dumpling restaurant chain in China, by the time of our departure the tables were filled to capacity and the rambunctious sounds of the diner’s laughter, the server’s questions, and the reverberations of serving carts and dishes melded into a cacophony of delight, filling the eatery much the way the dumplings were stuffed to capacity.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, steaming dumplings being served

EVERYTHING goes on the Lazy Susan!

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, eating the last of the dumplings!China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, ready for our super yummy famous dumpling dinner in ChinaA traditional dim sum meal includes various types of steamed buns, dumplings, and rice noodle roles, all of which are stuffed with delicious mixtures of goodness, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns and various vegetables and spices. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party, where, because of small portions, people can try a wide variety of food. In fact, many of our meals in China were served this way, where the table’s lazy Susan quickly became the best friend of the famished. Coordinating Susan’s movements to meet twelve diners’ demands, however, was downright comical!

Japanese yaki-gyoza.  YUM!

Japanese yaki-gyoza. YUM!

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One of the creepier Japanese mascots....

One of the creepier Japanese mascots….

Gyōza is the Japanese version of the Chinese dumpling jiaozi. The Japanese word gyōza is derived from the Chinese word jiaozi (餃子), and although it is written using the same Chinese characters, its pronunciation shifts using Japanese sounds. The most prominent and generalized differences between Japanese-style gyōza and Chinese-style jiaozi are a rich garlic flavor (less noticeable in China), the light seasoning of Japanese gyōza with salt and soy sauce, and the fact that gyōza wrappers are much thinner. Gyōza are also usually served with a soy-based sauce seasoned with rice vinegar and/or rāyu (chili oil), while the most common filling consists of a mixture of minced pork, cabbage, chives, and any combination of sesame oil, garlic and/or ginger. Jiaozi in China ae generally only steamed; if they are prepared by pan-frying and then steaming as most Japanese gyōza, they are more correctly known as goutie (pot stickers), a direct analogy to their Japanese cousins.

The Japanese Gyoza Association mascot.  Seriously.

The Japanese Gyoza Association mascot. Seriously.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, enjoying our dumpling dinnerBe they pot stickers or gyōza, I’m just happy that I don’t have to deal in barbarians (or their heads, attached or detached) in order to eat such tasty treats. In fact, they are so tantalizingly good here on Okinawa that I just texted Jody to pick up some on her way home from work. SCORE! Not only do I NOT have to cook dinner (and skate on my domestic engineering responsibilities), but Jody and I will celebrate our reunion this evening over some beautifully fried and steam Japanese dumplings.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, rubbing buddha's belly for good luck and long life

Now I completely understand why he’s so fat and jolly!

 After all, reunions should be celebrated, no matter how big or how small.

Geishun (迎春): Welcome Spring and the New Year!


“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New Year is perhaps the most important time of the year in Japan, akin to the way the West views Christmas. At the end of the year, the Japanese traditionally say, “I wish you will have a good new year,” or in Japanese (formally), “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください).”

Although we’ve been flirting with the New Year as the world always does for the whole of December, the Year of the Sheep is fully upon us. And, being the Far East Flirts that Jody and I are, we celebrated differently this year than we did last (See Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker to read about our past flings).

This year Jody and I took another island-hoping jaunt to another remote near-by island (see Tropical Trek to read about another), this time Ie (pronounced “Eeee-A”) Island. Taking the military up on one of their pre-arranged good-deal tour packages, we embarked on our 2-night stay at a Japanese “resort” over the New Year’s. And our journey – and the festivities were both full of surprises.

Celebratory Dinner!

Celebratory Dinner!

The Japanese New Year (正月, Shōgatsu) is an annual festival in Japan, similar to others celebrated elsewhere across the globe. Since 1873 the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the western Gregorian calendar on January 1, or New Year’s Day (元日, Ganjitsu). However, much of Okinawa, being much more closely aligned throughout history with China rather than with the Empire of Japan, still recognizes their New Year as the contemporary Chinese lunar New Year, which varies based on the moon but usually occurs in late January or sometime in the first half of February. It’s a pretty good convention; why have only one New Years in a year when you can have TWO?!?

Finding ourselves on Ie Island in the heart of a very elderly and rural population, the customs and traditions surround the Welcoming of Spring (which the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrates) were well represented, and in which we eagerly participated.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year...and beyond.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year…and beyond.

The night of the countdown, the hotel served us fresh dishes of buckwheat soba noodles, to be topped off with steaming broth. The stretching and consuming of the long noodles are representative life stretching well into the future. Although feasting on soba noodles is traditionally done after ringing in the New Year, our resort made the traditional dish available starting at 10pm. Of course, after our Korean BBQ feast that only started just a couple of hours prior, we had to literally find the room in our bloated bellies, else we tempt the darker side of fate in the coming year.

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Bubbly makes everything better.

Bubbly makes everything better.

The hotel offered typical Japanese fun and games during New Year’s Eve in a bonenkai party of sorts (read Bad Year? Fogetabout it! for more on how the Japanese dismiss their troubles of the past), to which such fanciful fun is typically reserved. We missed the – and here I am not kidding – the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game, and interrupted the “Guess what’s in the Box” amusement with our late arrival. Although I was the first to win at bingo, just before midnight Jody and I retired to our room for a more private countdown and personal kiss (or two).

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, explanation at the YYY ResortIe Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, broth, taro, spinach and rice cakesNew Year’s Day, however, came with a whole host of celebratory events. January 1st and 2nd are generally regarded as feast days throughout Japan, and our hotel didn’t fail us in this regard. A hugely popular dish made and consumed during the day’s festivities is ozōni (お雑煮), a soup centered around mochi rice cakes. Our soup at breakfast was served with soft-boiled taro and some fresh spinach, topped with a salty clear broth.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, pounding rice for mochi rice cakes on New Years

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody pounding rice for rice cakesHowever, it’s not just the consumption of mochi that is important; it’s the actual creation of the cake from raw rice that’s the heart of this long-lived ritual. In Japan rice is more than food; it’s considered a sacred grain. According to Shinto belief, the ritualistic act of creating mochi invites kami (gods and spirits) to visit. The mochi themselves are thought to contain the presence of kami; and as such they represent perfection and purity and are believed to imbue the eater with these qualities. The ceremony involving these cakes starts with boiling sticky rice (餅米, mochigome) and placing it into a wooden bucket-like container called a usu (臼). The rice along with large, heavy wooden mallets called kine (杵) are both hand-patted with hot water so the rice won’t stick. Using these kine held high overhead, two or more people take turns pulverizing the rice, a cadence being necessary to avoid simultaneous strikes.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, dusting mochi rice cakes with flour WM

After a period of beating, the rice is turned and folded by hand, and then beaten once again. This rhythmic cycle goes on again and again until the rice becomes a sticky white dough, when it is finally transformed into spheroid-like solid dumplings. Although the dough is usually made before New Year’s Day, the hotel allowed the guests to participate in this important tradition on January 1st itself. Served as kinako mochi and coated with brown sugar powder and soy flour, such treats are eaten specifically for good luck in the coming year.

Breaking open the New Year's sake barrel.

Breaking open the New Year’s sake barrel.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin toasting the New Year with sake fresh from the opened barrelIe Island New Years 2014-2015, toasting the New Year with sake in a traditional wooden cup (masu)Traditional Japanese culture also makes frequent use of sake as a way to observe special events, and is perfect for toasting a New Year. Our sake was served to us from a freshly opened large timber barrel and presented in a traditional small square wooden cup called a masu. Sipping our generous portions of chilled sake on a blistery cold and windy New Year’s Day definitely helped keep us – or at least our spirits – warm and toasty. As rice represents the soul of Japan, sake brewed from rice represents its very essence.

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

There are also a whole plethora of things to celebrate as the “first” of the New Year. Perhaps foremost of these firsts is the “first sun” (hatsuhi) or “first sunrise,” which Jody and I celebrated (or attempted to) together from the top of Mount Gusuku, the highest perch on Ie Island affording a full 360 degree panoramic view of the East China Sea and Okinawa Island. Although the previous day’s 300 step hike up the steep slope was under clear, blue skies, the overcast and scattered rain showers of New Year’s morn kept the disc of the sun well-hidden; our first twilight will just have to suffice!

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody looking for first sun hatsuhi on top of Mount Gusuku

We were still able to share a few quiet moments together in silent contemplation on that mountaintop, only to be broken by our “first laughter” (waraizome). In Japan, like most any place else on the planet, starting the New Year with a smile is considered a very good sign. And this year, I plan on smiling more than ever. So, from the Far East Fling to you and yours,

Happy New Year!

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

あけましておめでとうございます。

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