Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Han Kichi pt. I - A Trip from Hell that Leads to Heaven

I mentioned in my New Year post that, for my omikuji (fortune) for 2008, I drew han-kichi, or "half-good fortune". The fine print said that most of my endeavors would end in success, but I'd have to endure a lot of pain and bother getting there.

Well, consider the trip from which I've just returned.

First a little background. Back in October, my wife decided to give us both a special gift for our anniversary. Her favorite mail-order cosmetics supplier (like just about everything here) has a purchase-point program, and she had amassed enough points to get a free gift that was fairly high up on the list. She chose a couple of coupons that would allow the two of us to stay a night at the InterContinental Yokohama The Grand Hotel at a discount. The InterContinental Yokohama The Grand is a massive, uniquely-shaped 5-star hotel located on the Yokohama waterfront very near the Yokohama Cosmoworld amusement park and Yokohama Landmark Tower.

(The InterContinental Yokohama the Grand Hotel is the crescent-shaped building on the left.)

Needless to say, it is a very fancy, high-class hotel. It was likely that it would cost us a pretty penny even with the discount coupons, but it still seemed worth it to celebrate our anniversary. Unfortunately, we were never able to work a stay there into our randomly-changing, eternally-conflicting schedules. First October vanished in a puff of fate. Then November gwugged and faded. December offered us a couple of potentially usable weekends, but our original plan of going as a couple and leaving the kids with the in-laws wound up in the NBL (Not Bloody Likely) category. But then both of those "potentially usable" weekends wound up being hijacked anyway.

Finally came January, along with my birthday, and we were faced with a dilemma. The coupons were only good till the end of March, and neither February nor March seemed even remotely doable. January turned out to be an even bigger scheduling headache than December, but we decided to take the kamikaze approach and go anyway. We each took a little bit of time off on Friday the 11th and planned to come home, grab the kids and our luggage, and shoot off to Yokohama hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the rush-hour crunch. We would then have Friday evening and all day Saturday to play with. First we thought about booking a second room for the kids, giving us our much-needed private time, but after talking to the hotel on the phone we settled on putting an extra bed in a double room and housing the four of us together. It seemed nuts by any standard, but it was very much better than nothing.

On Thursday the 10th my wife informed me that she'd had an attack of conscience and had decided to ask her parents to join us. I think you can guess what my reaction was. Having the kids with us was like having a two-kilogram-weight shackled to one ankle. It was a given that having my in-laws with us as well would be like having a twenty-kilogram weight on the other ankle. You have to understand; after a few disastrous family outings early in our marriage I made it a policy to avoid traveling with the in-laws as much as possible. Still, I could understand where my wife was coming from. She is still terribly worried about her cancer-fighting mother and would rather not cause her parents any more grief than necessary. I decided not to resist. Besides, as my wife pointed out, odds were that her parents would decline our invitation anyway.

They jumped at the chance.

Friday the 11th was the first day of classes at Ye Olde Academy after winter vacation. Most of the day was taken up by tests, so it was an easy workday. It was also brutally stressful (for a number of reasons I obviously can't discuss). When my requested off-time arrived, despite the attempts at dumping extra work on me and the related guilt trips and other psychological games when I declined, I bolted out of there like a BLUE comet and raced home to find...

...that my wife had been delayed due to trouble at her school. She got home more than two hours later than planned and wasn't even packed yet. By the time we finally got ourselves, the kids, and my MIL in my BLUE RAV4 (FIL, who had to attend a funeral, was to travel to Yokohama by train and meet us there) and onto the expressway, the rush-hour crunch was already starting. As it turned out, however, by some miracle, the expressway became jam-packed but kept moving at a decent pace. (I also had plenty of room to weave through traffic...though my poor wife was sometimes scared witless.) We somehow managed to get to the hotel at about the time we had originally planned. FIL hadn't quite arrived yet, so we checked in, dropped off our luggage, and waited for him. Then we headed out in search of dinner. FIL has a strict rule against eating dinner at hotel restaurants (Why else? Because they're too expensive!) so we went over to the nearby Minatomirai complex, which includes the Yokohama Landmark Tower and adjoining Queen's Square and Dockland Gardens shopping centers.

Here was where we began to feel the weight shackled to our ankles. The Minatomirai complex is both cosmopolitan and widely varied. There are lots of different restaurants all over the area representing a variety of classes and countries. Within a five-minute walk you can find fare ranging from Wendy's hamburgers to fancy French cuisine. My wife and I have tried only a couple of places so far (yes, including Wendy's) and have long wanted to check out some more, especially some of the classier ones. Unfortunately, FIL won't go into an eating establishment that costs more than average and refuses to wait more than ten minutes for a table. He also won't eat anywhere that doesn't serve rice. MIL, on the other hand, hates sushi and sashimi, wants her food bland, and gets out of joint if she can't get green tea. We went all over the place listening to the two of them gripe until we finally settled on a soba and udon noodle restaurant deep in the Dockland Gardens (so named because it's built in an old dry-dock, as is virtually the entire Minatomirai complex). That's when the real "fun" began.

To be fair, the food and service at the restaurant were both quite good. I also appreciated being able to drink multiple mugs of ice-cold draft beer without any harassment. However, most of the clientèle there were clearly businessmen just off work, i.e. lots of noisy drunks...and lots of smokers. To make matters worse, someone at the neighboring table was chain-smoking Peace cigarettes, one of the strongest and most pungent types made in Japan. (Yes, I do smoke on occasion, and Peace is one of the brands I sometimes smoke, but I have a problem with people that light up in restaurants, where they're clearly wrecking things for others.) My son whined the whole time about the smoke, and the rest of us tried to get him to cork it while coughing and sneezing ourselves. However, that wasn't the worst problem.

My daughter, aged 11, can sometimes have a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I'm told it's the age. At any rate, when my wife was trying to order her meal, my daughter, who had already ordered, kept grabbing her menu and trying to snatch it out of her hands for some reason. My wife asked her to quit twice, to no avail, and then finally scolded her. That caused my daughter to clam up. She has tended to do that ever since she was three or so. Whenever she gets the slightest scolding or criticism she just sits there weeping, then pretending to be sick, and won't speak or do anything for a long time, sometimes hours. I know from experience that it's nothing but a play for sympathy (which of course has always worked very well with the in-laws), but it usually goes on and on ad nauseum. Her food arrived, and she naturally wouldn't touch it. Pretty much the whole evening was spent attempting to get her to calm down and snap out of it, but in vain. That on top of the yammering, drunk businessmen, the foul air, and my son's non-stop whining just got to be too much. I finally managed to pry everyone out of that restaurant and out into fresher air. We tried to walk around a bit to take in the beautiful night scene there, but my son, who had refused on pain of death to wear a warm coat (because they make him "too hot") started whining that he was freezing, so we went up into the mall complex, where we wound up spending the whole [expletive] time with my in-laws trying to find something my daughter would eat. (Of course, she limped along with a pathetic look on her face and wouldn't touch anything.) That did it. I decided that I'd had enough and declared that I was taking her back home to Namegata that very night as soon as I'd sobered up enough to drive.

I think you can imagine the scene in our hotel room that night. From our tenth-floor window the view of Yokohama's night lights was gorgeous. The room was spacious and comfortable. My daughter lay stiff as a board in one bed feeling very sorry for herself. In another bed my son lay crying both out of worry for his elder sister and sorrow that she and I were going to be leaving. Next to him lay my wife, upset to pain that our long-anticipated and well-intentioned trip had gone straight to hell despite all the effort and money that had gone into it (not to mention other personal issues). Meanwhile, I was lying in the third bed wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with my parenting skills, my DNA, or a combination of the two while wishing I knew an African chocolate plantation owner who was in need of a couple more child slaves. (Yes, I know...that wasn't funny.) Ironically, though, what saved the day in the end was my daughter finally giving up the ploy and eating one of the chocolate muffins my wife had bought. I declared the matter closed. My wife and son had already gone to sleep by then, so I calmed my nerves and my stomach by reading Isaac Asimov's autobiography till I finally felt ready to sleep.

My son was up at the crack of dawn and very much relieved. So was everyone else (when we finally got up), so there were none of the ill feelings of the night before. The in-laws decided to have breakfast by themselves in the hotel's traditional Japanese restaurant, so the rest of us went down to the buffet-style restaurant down on the pier and pigged out on very good, very cosmopolitan fare. (Oink!) That was enjoyable, and with our spirits now lifted a bit, we were well prepared to spend all day having fun in Yokohama. However, we were faced with two new problems:
  1. It had gotten colder and started raining.
  2. The in-laws, who had originally planned to do their own thing and head home on the train, decided to join us instead. Naturally, FIL insisted we do something that would entertain him, i.e. he didn't want to go anywhere he'd already been. And of course MIL made it clear that she wasn't up to walking much, didn't want to take the train, didn't want to take a cab, didn't really want to get out of bed, etc....
We weren't about to accept defeat, however. We stuck with our original plan, which was to take the kids to the Yokohama Doll Museum. There was a decent parking lot there, so I went ahead and drove...cramming the six of us into my wee BLUE RAV4

I know what some of you are probably thinking, but the doll museum is actually kind of interesting. It gives a good cross-section of the history and types of Japanese dolls plus a lot of info on dolls from overseas. It talks about how an exchange of dolls played a significant role in Japan's opening up to the world at the end of the 19th century, mainly through Yokohama. There is a fascinating room that includes representative traditional dolls from most countries of the world (kind of like the "Small, Small World" thing at Disneyland, only less annoying). This time there was also a special exhibit of toy cars, which were a passion of mine when I was little. In fact, I was amazed to look at the display case representing the Matchbox line and realize that I owned almost every single model they had in there! (Actually, I think my parents still have them, too! How much are they worth now, I wonder?) I only had one of the Corgi types they had, though...and my son has only a few of the Tomy Car models on display. It was still fascinating to look at all those metal toy cars from various ages, most from the fifties and sixties, and recall that these were models designed and crafted with pride and later loved to death by children.

My son didn't seem too impressed, though. He is definitely a child of the modern age, and he wants his technology. That's what finally got his attention. In yet another room there was a sort of interactive exhibit of powered toy cars. Actually, it was a competition venue. They had a big, old-style slot car track set up...apparently something that has come back into vogue recently. They also had something I'd never seen before: miniature radio-control cars. I mean, both the cars and the controllers were tiny! The man on duty said they could also be controlled using cell phones! They had a whole race course set up on a single tatami mat, and Taiki was on it in a flash. He was so taken with it that I gave in and got him a car. (Hey, it cost a lot less than those damned Nintendo DS games usually do!)

After that we walked in the freezing mist over to nearby Yamashita Park on the waterfront, but all the attractions there were either shut down, reserved, or due to open an hour later, so we headed over to the nearby Yokohama Marine find it closed until further notice. (Apparently it shut a year ago, as the Wikipedia link explains.) We gave up and headed back to the Minatomirai complex. The in-laws decided they wanted to drink green tea (and ONLY green tea), so we went into a famous, high-class tea shop for a break. Then FIL decided he wanted to try something new; specifically, he wanted to check out the 69th floor observation deck of the Landmark Tower. We had never been up there, either, so we decided to go for it...and just told my son to shut up. (He hates high places...and is scared to death of elevators for some reason.)

Wow. The super-fast elevator ride itself is a trip, but the view from up there... Wow. Still, in the end, that wasn't what really did it for us. You see, we found something up there we never would have expected.

One of my all-time favorite TV programs here in Japan, which I rarely get to see anymore because it conflicts with something the rest of the family always wants to watch, is "TV Champions" ("Terebi Champion"). The easiest way to describe it is as a weekly competition between super artisans. Basically, they find the best people they can find in a particular trade, usually an art or craft, and they pit them against each other in a brutally demanding competition. The one thing I don't like about the show is that some of those fantastically talented individuals and their brilliant creations have to lose! I've always been a sucker for hand-made items, especially ones that show great talent and imagination on the part of the creator. This program caters directly to that love of mine.

Anyway, there were two artists up there, a man and a woman, who had both appeared on "TV Champions". The female artist, Azusa Kuwahara, had actually been the second-place finisher. I'd seen that particular contest on TV and remembered it to an extent; it had been for caricature drawing. Both artists have other lines (Azusa is both an illustrator and a model, while the man, Kazufumi Matsubara, makes impressive wall and ceiling murals often designed for black light viewing), but they and some other illustrators apparently formed a professional team called "Chef's" for booking and mutual support. (On the linked site, Azusa's sample collection is at the upper left, while Kazufumi's is to its immediate right.) One of the things they do is appear regularly on the Yokohama Landmark Tower observation deck doing caricature drawing. Needless to say, they're quite good at it, too. I couldn't resist. First I had Azusa draw the two kids. Then, while she was still at it, I had Kazufumi draw me and my wife. Both artists were really interesting individuals, and it was a lot of fun. Since it was a slow work day, i.e. we had been their only customers so far, they really gave us the works. My wife, who had been extremely reluctant at first, was finally so excited by it that she ran and got her parents to come and have their own caricature done. They weren't too sure about it, but they were also very happy with the outcome. As it turned out, we may have helped drum up business for them. A number of people who had come to watch us being drawn wound up having it done themselves. Anyway, the artists were great people, and it was a special honor to meet and have my picture drawn by skilled individuals who had competed...and placed...on "TV Champions"!

azusa caricature

Just for fun, here is the picture of my kids drawn by Azusa. I think she captured their personality perfectly!

kids n caric
(Here's a shot of the kids for comparison.)

kazufumi caricature
Here's the picture Kazufumi drew of me and my wife. This, friends, is a classic!

(Actually, the first time I had my caricature drawn by a pro was when I went to Hawaii in my school days. That caricature cost far more than this one and was nowhere near as good!)

Caricature kinen
I don't have the caricature Azusa drew of the in-laws, but here is a commemorative photo we took with the artist with my MIL holding the caricature. It's brilliant. I might also add that the artist is, well, rather tall... (Kazufumi was drawing someone else behind them at the time and couldn't be in the picture. A pity!)

We were all feeling pretty happy when we finally came down from the observation deck and had a very good, healthy buffet-style lunch. That had pretty much made the whole trip. After that we went back to the Landmark Tower mall, hit the bookstore and the Pokemon store, and then crowded into my BLUE RAV4 for the drive home. It was still rainy, but there was very little traffic, so it was a nice, easy drive home.

Yes, as a trip it was all kind of a pain in the posterior, but I think it was worth it. At the very least it was one to remember.

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  • Those are great caricatures. While the expanded guest list was difficult, it did indeed seem to work out. It is good to see the group I haven't seen in so many years.

    Good wishes to all!

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:45 AM  

  • I have always found that traveling with my family has difficult moments also. Glad it turned out well though.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 2:43 AM  

  • COngratulations.. and is it also a Happy Birthday (between the lines)

    Somehow, I always felt that as long as the intention is good (planting good seeds) thing will turn out pretty well, like the traffic, the MIL, the sulking child and the worrying wife.

    Yes, life will continue its up and down... and seems like you are enjoying it ..


    By Blogger Robin, at 11:46 AM  

  • A funny story from my point of view. Trying to please everyone just doesn't work out. I would have let the daughter starve if she was so fussy. Anyway thanks for the story. I think birthdays and anniversaries might be better spend along - to reflect quietly on what have I done!
    Our wedding anniversary is on New Year's Day so there's always someone else putting up a party which we attend and just say - thanks!

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 5:57 PM  

  • Oops, I mean alone.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 5:58 PM  

  • MM, I'm amazed at your tolerance for family "inconveniences" that seem to rob you of so much hard-won leisure. But I'm glad you had a terrific finish to the outing and even got to meet and interact with these fabulous artists.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 AM  

  • What a trip (in all meanings of the word)! It sounds like "you took one for team" but it worked out in the end. You never know how much time anybody has left on the planet so it sounds like you did the "right" thing.

    Kid will sure be kids though.

    Maybe someday I can check out he Doll museum that sounds like fun.

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 2:39 AM  

  • Hey when you are down
    the only way is UP

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:43 AM  

  • But it's all relative anyway
    Jpw do we ever know for sure which way is up or down, the only thing to do is enjiy the roller coaster ride of life ... with its highs & lows

    Love the pic of you & wifey!

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:45 AM  

  • This trip sounds like a brilliant caricature of what it was intended to be--a romantic, lavish getaway. Like caricatures of people's faces, however, it did capture some of the beautiful essence (love) of that original intention, as well as drawing attention to the eccentricities.

    As you said, it's one to remember.

    "Half-good fortune." That sounds like life. Or at least my life.

    By Blogger San, at 7:33 AM  

  • A really neat caricature there... I supposed it is all framed up and hanged at the most conspicuous of places...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 2:52 PM  

  • Ah... have you ever heard "grandparents are actually the worst poison for their grandchildren" ? ;P

    The caricatures are amazing! How much does it cost? I would love to have mine :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 7:37 PM  

  • Until the caricatures came along to unite you all and soothe the ruffles, I was thinking, "Oh my God, I know I've been thinking for a while that you need a holiday, that time you should have stayed home!"

    Glad it all turned out well in the end. But you still need just a you and the wife holiday, followed by just a you and the wife and kids holiday.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 6:36 AM  

  • Snabudon and Dave
    Well, you know the old saying:
    All's well that ends well.

    I think things turned okay, so it was worth it.

    Celebrating our anniversary as just the two of us at that luxury hotel had been the plan from the beginning, but our consciences kept getting in the way.

    Damn consciences...

    "Tolerance" is a basic requirement for being a foreigner in any country, and I would probably consider Japan an extreme case.

    I take a lot of things for the team and keep bouncing back like one of those inflatable punch-me dolls.

    The doll museum isn't exactly exciting...not much shock stimulus, but I think it's worth a visit. It is kind of interesting.

    "Up" and "down" are only concepts. The condition of your mind and stomach are reality.

    Exactly. A caricature isn't like a portrait; it's not supposed to be a direct representation. It's supposed to help display inner character through selective distortion. Yes, that sounds like the story of my life...

    We plan to frame them eventually, but we haven't yet.

    Truer words were never spoken! I've found out the hard way that having grandparents raise kids is a horrible mistake, even if it is the norm here! That probably accounts for around 70% of the behavior problems we're seeing among children nowadays now that many if not most mothers are working and leaving childcare to the grandparents.

    Welcome back, m'lady! (I know, I know...)

    Yes...I definitely needed a vacation from that vacation!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:06 PM  

  • So tell me, because I asked in my next to last post after your comment, are you hoping to visit America sometime?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 7:39 AM  

  • Olivia
    I used to make it a point to make a visit stateside at least once a year. However, a combination of crowded, conflicting schedules and high expenses (mainly relating to the construction we had done on our house last year) has kept me firmly implanted in the LotRS for the past three years...not counting the two school-financed trips I took to Australia. Right now I'm also looking very seriously at both my recently-increased insurance expenses and the likely upcoming costs of my kids' education.

    However, I am determined to make a visit over there sometime soon.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:38 PM  

  • Those are awesome caricatures! I love the little hearts. Great touch! I'd say make a few more copies (big and small ones) and frame the original. You know, you could even make them into greeting cards too.

    Yep, all's well that ends well.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 5:06 PM  

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