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Wrapping Up 2017

December 15th, 2017 No comments

This morning I looked at the previous post for the blog and realized it has been nearly a month.  I have been seriously neglecting my blog writing lately.

I do have a good excuse, however, since the end of the year is always full of events that seem to eat up our time, money, and energy.  No complaints here – we always enjoy our busy holidays. Usually about this time I am feeling stress about my contract and whether I’ll have a job in the upcoming year.  At the end of the year we are throwing together packages of presents for our family overseas, we’re finalizing plans for our winter trip, and we’re hosting holiday parties for friends and neighbors.  There is always a lot going on, culminating in a rush to the airport and quick zip down the runway to whatever destination we have chosen.

This year is pretty much the same, but it seems like the job situation is clarifying a bit and I’ll have some good news to announce soon.  As of last Sunday our packages were sent out, and tomorrow we’ll host our last holiday party of the year with the neighbors.  Kuniko spent the evening last night making a rich red sauce to smother lasagna noodles rolled around ricotta cheese.  Tomorrow will be a red wine night for sure.

Next week is an abbreviated week for me – I have shorter class schedules, some open time to plan for next year’s lessons, and a company holiday party on Thursday that hopefully won’t leave me with a hangover for our departure the next day to Egypt.

We’re excited about the trip to Egypt, seeing Cairo, Luxor and Abu Simbel.  I think that more than previous trips this one will be a challenge for us, but the challenging trips are the ones that leave you with the best memories.

We’ll be in Cairo from December 23-26, Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel from December 26-30, and then back in Cairo from December 30-January 2nd.  We should be landing back in Japan on Wednesday, January 3rd.  It looks to be a busy itinerary but we can’t wait to see what’s out there!

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Wedding Party Bliss

November 13th, 2017 No comments

An hour into the wedding party we attended on Sunday my wife tells me she still believes that our own wedding party was the best that she has ever attended.  She says this often, especially when we are attending someone else’s party, and I always feel a strange sense of pride even though I’m not really responsible for it.

Today we are attending a wedding party for one of my wife’s ex-students.  I don’t know the bride (the aforementioned ex-student, Miho) or the groom (a healthy looking chap named John).  Some of my wife’s ex-coworkers are in attendance, and they ask about her job with barely concealed looks of envy.  Some of them had to work on the Sunday morning before this party.

A large assembly of friends and family has been squeezed into a cement room too small for the occasion.  We all sit on folding wood and leather chairs that threaten to snap shut upon entry or exit. Guests need to get up and sit down and get up again to eat or drink because all the action is at the other end of the room. The difficulty level of this operation increases exponentially with the amount of alcohol consumed. The grey cement color of the room is offset by brightly colored overhead lights, and above the bar the Ramones are quoted in giant yellow letters: Hey / Ho / Let’s / Go!

In the Japanese way people are assigned seats at tables, and there is little opportunity to speak to anyone at another table without awkwardly breaking into their table’s conversation.  With little room to stand or mingle you get up only to reload your plate with onion rings or pizza or to refill the beer pitcher. You sit and talk with the people seated in your group – usually people you already know. Owl City and AKB48 play from the speakers as multi-cultural background music.

I like the atmosphere of the party.  It isn’t the flowery, glitzy style with Japanized French/Italian/Spanish food. This is a more unpretentious way to celebrate a marriage. The crowd is mixed with a liberal helping of foreigners like me who break enough of the traditional customs of a Japanese wedding party to make it interesting and unpredictable.

Upon entering we each were photographed with a polaroid camera and we wrote our name and wedding message at the bottom of the resulting mugshot.  These photos end up in a box and Miho and John pull them out at random to award a prize and extract a short speech from the winners.  Several people who don’t know the bride or groom win, including myself, and it makes for an awkward but oddly personal moment that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The groom’s father makes a speech, and like all the speeches of the day it is translated into the other language of this bilingual event.  The father is dressed like a gangster but is soft-spoken and friendly and looks like the kind of person you’d want on your side in a bar fight. His theme of two families joining together combined with the black silk suit can’t help but bring forth images the Godfather.

We listen to live musical performances by friends of the couple who all seem to be very gifted and happy to be the center of attention.  The bride and groom look equally happy to relinquish the limelight for a while so it appears to be a win-win situation.

Three hours pass, and we get up with the rest of the group to leave.  Our gracious hosts are waiting at the door to give us a small souvenir from the event and a personal thanks and goodbye.  It is a nice touch and they both look spectacularly happy.  And I’m sure that this wedding party will be the best one that John and Miho will ever attend.

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A Quick Hop for K-Pop

October 30th, 2017 No comments

A while back Kuniko asked me about my work schedule – she had found a concert that she’d love to see with quite a few K-Pop artists. The tricky part was that the concert was in Korea, and it was on a Sunday.

The timing was not perfect but thanks to a slightly flexible schedule at my company I was able to take Monday off, making it easier to return to Japan in time for work on Tuesday. Kuniko bought the tickets and booked a hotel, and we were set!

So Sunday morning we got up early, caught a train to Sannomiya, and then the airport bus from there. It was a very rainy day, and there were reports of a typhoon approaching. It seemed like we’d be able to fly out before the typhoon hit, but whether we’d be able to make the return flight was still quite unclear. Exciting!

This time we flew on a new airline for us, a Korean LCC called Jeju Air. It was a bit of a bumpy flight but since we were only airborne for an hour or so, no big deal. The lady sitting on my right slept through the whole flight, while Kuniko on my left held my hand tight during the turbulence.

Back in Busan, we had no trouble getting around, since we had visited here just last spring. This was a big advantage, and we moved pretty smoothly through the transportation system, with only a few wrong turns.

Since we arrived in Busan in the late morning we had plenty of time to eat and explore before the evening concert. We started with a place serving mandu (Korean gyoza) and noodles. The restaurant was decorated (and felt like) someone’s home. We loved the mandu, and we had two kinds of noodles – one with soup and one without, both cold. Since the weather in Busan was clear and sunny the cold noodles were great.

After filling our stomachs we decided to go find our hotel. Called the Angel Hotel, it was not where our maps said it was, and we were ready to give up and call them before we finally found it a block away from where the address said it was. Maybe they had moved? The neighborhood around the hotel (in Seomyeon) was really lively, full of young people and eating places, and later we found the nightlife was going long after things shut down in our neighborhood back in Japan.

We checked in, and the clerk preferred using Japanese to English which was a little unusual but we were happy that we didn’t have to try to get through things in Korean. The hotel room itself was small with an interesting bathroom – the shower drained across the room, so you had to accept a river of water when you used the toilet. This was apparently by design, but it seemed a little strange.

I realized that I was starting to develop a small headache. Since we’d be rocking all night I figured I should nip it in the bud and went across the street to a convenience store to get some painkillers. Unfortunately I didn’t find any, so I asked the hotel clerk on the way back. She said that since it was Sunday most drugstores would be closed, but she offered me three Advil from her personal stash – that was very nice of her.

We dropped off our stuff and then headed to the concert. I wasn’t sure about taking the camera, and since we couldn’t read the tickets to see the ground rules, I left it behind. We still had our phones to take pictures. The concert was held at the Busan Sports Complex, in an interesting partially covered stadium. As we arrived we noticed how windy it was, probably due to the typhoon hitting Japan at about that time, and we started to realize we had no idea about where to go to enter. There were lots of different entrances, and you chose the entrance based on your ticket. The lines outside the venue were huge, with pretty much everyone having a big linguistic advantage over us.

We had some fried fish cake on a stick as a snack (a bit greasy but it did the trick), and then Kuniko navigated us to the correct entrance by asking staff while I held our place in various lines.

Despite paying a pretty reasonable price for our tickets, our seats were near the field level of the stadium. The stage was positioned in the center of the field, with long walkways in various directions so the artists could get closer to the fans. Still, we were pretty far from the action. But I learned later that the distance from the artists hardly mattered.

As usual I was a minority at the event, in two ways. First I was western, which I am pretty much used to living in Japan surrounded by Japanese people. But second, I was one of the few men at the concert. 95% of the fans were young women ready to scream at the sight of their K-Pop idols. But honestly once you get used to being the first kind of minority it usually isn’t that different being one of the second kind.

We walked around the stadium to kill some time (and stay warm) and we spotted some K-Pop stars doing an interview which made lots of people happy. We couldn’t find any open food stands inside the stadium so we would just have to wait until after the show to have dinner.

Our tickets had some things we could read and understand, and one of them was the time of 6:00 written in simple numerals. So we sat down in our seats to wait. At about 5:30 a band played one song, and then they were joined by a singer, and then they wrapped it up. At 6:00 they did the exact same thing – the same band came up and played the same song, and then the same singer joined them again. From 6:00 to 6:30 they showed a K-Pop awards show interview program on the big screen, and every time a familiar face showed up the crowd of 15,000+ would scream. We sat and shivered in the cold wind and waited patiently. At 6:30 again the band came up and played the same song and was joined by the same singer. I was starting to think that I could sing the song myself I had heard it so many times.

At about 6:45 something interesting happened. There was a mass of security staff in yellow jackets, and they swarmed one area of the stage. They turned on some field lights and there were some announcements (that of course we couldn’t understand). There was some chaos and confusion, and then the show started promptly at 7:00 pm.

Later Kuniko read online that there was a bomb threat called in and apparently that was why the security showed up. We sat up in the stands completely oblivious to the possibility of a bomb going off. Oh, well – sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The concert was really enjoyable. They used two giant circular screens in the center of the stage that served as both curtains and also video screens to highlight the performances. Since we were in a huge stadium they also used the stadium lights, flames and fireworks to dramatic effect. Near the beginning of the show they fired off some big fireworks that stayed within the stadium without burning our cold little faces and Kuniko cheered so hard that I thought that if the concert stopped right then she would still be completely satisfied.

People around us occasionally screamed frantically and scanned the staging area between screaming fits. Some famous boy idol would walk by 100 yards away and fans around us would jump from their seats with binoculars screaming lustily. Some fans had bought mini-posters of their favorite idols and they would wave them frantically and perhaps hope that the idol would look up and see their sign and their face amongst the thousands of other fans doing the same thing and there would be some kind of connection and who knows what could happen?

I certainly had a good time.

With new groups rotating in every few songs we could experience a wide spectrum of K-Pop acts. Kuniko knew most of them, I knew several of them, and the fans knew all of them. We saw Wanna One, Blackpink, Ikon, and some others, and after a while Kuniko had her fill. We were cold out there and the winds blowing around the stadium made us even colder. We left before any of the superfans around us, and headed back to the neighborhood around our hotel.

Back in Seomyeon, we easily found a place to eat. First we hit a grilled pork place, and sat down to a nice warm dinner. We ordered lots of beer, and a combo dinner with three different cuts of pork and lots of side dishes. There was spicy greens, kimchi, cheese, garlic frying in oil, macaroni salad(?), steamed egg, and spicy miso paste to mix into anything that wasn’t spicy enough for your personal taste. The waitress cooked for us, and it was a bit odd to share a nice dinner with my wife and a total stranger who we couldn’t communicate with. The meat was quite good, and cooked to perfection by a professional while we watched, and we were just getting started.

Next we left the restaurant and headed out in search of two things: makkori and chijimi. We found both at a large restaurant tucked in behind a garden on the street. The sign outside clearly showed several kinds of chijimi (Korean savory pancakes) together with makkori (milky rice wine) and so we knew they’d be serving it inside. We got a table in a nicely decorated traditional atmosphere. Our waitress spoke English and answered our questions, and soon we had a big bucket of makkori (with ladle) to serve ourselves. The drink is not so strong but it goes really well with spicy food and we were pretty tipsy by the time we hit the bottom of the bucket. The chijimi we ordered was a half and half of kimchi flavor and traditional onion, but both sides were good. We’ve had so many different kinds of chijimi over the years that it is hard for me to figure out what is the traditional style. We were tempted to go for another bucket of makkori but made the smart move and left. Kuniko tried to pay the bill while thinking about the total in yen instead of won. Some confusion occurred but luckily we figured things out and hit the road.

Our last stop for the night was a convenience store for some drunken shopping, and we brought back more makkori (banana flavor) and Korean snacks to munch on in our room and wrap up our day.

Since we had almost the whole next day to ourselves with no solid plans, we once again focused on food. It started with a subway ride to a neighborhood that had a mandu place that opened at 9 am for service. Korean dumplings for breakfast, oh yeah!

First, we couldn’t find the place using our maps, and we almost gave up to go back into town. Every sign was in Hangul so it took a long time to scan each board to find the place. We asked an old fisherman guy who gestured in the distant direction but I read from his body language that it wasn’t a “The restaurant is over there” but instead “Go that way for all I care”.

Luckily, as we walked around we passed a delivery driver making rounds, and he was right next to me so I showed him the Korean name of the restaurant on my phone. He thought a bit and then pointed us in the correct directions using gestures. We were close by, and after a right and a left we found the place. It was a restaurant with a stand out front, and it was selling mandu to go, but they also had two tables inside. Run by an older husband and wife, they had printouts of a TV show that had featured the shop sometime in the past, and we sat down under the proudly displayed printouts and checked the menu. Kuniko had already translated the menu for us so we knew what to order.

We had 12 grilled mandu, 10 steamed mandu, and 10 steamed kimchi mandu. The lady seemed a little unsure whether we could eat it all but we were up to the task. Good dumplings, and plenty of them! It was a great start to our day.

The meal was all the better because of the hidden away atmosphere, no English in sight, and the odd time in the morning. We were really satisfied to seek out and find this place without using GPS or English.

The rest of the day we walked around the areas of Busan that had the best foods, covering some of the same territory that we did on our previous visit. We went up into the huge Lotte Department Store to track down some character goods shop that Kuniko wanted to visit, bought souvenirs at a convenience store and witnessed two Americans going through an ugly fight (and possible divorce?) loudly in English among the startled Korean customers.

We ate on the street – oden served on sticks in a chili pepper broth (we didn’t eat the insects on sale there, however), tempura fried kimpa (Korean nori roll), and dokku, a fried sweet pancake/donut sprinkled liberally with nuts and honey.

There was a stop for coffee and contemplation, at the oddly named Angel-in-us Cafe.

From there it was back to the airport to kill a little time there and relax. We checked in, and then had a mango shaved ice with salted cream cheese and ice cream (something we really liked from last trip) and then after security we drank beers from the convenience store and snacked on fried nori bites, and waited for our slightly delayed return flight. It turns out we completely avoided the typhoon.

The return flight was smooth, and we even sat next to the same woman we sat with on the way to Korea. She said she was visiting friends, and I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

The airport was busy when we got back to Kansai, with long bus lines going back into town. I guess tourism is really increasing in our area these days. Later we found the typhoon was quite strong and made a direct hit – there were damaged trees and buildings around my workplace the next day. Glad we missed it!

It was a busy couple of days but we really enjoyed the trip. Once in a while it is good to do something out of the ordinary and spontaneous.

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Diligence as Detriment

October 18th, 2017 No comments

Every day on the way to work I pass under a long line of trees over the sidewalk. The trees stretch from one end of the road to the other, so I can walk under trees for almost five minutes before turning and heading to my building.

Trees are a little rare in urban Japan. I’m told that the falling leaves create too much work and hassle for city residents, so it is rare to find trees as part of the urban landscape here in Kobe.

Every year in summer the city comes through and workers chop the top off the trees on my commute. They trim off all the green growing branches and leave only the twisted naked main branches. This solves the leaf problem, but leaves a long line of weird empty tree-like structures behind. Like a modern art interpretation of Joshua Tree.

Something changed this year, though. For some reason, the city decided not to give the trees their annual buzz cut and the trees have grown out and they look beautiful. This summer I enjoyed walking under the shade of the trees and the street looked almost European. It was a nice change and really improved my mood going to work.

However the change was not good for the apartment building security guard I pass every morning. He walks the long block in front of a huge apartment complex with a tiny handheld vacuum cleaner – the kind you’d use to clean the floor of your car now and then – and he sucks up little gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and stray leaves.

So now that autumn has arrived the leaves are falling in a big way. There are leaves everywhere. This is my first time to see the leaves all over the place, and although it looks quite natural to me it is playing hell with this security guard’s job. Luckily he doesn’t just have the handivac – he has added a little dustpan and broom to his arsenal.

Remember the labors of Hercules? Piece of cake next to what this guy is trying to accomplish. A sea of leaves out there blowing around, and he is filling his little vacuum cleaner over and over. I estimate he’ll be able to finish his cleanup just in time for autumn next year.

So I walk by this guy with this impossible task and I wonder if he even knows that he is overmatched. Does he know that this will never be done? Maybe he doesn’t really care and he just needs to fill the time before going home. Maybe he told his boss about the sharp increase in leaves this year and they just said “we’ve got no budget for leaf blowers so deal with it”. Or more likely, his job is to pick up debris and so he does it without complaint using the tools that he has.

I have to admire his diligence – it is something that Japanese people have in spades – but at some point maybe you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Because this particular picture is full of leaves, as far as the eye can see.

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Eat, Drink, Age

October 11th, 2017 No comments

A long time ago getting older used to be fun. I’d get some nice presents, eat some cake, and take another step closer to being an adult. But, as most kids discover later, being an adult is not quite what they had expected.

Birthdays these days are a different affair. Although I’ve long since stepped into adulthood (and middle age, for that matter) I still manage to enjoy the presents and cake.

This year I got a beautiful new necktie from my wife, and a box of American goodies from my parents. So the presents were covered and I was very thankful to receive such nice gifts.

Since I’m not much of a cake fan anymore, we instead decided to head into Osaka and have the next best thing: all-you-can-eat dim sum. The Swisshotel in the Namba area has a remarkably large menu of dim sum (around 80 different kinds) and you can order as many as you can possibly eat within 90 minutes for a surprisingly reasonable price (for Japan). It was the perfect gift for the dim sum lover that I am, and Kuniko and I ate our fill despite a gyoza marathon the night before. We even walked afterwards to Korea Town in Tsuruhashi to pick up three varieties of freshly made kimchi (nappa cabbage, lotus root, and celery), and some chapche and kinpa. Good eating!

We were also able to spend some time with friends. On Sunday we met Yoshi and Mamiko near Osaka Castle to enjoy another craft beer event. We set up shop under a pedestrian overpass to avoid the summer-like weather, and proceeded to drink lots of different beers over the next few hours. We caught up on our summer trips, exchanged souvenirs, and talked about food and booze, which seem to be our go-to topics.

After the craft beer festival we proceeded to Nishinomiya, and the Nishinomiya Ebisu shrine new sake ceremony. This was a big event held mainly for locals. Although Mamiko had attended several times before, it was our first time, and we settled right in drinking sake and more beer on top of all that we had imbibed before.

I really enjoyed the event even though I usually try to avoid heavy sake drinking. It seems like beer and wine have a very small effect on me but sake goes down way too quickly. The food was quite good – very local Japanese foods like oden, edamame (three big bags full), tamagoyaki, and fried chicken.

With all that eating and drinking it was nice to rest up on Monday and enjoy the public holiday recovering in our living room. We watched movies, played our new favorite relaxation game (Stardew Valley) and got ready to depart this gastronomic dreamland and go back to work the next day.

So as birthday weekends go it couldn’t be beat, and it sort of softened the blow of turning 46 years old. There’s a lot of delicious food and drink out there, and this past weekend I think we put a respectable dent in it.

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Zombies

October 5th, 2017 No comments

There are mysterious events in my town Thursdays at 5:00 am.

I walk to the train station every morning, and usually it is a pretty quiet affair.  I see only two or three cars during the whole trip, and then I take the very first train of the day to head to work.  Maybe I’ll spot a jogger, or maybe an old lady walking her dog. However, precisely because there is nothing going on makes Thursday morning events stand out.

As I get close to the station, I always walk past the big JA building on my right.  The JA stands for “Japan Agriculture” which is a surprisingly large association that supports and profits from all the otherwise independent Japanese farmers. In addition, JA sells insurance, runs a credit union, and charges membership dues to the farmers that are part of the association. As an organization they have a lot of political clout and power in Japan, maybe too much considering the shrinking agriculture industry here.

The size of the JA building is impressive, especially for my small little town, with what looks like five floors and even a small credit union building next to it filled with ATMs.  Despite having walked by at least twice a day for the past ten years, I have just once seen the top floor of the building lit up at night, the curtains left open to reveal opulent chandeliers illuminating an upscale banquet room. There is big money here.

But every Thursday in front of the JA building, rain or shine, cold or hot, light or dark, there is a group of ten to fifteen very sleepy people walking around picking up garbage.  It is usually about a 60/40 ratio of women to men, of all ages.  They carry small trash bags and long steel tongs to pick up paper and other trash lying about on the ground.  There usually isn’t that much litter around my town (or any Japanese small town to be honest), but they are out there anyway, shambling around in lazy circles searching for stuff to pick up.

This kind of sleepy stumble has led me to dub them the “Thursday zombies” as they wander the otherwise desolate streets looking for litter instead of brains.  Sometimes they notice me walking by and acknowledge me with a nod of the head, but we haven’t reached the level of making conversation because there are different people almost every week.

The real mystery is why they are doing it.  It seems to me that employees of JA would do it during their work hours, or at least closer to their work starting time.  They could be local citizen volunteers but it seems odd to do the job so early.  My own theory is that the “zombies” are regular Joes who have taken loans from JA and do this as some kind of service to get a discount or something.  But really, there is no way to know unless I ask them, and I don’t want to disturb their slumber at that hour.  Besides, having the mystery is more fun.

This morning while walking by I noticed that most of the “zombies” had finished up cleaning and they had all assembled at the entrance to the JA building, just waiting for the last stragglers to show up.  As is usual in Japanese social culture, everyone will wait until the entire group is ready to go on to the next step, which causes a certain amount of inefficiency, which in turn kind of stands out to me as someone from outside the culture.

In this morning’s case I had passed two stragglers still cleaning up trash about a hundred yards earlier, and they had appeared oblivious to any sort of deadline or wrap up signal.  Their eyes were stuck to the ground searching for elusive cigarette butts.  So I knew that it would be quite a while before they went over to join their compatriots, and that the others would have to wait for quite a bit more time.  But none of them will complain, and none of them will leave for their nice warm homes, because the entire group must gather before they can finish.

I’ve experienced this a lot since I moved to Japan.  The party can’t start until everyone sits down, the drinks cannot be drunk until everyone has one in their hand and the speech has been made. The trip isn’t over until everyone has gathered and a closing speech has been heard, and so on. From one perspective it is strongly emphasizing the cohesiveness of the group, but on the other hand it shows that your own personal time is less valuable than the value of the group itself.

But today most of the “zombies” will wait in the cold patiently for the closing ceremony before they return to their homes, and again next Thursday another group will be out there again.  The end result is nice – relatively clean streets near the train station – but I’m not sure about the method of the whole thing.

As for me I know I would change a few things based on my own culture and perspective.  But I’m living in somebody else’s culture, so I continue to play by their rules, and simply note the more interesting contrasts here.

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Creating a Border

September 27th, 2017 No comments

Over the past few years I have tried to do something a little out of the ordinary at the end of each six month teaching term. Each term consists of working with the same group of students, covering the same (or similar) material in class, and is punctuated with the same sorts of evaluations and tests. I talk mainly with the same twelve to twenty people twice a week for the entire six months.

As the term ends and I get ready to start another, it seems like a good time to completely break the routine. Otherwise, it is hard to know when one term ends and another begins. By doing something a little different it creates a mental border for me, and it helps to turn the page to the next term.

Yesterday I took a day off and went hiking. I got up with Kuniko (which means almost two hours of extra sleep for me) and then I took the train with her, getting off at Sannomiya while she continued on to work in Osaka. It was interesting to walk to our train station in the daylight, and to see all the activity that I normally miss during my early morning commute.

From Sannomiya I walked up to Shin-Kobe station. It is the station for the bullet train, built into the side of a green mountain with part of the station extending into a tunnel. I walked under the station and up the mountain behind it, until I reached Nunobiki waterfall.

It has been years since I had been up here. This waterfall was one of the first hikes I ever did in Japan and it still packs a lot of bang for the buck. Just a few minutes past the train station and you are in nature enjoying a pretty dramatic waterfall with almost nobody around. I have a lot of good memories here.

From there I walked alone at a deliberate pace through the hills of Mt. Rokko, taking turns at random without using the maps or GPS. After a few hours I ended up deep in the woods, and then I started taking a look at the maps to figure out how to get back.

I was surprised to discover that I happened to be close to the hillside that plays host to the giant Kobe city logo that lights up every night above Sannomiya. I figured it would be fun to go check it out, and I was able to get there and enjoy a great view of the city from the hilltop. The logo was formed by a big green topiary, fenced off to keep the hooligans away. Again, nobody was around, the road was quiet with an unnatural lack of cars, and I had the place to myself. I took off my sweaty shirt and laid on a stone bench at the top of the hill, to dry off the sweat and provide a chubby counterpoint to the otherwise beautiful scenery.

After hiking most of the morning I descended the mountain (with my shirt on) and decided to find a good bowl of udon. I ended up at a place called “Marugame” (though significantly, it was not “Marugame Seimen” – a popular udon chain). I enjoyed some cold “tanuki” udon noodles, and then stopped at a local Chinese restaurant to buy some nikuman buns.

Finally, I walked back to Hyogo station and then took a train ride home. After a long, cool shower I relaxed and played some video games, prepped some veggies for grilling and made a cilantro and tomato salad. I hadn’t grilled in a while, so it was nice to stand outside and barbecue in the perfect weather.

Kuniko and I enjoyed the vegetarian dinner when she got home, and had a quiet evening afterwards sipping cognac and thinking about upcoming travel plans.

So, it was a great day that I could spend at my own pace. I’ve got a few more easy days at work before things get intense – the next six months will be as busy as I have ever been at my company. I have a feeling it’ll be nice to look back and remember this particular stress free day.

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Situational Awareness

September 19th, 2017 No comments

It was very nearly a typical ride on the morning train to work.  It was a little more crowded than usual, and lots of people were standing because the seats had long since filled up.  I stood in my usual place near the door that I would use later to get off the train at my stop.

After a few stations I noticed a tall woman get on.  I’m not sure what attracted my attention – that she was unusually tall, or that she was pushing along a shiny black spinner suitcase on four wheels.  Whenever I see people bringing suitcases on the train I like to imagine where they might be going.  To Kobe to take the bullet train off to Tokyo?  To Kansai Internationl and a flight to an exotic location?  It is enjoyable to let the mind wander on slow morning trains.  The tall woman stood leaning up against a seat on the aisle across from me, and rolled the suitcase into place next to her.

The train left the station, and as the woman put on some headphones to listen to music, the acceleration of the train caused the suitcase to roll towards the back.  I’ve never had a spinner suitcase but I had assumed that there is some kind of brake.  Apparently it wasn’t engaged this time.  The woman didn’t notice the suitcase leaving on its own accord – she was busy with her headphones.

Passengers on the train at this hour are pretty sleepy, and I think I was the only one to notice the little suitcase departing.  It was placed perfectly in the center of the aisle, and thanks to some very quiet and well-lubricated casters it moved silently and steadily between the seats as if a passing ghost was stealing it. Some people seated on the aisle looked up with surprise as the suitcase glided by.  Nobody made any move to stop it, and the suitcase traveled nearly the length of half the traincar until finally stopping gently against a seat, in which an older man awoke and blinked in surprise, no doubt wondering who delivered this gift of a shiny new suitcase.

The train continued moving, the passengers continued sleeping, and the previous owner of the suitcase looked off in the distance, unaware of the current status of her luggage.

Realizing that perhaps I was the best person to lend assistance in this situation, I leaned a bit to my left to try to get into the tall woman’s peripheral vision and get her attention. She seemed to sense the movement and look away.  The woman was quite attractive and may have had some bad experiences with weirdos on the train in the past.  Unconcerned with being classified as a weirdo, I waved my hand a bit more vigorously and finally she looked over.  I pointed at the place where her suitcase should have been but her reaction was quite odd, she just nodded and kind of moved her hand to acknowledge that yes, this is my suitcase.  I pointed again in a slightly more dramatic fashion, and she moved her hand down and as it passed through the air she at last realized that the luggage was not in fact present.

She looked down, and then back at me, her gaze then following my pointed finger towards the back of the train.  Luckily the old guy was still holding the suitcase, blinking furiously now and looking around, no doubt wondering what steps he needed to take to find the owner of the wayward bag.  The woman turned and walked briskly down the aisle to chase it down.

She negotiated the release of the suitcase from the old man, taking care not to look back and catch my eye; finally electing to stay there instead of coming back where she would have to face me again.

Then it was my stop, so I got off the train and went to work.

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TV Set Up, Road Trip

September 13th, 2017 No comments

In my last post I talked about the incoming TV delivery, and luckily it arrived safely and the set up was pretty smooth.

It was my first time to get a delivery from Costco, and I wasn’t sure exactly what the delivery guys would do and not do to help out with the TV. As it turned out, they did as little as they legally could.

At Costco they warned me that I would have to take care of the TV settings and that was fine with me – I have the technical chops to handle it. When the delivery guys showed up they moved the box just inside our front door, and then promptly turned around ready to hit the road. I convinced them to move the box two more meters into our living room, and after that they were out the door and driving off. These guys were paid to move heavy thing “A” to point “B” and were not concerned about anything else. I understand that – shipping was free so who am I to complain?

I managed to wrestle the TV out of the box and then to move it up onto our TV stand without too much trouble. Setting up the TV was a breeze, and I can’t believe that some people pay a technician to do it. Kuniko and I agree that the size is just about perfect for our room and we’re happy with how it looks. We’ve been watching movies and videos more often lately to take advantage of the “Wow!” factor while it lasts.

Last weekend we decided to take a day-long road trip and enjoy the cooler weather and sunny skies. A while back we had driven to Okayama to see Kuniko’s sister, and along the way we were impressed with some of the scenery along the Seto Inland Sea. It is not far from us, but we hadn’t really explored it much, so this past weekend we did a more thorough expedition to learn more about it.

The trip was great. We started early in the morning and drove all the way to Hiroshima, sipping coffee in the car as the sun rose and taking country roads to avoid the high costs of the expressway. Once we got near Hiroshima, we turned south and took the Shimanamikaido – the expressway built to span many small islands on the way to the bigger island of Shikoku. We crossed bridge after bridge as we moved through the islands, and we stopped at almost every island to do some sightseeing. The views of the ocean and islands were great, especially from atop 360 degree viewpoints like the Kirosantenbo Observation Park.

Kuniko did all the driving on the trip. She loves to drive, and I was happy to let her do it. It was nice to roll down the windows and let the cool air in, and just take it easy and enjoy the scenery. We didn’t really have a time schedule for the journey and that made all the difference. Kuniko had done a lot of research beforehand and between that and the GPS it was a well-organized trip.

You probably would not be surprised to hear that we ate a lot, too. There was salted vanilla soft cream, lemon gelato, frozen oranges wrapped in mochi, a buffet-style seafood barbecue, a monster ham and egg donburi (with a side of gyoza) and two bowls of udon noodles from a roadside udon restaurant in Kagawa. We feasted and then we had plenty of time in the car between meals to digest and get ready for the next one.

Our final stop was at a couple of temples in Shikoku that are part of the 88 temple pilgrimage that has taken by Japanese for the past 1100 years. Our stop was just to get a taste of what it was like to visit these temples. From my limited experience visiting temples in Japan these ones seemed unremarkable, the only difference that I could see was that they were selling “pilgrimage goods”. The goods were walking sticks, clothing and books for people to collect inscriptions from the monks at each of the 88 temples of their journey.

As we were leaving we passed an older man wearing the white robes and hat of the pilgrimage, and he looked like he was in good shape. I wonder if he was traveling the pilgrimage on foot or by car.

From there we drove on home, with Kuniko hitting the expressway in order to trade our money for time and we arrived at home around 7 pm. We were a little tired out, but it was a great Saturday for us. I think we’ll continue to explore a little more around our area in the future, especially with autumn coming.

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New TV (2017)

September 1st, 2017 No comments

The weekend is almost here! This week has gone by pretty slowly, mainly because we’re expecting a delivery of a new TV on Saturday.

Our old TV has some good memories behind it. You can go back in time and read more about it in this old blog post about getting our previous TV. If I could I’d keep it – I’m pretty satisfied with the size and screen, even these days. Unfortunately several months ago a black vertical band started to appear now and then, blocking off part of the screen and making it a little hard to see what it going on. The black bar hides at first, and then as the TV continues to operate it starts to appear more often. After an hour or so of watching the TV it is pretty much permanently blocking the screen.

So I started to look for a new one. To make a long story shorter I found what I was looking for at Costco, at about a 30% cheaper price than any other place (including websites) in Japan. Last weekend I drove to Costco and laid down the cash, and we arranged a free delivery for tomorrow.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to our old Panasonic Viera TV. Panasonic has hit some hard times in the TV department lately, and other Japanese manufacturers are struggling to balance quality with price. I ended up buying an LG TV, and I hope that it will last longer than the 11 years that we got out of the Panasonic plasma TV. The new TV has some new technology, and it should be ready for 4K broadcasts whenever they start doing that regularly in Japan. We don’t really watch much broadcast TV anyway, instead focusing on DVDs, YouTube, video games and streaming internet movies.

We are both eager to see what the new TV looks like in our living room. There is often a difference between what you feel when you see the TV in a showroom (or warehouse, in Costco’s case) and when you set up the TV in your own space. I hope it works out for us.

Kuniko is working this Saturday, but it looks like we’ll both have Sunday off. In addition the weather has slightly cooled down offering a tantalizing glimpse of autumn. I know we’re not there yet, but I can’t wait to sleep without an air conditioner and retire my sweat towels for another year.

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More Than Just Class Coverage

August 30th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I taught a class for the new production workers at our company. It is a monthly class that I do all year round, but this time was a little different – I taught it alone.

Our production workers join our company right out of high school. We usually hire 30-40 promising young people and they spend almost a year training them in various skills including welding, steel work, electrical wiring, and more. They also receive training in English, because we have plenty of overseas projects and occasionally our workers are sent to a customer’s railway to do maintenance, repairs or retrofits.

The job of teaching English to the workers falls to the youngest Human Resources staff at the time, and Mr. Yamada (a second year employee and currently the “new guy” in HR) teaches these classes three or four times a month. One of those classes he asks me to help with, so we do sort of a team teaching approach once a month.

However, yesterday Mr. Yamada wasn’t available to teach the class with me, and apparently the other HR workers were too busy to take his place, so my boss asked me if it was possible to teach the class on my own. I was fine with it, and I put together a lesson plan that put more pressure on the students to speak out, and also avoided the use of any Japanese at all by anyone in the room. These kinds of classes can be a little more stressful for lower level students, but this was a special case and it worked out fine.

When I arrived at the classroom yesterday the staff in charge of training new employees were gathered in the “teacher’s room” (the lobby outside the classroom) as usual. Normally they give Mr. Yamada a lot of good-natured ribbing about this and that and they try to speak English with me. Their English skills are at the beginner level but they still try hard to speak with me. On this day, they knew that I would be working without a net so to speak, and they insisted on joining me in the classroom to help out.

We went in together, and the class went really well. I was more than a little moved by the staff stepping in to help me out. They are not great speakers of English, but they went in there knowing that the class would be 100% in English. They serve as role models for the students, not only in the classroom but also throughout the factory, and they were taking some risk by helping me out. If they make an English mistake or don’t understand some simple English instruction of mine, they could lose credibility with the students and students might lose motivation to study since even their instructors don’t know English well.

It was a nice thing they did to step up and help out. Since I hadn’t expected any help I designed the lesson so that I could do it all on my own, but my helpers were good at urging students to volunteer, to walk around and make sure they were doing their assignments, and to generally show that English is an important topic worth studying.

I thanked everyone for their help afterwards, and they laughed and said they were happy to do it. Perhaps it is the assistance from people who you least expect that makes the biggest impression. Anyway, it was a class that I won’t forget for a long time.

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Heading Home (via Dubai)

August 14th, 2017 No comments

With our bags all packed it was a pretty slow paced morning for us. One last breakfast, one last music video session, and we were set for a check-out at noon. Kuniko had asked if we could get a ride to the airport, and they said that for 30 Georgian Lari they could arrange it. We agreed and the deal was made. This time when we brought our suitcase downstairs to leave, the driver was waiting for us. To our pleasant surprise, it was the same giant guy who had picked us up on the train platform.

While he took the suitcase and Kuniko did the paperwork for checking out, an older gentleman who was apparently the owner of the hotel poured another few shots of cha-cha as a farewell drink. Once more into the breach, but I figured it would make the wait for the airplane go a little smoother and said sure, why not? The owner told us in broken English how happy he was that we enjoyed our stay, and through his daughter(?) at the counter encouraged us to leave a good review for the hotel online. We were looking for how to pay for the driver, and the timing and the way the owner said it strongly implied that they were willing to forgo the driver fee if we wrote the nice review. It was hard to clearly understand, but we left things like that, and went outside to get in the old Mercedes Benz once again.

The driver was just as speedy as I remembered, and he seemed to have the habit of driving down the middle of two lanes, preferring not to commit to any one particular lane and keeping his options open. I wondered how many car accidents he has had in his driving career.

We turned right on George W. Bush Street and headed straight out to the airport. The guy was very nice and so I prepared a small tip of 5 Georgian Lari for being so helpful. We arrived at the airport, he took out the suitcase and I handed over the tip. He looked at the amount and said “Thirty! Thirty!” The light dawned, and I realized what happened. The original fee for the ride wasn’t actually included in our bill, and there was no discount for giving a good review. We just need to pay the driver. I was a little embarrassed as I handed over the 30 lari because I didn’t have an additional 5 lari bill to cover the original tip, just large bills. Oops! He didn’t seem to mind, though, and waved to us as he sped off.

So now we were back at the airport, and we went inside to check the departures board and see where to check in. We had arrived three hours before our flight, but when we looked up at the board it said our flight was departing in just 15 minutes. Next to that it said “GO TO GATE”.

What the hell? I double checked the flight number and it was correct. Oh crap! Kuniko and I both felt that icy cold feeling of sheer panic. Did we have the wrong information? Did TripIt fail us again? We rushed to the check in counters, but none of them were marked with our airline, FlyDubai. As cold sweat appeared on my forehead we rushed to the airline window, but there were no FlyDubai staff inside. We couldn’t go to the gate with our suitcase, so we didn’t know what we could do. I took the suitcase and tried to find an English-speaking staff that could help walking around the lobby. Kuniko went upstairs in an attempt to talk her way past the gate staff and get to the departure gate so that she could maybe hold the flight. Minutes were ticking away here and I couldn’t help thinking how it would suck to miss our flight and subsequently miss the next one from Dubai to Osaka.

I ran back to the FlyDubai window and asked a staff member from another airline if they could help, but they just shook their heads and pointed at the empty FlyDubai desk. I found a passing pilot but he just shrugged at me and kept walking.

Suddenly, when I was out of ideas, a guy wearing a FlyDubai uniform walked in and sat down at the desk. I rushed to him, and asked him about the flight to Dubai and how we could get to the gate ASAP.

I may have been a bit shrill.

He answered calmly that the flight was on schedule and to just check the monitors. Soon we would be able to check in.

I told him that we had just checked the monitors and they said to go to the gate immediately because the flight was leaving soon.

“Oh,” he said. “Did they forget to reset the departure information? That happens sometimes. I’ll call the department and have them set it up correctly.”

I confirmed with him that we were in fact still two and a half hours before departure, and that the information we saw on the official airport departure screen was incorrect.

I breathed a massive sigh of relief, and soon saw Kuniko coming downstairs looking for me. We found that the check-in counters opened up soon after, and we were able to check-in without a problem for the regularly scheduled flight.

What a shocker. We knew that things worked a little differently out here, and we weren’t in some major metropolis airport, but at least you can get the departure times correct for the flight on the official board, right? Maybe we were asking for too much.

Anyway, after that rush of adrenaline we made a beeline for the nearest airport bar and had a cold beer and a sandwich to settle down. The sandwich was simple and forgettable, but the beer hit the spot. After that it was just a matter of walking around killing time before the flight. We bought some chocolate in a duty free shop, and waited behind some old ladies who didn’t speak any of the languages that the staff spoke. The prices of the items were in Euros but they wanted to pay using some other currency, and the old ladies tried negotiating using gestures to get all the things they wanted, even though they didn’t have enough cash. I think working at an international airport duty free cash register would be pretty stressful.

We had a very uneventful flight to Dubai, back across Iran, and landed just as the sun was setting. The view of Dubai from the plane was interesting – buildings surrounded by sand and long open highways stretching off to nowhere. We couldn’t see any famous landmarks coming in, however.

Since we had been to Dubai on the way to Georgia we easily navigated the airport and found our way to the metro station, and then took the train back to the Burj Khalifa. Previously everything was closed because we were there so early in the morning, but this time everything was open. We could walk all the way from the train station to the Dubai Mall in air conditioned comfort thanks to a long elevated walkway. It was a long way to walk, but much more comfortable than the way we did it last time.

The Dubai Mall is apparently the second largest mall in the world based on land area, so obviously we didn’t see it all during our limited time visiting. Our primary targets were getting a suitably cheesy keychain ornament of the Burj Khalifa to hang from our Christmas tree, and to eat some Lebanese food from the food court. We accomplished both of these almost right away. The keychain was easy to pick up at the official souvenir shop, and we had a felafel and a chicken Shawarma wrap once again. Both were delicious.

The mall was quite beautiful (for a mall), and well designed. It was a true cross-section of all kinds of people, with shieks and burqa-wearing women everywhere, but also Asians, Europeans and Africans too. It was a great place to people watch.

We did a little more shopping, and then went outside to watch the fountain show – a huge water area and a fountain and light show every 30 minutes under the Burj Khalifa itself. Just like Las Vegas, except much hotter.

Finally, we made the long trip back to the airport, and then went to our gate to get ready for the flight to Osaka. We had some beers, ate a little more airport food, and then sleepily boarded our flight at about 2 am local time. That gave us a chance to sleep on Emirates for most of the return flight to Osaka, and we arrived in the evening on Monday night. Kuniko was ready to go to work the next day, but as it turned out she had the day off.

We weren’t too tired after the trip, thanks to the couple days of relaxation in Tbilisi before our return. It was another great trip for us. Definitely more difficult than other trips and we had some moments of panic, but it is things like that which make for the best stories and memories. Can’t wait for the next trip!

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A Perfect Day in Georgia

August 12th, 2017 No comments

When you are traveling there are always high points and low points during any given day. Maybe there was a bad taxi ride one day that balances out the great pics you took earlier that morning. Perhaps one delicious meal saves an otherwise boring day of travel and waiting around.

So we were a little amazed to have what we would consider a perfect day on the last full day of our trip.

We were still on the relaxation pattern, starting with a nice slow breakfast at our hotel while watching great bad music videos. My appetite was back and I was more hungry than I have been the entire trip, and I meant to take advantage and eat as much good food as we could before our return.

We started with a quest to eat pelmeni. Pelmeni is really a Russian dish, tiny dumplings served with some sort of sour cream or cream sauce. We ate a lot during our trip to Russia, but it seemed fitting to have at least one Russian dish while we were this close to Russia. Kuniko had remembered seeing someone eating pelmeni at a restaurant we had passed the previous day, and so we set out to find it.

For the first time the whole trip, we found what we were looking the first time we tried, and it was open. Pelmeni was on the menu, and we also ordered some grilled chicken with a sour honey sauce, two cold beers, and two glasses of Mukuzani red wine. The pelmeni was served in a little different style, in a small pot with bread baked over the top like a little hat, but the flavor was great and it went well with the red wine.

We sat outside and watched the tourists passing by, and it seemed to us like there were even more tourists in town during the weekday than we had seen during our weekend here. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel with a slight buzz to pack for our departure the next day and also wait out the heat of the afternoon.

Next stop was searching out some more khinkali – it seemed like that would be a great last dinner in Georgia. Kuniko had researched an interesting place and we walked along the opposite side of Shota Rustaveli Avenue, past the beautifully painted Opera House, and then down some steps to Duqani Lagidze 2 (I don’t know where 1 is). The place was again in the basement, and designed in a modern style that seemed playful and a little feminine. We ordered a plate of ten khinkali, a bowl of chicken stew, and some bread, and also had a couple of glasses of local beer called “Black Lion” that were pretty good. We ate the khinkali using only our fingers, holding each one by the nipple and eating around them until we finished. Five little nibbled nipples were remaining on each of our plates when we finished. The soup was really good too – salty and rich and perfect to dip into with the homemade bread that came with it. These khinkali were our favorite of the trip, and we were rubbing our contented stomachs with happiness as we left the restaurant.

To wrap everything up it seemed like we should go drink some wine, and we ended up back at g.Vino on our favorite street. This time there weren’t any outdoor tables available when we arrived, so we set up in the warmly decorated interior and ordered some glasses of red wine, and a plate full of local cheeses and honey. The atmosphere inside was comfortable and I felt like I could come there every night for a glass of wine – exploring Georgian wines at a slow pace sounded like a lot of fun.

At last we figured it was time to head back and get some rest. We ended on a very good note with the wines – they were delicious, and we couldn’t have been happier with all the food we ate on our last day. I’m glad my appetite finally came back to join our holiday.

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Taking it Easy in Tbilisi

August 11th, 2017 No comments

After the long ride on the train it was nice to sleep late in a comfortable hotel room. It felt luxurious to lounge until sunlight hit the curtains, and to take a long, slow shower after that.

We went downstairs for breakfast, and we were directed to the breakfast area behind the lobby. There was a small buffet set up with a good mix of European and Georgian breakfast foods. The most surprising thing was a big bottle of cha-cha on the table with some small glasses nearby. Apparently some people liked to get their morning started with a bang.

Above the bar counter was a TV playing Georgian music videos, and between the music and the low budget production I was enthralled. I could have watched those all day, but we had other things we wanted to do. We ate big at breakfast, since we hadn’t really eaten much the previous evening.

This was the tail end of our trip, and during our previous stay in Tbilisi we had covered all the sightseeing that we wanted to do. These last two days were just for relaxation, eating whatever we wanted, and to decompress and enjoy some slow time. With a totally open schedule and a great hotel it was an easy couple of days.

Since we were in Tbilisi we wanted to take another crack at finding really good “authentic” khinkali. After researching the internet we went back out to try and find the restaurant that we couldn’t find on our first day at the beginning of the trip, Pasanauri. According to Google and some reviews they were still in business, so we would just have to search harder.

After doing some supermarket shopping at a “Smart Super”, we found Pasanauri, but unfortunately they didn’t open till 1 pm. We had about an hour to kill, so we went to a cafe with seating outside on the sidewalk, and we ordered a couple glasses of local white wine to help pass the time. The glasses arrived and they were filled to the brim – we ordered a glass and received almost half a bottle. We’d have to be careful here.

While we worked on our wine a couple of young guys wearing hip-hop clothes and crooked hats came and sat at the tables. The waiter didn’t look happy and kept commenting to them, and eventually we figured out that they were waiting to smoke water pipes inside the restaurant. We saw so many bars with water pipes set up outside – it must be an Arabian thing.

Finally it was time for Pasanauri. By the time we got into the restaurant it was our fourth attempt to eat there, so I felt a little satisfaction as we sat in a booth and ordered up two kinds of khinkali – cheese filled and traditional. The place was very popular and it took about half an hour for the food to come, but it was worth the wait. I can’t say I was a big fan of the cheese khinkali – most cheese in Georgia was pretty salty – but the regular ones were great. We were getting better at eating them with just our hands, too.

Completely stuffed we went back to the hotel to take a break from the oncoming heat, taking naps, writing in the journal, and making shopping lists for last minute souvenirs. These breaks were essential to keep up our stamina in the heat.

In the evening we went back to our favorite street to try another cafe. At first we went to a place that advertised a free wine tasting, and they led us underground to their muggy, humid cellar. The guy who poured for us wasn’t as confident with his English and just poured fast and furiously through four wines. We thanked him and moved on – the vibe of the place wasn’t quite what we were looking for for dinner.

However, down the street we found a better restaurant. The name of the place was “Alcoholic”, which seemed a good fit for us, and there we had some wine while sitting outside in the cooling evening. Kuniko ordered some khachapuri and a beef stew, and I did my best to help. To be honest I was still full from our khinkali feast and couldn’t do the dinner justice, but Kuniko stepped up and really powered through. The khachapuri was a different style than what we had last time, and I think we both preferred this version without the buttery egg and the dry bread edges. The stew was perfectly flavored and had big chunks of rich tender beef. I’m sure it would be a popular dish in winter as well.

We took a slow stroll back to our hotel, stopping at a convenience store for a little light shopping to stock our hotel fridge with water and yogurt. Thanks to all our experience previously walking around Tbilisi it was easy to find our way without a map. We were feeling more and more like locals. We went to bed planning a similarly light schedule for the next day.

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Last Day in Yerevan, Train to Tbilisi

August 10th, 2017 No comments

We got up pretty early in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel dining area. The breakfast buffet was a nice simple one, with eggs, yogurt, fried buckwheat, sausages, fruits in a sweet sauce (that was meant to be combined with the yogurt) and plenty of kinds of juice. Unfortunately the coffee there was a bit watery, but if that was our biggest complaint we were doing OK. The nice thing about the dining area was that there were two concrete balconies outside with tables, so we could sit out there and enjoy a view of the city from the 7th floor before the sun came out and really heated things up.

Afterwards we hit the town for some sightseeing and shopping. We saw the Blue Mosque (at least the back of it – the front entrance was closed that early), and then we walked across town to see the impressive Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral. The streets were empty, the temperature was cool, and once again we were happy to be able to take advantage of an early wake up time.

Since this was our last day in Yerevan we did some shopping at several shops, including the surprisingly big Yerevan City grocery store that was just a few minutes’ walk from out hotel. We got lots of little candies to give out to our students, some water for the train ride back later on, and some snacks for the train since there was no food for sale on board. I had a little scare when the cashier almost didn’t accept one of my bills which had a slight tear, but later another cashier accepted it so everything was OK.

On the way back from the supermarket we passed a young woman playing with a new puppy – the puppy was off the leash and pouncing on the lady playfully. As we walked by the puppy decided Kuniko would be fun to pounce on, and that kind of freaked her out a little. For some reason on this trip the dogs were attracted to us. Even after we turned the corner the puppy came running after us, and we had to stop so that the lady could collect her little dog and take it home.

Despite feeling better I wasn’t at 100% yet, so we figured we’d spend the rest of the morning resting in our room, using the air conditioner (and the clean toilet) as much as possible before we checked out. We stayed until the last minute, checked out at noon, and then stashed our bag at the hotel and went outside to find a shady place to relax. We had three and a half hours to kill before the train departed, but we are really good at killing time and relaxing when we need to.

Our strategy was to first go to a sidewalk cafe, sit in the shade of some trees, and have something cold. I started with a frappe, Kuniko had a milkshake, and again they were both pretty watery. I refrained from eating the ice, just in case. Later I had a cold beer and that turned out to be the better choice on a hot day. While we enjoyed drinking outside little kids played in the fountains, and apparently this is a perfectly normal thing to do during summer. They came prepared with swimsuits and goggles and jumped into the fountains like they were public swimming pools. I felt like joining them but didn’t want to cause an international incident.

We spent almost two hours relaxing, drinking and talking about all kinds of topics, and then decided to go look for a deck of cards for the long train ride back. At a nearby toy store I asked if they had some, and the clerk passed me a deck. My first impression was that it was quite thin, but I didn’t think much of it, and the price was less than a dollar so who cares? Later we discovered that the deck had only 36 cards, and they were in Russian so they were a little hard to understand. All the face cards were there, but some of the number cards were missing. Some kind of Russian card game? Who knows…

Since the train station was only five or ten minutes away by taxi we weren’t in any rush to get to the station. The station itself was pretty short on shopping and waiting areas – it was really just a platform. We killed our time in town, and then finally wandered back to our hotel to pick up our suitcase around 2:45. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi, and they said that it would be out in front of the hotel in five to seven minutes. We went down to the lobby, and the hotel lobby staff stepped outside and waited alongside us.

A few taxis were visible driving by, but apparently they were from a different company than the one the hotel had called, so we patiently waited. There was still 35-40 minutes before the train left, so no problem.

Ten minutes pass, and then fifteen. No more taxis pass our hotel but in the distance on the main street we can see them occasionally driving by. The hotel staff calls the taxi company again and promises that it will be here in 3-4 minutes maximum. He guarantees this and for fun I set the timer on my phone. We are starting to feel a little stressed. If we somehow miss the train there is no other train until two days later. There are no flights between Yerevan and Tbilisi, and we would have to take a primitive minibus ride for six hours between the two cities. I didn’t want to think about the condition of the bathrooms that we would encounter on a long shared minibus ride through the hot desert on the way. I much preferred to catch the train we had tickets for.

It was now twenty minutes to departure and we were officially concerned. Long past the four minutes that the guy guaranteed. Down the street a taxi came our way, but the staff said it wasn’t the company that they had ordered from. Too bad, dude – I hailed it. The taxi driver stopped and looked a little confused as we tried to explain that we wanted to go to the train station. Picture two panicked people playing charades and acting out “choo-choo train”. Kuniko found a picture of the map on her phone, and finally it worked. The hotel staff had a stern conversation with the taxi driver as I loaded our suitcase in the back, and then he apologized for the long wait. We said goodbye, and hit the road.

And as soon as we turned the corner, we saw the problem. There was apparently some big road construction project and traffic was at a standstill. Lanes of cars waited in the hot sun to get past a closed lane between us and the train station. 15 minutes until our train rolled out of the station.

Deep breaths! I thought of the ending of every season of Amazing Race as teams rode a taxi to the finish line – maybe this is a tiny bit like how they feel. We inched forward, and the taxi driver seemed to sense the tension in the air and he aggressively pushed past some cars and cut off others to get priority.

Suddenly we passed the construction, and then it was a wide open street. The taxi driver hit the gas, and we made it to the station with ten minutes to spare. I paid him (with a little extra for the speedy delivery) and then scrambled after Kuniko who was running ahead to identify our train platform. Luckily our train was right in front of us, and we rushed to the correct car and boarded. Hooray!

There was some confusion as we arrived at our cabin and found an old Russian guy sitting inside. In my mind I had thought that we had reserved a private cabin for the return trip, but later upon reviewing my emails the travel agent hadn’t been able to book a private one and so we had to share with our Russian friend. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we worked out through gestures which beds were ours, and then we stashed our suitcase and settled in to wait for departure.

It was hot in the train car! There was no air conditioning, and as the metal cars sat in the sun the temperature was rising inside. I was flushed and sweaty from the panicked scramble and stressful taxi ride, combined with the hot air in the cabin. I drank water, used our tickets as a fan, and soaked up as much sweat as my towel could take. Eventually we got underway, and just sitting down and relaxing was enough to cool my body down. I think everyone in our cabin was amazed how much sweat a human body could produce.

As soon as we left the staff walked by and closed all the open windows on the side of the train, and wouldn’t allow anyone to open them. I was hoping for some fresh air blowing through the train car, but no luck. Kuniko had heard that maybe it had something to do with passing so close to the border with Turkey, since Turkey and Armenia don’t have a very good relationship. Unfortunately this cost me a chance to take a nice picture of snow-topped Mt. Ararat as we went past. I should have got my picture through the dirty windows on my way to Yerevan.

It was a long, slow ride back to Georgia. The train initially passed through desert, and since the terrain was less than interesting I spent my time on the bottom bunk writing this journal and drinking water to rehydrate. Kuniko moved up to the top bunk and slept on and off for most of the trip. The Russian guy came and went, sometimes walking up and down the train car, sometimes making calls on a gold plated flip phone. At some point I ate some of our snacks – lemon cakes that we had bought in the supermarket – and offered them to the Russian guy. He smiled and shook his head and held his stomach, and I got the impression that he had recently eaten.

After a while I laid back myself and tried to get some rest. The rocking of the train really does wonders to put you to sleep, and I dozed off at some point.

I woke up suddenly, and the Russian guy was holding a knife in front of my face.

There was only a moment of panic before I realized that he was cutting up a tomato on the table positioned right next to my head, but since he was standing up in the aisle between our seats the knife was right there. He looked down and saw I had woken up, and smiled at me and offered me a freshly cut tomato wedge. I smiled back, shook my head and held my stomach. It was a nice gesture of him, though.

Since I probably couldn’t fall back asleep after being surprised by the knife, I decided instead to listen to some music and enjoy the scenery. While I had slept the landscape had changed from dry desert to lush green fields. There were some beautiful grassy hillsides, some cattle roaming out on green pasture, and we crossed over a river or two. We occasionally went though a tunnel plunging the cabin in darkness, and I could see why so many murder mysteries are set on trains.

Watching the scenery go by was a relaxing way to travel – it is something you don’t get so much when you take an airplane. I enjoyed the train trip, and it turned out to be a highlight of the trip for both us. I hope someday we’ll have a chance to do a long train trip again.

In the late evening we approached the border. Kuniko moved down to share my bunk, and we waited patiently for the passport inspection. Georgia wasn’t so strict about visas for Americans and Japanese, so it was a smooth crossing for both of us. One passing border agent saw Kuniko lying on the bed with me and ordered us to stand up, and for Kuniko to open her bag. We complied, and then he flipped up our bunk to check for stowaways hidden underneath. I’m happy to report that nobody was under our bunk, and he let us lay back down. Still, he only checked our bunk, so maybe there was something unusual about a Japanese lady curled up on a bed that set off a warning flag for him.

Finally, after a nine hour train ride we pulled into Tbilisi just after midnight. Our Russian roommate was continuing on the train to the resort town of Batumi, and he gave us a cheerful wave as we said goodbye. I’ll never forget you, knife-wielding Russian guy!

Since we were arriving so late Kuniko had arranged with our hotel through email to pick us up on the platform. From the darkness emerged a giant of a man holding a tiny paper sign with Kuniko’s name on it. He motioned for us to follow, and then walked up the big stone steps to the overpass and the exit of the train station. I lugged our heavy suitcase all the way up the steps, and it was cute when the big guy turned to me soon after and offered to take my bag. Good timing!

Outside he pointed at his old Mercedes Benz that was parked near the exit, and we loaded the suitcase and watched as the car almost didn’t start. Finally we got going, and after a pretty speedy drive through town arrived at our hotel. The driver escorted us inside, where a young lady looking a little sleepy checked us in. While Kuniko did the paperwork the driver urged us to have a shot of cha-cha as a welcome drink. I took him up on it, and he explained that the only way to drink it was as a shot. Knowing I had a bed within a few meters of my current location I went ahead and did the shot. The cha-cha was like lighter fluid… nasty stuff. He offered another one, but I begged off and we said goodnight. The hotel room was decorated in an interesting style – kind of Elizabethan style, with an undercurrent of Arabia. It was very clean with a beautiful bathroom and shower, so I was very satisfied.

Since Kuniko had slept most of the train ride she was not ready to sleep, and so she stayed up watching YouTube videos and snacking on our leftovers in our bag. I crashed right out – it was a long day for me.

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