Saturday, March 30, 2013

If you love cherry blossoms, you'll love this...

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not really a hearts and flowers type of person. Of course, as I age, I add more flowers and hearts to my personality, even some of the color pink, but I am definitely below the American woman's curve when it comes to threshold for all things feminine and flowery. And in Japan, I might as well be a man when it comes to that curve...

However, right now Iwakuni is in the peak of cherry blossom season, the tiny whitish-pinkish flower that blooms for only a couple of weeks (at most) during the spring in Japan. Japanese tourists from miles around go to prime sakura (cherry blossom) blooming spots around the country to enjoy the blossoms and take photographs... lots and lots of photographs. I knew that I would be asked by my American family and friends about cherry blossoms, and even though I am not really a pink flower person, I figured I'd better go take some pictures since the Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni is one of the major hot spots to enjoy sakuras. My Dad, especially, I think, would be disappointed if I neglected the skills my photojournalism degree afforded me. He's the one who has still not forgiven me for not crawling through a long, dirty drainage culvert from our housing track in to the cemetery when Nicole Simpson was buried in the early 1990's. I was in high school at the time, yet I still had a sense that trespassing on a tragic victim's funeral wasn't a moral decision I could live with. But, then again, I may have been able to sell the photos and pay for college instead of taking out student loans. I can see Dad's point. But I digress...

So, Friday morning, I headed off to the Kintai Bridge, which is about 15 minutes from base, and got the required photographs. Of cherry blossoms. Not Nicole Simpson. It was cloudy, but since my original plan had been to take the whole family the day the kids had off of school on Wednesday, but rain ruined that, I decided to just go for it even though the skies weren't blue.

 I, possessing a photojournalist's mind, had to have some people in some of the photos, even though this was more of a landscape photography opportunity. But, again, with that moral issue I have (one of the few, really...) I didn't know where I was going to post these photos, so I tried not to show any faces where you could identify the person. I took 135 photos in 40 minutes. I'm more of a speed photographer, which is why photojournalism fit me well. Either you get the shot of the exploding building while it is exploding, or you might as well not even show up on the scene. And then you have a deadline to make, so there's no fooling around. Part of the reason I did not pursue a career in photography is that I do not have the patience to set up equipment, wait for the right lighting, take 20 shots of the same thing, only each with small lighting (f-stop) or composition (moving the camera so the image in the viewfinder has tiny changes, more tree there, less water there) changes, etc. And I got my degree before Photoshop was something that was taught as part of the photography curriculum, so my "digital photo editing" skills are amateurish and I have not devoted the time necessary to really get good at it. But I can dodge, burn and mix chemicals like a pro. I am dating myself, but I do miss spending time in the dark room. But again, I digress...

Here are my favorite photos from Jessica's Great Kintai Cherry Blossom Photography Excursion (click on the photo to make it larger):

I did ask these people in the photo below if it was OK for me to take their photo, to show you a Japanese picnic, and, clearly, they were OK with it. They even offered me a beer. Sadly, I do not care for beer, or I might have taken them up on it so I could try and talk them in to giving me some of the wonderful-smelling meat they had cooking. Please note the peace signs. Japanese people always hold up peace signs in photos. I don't know why. I have asked them why they do this, and the ones I have asked don't know, either. The photojournalist in me needs answers, so I will keep asking...

And in honor of the annual sakura bloom, I made fruit pizza... and served it on the four blue sakura dessert plates I got at the base thrift store for 50 cents.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Etiquette, Aso and group stretching...

This weekend was filled with learning for the Guthries. Friday night kicked it off, when Rodney and I headed to the Dine like a Diplomat class the base hosted. It was geared toward teaching those of us associated with the base about basic business meal etiquette. It was taught by the station's protocol officer, Dave Garber, who is a certified etiquette instructor.We were required to dress in business attire, so we both had to dust off our suits...

We had an hour-long presentation, followed by a 6-course meal to practice what we learned and ask Dave questions for clarification.

As you can see from the photo above, Rodney did take the class seriously once he was there, taking notes and asking a few questions of his own. But like most men, he was more excited about the upcoming meal,which was quite tasty. Below was the first course, Tomato Basil Soup. Quick tip: Spoon the soup out of the bowl away from you and then sip it from the side of the spoon. Easier said than done with a thick soup like this one.

Bread was served with the soup course. Quick tip: Tear off a bite-sized chunk of bread and then butter it.

The complete menu, although the salad was served after the soup.

Sorbet was served after the fish dish to "cleanse the palate."

The main dish... a rib eye. Quick tip: If you are "resting" and not yet finished eating, cross your fork and knife across the plate in an "X". When you are finished, place your fork and knife in the "10:20" (as in time) position to silently signal to the serving staff that you are finished eating and they can take the plate away.

On Sunday, the Guthries were invited by some friends to head to Mt. Aso, an active volcano about 5 hours south of Iwakuni. It is the largest active volcano in Japan and has one of the world's largest calderas, at 18 by 25 kilometers. There are five peaks that make up the Aso region, The currently active crater is that of Mt. Naka, which emits steam and gas. Its last eruption was in 2011. Concrete bunkers, which we affectionately called bomb shelters, dot the areas around the volcano, so there is a place to run and hide in case of an unexpected eruption.

When we first arrived at the volcano, the wind was blowing in a way that kept the acidic gasses around the viewing area, so we could not look in to the mouth to see the blue-green, steaming water. While we were there, the winds changed and we were allowed along the observation paths to peer inside. According to one of the "volcano patrol" officers, this only happens about twice a week and we happened to be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time.

The white smoke to the left is steam, while the blueish smoke to the right is gas.

The kids inside one of the "bomb shelters."

The dads inside the "bomb shelter." Clearly tall people were not involved in the design of the structure.

 I took a picture of this because it is a small peak in between two of the volcanic craters. As you looked down the sheer wall below you and across the peak to the other side, it was an interesting illusion to your mind. Each of us felt slightly dizzy when we stood at this particular angle and gazed down and across. Bot recommended to those who have a fear of heights.

 The kids, especially Xan loved the black volcanic sand, which was very fine and soft.

Of course, Mt. Aso is a very popular tourist location for the Japanese. One of the shopping and eating spots is called Aso Farmland, which is where we stopped to have lunch and check out the souveniers. With tourist sites comes marketing: Volcano-shaped dim sum at the buffet restaurant we had lunch at.

Rodney's meal, on a sectioned 9-dish plate:

My meal:

The kids were thrilled with the Costco-like atmosphere in the shops... there were food  samples to be had everywhere! I did get some citrus tea that had local honey in it in the hopes it might help my (and Rodney's) allergies as the flowers in the area begin to bloom.

The Aso area is also known for its milk, There was an entire shop dedicated to cheese there, and I looked high and low for cheese that had been made locally, but there wasn't any to be had. Most of the cheeses were from exotic locales such as Sweden and San Antonio, Texas.

They did have a squished penny machine! I was able to add a squished copper disc (the Japanese don't have pennies, and the 100-yen cost included the copper disk) featuring Hello Kitty in from of a smoking Mt. Aso to my collection of squished pennies in my "Penny Passport."

There were maps of Aso Farmland scattered around the area, which was very helpful. The round, beige spots are the igloo-like hotel-room huts the Farmland is famous for.

I never did find out what an Asian Claft was.  ;)

 A miniature example of the igloo-like hotel rooms. This one is the toilet dome, obviously.

And, of course, word of advice to travelers: Don't forget to do your group stretching at every scenic rest area where the bus stops...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Karaoke... Japanese style!

I am no stranger to karaoke. Two photos of proof from 2009 and 2010:

However, this was in America. Pensacola, Florida, America, to be precise, and that was a bit different from karaoke in Japan. In America, karaoke is usually performed in a one-room bar, with adults (or fake ID-carrying minors) you may or may not know. If you choose to sing and can't carry a tune, like me, you have basically embarrassed yourself in front of everyone there. The positive side of that is that you may never see those people again, so who cares what they think? It's your friends you took with you to the bar who will never let you live down what you thought was your amazing rendition of "I Will Always Love You." In fact, they probably have it on video with links from their Facebook, Twitter and Friendster accounts, with you tagged repeatedly.

Well, in Japan the random embarrassment in front of strangers is eliminated, much to my disappointment. Each group has their own small room to sing/perform/embarrass themselves in. I did not so much care what the Japanese thought of me... being large and blonde desensitizes you to odd looks from Asian strangers... I wanted to see Japanese people karaoke-ing. What songs to they select? What are their favorite English songs? Do they giggle a lot? Does that stereotypical Japanese business man who is drunk on sake sing John Denver songs off key and to his own beat in terrible English? These are things my inquiring mind wants to know, but never got to find out. We had only one Japanese lady with us, Miho, Rodney's boss' wife, a sweetheart who organized the entire Girls Night Out event for the wives of the Marines attached to the small unit Rodney is in. I bet you can guess which one Miho is... she is not the large blonde.

While most American karaoke is performed in bars, the Japanese karaoke clubs are generally open to people of all ages, including kids, There were a number of families who brought young children in to the lobby while we were there, and there was a group of high school girls. Since everyone has their own room of shame, you don't have to worry about your kids bother people... or vice versa. So, 10 wives (the 10th one missing in the photo above is also Jessica and she was taking the photo. One Jessica per photo is all the camera could handle) crammed in to a room meant for a maximum of 8 Japanese people, which means 5 or 6 Americans. The employees were kind enough to bring in three extra padded stools for us. Here is the room to the right from the doorway:

Here is the room to the left of the doorway.

Now, let me back up a moment. This karaoke club is on the second floor of a gaming center... so you have to go up two flights of stairs. Not a problem when you're sober going in. Could be a problem when you're not so sober coming out. At the top of the stairs, you enter the doors to the left and enter the lobby.

It is 3,100 yen (about $33) for all-you-can-sing karaoke and all-you-can drink alcoholic beverages for three hours. Of course, they did not have tequila, so I tried whatever everyone else was having. Fruity things lacking in alcohol, but I was there for the experience, not the drinks. Next time I know to bring my own Patron.

What they DO provide to each group are tambourines and maracas... because off-key caterwauling is not noisy enough, I suppose. Here is our table halfway through the night:

I appreciated that the microphone had an octagon around it so it did not roll off the table.

This was the little touch-screen machine that we plugged the song numbers in to. They would immediately go in to the queue in the system attached to the TV and start playing. No DJ needed.

Live Dam was the brand name of the system... and the response to some of the notes we didn't hit. This is the thick book of songs, but we only needed about 60 pages of it... that was the English section. I plugged my birthday in to the system just for kicks and a Glen Campbell song came up. Not kidding.

When the song words played across the screen, there was random b-roll video that may or may not make sense with the words of the song. The Japanese really did try hard with the video below. "Sweet Home Alabama" had some gorgeous landscape shots... of Arizona and Utah.

As we sang, employees came in and out, bringing us our all-you-can-drinks. Here is a video of us singing one of the most popular American songs karaoke'd in the States 2012. Care to guess what it is? Hint: It's classic rock.

Warning: This video is educational, yet annoying. It features employees coming in and out with stuff for us, an example of the random b-roll shown on the TV monitor with the lyrics (which sort of made sense, but not really), Miho translating drink and food orders for nine other women, and some incredibly off-key shrieking. Turn your speakers down. It lasts 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Karaoke video

Of course, this cultural adventure would not be complete without some Janglish... so here is the map of the club. We were in room 8, the white one almost exactly in the center of the, ahem, Floor Gaide (as I always say, their English is way better than my Japanese, but I still find it humorous). The bright blue square with the orange square in the bottom left corner is the front desk. The long rectangle on the left.... the treacherous flight of stairs outside to the parking lot.