Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Our bug-filled cultural trip...

So the spouse took a day off of work to join me on one of the cultural trips I have enjoyed the past year... yes, we have been in Japan a year now, with two more to go. Time flies when you are having fun!

This cultural trip was a ride on the Toko Toko Train, a touristy trip that the kids on the tour just loved. If you are a fan of beautiful country views and local artists' designs made from rocks and black lights, then you'd love this trip.

Our trip actually was very bug-inspired, but we had no idea this would be the case when we started out Friday morning.

The Toko Toko train follows an old mining railroad line that is no longer in service. To get to the Toko Toko Train, we first took a train, the Nishiki-gawa Seiryu-sen, from the Shin-Iwakuni station to the Nishiki-cho Station, where we then caught the Toko Toko train, which stops at the Souzukyo Onsen Station. An onsen is a community bath, often found near hot springs and used by Japanese people for better health and relaxation. I hope to visit an onsen before I leave Japan.

The claim to fame for the Nishiki-gawa Seiryu-sen train line, which is a small train line that services more remote parts of the Yamaguchi prefecture we live in, is that they have four different train cars, each painted with a different theme. Because our fearless leader and cultural tour guide, Akie, had called ahead to let the otherwise unsuspecting Japanese train folks know that a bunch of Americans were coming, the usually one-car train actually had two cars... the pink one and the yellow one. I think the others are green and blue.

Our fearless leader and tour guide, Akie, taught us a Japanese children's song about trains while we waited for the Nishiki-gawa Seiryu-sen train to arrive..
The words to the train song. We wouldn't have won any awards with our performance, but it was a good way to pass the time and keep the children in our group from falling off of the platform.
The view down the tracks from the tiny station.
Rodney, enjoying the cultural trip thus far.
The 3-inch spider we found in the corner of the station behind Rodney's head in the photo above. I know this is not technically a "bug," but just go with me on this.
The front of the pink train car.

The yellow train car, painted with bug designs... and the one that all of the Americans occupied.
Rodney and I on the Nishiki train
My friend, Amy, and I on the Nishiki train (with Akie walking down the aisle)
The Toko Toko Train is actually not a train, but more of a trolley that doesn't require rails. It was painted like a ladybug.

The Toko Toko train chugs through the Japanese countryside and drives through two tunnels. The first is lit with black lights and features the artwork of local artists and children. Here are some of the designs, so you can get a feel for it. This section of the tunnel is 1,796 meters, or a little over a mile long. We were able to get out and take a close-up look at the designs. There were several bug designs, by the way, like butterflies, ladybugs, spiders and dragonflies.

We jumped back on the train and headed back out in to the countryside. We were going too fast for me to get any really great shots of the scenery, unfortunately. We also went through a second tunnel, full of bats, but we were not given the opportunity to get out and take a close-up look at them. In fact, I only saw a handful of bats because I was seated in the center of the train and the train had an opaque roof I could not see through. Bummer. But, the good news was that I was able to explain to Akie about the word "guano" and what it meant, and she was able to use it during the tour. Good times. :)

As we approached our final stop, we saw a wasabi field. This spicy hot veggie is related to cabbage and is a crop this area is known for producing.

Wasabi field
The onsen at the end of our train ride.
On the way home, we stopped at a souvenir shop, where Rodney and I got some ice cream... and some pet beetles. The shop manager was apparently overrun with rhinoceros beetles (a type of harmless-to-humans scarab beetle) he couldn't sell, and he saw a busload of unsuspecting Americans and offered them to us. The kids on the tour, and I, were thrilled! I have been wanting to give beetles a try as pets, but Rodney has forbidden me to buy any. These were FREE. So, I acquired a pair of beetles for my kids (me) to enjoy. Rodney was disgusted and appalled and was so adamant about not getting free beetles, that he offered to allow to me to get a cat. Wait... what? Mr. "Cats Suck" is willing to have one in our home? He must really not want any beetles. Even more of a reason to get some! Of course, this is what he thinks was going on in my head during this time. But, really, I simply wanted to experience owning a pet beetle like many Japanese families do. When in Rome, ...and all that.

Some of the kids choosing their beetles. Note that these are girls and they are not shy about playing with large beetles.

My beetles, Bonnie and Clyde, with their food cups you buy at the Daiso... 100 yen for 20 of them.
While the beetles were free and came together in a small cage, I felt bad for them being in such close quarters. I went to the Daiso (Japanese dollar store) and upgraded their cage from "small" to "large," according to the labels. I prefer saying that we upgraded them out of the apartment, past the single-family home, and right in to the McMansion.

I also needed more insect mat, leaves, a piece of climbing wood and some carbon (because Rodney said the bugs might start to smell). These things were all available for responsible beetle owners at the Daiso.

Below is a bag of fancy dirt, called insect mat...

...Which beetle babies, known as grubs, apparently find delicious....

... because it is "highly fermented, highly nutritional and contains protein." Good news for grubs.

 The handy diagrams showed us exactly how we should set up our beetle McMansion...

... and this one showed us how to place the leaves in the McMansion.

And of course, some key points on breeding your bugs were on the bag below. Rodney says we are not doing this. I say let nature take its course. We might be fabulous beetle breeders and never know we had such a talent.

The is Clyde hanging out on my hand. It's funny... his long front horn is slightly curved to the left. Does this mean he dresses to the left in the beetle world? Maybe I should ask Bonnie.

I put Bonnie and Clyde on the climbing stump when I moved them in to the McMansion. Like a good man, Clyde immediately went for the food.

Bonnie turned around and hid from Clyde.

I'll keep you posted on the next chapter of the beetle saga...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My trip to a Japanese hospital...

... fortunately, I was not the one admitted to the hospital. That lucky person was Rodney's friend and fellow 30-something Marine with a case of the shingles across his face. For the sake of his privacy, I will call him Bob (not his real name.) Because the shingles rash was so close to Bob's eye, all medical personnel involved, both American and Japanese, thought it would be best of he was in a hospital that had an opthamologist, and the closest hospital with said specialty doctor was about an hour away from base by public transportation. Aside from an every-other-day visit from an opthomologist, Bob also got eye drops twice a day and an IV full of meds three times a day. Fun stuff. But, like I said he was the lucky person, not me, and for that I am thankful. I am not sure a Japanese hospital would be very mentally soothing for a non-Japanese speaking American. Especially one who is type-A like me and must know what is going on at all times. Bob is a little more low-key and laid back than I am, so I think he will exit the hospital on Friday with his sanity in tact. But I am not sure if I would be so lucky.

First of all, like I said, the hospital is a 10-minute drive, then 30-minute train ride, then 10-minute walk from the base. I am not sure what that would be by car from Iwakuni, because after our lovely alternator incident, we are a little leery of taking our vehicles out of Iwakuni proper. So, we drove to the Iwakuni train station, hopped on the train, and then walked from the 8th train stop toward Hiroshima to the JA Hiroshima General Hospital. This is not an easy trek, so I don't think Bob had too many American visitors in his week of captivity, er, week-long hospital stay. In fact, Rodney and I may have been the only ones, but I have not been able to confirm that. So, it is a lonely place to try and get better.

Second, the outside aesthetics could use some work. Nothing says "Come feel better here" like a boxy, beige building:

Here is Rodney modeling the sign out front for us:

And the entrance to the hospital:

Once inside, it was much like the hospitals I have been to in the States, plenty of beige linoleum and waiting room chairs. And bottles of hand sanitizer... made by Johnson & Johnson.This is the view as you enter the hospital:

Bob was on the sixth floor, so we took the elevator up. A Japanese lady riding with us talked on her cell phone the entire way up. We were amazed that she kept her cell phone connection. I lose mine in the one floor I go up to my apartment. Maybe the hospital's elevators are cell phone-friendly so that medical personnel can stay in contact with other medical personnel. Or maybe the walls aren't as thick as my bunker-esque home. Your guess is as good as mine. Now, moving on....

Once we got to the sixth floor, there was what Americans would call a nurses' station as you got off the elevator. I don't know what the Japanese would call it, but I wouldn't have been able to understand it anyway, since it would be in Japanese. The nurse sitting there looked at us but made no effort to stop us. We weren't sure what time visiting hours were, but it was about 6 p.m. Bob said he had seen visitors as late as 8 p.m., so we figured we were safe. We just kept walking and I snapped this picture for those who might be curious about Japanese nurses' stations:

Bob's room was very close to the nurses' station, so we did not have to walk far. He had three roommates curtained off from him, but his curtain was wide open. He liked checking out what was going on. To the left of his bed was a computer. Everyone gets a computer, but they are not for the patients' use. The envelope is a prescription envelope, mostly written in Japanese, except for some basic instructions in English, so he doesn't accidentally overdose himself, I'm guess. He set out chocolates with a note that says "Please take one." He had not yet been able to convince anyone to take one, though. The remnants of his Japanese-style supper were also there when we arrived.

A closer look at the prescription bag... hopefully there is not any private info one there. I would have no idea since it is in Japanese... Bob did give me permission to get a photo of it, though.

Bob's view from his bed, in to the room he shared with three older Japanese men:

Bob had already moved rooms once in the four days between when he was admitted and when we saw him. He had a window view before and requested sunglasses brought in. But that request was cancelled once he got in to this room. When they moved him to this new room, they also moved his bed, his nightstand and his computer with him. I asked Bob if he got to take it all home since it appeared it was now his. He wasn't sure.

I never like to visit someone in the hospital empty-handed, so Rodney and I brought him reading material and snacks. Some of the snacks I picked out went along with the shingles theme... Pocky, because shingles is related to chicken pox, Snickers because that's what people do when they see a rash on your face, and Kisses to make the boo-boos better. I tried to find Dots to complete the theme, but, alas, none could be found. Fortunately, Bob also has a sense of humor, which, I am sure, helped him get through the past week.

So, being the inquisitive blogger that I am, I asked Bob a lot of questions about his hospital stay. He does think he is getting good care, yes, he is bored and going a little stir-crazy, and many of the members of his medical team speak decent English (but, of course, they apologize for how bad their English is... his attitude is a lot like mine - their English is a heck of a lot better than our Japanese!). Some odd (compared with American hospitals) things are:

1) You bring your own bath and hand towels, as well as your own pajamas. There are no hospital gowns. Unfortunately, no one told Bob he had to bring is own towels when he packed up for this little adventure, so he had to buy some at Lawsons, the drug/gift store in the lobby. Fortunately, he had the where-with-all to bring plenty of yen to the hospital with him. As well as his phone, computer, hard drive with hundreds of books and movies, and all of the required power cords. He did not have internet access (except for the 3G on his phone) but he did have four electrical plugs by the head of his hospital bed. He could have a movie marathon with no problem.

2) The pillows sound like bean-bag chairs. They are fluffed up with tiny plastic balls filled with air (see photo below). I guess for easy sanitation. But I am not sure they would be comfortable to sleep in. And like everything else in Japan, they are about half the size of an standard American pillow. And he only got one of them.

3) The air conditioning was on, thank goodness, but it is quite humid here in Japan right now. So, there was a lot of condensation collecting around the vent in Bob's room... and dripping on Bob's legs, since his bed was the one underneath it. This seemed to be standard, the medical personnel did not appear concerned, Bob said. Rodney took his handkerchief and wiped the vent as best he could to give Bob a bit of a reprieve from the odd water torture.

And last, but not least, here is a look at Bob's bed, without Bob in it:

That thing that looks like a pillow at the foot of his bed are actually his sheets folded up. The space doesn't look too foreign, but definitely not as swanky as the two maternity rooms I have been in in the States. I would be curious to see a Japanese maternity room... and to know if you have to share it with three other pregnant women and their babies. Could you imagine too many American women putting up with that?

And kudos to Bob for being such a good sport during his recovery. And thanks for letting me document your experience...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The stupid things we do...

I finally made it back to Iwakuni about 56 hours ago... I have been getting acclimated, which should not have been as big of a deal as it turned out to be. After the fun I had in the States losing my passport, getting a new one, and realizing I was dumb enough to MAIL the passports back to Japan with some things I had bought in the States...

The photo Rodney sent me a week after I had mailed the box to Iwakuni from California. Yes, I have two passports... a normal one and one the military issued me just to get back and forth from Japan. Actually, I have three passports now, although only two are valid. I will need to mail the old normal one back to the State Department since it has been replaced.
 ... I had more "trying to get home to my husband" adventures. I stressed out for 24 hours during all three of my flights (SNA to SFO, SFO to Tokyo-Narita, Tokyo-Narita to Hiroshima) that a flight would be delayed or cancelled. I dodged two bullets: My flight to SFO was delayed and I would miss my connection. Luckily, I followed my dad's advice and was at the airport 2 hours early. United ROCKED and quickly got me booked on the earlier flight to SFO. Bullet dodged.

The second bullet flew my way when, on my flight from SFO to Narita, a briefcase was left in the row opposite me... and no one claimed it... as we were taxiing down to the runway to get in line to take off. The flight attendants were in a dither and "went to their emergency exit stations." Fortunately, after waking some people up, the briefcase was claimed within the next three minutes and we arrived in Tokyo a half-hour early. Bullet dodged.

After a stress-free flight from Tokyo to Hiro, I turned my phone on at the Hiro airport to get a text from Rodney that the car broke down on him and I was going to have to take the train home. WHAAAT?! Bullet not dodged! Bullet not dodged! Direct hit! Apparently, the alternator went out in my car as Rodney was driving to get me at the Hiroshima airport. Here is the self-portrait he took of himself on the side of the Sanyo tollway (Japanese highway) waiting for the Japanese tow truck:

So, after being up and traveling for more than 24 hours, I got to try and figure out how to get me, my backpack and my two suitcases 96 km to MCAS Iwakuni. Fortunately, in the year I have lived in Japan, I have done what I can to learn the public transportation, so once I got over the shock and disappointment of not having my husband there to chauffeur me home, I went to the little airport information desk where a very nice, very helpful English-speaking Japanese lady told me that it would cost me $150 to hire a taxi to get me to the Hiroshima train station. Uh, what? Um... that's a little much, isn't it? I think she saw that I was about to cry, so she quickly gave me option #2: A bus would come in about 45 minutes and it would cost about $13. OK, sold. She even took me over, helped me buy a ticket and showed me where to stand to catch the bus. Have I mentioned how much the Japanese customer service rocks?

So I stood for 45 minutes, waiting for the bus, reminding my tired, stressed-out self that this was NOT the end of the world. I would still get home... as long as there weren't any more bullets slung my way, of course. The bus came, we were quickly loaded on, and I took a 45-minute trip to the Hiroshima train station.

But the bus dropped me off on the Shin (bullet train) side of the station, not the regular train side I was familiar with. Now going on about 27 hours without sleep, I headed to another information desk, where the Japanese man was very helpful, pointing where I should buy a ticket, telling me it was 740 yen (about $8) and telling me to go to Track 1 after directing me through the correct turn-style. Have I mentioned how much the Japanese customer service rocks?

I get to Track 1 (after hefting my 43- and 22-pound suitcases up a flight of stairs, with my 21-pound backpack on my back) and the train arrives within a couple of minutes. I settled in for a 45-minute ride to the Iwakuni train station. (45 minutes seemed to be the magical timing number that evening), hoping that the stupid thing wouldn't derail or something. My luck was not giving me much confidence.

We arrived at the Iwakuni station without delay or derailment and I hefted my bags up another flight of stairs, and then dragged them back down another set. I rolled over to the curb at the front of the station and requested a taxi that could go on to the base (not all of them are authorized). The third cab in line had the permission I sought, so I fell in to the back of the cab and let the driver deal with my bags. At that point, I just didn't care if they made it in one piece to my house or not (they did.) It was 1,200 yen  (about $12) to go the 4 kilometers to my mid-rise. Expensive, but, again, I did not care. I paid and thanked the cabbie, drug my bags upstairs, unlocked my front door (I had kept my keys with me on my trip... wondering if that was a stupid idea. It was NOT), dragged my bags inside, threw my keys on the floor and went to take a shower. The spouse was not home and I was OK with that. I needed a shower before I talked to anyone.

As I was about the enter the shower, the spouse called. "Was that you in a cab just now?"
"Yes, it was."
"OK, I will be home in 5 minutes."
"OK, I'm taking a shower. Bye."

Showered and in a slightly better frame of mind, I got to hear about Rodney's adventures for the evening...

He had washed and vacuumed my car in anticipation of picking me up at the airport. In the back of his mind, he considered renting a vehicle from the base because one of my tires was looking a little worn (renting a car when you already own two is not a crazy notion here. Less wear and tear on the older vehicles we own  - mine is a 1999 - and the tolls are free with the rental. It comes close to coming out even), but decided against it. As he was leaving base, the car's battery light came on, but, he figured it was an older car and lights go on and off on older cars, not meaning anything but a faulty fuse, so he continued out the base's gate and on his 1.5-hour journey to pick me up. Just FYI, I have never mentioned to him that my car has ever had random flashing lights go off in it... and that is because it doesn't. Flashing indicator lights mean there is a problem, as flashing indicator lights usually indicate. But he does not drive my car often, so why would he think a indicator light would indicate anything? (Yes, you are sensing sarcasm.)

About the time he hit the Sanyo (the Japanese highway system that you have to pay tolls to use... it would be about $55 round trip to the airport and back), the radio shut itself off. He hit the dashboard and it came back on. Problem solved. He was about 20 km from the airport when the radio, air conditioning and, pretty much the entire car, shut off. Fortunately, he was able to pull off to the side of the highway safely. He was not hurt and I am glad. Really, I am. He called his friend to see what he should do. Luckily, the friend is the intelligent problem solver when Rodney is too stressed to think, and he suggested that Rodney call our insurance company and use the free tow we get once a year to get the vehicle towed off the Sanyo. If the Japanese police happened to come by, Rodney would get a hefty fine for not having a working vehicle. The insurance company was called, the customer service rep spoke excellent English and called a towing company... whose driver and driver's assistant did not speak excellent English. Although Rodney assures me they were very kind and polite. Long story short, it took them over an hour to get to Rodney because of a traffic jam, and then they took him 20 km too far  on the highway before realizing their mistake. Now, this caused Rodney some heartburn because, through the insurance, he got the first 20 km of the tow free... each additional km was 700 yen ($7). Yes, EACH KILOMETER. Rodney estimated the tow was going to cost about $220, and that was not including the mistake the driver made....

Despite their lack of English and Rodney's lack of Japanese, they managed to get on base. The driver and his companion apologized profusely for their error in getting back to base and only charged Rodney 10,000 yen ($100). Have I mentioned how much the Japanese customer service rocks? After putting the car in a parking space in front of our midrise, Rodney escorted the towing people off base. As they were driving to the base's front gate, Rodney saw me in the back of the cab, heading to our midrise. The phone call I mentioned above then transpired, bringing you full circle in the story of how I managed to get home from the States on Friday.

So, the rest of the weekend was pretty uneventful after this. We discussed how we won't be doing stupid things like mailing our passports or ignoring vehicle indicator lights anymore. We learned from those mistakes so we can go on to make new ones. I did a lot of sleeping and unpacking, and Rodney did a lot of eating and watching TV. Sometimes you need a break before the insanity begins again... we're scheduled to head off on a cultural trip Friday on a train... wish us luck.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

My unexpected trip to San Diego...

... was so that I could apply for an expedited passport. Since my passport was no where to be found, I made an appointment with the State Department's 24-hour telephone appointment service at the San Diego office. I was given an appointment July 3 at 9:30 a.m. Downtown San Diego is about an hour and half south of where my parents live - if there isn't any traffic. Morning commute traffic on the 5 freeway is usually something you can count on, so my Mom suggested we spend the night at a hotel close to the passport office so I could simply walk to my appointment. Since I was still panicking about losing my passport, I (intelligently) went along with my mother's clear-headed advice.

We took the boys with us and made it a 24-hour mini vacation. One of my favorite spots in San Diego is Old Town, a historic park that has a lot of fun shops and restaurants. And covered wagons, as you can see from the photo to the left. After checking in to our hotel, that's where we headed for the afternoon and to have dinner.

Xan is a huge fan of root beer... especially when it comes in a bottle. So when we saw this Jerky & Root Beer shop, I knew we were going to have to stop.

And this shop had a lot of different types of beef jerky, including turkey, buffalo and... kangaroo.

Xan had some trouble trying to decide on which root beer he wanted to try... and they all came in bottles, so that didn't help with the decision-making!

Xan finally selected a root beer, I chose a cream soda and Will gave a bottled Shirley Temple a try.

Walking around the shops, we took in all the tourist-trap merchandise, but I did learn something interesting about southern California:

So, now you know where to get a good gourd when you need one. And the hibiscus flower below was about 9 inches across - absolutely huge. This photo doesn't do it justice.

We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the Fiesta del Reyes square, one my family often frequents when we are in the area. We met up with some family for dinner, and I ran in to a friend of mine from Iwakuni who was also visiting family. I didn't even know she was in San Diego! Talk about a small world!

The next morning I headed off to my appointment at the passport office which took about an hour, but went very smoothly. I should have a passport by noon Monday. I will feel a lot better when I have that little book in my hand!

Then it was time to take the kids down to the coast and check out the "big ships" at the Maritime Museum before we headed back to the O.C. On the way we stopped by the old Santa Fe train station. The kids really only had train stations in Japan to compare it to, and it did look quite a bit different.

 A required stop ay Starbucks.