Friday, September 27, 2013

A Japanese wedding photographer... of sorts...

Today I went on another of the cultural trips MCAS Iwakuni offers, this time to the Shukkeien (meaning "miniature scene") Garden in Hiroshima. My friend, Marilyn, was also on the excursion, so we meandered around the small lake at the center of the garden over the hour we had been allocated.

At this point, I have been to several Japanese gardens. They are all fairly similar, but with different trees and plants, different placement of bridges and waterfalls, but, essentially, once you've seen a handful of Japanese gardens, you have a pretty good idea what to expect, especially in late summer/early fall. It's too late for most flowers to bloom, and it is too early for leaves to start changing to autumn color. So, there is a lot of green. A lot of green. Here, let me show you:

Of course, there are splashes of color, like the bridge in the photo above, pink flowers on one of the few bushes blooming, a blue sky, and the koi in the lake.

But I already have a lot of photos of green Japanese gardens with splashes of color, so I was fairly uninspired photographically until I caught a glimpse of a traditionally-attired Japanese couple... surrounded by women all dressed in black, one wielding a camera I wished I owned. It was a Japanese wedding photo shoot and, as a photographer, I couldn't resist snapping off some shots.

Notice how serious the couple is when the picture is being taken, yet how happy they look when the camera is off of them. This was the trend of the day... because as Marilyn and I proceeded around the lake, we discovered at least three other bridal couples getting their wedding portraits. I couldn't blame them, it was a gorgeous sunny day for it, 70 degrees with a slight breeze. But take a look at how, when the camera is on them, the couples do not look too thrilled with their nuptials. Yet, when the photographer is busy doing something other than taking photos, the couples smile and laugh:

Picture time

Picture time out

Another picture time out


Picture time out


Picture time out

I am now rethinking all of the Japanese wedding photos I have seen. These people weren't unhappy... they were just following some sort of Japanese wedding requirement, perhaps showing that they were taking their vows seriously. I'm not sure. But, I prefer the moments I caught with smiles, but I'm sometimes to American for my own good (that's a whole other blog post, though).

Here are some more shots I captured while trying not to intrude... too much.

Here's the proof I was actually at the garden, compliments of Marilyn:

I really enjoyed seeing the different wedding kimonos, all of them with red or pink in them. Watching these new couples made the time at the garden go by quickly. That was a good thing, because I was getting hungry!

Our fearless tour guide, Akie, recommended an okonomiyaki restaurant near Hondori Street, so we headed there on one of the city trolleys. Outside of the restaurant, which was located on the second floor, was a shrine, tucked in between the rows of stores. While I cannot remember the name of the shrine, I do know that it was a shrine dedicated to the gods of good business and entrepreneurship, so, me being one to hedge my bets as best I can, I paid my respects to the shrine. After watching a Japanese couple do it first, I climbed the stairs, donated 100 yen (about $1) in to the top wooden box, bowed twice, clapped twice and had a moment of silence where I wished for good luck for my businesses. I suppose time will tell if it worked.

Then it was time to eat! At this okonomiyaki restaurant, it was kind of like Korean barbecue or fondue - you cook it yourself. So, here are the steps:

You ingredients all arrive in one bowl, with the exception of the noodles (either udon or ramen), which arrive separately on a plate. You start cooking the meat (I had pork and shrimp) first.

While your meat is cooking, you stir up the other ingredients... a raw egg, cabbage, green onion, a powdery substance (think Bisquick for okonomiyaki) and maybe some other stuff, not sure.

Then you put that "pancake" mixture on the griddle, along with the noodles.

Flip it so it cooks on both sides and then, once it has, put it on top of the noodles.

Transfer it to a plate, top it with okonomiyaki sauce and eat! It was delicious!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Beached Hippos and Jelly Bellys: A day in Shunan City

I met Kumie, a Japanese national, in the spring at the Hina Doll Festival. She is married with one daughter, Yuu (pronounced like "you", which means kindness), who is in the fifth grade. She was kind enough to invite me and the boys to her home in Shunan City, which s about an hour from Iwakuni on the Sanyo express way, for lunch last Saturday.

Erring on the side of caution, the boys and I left with about two hours to get to Shunan City. Since Japanese homes are difficult to find (there is a reason why nearly every car in Japan is outfitted with GPS - addresses or organized as far as square blocks go, but homes are not necessarily in numeric order and could be anywhere in a square half kilometer or so), we met her at the small Tokuyama Zoo near her home. It is a land mark that Google maps can find easily.

We arrived at the zoo an hour before our noon meeting time, so I paid about $5 for the three of us to check the zoo out. My children were the oldest ones in the zoo, and this zoo is very small, but has all the necessary animals, with the exception of an elephant, which is scheduled to arrive soon. Also, do not go to this zoo with a San Diego Zoo  mentality. It is clear that this zoo does not have a big budget, but all of the animals appeared well cared for. Except for the nervous parrot hanging in a tree as you entered the zoo... he had plucked out all of his tail feathers. A sign of distress in parrots, probably from being on display all the time... or maybe he is just neurotic. It could go either way.

Here are some of the photos from our 45-minute visit to the zoo:

Xan, as a bear, at the front gate of the zoo.

A sulcatta tortoise, much like the one I have at my parents' house.

A polar bear, trying to keep cool in to 90-degree heat.

The fence and drop separating us from the polar bear. 

A Japanese wild dog... which looked a lot like a hyena mixed with a raccoon.

As promised, the beached hippo, sunning itself away from its pond, and about three feet from my kids. Xan still doesn't have the whole Japanese peace-sign-during-photographs thing down yet.

A photo for my Mom, who loves giraffes. The giraffe was eating, but lifted its head and paused when I raised my camera, and then went back to eating when the boys started to walk away. I wonder if it is trained. Or a diva. Not sure.
The highlight of our zoo visit were these monkeys. We stopped and watched them for about 15 minutes. And in Japan, apparently "Please Don't Feed the Animals" is not a sign that exists. The animals were definitely being fed... popcorn, sunflower seeds, candy... whatever was dropped in there. And then the bigger moneys got first dibs, the other monkeys not even trying to go for things the bigger monkeys tried to get. There was one mommy monkey with a baby clinging to her belly. She got the most food thrown at her.

You can see baby monkey and his mom at the north side of the little group. Baby did hop off of mom once in a while to scavenge for food. Mom looked relieved to be free of the clingy heater in the hot weather.

This Japanese petting zoo featured guinea pigs. My kids were not impressed and wondered where the goats and pot-bellied pigs were.

Once noon got closer, we headed out to our car so we could meet up with Kumie and Yuu. Out of respect, I did not take pictures of every nook and cranny of my hostesses' home, but I did get some photos of the boys playing with Yuu and Kumie's friend and her two daughters, Lina and Ayame, in Yuu's room, located just off the kitchen and dining area the "moms" were in. We live in the Ayame tower mid rise on base, so we knew that Ayame in Japanese means Iris. It is polite to bring your hosts gifts when you visit their home, so one of the things the boys picked out for Yuu was Jelly Belly jelly beans, which you can't find in Japan. Will created a game of selecting a bean with your eyes closed and then guessing the flavor. The kids also played UNO and worked on origami and Legos.

Poor Yuu got an unexpected cinnamon bean.

Kumie cooked yakisoba (noodles), sushi, and Osaka-style okinomiyaki (think a mix between an omelette and pancake, but not sweet) and it was delicious! While I don't drink coffee, she served some to others, in this single-serve filter system. I thought this was pretty interesting, so Kumie was kind enough to let me bring two of them home to Rodney to try.

Overall it was a fun and interesting day... I loved the interaction the kids and I were able to have with Japanese friends. It is just the kind of experience I was hoping we all would get!