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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Little Treat from Japan: Chihiro Yamanaka, Jazz Pianist

I was walking the streets of beautiful Matsumoto when I heard some awesome jazz piano wafting from a musical instrument store.  Wow!  Sounded great.  Inside the storefront window was a TV playing a concert of this woman, Chihiro Yamanaka, live in Tokyo concert.  Take a listen.  She is pretty amazing.

Click on the photo below to follow the link:


I just boarded the Shinkansen in Nagano, bound for Tokyo, after leaving Matsumoto at 1205.  The ride up to Nagano was pretty spectacular, but what really impressed me was how they ever built this rail system.  At one point we went through three tunnels in a row, each under a mountain, and the last was at least five miles long.  We were climbing through the first two and half miles of the long one, then you could feel that we hit a summit point and began accelerating down the other side.  To tunnel under all these mountains was quite an engineering and construction feat and I would bet many lives were lost in the undertaking.

I would like to return to Matsumoto with Terri some day.  There was so much to like about that city and so many outlying places to visit -- onsens, hiking trails, skiing.  People are so nice in Japan.  Yesterday I needed air in my rear bike tire and asked a shop owner if she knew where I could find an air pump.  She showed me on a map, then actually left her shop and walked me two blocks to ensure I made the correct turn.  Here you just don't worry about anyone taking what is yours.  If it isn't theirs, it will not be touched.  There is an amazing focus on the greater good of all in this country, which is especially evident in the smaller cities.  I don't tend to spend much time in the major metropolitan areas when I come here, so maybe it is different in Tokyo.  There is a strong pressure to conform in Japan, which can be the downside of their system, but that is the trade off for a system that seems to work pretty well for the greater good.

                                            A river runs through it.

                               A museum.  Look at the wonderful sidewalk motif in Matsumoto.

                               City view from the top floor breakfast buffet area.

                               One of the old castle grounds gates.

                                Matsumoto Castle, the 'Crow Castle' for its black facade.

                               Matsumoto Castle, oldest in Japan.  A Japanese National Treasure.

The down side is the close proximity everyone is to one another.  As the train rolls toward Tokyo, the endless suburbs pack in tighter and tighter like ant farms or schooling fish.  They stretch as far as the eye can see through incessant haze, the houses and buildings growing tighter and more vertical as we plunge deeper into the city.  Cranes perch atop new projects in every direction and power lines hang like nets cast over the landscape.  The houses become so tightly packed, there is often only a foot of space between them, leaving only a front and back side for ventilation.  There are the ever-present lines of drying clothes hung on the back balcony, and for many, the train roars by so close you could almost reach out and high five the owner as we pass.

As a designer, I'm always checking out architecture.  The older buildings have timeless bones and there are still plenty of them gracing the countryside or tucked into the city so as to be hardly noticeable, but the "modern" homes are sometimes comical in the owner's attempt to individuate.  I've seen everything from Greek Revival, to Spanish casitas, to early Graceland.  All of them capturing some of the flavor, but none of them really quite pulling it off.  I do love the Japanese contemporary architecture that is typically very stark -- architectural concrete and glass -- very minimalist.  And of course, the traditional Japanese architecture and landscape integration has very much influenced my own design style.

I'm now at Narita, proud of myself for navigating through the several train terminals with the very tight connection times that are provided.  It's really a matter of paying attention, because the signs are usually there, and if I calm myself down, it is like a game of Trivial Pursuit.  I just had some tempura and a salad and cold sake.  I know they'll feed us on the plane, but it won't be as tasty, and I plan on going to sleep as soon as possible in order to start angling back to US time.  It is 5:32 pm here now and 3:32 am in Austin.  If I can get some early sleep and get closer to US time by the time I reach LA at 2:35 pm today, maybe I will be bright eyed and chipper when I get home.  Ha!  Who am I trying to kid?

Well, it's about time to go check in downstairs.  And I still need to find a pencil pouch for Terri.  I've found one, but it was cheesy, so...still searching.

Signing off from Tokyo...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I really enjoy reading signs and t-shirts in English while I'm in Japan.  Some are really hilarious, and I'm sure when they see us with kanji or katakana on our karate gear, or t-shirts -- or even the tattoos some of us wear, they too are snickering behind our backs.

I probably have a t-shirt that I think reads "Big Bad Karate Guy" but really means "I am just a Little Girl within my big Dogi." 

You get the picture.  Enjoy these.

    Yeah, but what about the ant?  Isn't he offended too?

    This truck would probably sell well in Texas.  "GUTS...built Texas Tough!"

    Not sure I want to eat here.  I heard they are known for their cat liver.

    I had to leave my monkey outside when I came here.

    Damn...this sign just ruined my night.


Oh, I really like this city!  Last night I had two dinners.  The first was late afternoon in the little Japanese Italian place, then later I went to an Indian restaurant about two doors down from the Italian.  Call me a pig, but I am really Jonesing for a change from Japanese -- which I also love, but am satiated.  The Indian was kind of non-Indian, which I think happens when you ex-pat yourself to another country and then begin bending your own cuisine to please the locals.  Nonetheless, two dinners was just what the doctor ordered.

Then I went up to the bar on the top floor of my swank hotel mainly out of boredom for one last thing to do.  Of course the place was loud and smoke-filled because some Japanese company was throwing a catered shindig at the French restaurant up there.  The bartender was a very cool guy who was stylish like Johnny Depp and the guy a seat away was a friend of his who I could visualize in Samurai armor.  He looked so anciently authentic in his own way.  Turns out he owns an apple farm in the valley and makes apple juice.  We started sipping on a French apple brandy that was amazing, and I could tell THAT as what he really aspired to making with his apples.  I hope he succeeds.  His name is Kiyoshi Miyamoto, and his card in English says "The Owner of a Farm."  He assured me he was in no way related to Miyamoto Musashi except maybe as distant kin.

These beds are like sleeping on a damn coffee table, even in this Western style hotel, but I did sleep, although fitfully.  The good news is that this morning when I inquired about vacancies, they let me stay in the same non-smoking room so I didn't have to deal with the hotel shuffle hassle.  I'm glad I opted for the breakfast as it was great.  Big selection and some western newspapers for me to catch up on all the greed, murders, and terror I've missed since being abroad.  You know, when you're out of the news loop, your life really isn't impacted one iota, and you have a lot less crap to worry about.  The breakfast buffet is also on the 14th (top) floor with an amazing view of the city and surrounding mountains and so was a nice way to start the day. 

 I went to the City Center to use a bike and they were very sweet folks.  They found out I was a karate man and invited me back to their office later when I return the bike for a "special gift."  Maybe I will receive the key to the city...or a challenge match from the local karate champ.  I'm up for all challenges. 

Anyhow, I feel like a spider on this bike as it is sized for a Japanese woman I think, but it is the best and fastest way to get around.  I went to the Matsumoto Castle, a national treasure,  and began shopping for gifts and for the specific list Theresa gave me before I left.  I got into shopping mode and I'm pleased with all I came away with.  Mission accomplished.  It's amazing how much more money I had to spend since I didn't have to pay the grading cert fee!  A small blessing and it was with no small sense of satìsfaction I got from spending more money on friends and loved ones and less on the a promotion cert.  Call me shallow, but hey...  Sometimes living well is the best revenge.
Well, I'm gonna return this bike.  More later.

Took the bike back.  The promiser of gifts apparently wasn't there, so no key to the city.  I'm thinking that is what they tell everybody who borrows a bike just to make sure they get it back.  I'm back in my little pizza and pasta restaurant across the park from my hotel.  It's a wonderfully comfy second-floor space with the feel of a Bavarian home. This guy and his wife do a very good job of Italian food,  I asked him if he'd learned to make such perfect pizza crust in Italy and he said "No.  I learn for myself."  Then he brought out a big bag of dough he had pre-prepared and told me the secret was in rolling it.  Funny how we are brought up to believe you have to be "trained" to do anything, but here it is accepted that if you want to do something, you just learn to do it if you want.  I don't know about brain surgery, but French and Italian food seem to be a self-taught thing here in Japan.

I went to the JR Station this morning and got my final train tickets.  I leave here at 1305 tomorrow to Nagano across the Alps, then the Shinkansen to Tokyo, then the Narita Express, which puts me into Narita at 1725 for my 2030 departure on Malaysia air to LA.  I leave Japan at 8:30 pm on the 31st and arrive Austin at 10:55 pm on the same day. Wow!  2.5 hours!  (That's a joke.)  Flying against the sun is like Groundhog Day -- a day without end.  That's when the jet lag gets me.  At least on the trains you have plenty of leg room and can get up and walk around.  (BTW, it's actually 16 hours of travel time by air and several hours layover in LAX - 24 hours of travel time when I count the train from Matsumoto)

This has been a long, but good trip.  Physically it has been very hard, which was a new thing for me to deal with.  Mainly joint issues.  As always, the best thing about these trips is the wonderful old and new international friends.  At the end of the day, that is always the high point and probably why I've done this for so long.  I'm always disappointed to see how few Americans are out traveling internationally.  We want the world to run our way, but we don't want to get out and talk to the world's people.  Enough said.  I hope you will make a point to get out of your own backyard, whether through karate, education, or simply for fun.  You learn people are people wherever they live.  They're basically good and want the best for their kids just like we do.

Signing off for this fine day.
From Matsumoto,

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I think my day counting has been rather suspect, but that's how it seems to go on trips like this, where everything is slightly skewed as far as dates and times.  I'm sitting down to a pizza for dinner in a little walk-up Italian style cafe and it is 2:30 a.m. back in Texas.  It begins to feel like the dark side of the moon after a couple of weeks.  The pizza just came and it is GOOD!  Actually, almost all the food is good, but so many times you don't have a clue as to what you are ordering, basing it on pictures that never seem to communicate what it is you'll be getting.  It becomes a fun little game, one in which I commit to at least give a go at whatever arrives at my table.  The thing I can hardly stomach is how everyone right here in my little pizza cafe.  Ugh.

But there is some really good Western soft jazz on and a cooler breeze coming in the open window, so I can persevere.

                                     My sweet little Japanese Italian restaurant in Matsumoto.

                        Street view from my table.  My hotel in the background beyond the park.

Last night I had a wonderful yakatori style dinner with Jay Paydayachee from Durbin, South Africa and Cyntia and  Naomi Martinez from Guadalajara, Mexico.  The four of us were the only gaijin karateka left in our hotel, so it felt a bit sad as it always does when all these amazing people depart for the far places of the planet after you become family and have shared so many experiences over a couple of weeks of training.  We all filled up on wonderful, thin-sliced Kobe beef, in-house made sausages, salads, and a couple of pitchers of cold Kirin beer.  The nice thing about grilling these small portions is that you relax into it, converse more, enjoy the taste more, and eat less.  Jay was heading all the way back up to Omagari to train more with Fujiwara Shihan.  Mother and daughter Martinez were heading for Kyoto to sightsee. 

I did my morning bathing and soak ritual as I have every day since arriving, then hit the JR Station and headed for Matsumoto, which right now seems as wonderful as I'd hoped for: much cooler, smaller, beautiful surrounding mountains, and many locals who speak some English.

The route was Wakayama to Shin-Osaka, Shin-Osaka to Nagoya, then Nagoya to Matsumoto.  This is considered the gateway to the Japanese Alps and Nagano Prefecture is called "the roof of Japan"  because of the altitude.  It's lovely.  There were a lot of people in the train station with backpacks and hiking boots, and quite a few traveling Europeans, so it obviously has has an international reputation for mountain hiking and skiing.

The country coming up was pretty awesome.  It was raining from Kyoto on, and there has been some significant flooding in a couple of prefectures.  For me, the rain added a dreamy atmosphere -- rushing rivers, mist hanging in the mountains, green green green!  It felt like the Cascades of Washington State on steroids.  Train travel, in my humble opinion, far exceeds air travel, especially these trains that are on time to the minute and connect so well.

                             View from the train.  A rainy, beautiful ride up into the mountains.

 Somehow I ended up in the swankiest western style hotel in town for $76 including breakfast.  However, tomorrow night they have no more non-smoking rooms,  so I need to get on the internet (Wifi again!!!) and see what else I can get a deal on.  I want to rent a bike in the morning and go to the castle and explore a bit.  So much easier on bike.  I still don't feel recovered from all the training, so I'm being kind to my body, especially the knees.  It is so much more temperate here, I could stay longer, but my departure draws near and I am really missing being with my Sweetheart back in Austin.

Well, I think I'll go for a stroll and walk off this fine dinner and enjoy this cool smaller city. So far so good.