Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tokyo pt. 3

In the latest edition of "The World According to Erin," here are my top cultural observations from Tokyo...

Cultural experience #1- toilets. Not 10 minutes off the plane and I had my first cultural experience. There were two choices in the airport restrooms-- a hole or a toilet with buttons on it. My favorite was the music note button, which played the sound of a flushing toilet in case you didn't want others to hear you while you were doing your business. Fast forward to the hotel, my toilet had a heated seat and every time you sat down, the standby button lit up. Still unclear to me what I was "standing by" for but it made me nervous. On the way home, I read that these toilet seats are celebrating their 30th anniversary this month!

Cultural experience #2- runners. I stayed across the street from the Imperial Palace and Garden. The 5k loop around the moat was loaded with runners at all hours.

I was super jealous that I could not join them, especially considering that the loop is lined with cherry trees and I will soon (hopefully) be running the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in DC where the trees were donated by the people of Japan. I also loved Japanese running gear, which was much more colorful than you find here.

Cultural experience #3- cafes. Yes there was Starbucks and a chain called Excelsior Cafe, but there were also lots of cafes tucked into multi-story buildings, each with unique decor and menus. The great one near my hotel was Kojimachi cafe, whose food was international with a Japanese flare. Importantly, vegetarian options were noted on the menu! My sense (Japan experts correct me if I'm wrong) was that many meals in Japan were multi-course. I managed to order my rice with black-eye peas and salad but was pleasantly surprised when a root vegetable soup and bagel shaped sesame roll arrived before my meal and a little pumpkin cake arrived for dessert. I went into a bookstore and even found a book all about cafes in the Shibuya. Too bad I saw that 30 minutes before I had to leave.

Cultural experience #4-- masks. All over Tokyo I was struck by people wearing masks. You see this on tv, but it was surprising to see so many people using them-- 50% I would guess. What did they know that I don't!? I noticed lots of young couples where only one person was wearing a mask. Not the most romantic of looks! I was also surprised that no one was wearing designer masks. If this has become part of the culture, I would think that you could add a bit of style to the look. Matt was disappointed I didn't bring him one back as a souvenir.

Lots of vending machines... everywhere

Also orange cones everywhere... but these 5-footers were blog-worthy. What on earth!?

Breakfast during one of my 6am, 12-hour shifts. Japanese buns taste like sugary hamburger buns. Add to that a cup of green tea and you have a lovely Japanese breakfast

No idea what the story is here but I thought this was a sweet little statue. Seems like he is dressed in different attire depending on the week/month. I wonder if this is in tribute to the rescue workers in Sendai.

I guess this is a good note to end the Tokyo posts on. I really do keep all those effected by the disaster in my thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tokyo pt.2

A few good friends have lived in Japan but frankly I had never given much thought to visiting and Lost in Translation was, well completely lost on me.

But simply put, I am now a convert. I LOVE Tokyo!

There is nowhere I've been that has felt more foreign (mostly bec. of an inability to read signs) and yet safe, interesting and comfortable at the same time. And I was fascinated by many parts of the culture.

From a touristy point of view, I got to see the Yasukuni Shrine and the Shibuya part of town.

I was fascinated by the shrine because I've just never seen something like that before. (Okay, well maybe it reminded me of Japan at Epcot Center but I knew this was the real deal;-)) As I think about it, I am more used to touring churches and I guess this is the first country I've been to that isn't predominantly Christian.

The Shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirits of soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan. I visited because I happened upon it while on a walk. But visits by others have been much more controversial. I later read that there are war criminals enshrined there and "many in the international and Asian community see visits by politicians as support for or complicity with Japanese nationalism, and denial of the events of World War II."

Statue of Ōmura Masujirō, which is Japan's first Western-style bronze statue. It honors Ōmura Masujirō, the "Father of the Modern Japanese Army."

Mr. Fish's GIANT Japanese cousin

The Shibuya crossing area is sometimes called Times Square Tokyo because of all of the lights, but only about 1/2 of them were on to conserve power as a result of the disaster.

The crossing is famous because vehicles stop in all directions, which means that pedestrians can cross in all directions. Ready, Set...

GO!!!! I walked diagonally across the inter- section just because I could.

I was psyched to be more adventurous with sushi but decided against it after convincing myself that while winds carrying anything from the Fukashima nuclear reactor out to sea was good news for people, it probably wasn't so great for the fish (my unscientific but firmly held belief:-)) I did, however, get adventuresome when I stopped for lunch at a little noodle shop and the waitress took me outside and had me point to the very realistic plastic model of which dish I wanted. (The only other thing she was able to communicate was her happiness when she saw the Yasukuni shrine brochure.) And did I go a whole week without pizza? OF COURSE NOT! We went to Pizza Mia and it was a very decent wood fired, Italian style pizza. Just what I needed!

In many ways this trip reminded me of going to Ulm, Germany for the first time-- quite an adventure but I realize that I've just scratched the surface... and I can't wait to go back!

Super Moon as seen from Tokyo. Do you see the Tokyo TV Tower in the background?

Important cultural observations tomorrow...

Monday, March 21, 2011


We all woke up two Fridays ago to the devastating news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The images were horrific.

I found out about it when I got a 6am call that my rapid deployment team was on standby. Wave of unknown size to hit Hawaii in one hour. Time to get the Haiti gear out of the loft. But the deployment call didn't come on Friday. So did that mean we were stood down? No. By the time I returned from a lovely run on Saturday morning, ready to enjoy a muffin and the NY Times, the call came... JAPAN!

WOW! Thankfully more than 1/2 of the Haiti team would be there too and we were departing on Sunday afternoon so we'd have to gather what we needed. This was going to be more of a cool weather operation and the weather said possible snow.

Once in Tokyo, we had a rough start when it took 30 minutes to find our other team members and an hour to get a cab because public transportation was not running (probably not many potential Amazing Race competitors among us!) First thing Tuesday morning, we reported to the embassy to get our assignment... and hard hats. Three of the consular members of our team were going to Sendai, where other RDTs had already deployed. The rest of us would work at the embassy or airport.

I determined that this was the duck and cover spot in the hotel room because there was already a flashlight attached to the leg of the desk.

I spent the next week at the embassy, in the ops center, liaising with teams in the field and embassy staff to help with "assisted departures" (not evacuation!) by bus and plane-- out of Sendai and then Japan. Much like the training in Nicaragua, every time we thought the situation was leveling off, we were thrown another curve ball and I imagine the Japanese people feel the same way. Earthquake... tsumani... aftershock... 20km exclusion zone around the nuclear reactor... 30km... aftershock... "assisted departure" by bus... bus trip lengthens to 10+ hrs when the exclusion zone increases to 50 miles... aftershock... charter planes...offering iodine tablets... water dumped on Fukashima reactors... By Wednesday, it was a strange feeling to realize that aftershocks were becoming the least of your worries.

In truth, I was disappointed not to go to the effected area myself. Colleagues who did described unimaginable destruction. But every deployment is different and I guess I was meant to stay in Tokyo this time.

Overall, we assisted around 200 Brits in the area of the earthquake/ tsumani. And there are no British casualties to date. I leave knowing we helped and hoping that we all continue to help the Japanese people. I was thoroughly impressed by the people. They have a long road ahead.

We worked very long shifts, so there was little time to see Tokyo. But I did manage to snap a few photos that I'll post tomorrow...

Friday, March 04, 2011

From Snow Storm to Tropical Paradise

Again, blogging is suffering. But a visit to Naples to see Granny and Grandpa is definitely blog worthy!!

After a fantastic brunch on Sunday, we went on an alligator hunt and Grandpa found one almost immediately!

We thought he was heading to the shore to sunbathe but before we knew it, he was swimming threw the drainage pipe.

Kappy the Croc Hunter went after him! Somewhat frighteningly, the alligator never popped threw into the adjoining pond. Ala chipmunk on Cobb Creek, I was nervous that the gator was going to wind up in the toilet in the condo!

On Monday, we enjoyed a stroll on the pier before a sunset dinner on the beach. The pier was packed with fishermen (and poor recently caught fish gasping for oxygen:-( )

The birds were smart. They hung out directly below where the fish were being gutted. They had a feast...

...but so did we as we watched the Florida sun set. BEAUTIFUL!

Sunset Smiles

What would be a trip without pizza!? We tried Naples Pizza and I was very impressed. The Very Veggie pie was delish-- quality cheese, tasty crust and tangy sauce AND green olives. OH YEAH!

Dinner on Monday night found us at Bleu Provence, a phenomenal French restaurant in downtown Naples. The exceptional company definitely added to the experience, but this was also one of the best meals I think I've EVER had! Homemade smoked salmon with sweet potato blinis as an appetizer. Then, sea bass in a chablis beurre blanc sauce with velvety mashed potatoes and asparagus as the main course. THEN, molten chocolate cake with coffee ice cream and raspberry coulis for dessert. A lovely glass of pinot grigio complemented the whole meal. After dinner, I announced my retirement and decided to stay in Naples... but alas I think I might have to work for a couple more years. Thank you G&G for a MARVELOUS weekend!