Saturday, April 30, 2011

Now that we're back in Canada it feels silly to use the "Fairwells in Japan" blog so I've gone back to an old blog that I started before we went to Japan. It only ever had one entry in it but it was already appropriately named and set up so I figured I'd use it. If you're looking for the up-to-date happenings of the Fireball Fairwells you can find us here...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Good/Bad Day

So our 16 pieces of luggage was turned into 10 and then 12 by airlines. I hear they've managed to find 2 more so we're back up to 14 now but there is no word yet on the final two pieces. Because all the luggage went through with Ian and it's currently stored in the back of Dad's truck, I don't even know which pieces are missing.

My flight from Vancouver yesterday was delayed by over an hour and I wasn't able to sleep on the plane so by the time I got to mum's I was more than a little exhausted. We had a wonderful family dinner with Wyatt and Danielle and the kids and Mum and Dad. I got to meet Griffin for the first time and hug Phoebe. It was a good day!

It wasn't a good day back in Japan though. I've now heard that they are suspecting from the extremely high radiation levels in the water at the number 3 reactor that the core is cracked. I have also heard that there are two Japanese tourists who have arrived in China with very high radiation levels. Since they were supposedly not withing 280km of Fukushima there is some concern for how they were exposed. It's good that they are testing people who arrive in China from Japan but I'm wondering why they're not testing people who arrive in Canada. We were not scanned or even asked whether we were within the exclusion zone.

I'm very worried for my friends in Japan.

Love to all.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

we have arrived!

Well, 14 checked bags turned into 16 checked bags and we ended up paying about $300 to get the extras through. There was one noticible earthquake while we were at Narita - a 6.1 - but it was centred fairly far from Tokyo so we just felt a little rumble. Still, everything went smoothly and we are back in BC.

Ian and the kids have gone ahead because they had seats on the noon connector. I am booked on the 2pm flight and was told I had a shot at standby but it turned out that I would have to pay $75 for the privilage of putting my name on the list and then I may still not get a seat.

So, here I sit - at YVR with it's fantastic free WiFi. As if I needed any more confirmation that we made the right decision, there was an email from the government of Canada talking about radiation in the food and water. Aparently it's fairly far spread now although Hokkaido is still pretty self sufficient in it's food supply. Still, the crisis is clearly not over yet.

Anyway, it's been a very emotional day... I cried on both planes so far as well as at the airport and as we were driving out of Otaki. I am a mess. Please give me a hug when you see me - I need it! (and don't mind the tears - I can't help it!!)

Love to all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wednesday very late = Thursday very early!

So, we've said our goodbyes, packed all our stuff (all 14 bags and boxes - hope they're in a generous mood when we check in!) and tidied up. The cleaning will happen in the morning and we'll be off to the airport by 11:30. Many tears were shed and many gifts exchanged. We almost had to add another box just for the gifts!

I'm still really stressed and distressed and I'm really hoping that a lot of it dissipates when the flight leaves Narita tomorrow evening.

There have been some reports on dangerous radiation levels found in water, in soil and in food today - but no aftershocks higher than 5.5. Hopefully our two hours in Narita will be in a low-incidence window and we'll get out without any shaking.

It's now 12:45am here - time to head to bed.

Love to all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wednesday morning

I have flights! I will be flying from Sapporo through Narita to Vancouver with everyone else. I have a two hour delay in Vancouver but I think I can live with that!

The news this morning from Fukushima is mixed... power has been restored to the control room of the number 3 reactor but high levels of radiation have been detected in the soil about 40km from the plant.

The big aftershocks are still happening - one more over 6.1 early this morning and still many in the high 5's.

More later,
Love to all

Tuesday night (late) - 11 days and still shaking...

So there were several very strong aftershocks this evening. Two of them were 6.6 one was 6.4 and the rest were in the high 5's. Good thing we're getting out! (I have to keep reminding myself that there are important reasons why we're fleeing... I feel so much guilt over this.)

I will go into Date tomorrow and sign some papers and then I am apparently free to leave on Thursday with Ian and the kids! I hope there's still a seat for me on their flights! I'll hopefully have heard back from the travel agent by the time I get up in the morning.

We spent the evening packing and packing and creating boxes and getting organized. I'm more than a little exhausted so it's off to bed now. I know all my stress indicators will start to leave me as soon as we take off from Narita on Thursday. I just have to keep it together until then!

Love to all...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday night - 10 days after

So, despite much optimism and assurances by the Japanese authorities that things are coming under control, today there was mysterious white and grey smoke coming from two of the reactors.

We had some special friends over for dinner this evening. It was very nice to spend some time with them but it was also difficult to know that we are so close to saying goodbye.

I'm very tired and off to bed now. I will find out tomorrow whether or not I can get home with Ian and the kids on Thursday. Here's hoping...

Love to all

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday night

So - it's not looking good for me to go back with Ian and the kids. My friend Mayu spoke with the superintendent today and it's looking like there is too much to do for me to get out on Thursday. It sounds like I can go - just maybe not for another few days. Ugh. This is getting harder and harder.

There is less clarity to the whole reactor issue now. BBC has switched their live coverage to the difficulties in Libya which seems to leave only the Japanese station offering "up-to-date" information about what's in Fukushima.

Radiation has been found in the water in Tokyo in trace amounts and also in larger amounts in some spinach and milk in the area. The power is not yet restored to any of the reactors - though they keep promising it's happening any time now. The wind was apparently blowing in this direction today so we focused on all the things we need to do at home and avoided going out wherever possible.

We're very glad to have made the decision to head home. I wish we had come to the decision a few hours earlier so I could have started the process with the board of education on Friday instead of Tuesday (it's a long weekend). Although I feel terrible about letting people down and running out on them, I know that we've made the right decision.

Love to all

Friday, March 18, 2011

Saturday morning

Ian and Taran will be flying home on Thursday with Joisan and Tiffany. I am just trying to connect with my bosses and then I will be booking myself on the same flight if possible.
We are still not in imminent danger here, and in fact I've recently heard from someone in Tokyo that things are under control (not sure I'm buying that though!) It's really about the long term stress and risk at this point so no worries about us - we're heading home!

PS. Thanks everyone for your supportive emails and blog comments. You've kept me going. Love to all...

PPS. Please do send socks - this is meaningful!

Friday - and what a week it's been... :(

So, although things haven't gotten remarkably worse (no fires, no explosions) in the last day and a bit, they also haven't improved enough that we are bursting with confidence either.
We're still fine here in central Hokkaido. I'll update again tomorrow.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday - 6 days after

Sorry for the silence... I was really trying to have a more normal day. Not a lot has changed here - they are still struggling to contain and cool the reactors in Fukushima. The smart people who should know what they're talking about are still saying that anyone who stays outside of the exclusion zone (evacuation zone) around the plant is safe.

There have been no explosions or fires in the last 24 hours but the radiation near the plant has been high enough that they've had to stop the cooling efforts a couple of times. One of the biggest concerns right now is the spent fuel rods in reactor 4 because they are relatively fresh (just came out of service in the fall) and they are not encased in a protective housing like the active reactors are. They need to be kept under water for safety, and the water keeps boiling off.

We are safe here. We have had an email from the Canadian consulate in response to a question from Ian. They have stated clearly that they are not recommending that we leave immediately. Nor are there any concerns about us travelling through Tokyo when we do leave. They say very clearly that at this stage there is no radiation health risk for us - particularly because we are in Hokkaido.

Love to all

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday evening...

It's late and I'm tired. Physically tired and mentally and emotionally tired. The radiation level eventually dropped enough that those 50 dedicated workers could go back to the Fukushima plant. Of course one of the news feeds this evening said that Japan has now raised the maximum radiation dose allowed for nuclear workers, to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts. So - those workers can now legally continue to give their lives for their country.

I still am not hearing anything about any of the other power plants that were said to be at risk. I really hope that's because they are no longer considered at risk but I'm afraid that it's because the media is getting distracted by the big show at the Fukushima plant. And it is a big show for sure... fires, explosions, now they are pumping sea water into numbers 5 and 6 in an attempt to prevent them from melting down too.

The emperor gave an unprecedented video speech to the country this evening. Some of the people interviewed found that to be almost more concerning than everything else that's going on.

Anyway... I'm off to a relaxing bath and then to bed - for as much sleep as I can get.

Love to all

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wednesday afternoon

So things are a-shaking in Tokyo... they've just had another 6.0 on top of the two that they had yesterday. Things at the Furushima plant have deteriorated. The 50 workers that were left behind to manage things when the evacuation was mandated have now been pulled out because the radiation levels are too high.

Not sure where else this day can go...

Wednesday morning - 5 days after

Morning brings light and clarity - or perhaps it only brings more bad news... The number 4 reactor is on fire now. They had it out at one point and it sprang up again. We haven't heard much about the number 4 reactor until now because it was not an active reactor but only being used to store spent fuel rods. There has also been mention of two more reactors (#5 and #6) on the same site in Fukushima that are at risk - although I can't find where I heard about them now. The report this morning said that they were heating up - but I'm not sure where I saw it. I was under the impression that there were only four reactors there so I don't know which part of my information is faulty. The most recent update says that the radiation near the reactors is too high for anyone to go near them to check the damage or service them.

It's only 9:25am now. I have no doubt that this day will bring more surprises. In the meantime though - life goes on. I will teach English and update again later.

Love to all.

Tuesday evening

I think everyone in Canada and Australia seems to know as much or more than I do most of the time. This morning when I posted about the number 2 reactor being in imminent danger of meltdown it had already happened. I think there are some deliberate media delays happening - likely in an effort to calm and prepare people before the announcements are made.

While I was at Date Chu today the number 4 (as yet unheard about) reactor at the Fukushima plant melted down. The radiation levels around the plant are now being classified as dangerous to human health and the evacuation radius has been increased to 30km. They have also instituted a "no-fly zone" over the evacuation area. The weather will now play a big part in how far the radiation spreads and it seems to be constantly changing.

I appreciate everyones suggestions that we get out - now! The reality of our position here though is that anywhere we go we'd have to go through Tokyo. I'm really not inclined to voluntarily take myself or anyone else anywhere near there. I'm not even sure that I'll be sending Tiffany and Joisan next week and they've got confirmed tickets! We will get home. For now we will donate blood and what cash we can spare and we'll do what we can to keep our spirits up.

Love to all

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tuesday morning...

I wish I felt like I could trust the stuff that's being put out on the news. I'm very dubious of the reports because I think they're downplaying the reactor issue. On the other hand - I don't necessarily believe that the doomsayers are entirely accurate either. I have been trying to take a middle of the road approach - it's worse than this but not yet at that point either - and I'm in Hokkaido.

Being a gaijin (foreigner) makes it challenging too - I can't understand what's said on the news. One of the teachers had to inform me about the explosion yesterday - he'd heard about it on the radio at lunch time. Unfortunately he told me in the middle of class - it took me a minute to regain my composure.

The news that I have is the same as what you have - the number 2 reactor at Fukushima has some kind of leak that won't allow it to hold the seawater that they're pumping in to cool it. It has or will meltdown and the only thing we're waiting to find out is the extent of the damage it will cause.

Joisan and Tiffany are leaving in 9 days and I'm wondering about whether or not it will be safe for them to go through Tokyo. We are so isolated here that we really are safe.

The information that's getting out to the world is definitely being controlled though - there was an earthquake this morning that was big enough to warrant an alarm on the cell phones and the US Geological Survey site has not updated it - and it was more than an hour ago... usually they update within 5-10 minutes.

And life here in Otaki continues as usual... I'm off to work at Date Chu and the girls are coming in to have some more shopping time.
More as it comes...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Monday's update

I heard from Hiro!!! She is safe and well and has power and water - although the she will be having rolling blackouts starting today. The idea is to make sure that everyone can have power for at least part of the day. The supply of power (along with many other things) is limited right now because of all the reactors being shut down.

The quakes just keep coming and it seems that the threat of nuclear meltdown is quite real. Let me just state again that we are far far away from where all these things are happening. Today around noon there was a very big explosion at the number 3 reactor at Fukushima power complex. There was a smaller explosion at the number 1 reactor there on Saturday and the latest updates say that the cooling functions have stopped and water levels are falling in reactor 2. There are other power complexes that are also at risk, although we're not hearing much about them - everything has been focused on the Fukushima plant.

There are so many inconsistencies and contradictions in the reports we're getting that it's difficult to know what is true and what is not. One thing that the experts are saying is that there is another strong earthquake likely to come in the next few days. It's a bit of a challenge to live in constant awareness of the strong likelihood of more and bigger, meanwhile I'm supposed to carry on with business as usual - which takes me far away from my family!

Joisan and Tiffany have been trying to keep things as much on "the plan" as possible. Joisan's chafing at the new restrictions (I wouldn't let them hang in Date until dance time while I came home) but I just don't think it's okay to be that far apart when they are calling for another big earthquake in the next few days. My friend Deb is not coming (not that I blame her) though she may end up coming in July. I'm not sure yet whether or not Ian's family will still come in May or not.

I'll keep updating as things come along.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

the nightmare continues...

I heard late last night from a friend who was able to report on the status of her son in Tokyo and our mutual friends who were in Hiroshima dealing with the death of a family member. I was much relieved to hear of all of their safety - though sad for Natsumi and the loss of her father earlier in the week.

We have still not heard anything from Hiro. She is in one of the areas that has been the hardest hit by the continuing barrage of earthquakes. Thankfully she's located inland rather than near the coast so she's likely been unaffected by the water, but the quakes just keep coming. It makes me wonder... even the strongest and most well-built structures are likely to collapse eventually with the never-ending shaking.

The grand total for yesterdays earthquakes was about 135 over 4.5 and only 8 of them were over 6.0! The new threats are coming from the many nuclear reactors that have been damaged and reports are suggesting that there is risk of rupture at many of them. My concerns here come from the mixed messages that are being put out... on one hand the government is saying that there is very little risk, and then they are ordering mass evacuations around the power plants. Japan has a history of downplaying risky situations to avoid panicking the people. From what I've seen, the people are pulling together very well and barring any other major seismic events or nuclear catastrophes it should begin to improve in the near future. Again, we are lucky enough to be far far away from all of the worst of this experience. Please don't worry for us - our biggest concern is going to be from the possible interruptions to food supplies. We, being good Costco members, are always well stocked and if push comes to shove, I'm sure the kids would enjoy a few days without fresh veggies.

More news as it comes...

Friday, March 11, 2011

or NOT! (in reference to the previous title)

I can't believe how not-right everything is. I was half-way through the next post, about graduation and the arrival of our friends, when I had to abandon my efforts to write about the devastation that I'm seeing from all over Japan.
Yesterday at 2:46pm Joisan and I were in the conference room at school - using the computer. Taran and Ian were at home - having a holiday.

The floor started to roll and the windows began to shake. I said to Joisan... oh! an earthquake! Joisan was happy that she was able to experience one before leaving in a couple of weeks. Strangely though, it didn't stop. We sat there waiting for everything to calm down and it just kept going and going. When it finally subsided it had lasted between 3 and 4 minutes. It felt like forever.

Early reports from the principals TV said it was a 6.9 and then a 7.9 and finally settled at an 8.9. It was centred in the ocean off the coast of Honshu and there was a great deal of damage done - though not too much up here in central Hokkaido. We were hit again within a few minutes and again after that one. They seemed to be coming right on top of each other and the difference in the location and depth of them meant that some were stronger than others. At one point Joisan and I were both under the table doing the "duck and cover" routine. I found it difficult to walk during them and after the third endless wave I started to feel a little stressed.

Eventually, many of the teachers gathered around the tv in the principals room and we watch the beginnings of the tsunami as the waves began to build and destroy. Joisan and I had watched the status changes as her friend Tiffany's plane had arrived at Narita about 2pm so we knew that she was there. We were a little worried about whether or not she would be able to get her connection to Sapporo but at 4pm when we left the school it seemed that everything would be okay.

When we got home I was able to get my friend Hiro on the phone (nothing short of a miracle!) She was safe, although not warm. She had no power and no water. She's in a city in central Iwate prefecture and many of the earthquakes were located quite close to her.

It was about 4:30pm when we began trying to phone the Narita airport to try to connect with Tiffany. I know she's a smart and resourceful and well-travelled girl but she's only 13 and she was travelling alone! I was a little worried! And she's only a loaner - I have to return her in less than two weeks!

Of course the phone lines were totally jammed and out of every twenty times I dialed I might have gotten a line through once - but only as far as a recorded message that said "we're really busy right now - please hold or call back later". It was very discouraging. I managed to connect with Shaun Iwasawa who had toured us around Tokyo when we were there in January. He and his wife and family are all safe and they tried to help us connect to Narita too. He had the added advantage of being able to understand the Japanese news updates - we were just waiting for the English version which was nowhere near as timely. It was from Shaun that we heard that Narita was closed for the rest of the day.

Unsure of what was up with Tiffany, Joisan and I redoubled our efforts to contact someone who could help us connect with her. It got discouraging pretty fast and around 8pm we tripped across some information that said that they had evacuated the Narita airport. I couldn't imagine what that would look like or what would happen to a 13 year old travelling alone! It was an incredibly stressful evening - eventually the Narita airport website was updated to include an advisory that stated that all passengers were being given food and water and blankets and they were being attended to by airport staff.

Around 10pm Shaun told us that they were beginning to allow planes to take off from Narita and Joisan and I discussed heading to Chitose to sleep at the airport in case Tiffany wound up coming in the night. After finally being able to talk to one of the information booth ladies at the Sapporo airport I was confident that Tiffany would not be coming in until the next day so, with my thousandth attempt at contacting Narita ending in that dreadful message again, and after sending off several emails and trying to call Tiffany's mother, we went to bed.

I was finding it very difficult to sleep and so I was incredibly grateful to receive a phone call at 12:45am from a Japan Airlines employee who had Tiffany with her and another stewardess in a hotel in Narita. I was able to talk with Tiffany and it was confirmed that she would be able to get an evening flight the next day. With that great news and a quick note to Tiffany's mother, I was finally able to sleep.

It was my intention to get up this morning and go for my weekly swim but I got a little distracted with the details of what had been happening through the night. I discovered that the aftershocks had continued with some real doozies around 4am. I am still a little worried because one of them in particular was very near the city where Hiro lives and it was at the shallowest depth of any of them.

At about 8:15am I received a call on my cellphone from the stewardesses and Tiffany. They were calling to say that she had been placed on the first flight Japan Airlines had leaving Narita this morning. Whew! We spent some of our morning reassuring our loved ones of our safety and then Joisan and I got ourselves off to the airport to get our girl. We were both surprised to see some damage on the road to the airport. Reports of issues in this area have been non-existent, and in fact the damage was fairly minor - some groupings of serious potholes and some trees and posts either down or leaning precariously. There was nothing dangerous and we made it to the airport safely. Tiffany landed safely and she has amazing stories to tell. Yes, the Narita airport was evacuated - and a good thing too as there was a ceiling of glass that came down. Yes, she was scared but she was also being very well taken care of! The Japan Airlines employees really went out of their way to be wonderful!

So, the latest news - although by the time I actually type it out and publish it - it will have changed again... the latest news is that since the 8.9 earthquake yesterday there have been 198 earthquakes greater than 4.5 and 24 of them were over 6.0. They keep referring to them as "aftershocks" and I suppose they are because they came after the initial incident, but when they are each strong enough to cause serious damage on their own I feel like they have earned the right to be referred to as earthquakes. The tsunamis continue to wreak havoc on coastal towns and every channel on the tv has an icon in the corner displaying the danger areas. Hokkaido has definitely seen some damage - but mostly in the southern area of Hakodate.

This evening we have had news of an explosion in a nuclear reactor about 200km north of Tokyo. They are currently evacuating people within a 20km radius of the reactor and I am so very grateful to be located in the backwoods of Hokkaido!

Love to all - I will eventually post the graduation stuff too but I wanted everyone to know what I know so it will have to wait until I can focus on something other than the ongoing quakes and tsunamis and reactor issues.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

and all is right with the world!

Whew! It was a difficult few days here. Mum's surgery really threw me for a loop. I have spoken with her though and she is home now and all is good again. Now I can focus on really enjoying the last few months here and experiencing all there is to do!
We are within one week of our world changing - first with visitors arriving and then with Joisan leaving. Wow! I'm struggling to connect with Kelsey right now and get everything organized for her to start right after spring break. I've been reminded that the secretaries at schools in the Cowichan Valley are the real movers and shakers and they are the unsung heroes! I finally managed to feel like we've got some forward momentum today and I'm much relieved!
This week - aside from worrying about Mum - has been mostly about dealing with details that I've let go to this point. The major detail being the amount of overtime I'm putting in. I have been coasting along, blissfully unaware of my actual, official working hours. Consequently, I have been putting in many many more hours than I am supposed to. It seems a bit of a conundrum though... with not enough work to do - how is it that I actually put in more hours than necessary?? Well, it's a challenge - but you know me - I'm always up for a challenge! It seems kind of strange to have all the extra time acknowledged let alone compensated... I'm going to end up with about 35 days off in lieu of payment. Now if only I could translate that into an early ticket home...
Anyway, at this point it looks like I'll be able to take some time off when the school breaks are happening this year. It will be much better than sitting around the office doing... nothing! Actually, I have a big project in mind right now. I'm planning to write a comprehensive manual for the future Otaki AET's. Everything from the house and social details to the structure of the job and ideas for lessons. At least it will give me something to do with my office time for the next little while. (I want to say for the next few months but I doubt it will take me that long!)
This end of the year time seems a lot different from last years wind down. I'm missing Hiro again and it seems like I'm forgotten in a lot of what's going on. Oh well, my eyes are on the prize now... a few distractions and then the big trip home! Oh what a party that will be!!!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

the latest and the greatest...

Hmmm... well that title implies that there is something awesome to blog about and unfortunately, that's not the case. :(

It's now the last day of February and things here are in coast along mode now - we're all just keepin' on and hangin' in. We are looking forward to Tiffany's arrival on the 11th of March and Deb's on the 14th. Joisan and I have been brainstorming fun things to do with them while they're here. Unfortunately, due to the fact that March break is actually IN March, there will still be plenty of snow and the activities will be a little limited by it. It's quite possible that there will be some downhill and cross country skiing in the works though!

The kids went skiing/snowboarding yesterday and had a great time. It was the third time so far and they probably will have one or two more opportunities to go but we are running out of tickets! Joisan is keen to try going a bit later next time and staying for the night skiing. It looked pretty cool with the mountain all lit up last night when I went to pick them up. I think it would be fun!

Ian was a bit exhausted after his weekend. It was the Yukigassen weekend (the international snowball fight) and Ian was helping Ato-san with his deer burgers. They sold out both days and by the time all was said and done, Ian smelled like grease and felt more than a little exhausted.

Ian and I have both been having trouble sleeping lately and I'm not sure why. Hmmm... could it be that our daughter is heading back to Canada without us in less than four weeks... or that Ian's heading back without me at the end of May... or that we're still holding our collective breath that Taran will finish the school work he needs to do... wait! I know... it's that my mother is having surgery tomorrow. Of all the things I've been distressed about being so far away for (including birthdays and Christmas and the birth of my nephew) - this one is the worst. I would give anything to be able to get on an airplane today and be there for my mother tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

and the beat goes on...

Just over three weeks have passed while I struggled with getting the holiday blogged. Luckily for me, not too much has happened or else it might take another three weeks to get it up here - and where would that put us?!
The last few days with Mum and Aurora here were great! We had a potluck dinner with my adult Eikaiwa classes - awesome food and great company. We went to the onsen at the Mesuite and despite some trepidation Mum and Aurora both relaxed into the naked bathing experience! We all went out for an amazing sushi dinner at Wasabi, my favourite restaurant in Date. We hung out and visited and had a really nice time together. Of course it all ended way too soon and Mum and Aurora flew away on Joisan's birthday (Jan. 21st).
It was a bit of a blow the following week when I had to go back to work, but I survived. I was a bit depressed about the fact that I can't come home until August, but some good friends helped to pull me out. A well timed and bang-on email about saying goodbye to Mum and Aurora really helped (thanks again Kim!) and hearing that another friend is coming for a visit over March break made a big difference too (can't wait to see you Deb!)
On January 30th Ian and Taran participated in the preliminary playoff round of the Yukigassen. It's an international snowball fight. I know I wrote about going to watch the finals last year - but this year some friends of Ian's worked up a team so that he and Taran could experience it. Ian even trained to be a licenced referee. They were pretty stoked after completely dominating their first match but unfortunately, the professionals caught up with them and they lost the next two so they won't be competing in the finals. Ian has contacted the Yukigassen Canada organization though and he may (or may not) be a resource for them in the future!
Joisan and I both wound up taking a week off of work / school when we came down with influenza. We went and got tested and everything. Joisan really enjoyed having the swab stuck up her nose and into her throat - NOT! Her test came back positive and mine came back negative but since I had symptoms too they opted to give me the week to rest. We did a lot of laying around and drinking of liquids and eventually we recovered.
Since then, the most exciting thing that has happened is that Ian and the kids went skiing and snowboarding at Rusutsu. I'm a little anxious for them to go a bit more as we bought some prepaid lift tickets at the beginning of the season and there are still 7 vouchers left and only about 6 weeks to use them! We invested in a board and boots for Taran that we are hoping will be able to be taken back to Canada without too much difficulty.
We are looking forward to some excitement next month when Joisan and I both have a friend coming to visit! Tiffany arrives on the 11th and Deb on the 14th. We're busy making plans and jotting down ideas for things to do when they're here. They will stay until the 23rd (Deb) and the 24th (Tiffany) and Joisan will be heading back with her friend. She has finished the grade 8 BC curriculum and will be heading back to Cowichan so that she can participate in the Steps Ahead dance show. She is sooo looking forward to it! We are still up in the air about exactly when Ian and Taran will be going back but I'm here until August 9th or so. I can already forsee that blog updates in the future will become a countdown of sorts as I look forward to coming home!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2nd week of trip - Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto

Okay okay - the pressure is really getting to me now! It's lasted longer in the writing stage than it did in the doing it! Here it is... the second half of the holiday!
It was a bit difficult to leave Miyako. Even knowing that we were headed for another week of adventures and the chance to see my sister, I was sad to be leaving the "tropics" behind.
We were booked into a chain of hostels for the rest of the trip. It was really easy to like the K's House Hostels as they were very clean and comfortable and they had everything we needed - including easy directions to get "there" from "here". We followed the breadcrumbs and found ourselves where we needed to be - and my sister was already tucked into bed trying to recover from her travel ordeal (that's her story though).
Joisan continued to take excellent, detailed notes of our adventures which I'm using as the kick starter for my failing memory. Rather than get into a detailed day by day, moment by moment description though - I'm going to stick with the highlights of each city...

We were very fortunate in our Tokyo sightseeing day in that my mother had the foresight many moons ago to have taught a nice young man who himself had the foresight to relocate to Tokyo so he might be of use to us!! Shaun is currently teaching English at a private school near Tokyo and miraculously he had a day off of work on our only full day in Tokyo! He took us to several cool places. We started in Shibuya, where we could do some first class people watching. We parked ourselves at the Starbucks on the corner and watched while everyone crossed the street all at the same time because the traffic lights all change to red at once. Afterward, we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Municipal Government building to take advantage of the free observation deck on the top of the north tower. It was a beautiful, clear day and we were even able to see Mt. Fuji! There was a lot of walking through some of the unique areas of Tokyo. We had a bit of a `small world` moment in the middle of the Ameyoko shopping district when we engaged in conversation with a shop owner who's daughter had gone to high school at LCSS in the Cowichan International program! Eventually we ended up in Ueno Park where we parted ways with Shaun and headed for the Sumo stadium with hopes of getting some cheap tickets to watch the wrestling. It turns out that we would have had to line up first thing in the morning to have a chance of seeing any of the wrestling so we satisfied ourselves with taking a few photos outside as some of the wrestlers were leaving and then going back to the hostel and watching it on TV.
We had such a short time in Tokyo that we considered ourselves very lucky to find out about the huge festival that was on at the Tokyo Dome while we were there. There were booths from every prefecture in Japan, featuring the specialties of that region. We saw some dancing and drumming performances, we ate interesting things (tomato ice cream) and we bought some great souvenirs! It was awesome but a little overwhelming! When we had all had enough we headed back to the hostel to get organized for our flights to Kobe. Once we were packed we had just enough time for a quick walk to a very famous temple that was near our hostel. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to go in and look around so we had to settle for a few quick photos outside.

Other than the mad dash to the gate at the Haneda airport our flight to Kobe was pretty uneventful. We went directly from the airport to the train station and took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. We were all pretty exhausted by the time we got on the train but it was still an enjoyable experience to have. We were pretty tickled to be offered something from the trolley - we felt like we were on the Hogwarts Express! We arrived at the hostel in Hiroshima and settled right into our beds. The next day was Taran's 17th birthday. We were able to find a place that served waffles for his special birthday breakfast but it was a bit of a downer birthday for him as our focus that day was the Peace Park and Peace Museum. We approached from side of the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome which is a building that has been preserved as it was immediately after the bombing. We all seemed to feel the weight of the tragic history of the place and despite the sunshine we felt quite "low". We walked through the park, passing a memorial for the students who died in the bombing and the children's memorial where they keep and display the hundreds of thousands of paper cranes that are sent every year. We stopped and took some photos at the peace arch with the dome in the background.
We weren't allowed to use the cameras in the museum itself but anyone who is interested in it can find photos and explanations on their website here: I was very impressed by the impartiality of the explanations of the events leading up to the dropping of the bombs. The authentic artifacts were well explained and impactful. It was interesting and heartbreaking and I am so very glad to have seen and experienced it. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to go as a family and that the kids now have some context on the realities of war.
After the museum we went out for a birthday dinner for Taran before heading back to the station to catch the Shinkansen for Kyoto. Mum was sitting beside a woman on the train who had some great suggestions for things to do in Kyoto so by the time we hit the hostel we already had some plans made.

Kyoto was awesome. There were several special events while we were there, including a craft fair and an annual archery event that involved shooting arrows across the courtyard of a temple. We saw many of the "must see" tourist sights including Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion Temple), Nijojo Castle, and the Gion District (the Geisha and Maiko district).
There were two things in particular that stood out for me in Kyoto. We went to the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre where there are 7 floors full of traditional crafts ranging from the truly magnificent (and incredibly pricy!) to the truly trashy tourist specials. On the top floor though, they have hands-on crafts that you can do. There were many different crafts to choose from - woodblock printing, cloisonne jewelery making, doll painting, etc. Joisan and my Mum both did a gold foil craft that involved brushing coloured foil onto a pre-glued background. They created amazing, original works of art! Having had a similar experience in Miyako at the basketweaving place, I think there is no doubt that a souvenier that is personally made is much more meaningful!
On our last day in Kyoto, after our walking tour of the Gion District where we caught sight of a few real Geisha, Joisan got her birthday present from Nana. She signed up for a Maiko dress-up experience. (The Maiko are the apprentice Geisha.) Girls can be dressed up and have make-up and hair done and then a photo shoot. We left Joisan to get made up and came back a half hour later. Joisan did not look like Joisan any more! Between Mum and Aurora and I we got a ton of photos and some of them are really good! I think Joisan enjoyed the experience and I certainly enjoyed watching and taking pictures! Now I just have to figure out a way to make myself actually do something with all of these pictures!
Our plane left Kobe at 8am which meant that we had to be on a ridiculously early train from Kyoto to make it to the airport on time. The sunrise at Kobe airport was a great bookend for the trip!
Being suckers for punishment, when we landed in Sapporo Mum and Aurora and Joisan and I decided to let Ian and Taran take the luggage back home while we took the train to Otaru, so that Mum and Aurora could check out the music box factory. We didn't count on the heavy snow that had fallen prior to our arrival and found ourselves inappropriately shod as we tried to navigate the snowy, icy streets. We did get to have a good look around and Mum bought a couple of stuffies to take home (coals to Newcastle!?!). After a major slip and fall for most of us we opted to cab it back to the train station and head back to Chitose. Ian picked us up and brought us home where we collapsed!
Whew! That's it! An all around awesome holiday! Now I can start working on the bits and pieces that have happened since we got back! We're gearing up for some excitement and some big changes here... Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

First week of trip - 7 nights in Miyakojima

I realize that consumer confidence is low here and nobody really believes that I'm going to be updating this regularly again but I am! I am! If you haven't already checked out the Happy New Years post please do that while you're here.
So... on to the trip - and apologies for the book-like length and format of this post - I'll work on keeping things to novellas in the future! I have already posted a selection of our trip photos - be grateful I didn't post all 2000 of them!
On January 4th we got up at 4am so that we could be ready when our rides arrived. I say rides because we had to have two vans take the five of us and our five suitcases to the airport. Our friend Ato-san and one of his employees did the driving and we made it to the airport with plenty of time for our 7am flight.
We actually had three flights that day - Sapporo to Haneda, Haneda to Okinawa (Naha) and Naha to Miyakojima. We were met at the Miyako airport by Akiko and taken to our tiny condo. It was a self contained suite at Miyakojima Paradise with everything we needed except elbow room! We crammed ourselves in and managed to organize to make everything fit for the week.
After settling in we went for a walk looking for a grocery store. Along the way we met a woman who kindly walked us to the grocery store and exchanged contact information with Ian. Being that we were in the Okinawa prefecture and therefore much closer to the American base, there was plenty of western style food at the store. We bought what we were willing to carry and headed back to the apartment to deal with dinner. We were a bit wiped from the long day and the walk so we cleaned up and set up our futons and went to bed.

We got a late-ish start the next day which was okay since we still had to wait a bit for the bicycles we rented to be available. We made some sandwiches for our lunch and set out as soon as our bikes were ready - heading for a famous beach called Sunayama beach. About a minute into our ride Joisan made us turn back to fetch our bathing suits. Her arguement was that we would rather have them with us and not want to use them then be caught wanting them and not having them with us. As it turned out we grovelled at her feet for the rest of the trip because it was by far our best weather and swimming day!
We changed into our suits at the bathroom/shower building just above the beach and started our walk down the sand mountain (suna = sand yama = mountain... Sunayama beach!) We were completely awed by the picture - it's actually one of the most famous views of Miyakojima so it was really cool to be there in person. When we first arrived there was only one other person on the beach so we felt free to do whatever we wanted. Of course playing in the water was what we wanted! The air wasn't hot - only about 21 degrees (although compared with the frigid temperatures we had left on Hokkaido it was pretty tropical!) The water was slightly warmer than the air though so we were able to comfortably play in the water - jumping waves and body surfing - for about two hours. It was awesome! I pulled out our goggles after a while and we enjoyed watching the movement of the sand with the waves. Joisan spotted a crab that was the same colour as the sand and we looked at the growths on the rocks nearby. When we had thoroughly exhausted ourselves we sat in the sand and ate our lunch before Taran and Ian (and eventually Joisan too) started digging a big hole to ... where? In Canada when we dig we always say we're digging to China - being that we are in Asia now I'm not sure where they were digging to.
While we played in the water and sat on the sand in our bathing suits busloads of tourists began to arrive. They would troop down the sand mountain and take a few photos, look at us like we were crazy and then head back up to the bus. Some were even taking photos of us! We wanted to wait for the tide to surround the big hole but it was taking too long so eventually we headed back up the sand mountain to shower and change before heading back. Once we got back and organized again we decided to head for a larger grocery store that we had seen on our way from the airport. Mum was struggling a bit on the ride - the way there being mostly uphill. She was a bit gratified to learn that it wasn't all about the uphill though - she had a flat tire. We were able to get it fixed and get ourselves and our yummy sushi dinner back to the studio - not too difficult since it was all downhill to the beach! We were able to spread our sleeping out a bit since Ian and Joisan moved their futons to the small deck. Unfortunately the weather turned a bit in the night and Ian woke up at 5am to rain on his head.
There were some heavy winds and rain on day three so we stuck fairly close to the studio. We took advantage of a brief lull in the storm and went for a walk on the beach across the street. After lunch we played some Wizard and then Joisan and I braved the winds and went looking for some adventure. We made up a story to tell the others while we were walking into the wind. I can't remember all of it but it did involve being attacked by a group of evil ninja monkeys and of course we triumphed in the end (although Joisan maintains that she did the butt-kicking, I of course feel confident that it was my moves that sent the evil ninjas running!)
With a few noteable exceptions, the rest of our time one Miyakojima was spent in much the same way - lots of biking, exploring, braving the winds and the rain, and just enjoying the fact that it was closer to plus 20 degrees than minus 20!
Joisan took incredible notes that I could use to give a play by play of each day but we're already at such a length here that I think the highlights and the photos will suffice.

Exception #1 The Botanical Gardens
We were on a bike excursion to a vegetable market (where we bought goya - explanation to come!) when we spotted a sign for the Miyakojima Botanical gardens. Despite grumbles from Taran we went exploring and eventually - after a ride down a long hill (which we would need to ride back up eventually!) we found the Botanical gardens. We were all (including Taran!) so glad that we did. We did a bit of exploring through the many crafting huts that they had there - including some pottery, woodworking, jewelery making, indigo dying, weaving and one where you could create your own pattern in your flip flops. Along the path we ran across a cave that kept going and going! We wished we had a light with us to explore it further but we did our best with the flashes from our cameras. Mum really wanted to make a grass basket so after we paused to eat our lunch under the shelter (it was raining a bit) she and Ian and Taran settled themselves in the weaving hut while Joisan and I went to check out the other crafts a bit closer. We didn't find anything that called out to us particularly so we went and joined the weaving in progress. Mum was well into her beautiful basket and Taran was working on a knotted bag. There were many people working who tried to help me get started on a knotted bag but my brain and my fingers were not connecting so I just admired what everyone else was doing! One of the people there took a shine to Joisan and gave her all kinds of beautiful shells and things. It was an awesome way to spend a rainy afternoon!

Exception #2 Snorkeling!!!
On our fifth day we went on a snorkeling trip. We arranged for our host Loic to take us to the best snorkeling beach on the island. The deal was supposed to include transportation, lunch, equipment, training and the use of an underwater digital camera. Unfortunately Loic had some issues - he got sick so he couldn't go in the water with us and then he couldn't find the charger for his underwater camera. The weather was not as good as our previous swimming day but it was better than some of the days in between so when Loic was able to find another camera for us to use we decided to go for it! (A good thing too - because the weather over the next few days just went downhill and we would have had to scrap it altogether.)
Because Loic felt bad for making us wait while he found a camera for us to use, on the way to the snorkeling beach we were given a bit of an island tour. We stopped at a 7km long beach (Maehama Beach) that was absolutely gorgeous! It just went on and on - white white sand and blue green water! We also saw a cape where the China Sea is on one side and the Pacific Ocean is on the other. We eventually ended up at the beach with the coral reef (Aragusuku Beach) and after our safety chat and some guidance in putting on the mask and flippers we entered the world of Nemo. There are not enough words to describe how amazing an experience this was. We were all awed and impressed with the variety and proximity of the fish. It was a fairly cloudy day so the coral was not as brightly coloured as it can be with the sunshine but it was sooo amazing! We brought some rice from our lunch into the water and fed the fish from our hands. They swarmed around whoever had food and we got some cool photos with the underwater camera. We didn't know exactly how to work the camera though so we ended up with some videos we didn't intend which unfortunately used up some of the battery life. Still, we have evidence of our adventure and we were able to see clown fish behaving just like they do in the movies (hear Marlin's voice talking to Nemo...) "Out... and back in... out... and back in." We were at the beach for a total of about 4 1/2 hours - most of it spent in the water. Although the water was warmer than the air we were all a bit chilled by the time we were ready to go. We were so very happy that Nana took us to Miyakojima and took us snorkeling - we had a marvellous time!

Exception #3 - Irabujima Island Excursion
Taran was feeling out of sorts the day after the snorkeling so he opted to lay low while the rest of us took our bikes on the ferry to a nearby island. We were welcomed to Irabujima by a torrential downpour which was at least not cold. We pushed on and rode across Irabujima to a smaller island called Shimojijima where there were some interesting pools and beaches we had planned to see. Our ride across the island was not on a main road (because we got lost!) and seemed to be either flat or uphill and we consolled ourselves with the thought that the way back would be flat or downhill. The rain came and went and came again with a vengance. We made it to the pools which were partly fresh water and partly sea water - being connected underground by caves which went out to the ocean. While we were looking at the pools the wind picked up and made us change our plans a bit. We crossed the beaches off our list and looked for the shortest way back to the ferry. Distance-wise it was shortest to go around the airport on the cement retaining wall that separates the airport from the ocean. Wind-wise this was not the most comfortable route but with some judiciously timed walks and the eventual tail wind on the third side, we made it. With some guidance from a taxi driver to put us on the right (main) road we headed for the ferry. Of course, owing to Murphy and his laws, our different route was all uphill on the way back >:( We did make it home eventually - very much looking (and feeling) like a crew of drowned rats!

Exception #4 - Goya
Don't do it. We did and we offer you this sage advice... don't!
Goya = bitter melon. We are still unsure of why this melon has been cultivated and not exterminated. While Ian and Taran made a trip to the grocery store, Mum and I attempted to cook up the Goya we had purchased at the vegetable market. Raw, it tasted like butt. We went online and found some ideas for cooking it and did our best. Really really we did! Cooked, it tasted like cooked butt. DON'T DO IT! It's not worth it! We had bought it in a package of 2 so we gave the 2nd melon to Loic and Akiko before we left - we couldn't believe that he said they LIKE it! We went out for dinner on our last night in Miyako and the restaurant had goya chips on the menu. Joisan felt it was so important that we try it again that she paid for it. We all tried it and found that cut very thinly, deep fried with lots of batter and salt - it was more tolerable but it tasted like... deep fried butt!

There were other days - spent biking and getting lost and meeting kind local people; shopping and admiring the beauty of the islands, relaxing, playing Catan, eating yummy food. It was a great escape from the reality of Hokkaido and we didn't see one single snowflake!

Coming up next... week 2... Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!!

Wow! I started this oh-long-ago! Of course the extent of starting it was opening it up and putting in the title! Oh well, I'm going to use this as the beginning of the big update and the next one will encompass the trip...
My mum arrived on December 30th.

We picked her up at the airport at 8:40pm and brought her right home. She was really wiped - despite the comfy first class pod on the big flight to Narita she was unable to rest very much on the plane. I will also add that the flight from Vancouver to Narita is (barely) tolerable. To then have to add an hour and a half on the ANA flight to Sapporo is absolutely brutal. We found that ourselves each time we have made the flight.
Anyway, despite her exhaustion we pushed on with our plans and we prepared for our New Year's Eve celebration with Ian's friend Takaaki and his daughters. I had been given a very elaborate case with three layers of special New Years food from one of the people at the office, so we brought that and a few other things with us.

Takaaki really wanted us to stay over night so that we could all relax and enjoy ourselves so we brought our gear and headed over to the Finland cabin behind Takaaki's place.
His daughters were really lovely girls and we enjoyed their company very much. It is traditional to eat soba (buckwheat) noodles on New Years so Takaaki decided to go one better and we ground up the soba he had grown on his little farm and made flour and then noodles!

My mum ended up having to crash for a nap partway through the evening so she missed the grinding of the soba but she woke up in time for the rolling, cutting and eating! It was an amazing, ongoing feast that seemed to never end! Takaaki and his daughters cleared out at about 10:30 or 11pm and left us in the cabin to bring in the New Year by ourselves. We were really grateful for the opportunity to experience some of the traditions of a Japanese New Year - although we all struggled to make it until midnight!
On New Year's Day we cleaned up and came home where we were able to Skype with our family in Ontario and watch them ring in their New Year there. Mum was pretty tired but she still managed to put together an amazing roast deer and yorkshire pudding for us for New Years dinner. Yum! We had been given the deer tenderloin back at the end of November and I'm glad we saved it for the special dinner - it was awesome!
On January 2nd we were invited to a traditional mochi pounding party with my friend Natsumi and her family and friends. It was held at an old ski lodge that's not much used so it was very cold! We all took turns pounding the rice and then some of us (Mum included) helped to form the mochi balls. We only lasted a couple of hours before we were too cold and had to bail on the party and come home and get warm. It was fun while it lasted though.

The next day, January 3rd, Mum and Joisan and I went into Date to have lunch with my friend Yasuko and some Mice Club members and then go shopping. Mum was much impressed with the Daiso - a big dollar store type chain. It's one of my favourite stores and it was fun to turn Mum onto it! When we finally made it home we had to get ourselves packed and organized for our stupid-early departure for the airport. I'm all for leaving yourself plenty of time but wow! I could have used some more sleep!
Okay - that's it for now - I'll move on to trip stuff in the next entry. I apologise in advance for the length of the next entry... it's going to be ridiculously long! Two weeks of fun and excitement - coming your way!!