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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dreaming of a White Birthday


And she got one, as several centimeters of snow sits on the ground outside on the day my daughter turns twelve. One more year of childhood before Amber becomes a teenager. I'd like to make this moment last as long as possible before the inevitable comes...

It's been three weeks since we returned to Vilnius from our trip to Japan. It took about a week to get over the jet lag (it gets worse with age), but life is back to normal and our time in Yamaguchi 山口, Tsuwano 津和野, Hagi 萩, Shimonoseki 下関 and Fukuoka 福岡 is receding into the haze of pleasant memories. This will be our last winter in Lithuania before we leave in early summer and I've been making sure that my daughter and I, anyway, are getting out to enjoy it. Here is Amber enjoying a cup of hot chocolate at the Cathedral Square Christmas market on January 6. If you're wondering why the market was still around, the Orthodox Christmas Day was celebrated on January 7 (around 5% of Lithuanians are Eastern Orthodox believers):


Although temperatures have been consistently below freezing, there hasn't been much snow until recently. On one of the drier weekends just after the New Year, I took my daughter out to the site of Dubingiai Castle. Only the foundations of the 16th-century castle remain today, and the building housing them was closed on the day we visited. We still had a good time, though, tromping around the plateau upon which the castle once stood. A few fishermen and, incredibly, a couple of divers were out braving the freezing cold:

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All that remains of a Calvinist church erected in the early 17th century:




A house once stood behind where Amber is standing:



A traffic jam created by a flock of sheep crossing the road:


Enjoying a doughnut break at Holy Donut in Old Town. Note the Godzilla ゴジラ picture behind Amber:


What 8 o'clock on a weekday winter morning looks like from our living room:


Ice floes on the Neris River:


One of my daughter's favorite restaurants in Vilnius is Drama Burger. Each month the menu features an "experimental" burger - January's is Smoked Apple Cheddar, which turned out to be pretty good:


One of the more interesting places we've visited in Vilnius turned out to be the Energy and Technology Museum, across the Neris from Old Town and located behind the Italian Embassy (pictured below):



The museum is housed in Vilnius' first power station, which was in operation for a century beginning in 1903. While the first floor houses a decent collection of old cars and motorcycles...:



...it's the original machinery used for power generation that's the real attraction here:





Amber was dismissive of some of the "primitive" home entertainment technology on display. Millennials...:



The top floor features some pretty entertaining and informative hands-on/interactive exhibits. Despite the limited English signage, the museum is a great place to take the kids:



More ice floes in the Neris:


A little later than usual, but snow has finally fallen in earnest:


Standing under the Green Bridge. The statues mentioned in this web site sadly were removed before we arrived in Vilnius:


Outside the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption:



Church of St. Paraskeva:


Presidential Palace. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence:



Standing in front of the historical Vilnius Town Hall on a Friday evening:


A Saturday morning walk through the woods:



The bike trail may have been covered under a layer of snow but that didn't stop this cyclist from going out for a ride:


Chapel of St. Hyacinth (Jackus):


Enjoying a post-movie box of popcorn after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi:


Celebrating her birthday with mussels at René:





Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Last daze - Shimonoseki and Fukuoka

Karato Ichiba

We arrived in the port town of Shimonoseki 下関, on the southern tip of the island of Honshū 本州, on the ninth day of our trip, having traveled by train from Hagi 萩 (via Nagatoshi 長門市 and Asa 厚狭), and immediately sought out a place to have lunch. The lucky recipient of our patronage was a tonkatsu 豚カツ restaurant on an upper floor of the Daimaru 大丸 department store next to the train station:


Appetites sated, it was nearly a twenty-minute walk to our accommodations for that Friday evening, the Plaza Hotel Shimonoseki プラザホテル下関. Along the way we passed the Kaikyō-yume Tower 海峡ゆめタワー (more on that later):


Shimonoseki is known throughout Japan for its fugu フグ, the poisonous blowfish or globefish. We had a lot of it during this trip, and it's hard to see what all the excitement is about as it's rather tasteless. What makes eating the fish a culinary adventure is the presence of a deadly poison in the some of the fugu's organs. The city embraces the fish (known in Shimonoseki as fuku フク, a homonym for good fortune and wealth) in many ways:



Still suffering the ill-effects (rimshot) of a bad cold, my wife decided to relax in our hotel room for the rest of the day, so I took my daughter out to do some exploring. I had visited Shimonoseki on my own in 2009, but this time I resolved to see some of the sites I had missed that time, such as the Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum 市立しものせき水族館海響館. On the way there Amber and I passed a reminder of the close relationship between Japan and Taiwan:


You know you've been in Japan too long when the sight of a London double-decker bus hardly raises an eyebrow:


The Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum is really an aquarium, complete with dolphin and seal shows. We missed those but did enjoy the the indoor/outdoor penguin exhibit:



The highlight for me was the large tank containing sea life from the waters of the Kanmon Channel 関門海峡, just outside the museum:




And being Shimonoseki, there is the world's largest collection of pufferfish:



Back outside and admiring the view of the Kanmon Bridge 関門橋:



Looking across the water to Mojikō 門司港, where we had stayed on our first night in the country:


Kameyama Hachiman-gū Shrine 亀山八幡宮 is home to the world's largest fugu statue:


The Kamon Wharf カモンワーフ shopping complex, where Amber and I had dinner at a kaiten-zushi 回転寿司 restaurant:



With the sun having set, the two of us made our way back to the aforementioned Kaikyō-yume Tower, 153 meters (502 feet) high and lit up in purple and yellow hues on this Friday evening:


The views from the observation deck are impressive, though the reflective glass make it difficult to get good photos:



The tower could be seen from our ninth-floor hotel room window:


On Saturday morning Shu-E joined Amber and me after breakfast to explore more of Shimonoseki's sights. We began with the Karato Ichiba 唐戸市場 fish market, close to Kamon Wharf:


The market was undoubtedly the highlight of our Japan trip for my wife. Should I ever find it necessary to make a career change, finding a job in Shimonoseki could be one option as it would allow Shu-E numerous opportunities to see what the Karato fishmongers are offering:






Whale meat for sale. While opposed to whaling, I admit I am curious as to how it tastes:


On the roof of the market:


My daughter takes an ice-cream break at Kamon Wharf. My greatest success on this trip was introducing Amber to the pleasures of Skäl, a carbonated yogurt soda similar to Calpis カルピス. I had first discovered スコール while traveling through western Japan in the early 1990's, but it was always hard to find in the Kantō region 関東地方 (where Tōkyō 東京 is located). Fortunately, Skäl is widely available in Kyūshū 九州 and the Chūgoku region 中国地方:


The Karato 唐戸 district is also home to some old Western-style brick and stone buildings, including the old post office on the left in the photograph below:


From Karato we caught a bus to Chōfu 長府, an old castle town of the ruling Mōri family 毛利氏, and home to a collection of samurai 侍 houses and streets. First things first, however:


Kōzan-ji 功山寺 is the Mōri family temple, located up the hill from the bus stop:



It was interesting just to wander the streets of the old neighborhood:



Many of the houses had their New Year's decorations up:



The Nogi Shrine 乃木神社 was preparing for the next night's hatsumōde 初詣 visitors:


We returned by bus from Chōfu to our hotel and picked up our bags. The waters of the Kanmon Strait were busy as usual:


On the way to Shimonoseki Station 下関駅, we passed by a supermarket. My daughter couldn't stop laughing at the sign:


We took the train to Kokura 小倉, then splurged a bit for the sixteen-minute ride to Hakata Station 博多駅 on the bullet train 新幹線 (a journey of almost ninety minutes by ordinary train):


For our last two nights in Japan, we stayed at the Vessel Hotel Fukuoka Kaizuka ベッセルホテル福岡貝塚, a little out of the way from central Fukuoka, but close to the airport - good for us as we had an early-morning departure on New Year's Day. But we still had New Year's Eve to spend in Japan, so on Sunday morning we took the subway to Hakata, which for Amber was synonymous with the promised land - the Pokémon ポケモン store:


The games couldn't be purchased as my daughter 3DS player is made for the European region, but she still spent all her Christmas money on things like plushies and playing cards. Her old man enjoyed exploring the Maruzen 丸善 bookshop across the way. Afterward, we went up onto the roof for a look around:


One of the great things about living in (or just visiting) Japan is that, even in the smaller cities and towns, there are plenty of dining options for when one wants something other than Japanese cuisine. In this case, we had lunch at a Southeast Asian-themed eatery in the basement of Hakata Station. Quite a contrast with the homeland of Amber and Shu-E where good non-Chinese food can be a struggle to find in the Real Taiwan®, aka that which is not Taipei (there was a branch of the Taichung-based teahouse chain 春水堂 next door to the restaurant):



We took it easy for the rest of the day in Fukuoka 福岡. Being my fourth time to Japan's fifth-largest city (the second time for the girls), I'd already seen virtually of the sights (and to be frank, there aren't all that many - Fukuoka is much better as a place to eat, live and shop than to go sightseeing). It was inevitable that we would end up at Canal City キャナルシティ博多 at some point, where Amber practiced her drumming skills on 太鼓の達人 ...:


...while the women watched the fountain symphony (see here and here for our previous visits):


Shu-E suggested having rāmen ラーメン for dinner at Ichiran 一蘭, instead of one of the city's hawker-style food carts 屋台 (which I've done before). And a good choice it turned out to be, as customers can specify such things as the flavor, fat content and tenderness of their noodles. Patrons sit at individual cubicles and receive their bowls through small panels in front of them, creating an unusual cattle-like experience, but fun nonetheless:




Walking around at night looking for a Mister Donut ミスタードーナツ, as we would be waking up too early the next morning to enjoy the hotel's breakfast buffet):


Back in the room and modeling the national soccer team jersey purchased earlier that day at Canal City:


And so 2017 came to an end as we went to bed early, waking up to 2018 and a taxi ride to Fukuoka Airport 福岡空港 to check-in for our 7:20 am flight. The celebrations had already started despite the early hour:


A TV monitor was showing the first sunrise of the new year 初日の出 making its appearance over Mt. Fuji 富士山:


And Fuji-san itself was visible as our plane approached Narita 成田 from Fukuoka:


And that is how we welcomed in the New Year. 2017 was a year of highs (trips to the Arctic Circle, England and Scotland, the Czech Republic and, of course, Japan), but also a year of a one very sad low, the passing away of my mother back at Easter. But as this one selfless ema 絵馬 votive tablet at Nogi-jinja put it, when it comes to 2018...:

"May all be happy"