A Pilgrimage (of sorts) and my Birthday Week Celebration

J and M had final exams from November 25th to the 27th and were complaining about the noise level during the three day weekend just before then. Chatting on Skype with an American friend in Tochigi, we decided that a visit there might be in order. I had a Saturday evening get-together with the ladies from the elementary school newspaper committee so we decided on an overnight visit from Sunday. We also made tentative plans to go see Nikko as my friend hadn't been yet and neither had my children.

The kids were quite excited about getting to go somewhere and were up before dawn on Sunday morning, giving us lots of time to get to Tochigi, buy tickets there for our trip home the next day on a special express that goes through a few times a day all the way to Shinjuku and leave our overnight things at my friend's place before returning to the station to head on up to Nikko. My friend treated us to the fancy express train to Imaichi, the station just before Nikko, as I wanted to make a pilgrimage to Masashi Gyoza.

Twenty six years ago, on my birthday, my high school classmates treated me to gyoza at a small shop near the high school in Imaichi. A young couple ran the tiny shop serving gyoza and only gyoza; either crispy fried ones or slippery boiled ones in a bowl of hot water. Soy sauce, vinegar and hot sesame oil were on the counter for customers to make their own dipping sauce or flavor their hot water accordingly. The prices were cheap and the gyoza were really good so I wasn't surprised to hear that they'd moved to a large location a few years later.

The station master looked a little worried as I approached to ask for directions to the store. He probably thought that the group of foreigners had gotten off one stop early by mistake and were wondering where the World Heritage sites could possibly be. When I asked in Japanese about the dumpling shop he was so relieved he lapsed into the local dialect and even pulled out a map to mark with a pen so we wouldn't get lost.

We found the shop with no trouble and had to wait for some seats as the place is still quite popular. The price had increased over the past 26 years, but was still very cheap at 210 yen for a plate or bowl of six pot stickers or dumplings. The couple behind the counter looked familiar but I was a little shy about asking if they were the same people or not so I ordered a double dose of yaki gyoza (the crispy yet juicy ones) for each of us. While my friend and I chatted, L gobbled his gyoza with great gusto, finishing even before his infamously fast eating older sister did. He said that they were really good and I refrained from divulging that they were full of vegetables like cabbage, nira (sort of like chives) and garlic. He thinks he's allergic to vegetables.

After we finished, the proprietress came and we spoke a bit. My kids were very surprised when they asked if I was Kathy and broke into smiles remembering how I'd visited their shop years and years before. N wondered how these people in a place far from home who spoke a different sort of Japanese would know who her mom was. As we were leaving, the lady came out with a bag full of cans of juice for us to take on to Nikko and enjoy.

Nikko itself was very crowded on the second day of a three day weekend so we decided it would be best to walk a mile or so up the hill to the World Heritage area with big 300 year old cedar trees, a pagoda, a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrines. The line for an inside view of the Toshogu Shrine compound was long so we detoured and viewed Futaarasan Shrine behind it and enjoyed walking along the avenue of cedar trees. We caught a bus back down the hill and went in search of Kanaya Hotel Cheesecake at the Kanaya Hotel Bakery Shop near the station. They had sold out much earlier in the day so we wandered in search of a coffee shop for a little refreshment before catching the local train back to Tochigi with hordes of other people who also couldn't get reservations on the fancy express train. I was glad that we hadn't planned on a day trip as it would have been awful to stay on that crowded train all the way to Asakusa.

The kids were delighted to be treated to sushi at a family style conveyor belt sushi place near my friend's house and I had a great time catching up with my friend and relaxing at her apartment later. We watched an episode of Grey's Anatomy , a show I'd never seen as I don't have cable TV, time to watch TV or even first dibs on the remote control. Of course now I want to see the rest of the series. (Chuckle)

On Monday morning we took a walking tour of Tochigi, a city that I'm sorry I never explored before. The town has made big efforts to preserve and present their history well and the canals and Edo period (and even a few Meiji period "modern" buildings) were intriguing. The lady running the sweets shop along the canal was pleasant and even presented each child with an extra snack when we stopped to buy some sembei rice crackers as a souveneir for J and M.

Our express train had us home just as J was frying some rice for a late lunch and in plenty of time to get ready for my afternoon English lessons. I was glad that I'd been able to have such a pleasant mini-vacation, J and M appreciated the quiet pre-test weekend and L and N agreed that the gyoza were the best they've ever had.

Tuesday was treatment day - "Happy Birthday! Fill'er up!"

I met friends on Thursday (while the kids were in school) for a Thanksgiving buffet at the New Sanno Hotel and it was a rather spectacular spread. I wasn't hungry all day Friday. I did meet some foreign wife friends for coffee in the morning before heading off to school for parent teacher conferences for N and L.

I finally had a bit of an appetite on Saturday morning, just in time to take
the kids, a pot of mashed potatoes and a pot of mashed kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) on the train across the river to another American friend's house for a family Thanksgiving. I think this is the first time I've managed to have all the kids with me at one of these events in about five years. I made sure to feed N a lot before we went so she wouldn't devour everyone's share. The weather was nice enough that the kids could play outside so my friend's house wasn't too crowded. She made a pecan pie and roasted the turkey, other people brought other dishes and some really great wines. It was a feast for all. All but L that is; he whispered sadly in my ear that there was nothing for him to eat. I reminded him that he'd been begging for mashed potatoes for breakfast but he said that he liked them freshly mashed. Poor boy...It's a good thing I had a few onigiri rice balls for just this sort of situation. Problem solved.

We spoke of things to be thankful for, and I was thankful to be here and have good friends to share these good times. The kids said they enjoyed the day and they waited while I got a thousand yen/ten minute haircut at the shop near the station before we got the train home.

That evening I planned to meet a foreign wife friend who was bringing another foreign wife guest from out of town over for a pint of Guiness at the Irish pub down the street. A few other foreign wives said they'd come along and we ended up being a group of nine from a few places around Tokyo. Unfortunately, the pub had been rented out to the local Berlitz Language School for their year-end party and we had to find a different place. When they asked me "Are you from Berlitz?" at the door, I should have said yes!

We meandered through the shopping district but all the bars were full so we ended up at an inexpensive Italian restaurant (one of a chain) for our wine and beer powered gabfest. I felt a little bad about not being more organized about reserving someplace, but I'd only expected 3 or 4 of us, maybe 5, so the big turnout was pleasant surprise.

I relaxed on Sunday and Monday and met friends for buckwheat crepes for lunch in Shinjuku on my way home from treatment on Tuesday, cycled to a friend's house for delicious chili for lunch on Wednesday, went to N's big concert with the entire fifth grade at the local auditorium and pasta afterwards with two of the other moms before the newspaper committee meeting at N & L's school, met a friend after shopping on Friday before J's and M's parent-student-teacher conferences and relaxed at home today until a friend stopped by with some winter coats that her boss thinks would fit me and some fun Christmas treats and lights.

My week of celebrating turned into two weeks and now I have to bake some Florentines for the annual Christmas cookie exchange on Monday. Travel, friends, parties, more friends; what a blast!


Christelle said...

Happy Birthday Kathy!

Christelle from AFWJ parenting group

Nick said...

I fondly remember Masashi Gyoza (or its precedessor) from our all-gyoza tour of Imaichi in 1988. Lucky you!