Encountering the Edo Period and Hobnobbing with Owls


This week our family headed to Tokyo for the day to renew the kids’ passports and spend some fun family time.  After an uneventful experience at the embassy and a scrumptious lunch of Indian curry, we trekked over to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to dive into learning about the Japanese Edo and Meiji periods.  
The Edo period lasted from 1603 to 1868 and was the time when samurai were plentiful and Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate.  During this time, Japan was closed off to the rest of the world and many of the cultural traditions that we think of as distinctly Japanese came into existence.

The Meiji Period lasted from 1868, when the reign of the Tokugawa family ended and Emperor Meiji took power, to 1912 when Emperor Taisho became the new leader.  This was a period of modernization and westernization for Japan.

The fifth floor of the Edo-Tokyo museum where the permanent exhibits are located is divided into two halves – one with displays about the Edo Period (during which the capital city was called Edo) and and the other with information and interactive zones that teach about the Meiji Era (when Edo became known as Tokyo).

When we entered the museum, we were greeted by a volunteer tour guide who sweetly and skillfully guided us throughout many of the displays, giving us tons of background information and access to a behind the scenes area where we could try out instruments that were used for making sound effects for kabuki performances.  She gave us the option for having our tour in English or Japanese and we decided to go with the Japanese version for listening and speaking practice.  

Highlights for us were the kabuki instruments, a life-size model of the old wooden Nihonbashi bridge, a Meiji Era house we could enter and explore, and a display of samurai swords and armor.  

We are big fans if Indian curry and naan bread!

It’s probably a good thing this isn’t our usual family car!



Learning from our tour guide about kabuki theater and how they made different sound effects during the Edo Period.


This is what the front of the kabuki theater looked like.


Photo op on a Meiji Era bicycle.

We could have spent more time at this fascinating spot, but left after a couple hours so we could zip over to our other touristy activity for the day — an owl cafe!

Tokyo is a city full of themed cafes and new styles are always being added.  Animal cafes are quite popular right now, with different ones offering customers the chance to relax while communing with dogs, cats, birds, and even monkeys or owls.  

After paying an entrance fee, we were provided with a soft drink of our choice and given an hour to hang with the 60 different owls who reside at the cafe.  The decor of Owl Forest Cafe was very eclectic and not really my favorite, but the staff were kind and the many types of owls were cute and allowed us to gently pet them on their backs and heads.  I don’t think we would go back to that particular cafe, but it was a fun family experience, especially for our animal-loving kids.


We’d had a unique and fun-filled day in our favorite big city, but we still weren’t finished with our family adventure.  The final stop was dinner in the home our dear friends who live in Saitama, about an hour away from where we were.

Our sweet friend Echan welcomed us into her lovely apartment and we had a super fun time eating, laughing, and fellowshipping with her family and another close friend, Saki-Chan.  



As we drove home that night we all agreed that the necessity of renewing our passports had provided us with a chance to build some great family memories!  

Bursting with Butterflies

Rainbow colors fluttering through the air, feathery antennas brushing our skin, the scent of juicy nectar and pungent flowers — these are the sights, sounds, and aromas that filled our senses when the kids and I visited Igashira Park’s  butterfly house last month.  The butterfly house was one section of a bird, flower, and butterfly exhibit on the grounds of the huge park.  We all entered the butterfly sanctuary expecting to immediately be pounced upon by friendly creatures who wanted to land on our heads, hands, and feet, but we soon discovered that getting to that experience would take quite a bit of patience and a little bit of creativity.

Austin seemed to be the most attractive to the insects flapping their wings all around us, but soon the rest of us were able to get some of them to stop and spend a few seconds resting on our fingers.  We found that staying super still, putting drops of nectar from the butterfly feeders on our hands, and even (oddly enough) carrying a coke bottle made us more attractive to the colorful creatures.

In addition to butterflies, the exhibit housed a couple of toucans, a few other small birds, some turtles, and a plethora of plants, including a tropical banana tree, which was our favorite.

All that communing with nature left us hungry, so we popped over to the cafeteria next door and feasted on some delicious ice cream cones before heading home for the day.

Igashira Park is in Moka City, about 40 minutes from our house, so we don’t go there super often, but with bicycles to rent, a “10,000 person sized pool”, an obstacle course, and other attractions it’s a fun place to spend a pleasant afternoon as a family.  We will definitely be back!

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Hands-On Fun at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts

Today the kids and I had an open Saturday afternoon so we decided to use our free passes to the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts where a dear friend works.  We pedaled our bicycles through the blustery weather to the museum, which is only about ten minutes from our house.  After the kids goofed around a bit outside with the sculptures that decorate the grounds, we headed inside for a little art viewing.  Our good friend, Yumi, happened to be working that day so we got to ask her questions and hear her explanations about some of the art. Katie is the biggest art enthusiast of the family.  It was fun to see her looking closely at the art and even taking notes on which paintings she liked and why she liked them.

Highlights of the visit included seeing a painting by famous British artist J.M.W. Turner and getting to participate in some hands-on activities that helped the kids pay closer attention to works that are currently on display.  And it was fun to see our friend Yumi in action as well!  Then on the way home we stopped by the local convenience store for a little snack.  It was the perfect ending to an enjoyable day.

Here are some photos.  You can click on individual images to see them more clearly.

 

 

Digging Up Fun at the Oya Ishi Museum

The rough, porous, grey or tan-colored rock can be seen all over Utsunomiya.  It’s called Oya Ishi and it is used by builders and artisans to make garden walls, storage sheds, and yard decorations, among other things.  Oya Ishi is a volcanic rock that is native to our area.  I have known for many years that there was an Oya Ishi mining museum in our city, but have just never gotten around to going.  The kids and I decided that it was time to go check it out so we recently visited and had a fun and informative family field trip together. 

The museum has two parts.  One is a small room with artifacts showing tools and other objects used by miners of the past.  This area also had samples of various types of Oya Ishi for visitors to touch and look closely at to see how the types differ from one another.  The other area of the museum was the most fascinating.  You walk downstairs under the museum into a huge underground area that has been carved out of Oya rock.  The underground cavern is 20,000 square meters and is big enough for a baseball field to fit inside of it.  It is also quite cold.  The day we went, it was about 50 degrees Farenheit (11 degrees Celsius), but it’s average temperature is 45 degrees (7 degrees Celsius).  Over the years, this underground area has been used as a site for activities such as concerts, weddings, and the filming of TV dramas and movies.  The kids and I found it fascinating to wander around and soak up the unusual atmosphere.

After touring the museum, we decided to take a short walk to see a 27 meter (88 foot) Buddhist “peace statue” made  out of Oya Stone.  On our way to the statue, we came across a cute little park with a gargantuan Oya Ishi rock in the middle of the grass.  The kids had a super fun time climbing the rock together.  The Buddhist statue itself was quite impressive as well.  We enjoyed walking up stairs to the top of the statue and looking out over the surrounding area.  It was a great view!

Once our touring was over, we all noticed that our stomachs were growling.  So, we hopped in our car and headed to Masashi Gyoza, one of the most famous shops in Utsunomiya that specializes in Chinese dumplings.  The tiny restaurant was crowded with people and even had a line out the door so we decided to get the dumplings to go and then took off for a park where we could gobble our gyoza at a picnic table.

All in all, it was an enjoyable day filled with family fun.  I love going on “field trips” with the kids and I am looking forward to whatever excitement the next one may bring!

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Goofing around in front of an old mining truck

Learning about mining tools at the small above ground portion of the museum


  Scaling huge Oya Ishi rocks at a park near the museum

The 27 meter Buddhist “Peace Statue”  

Pottery Making in Mashiko, Japan

We live in the Japanese city of Utsunomiya, which is less than an hour away from a town called Mashiko that is famous for pottery making.  Tourists from all over Japan make their way to Mashiko to buy pottery and to try their hand at making it themselves at one of the famous pottery kilns.  Despite living close to Mashiko, we rarely go there and no one in our family had ever tried pottery making.  But one weekend Bryan had plans to take Austin and Ethan to a sports camp so Katie and I decided to head on over to Mashiko and let the family Queen of Arts and Crafts give it a try.

We ended up going to a place called Hasegawa Touen, one of many pottery makers who have inexpensive classes for beginners and who welcome children.  Most of the shops in Mashiko offer two kinds of pottery making experiences: forming pottery out of a ball of clay with your hands or using a pottery wheel.  We decided to go with hand forming the clay since it sounded easier.  The staff woman who helped us was very friendly and she assisted Katie whenever she had any questions.  Otherwise, Katie was free to make whatever she wanted and could make use of various tools and clay stamps that the staff provided.

After a bit of deliberation, Katie decided to make a mug that she decorated with various animal-shaped stamps.  When she was finished, the staff woman engraved Katie’s name and the date in the bottom of the mug and told us it would be ready  in about a month.  When we inquired about why it takes so long, she said that first they have to dry the clay, then bake it, then glaze it (in the color of Katie’s choice), and then bake it again.

Several weeks later, we received a call from Hasegawa Touen and went to pick up Katie’s pottery creation.  She was very happy with the results and it is now her go-to mug for all types of beverages!  Way to go, Katie!  You did a great job!  Maybe next time we will try the pottery wheel!

Fun with Snow and Igloos in Nikko

A few days ago, the kids and I hopped into the car with our good friend Yoshie and sped off for the mountains of Nikko to enjoy the Kamakura Matsuri. Matsuri means festival and kamakura are Japanese style igloos made out of packed snow. Two hours later, we were excitedly wading through knee-deep snow and the kids were “body sledding” down packed snow hills and enjoying every second of it. Even without the igloos to look at and climb inside of, Austin, Ethan and Katie were ecstatic just to be around so much snow and be able to play in it. In Utsunomiya it only snows a couple of times a year and even then it doesn’t get very deep — just a few centimeters, usually. It also melts quickly. So, the kids were jealous of peole who get to live in the mountains of Nikko with so much snow around them all winter. (I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t any grocery stores or other conveniences for miles around! I think I prefer just visiting…) The igloos were very cool, though, and some of them had tatami mats and a little barbeque stove inside them so you could eat a meal. We didn’t do any BBQ-ing, but we did buy warm “nikuman” (steamed bread with meat and spices inside) and ate those inside of an igloo so we could warm up a little. In addition to large igloos you could climb inside of, there was a huge area filled with mini igloos that had candles inside of them. Once it started to get dark, workers went out and lit all the candles. It was a beautiful sight!

Though it was a bit of a drive out there, we would definitely go again and would recommend the matsuri to anyone in the area, especially those with kids! If you go, be sure to bundle up! The night we were there it was minus 9 degrees Celsius — 7 degrees Farenheit. Burr!!

Bread Making at the “Romantic Forest”

This past weekend, the kids and I drove about twenty minutes to Romanchiku Mura (which means “Romantic Forest”).  It’s a huge park with several different forests and wide open natural areas for exploring and walking, an indoor pool, shops and restaurants, a kids’ play area, and a crane habitat.  I had been there long ago, but I’d never taken the kids.  I thought it would be a good chance for the kids to get some outdoor play time in a new environment.  We also decided to sign up for a one day bread baking class.  Apparently, they have these classes every Sunday in the morning and then again in the afternoon.

We love homemade bread, but always use a bread machine, so this was a first for us to make bread by hand.  The type of bread you can make in the class always changes, but this time is was “anpan” (bread with sweet bean paste in it) and “curry pan” (bread with curry sauce inside of it.  Since Ethan doesn’t really like either of those flavors, he decided to make his plain, and that ended up tasting great too. 🙂

I think we all were impressed by how much effort it took to knead the bread.  The class instructor had us throwing the bread down onto the table, rolling it up with one hand and then throwing it down again — over and over!  He was obviously used to doing this and we were wowed by his abilities.  We were a little bit pathetic, but with some help from the teacher here and there we finally got our dough into the consistency it needed to be.  After that, we put the sweet beans and the curry inside and we were ready to bake it.

We probably won’t be giving away our breade machine in favor of making everything by hand, but it was definitely a fun learning experience.  The kids enjoyed it so much they wanted me to take them again next week for another class!  I don’t think we’ll be able to go again that soon, but I promised we’d put it on the calendar again.  We can’t wait to find out what the next bread flavor will be!

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