Archive for April 2009

America’s Best Restroom (public)

April 29, 2009

Some Cincinnati organization is apparently way ahead of SIAJ in the evaluation of public restrooms. After extensive research and polling, here is their top ten:
1. The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville, TN
2. 21C Museum, Louisville, KY
3. Brio, Rockford,
4. The Signature Room at the 95th, Chicago IL
5. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA

Among the remaining finalists, those placing in sixth through tenth place are as follows: El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa in Taos, New Mexico; Grand Central Terminal in New York, New York; Jerome Bettis’ grille 36 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Montville Inn in Montville, New Jersey and Iowa 80 Truck Stop in Walcott, Iowa.

The big winner...

The big winner...

I hope our TN readers can hop over to Nashville and let me know if it is all true:

The company says “tens of thousands” of people voted over two months last summer. Precise numbers are kept, well, private.

Criteria were hygiene, style and access to the public. The highfalutin honor has earned the restroom entry to “America’s Best Restroom Hall of Fame.”

“People see it and fall in love with it,” Kurtz said.

It has four stools, three urinals, four sinks, spotless mirrors and a Sultan telephone that connects to the front desk.

I think SF’s bushi-tei was robbed. Of coruse, I forgot to send in a nomination. I think I had thought that WordPress’s Internet robot things were scouring my posts and sending in nominations on my behalf.

[hat tip to quasi-reader P.S.]


Japan in a nutshell, Pt. 9

April 26, 2009

Day 9. Yokohama to Nikko. I met the “friendly guy” at breakfast again today. Yesterday (the entry for which was already too long so I didn’t mention it) a guy in the hotel’s breakfast nook started up a conversation with me, at first in English, but then mostly in Japanese. He was very nice, and just interested in what I was doing in Japan, etc. He was on a short trip with his wife and kids to the Yokohama area, from Tokyo. We talked about banal stuff of course, but he was cool, and it was cool to talk to someone who was looking to cross cultural barriers. We chatted again this AM and he wished us a pleasant trip to Nikko.

Which was pleasant. The luxury train I booked was practically empty, so we got to relax for several hours as we watched Tokyo turn into suburbs, farms and hills. I love high speed train travel; it’s so civilized compared to what flying has become. Of course, when we arrived in Nikko, a mountain town to the northwest of Tokyo, I made the guys walk uphill in cold, misty weather, dragging (or carrying, in Peter’s case) our luggage about a mile and a quarter to our Japanese inn.

They were not amused. But they were when we arrived.

Expecting someone?

Expecting someone?

Our slippers are the pairs on the left. The rest were for a high school ice hockey team that was down from the frozen north for a tournament they were holding in town. As a result, we had one half of the dining room all to ourselves …


… while the hockey team had the other. This photo gives you a decent idea of what our room looked like:


And here’s another view, from the entryway:


You sleep on the floor, see (the staff come in and move the table aside and lay out the futons while you’re eating dinner) and use the communal bathroom …


… whenever you feel like boiling yourself alive. Of course, we had our own private bathroom as well, and like most Japanese homes, a separate room for the toilet. Which required –not the above slippers mind you– but very special toilet slippers:


p.s. And don’t wear ANY slippers on tatami mats. Okay? Once we learned the ways of the ryokan, we headed out into a gray, misty late afternoon. Which wasn’t bad weather (or a bad time) for a completely deserted hike around the mountain, on a trail full of historical relics, including some that are very old …


… like this stone, which informs the visitor (in phonetic script, so that even semi-literate people could read it) that he’s entering a sacred site, so there’s “no pissing.”

Amen. Here are some other evocative images of that walk:



We took a slightly different path back, over a different hill, and as we walked down toward the main complex of temples, I had to stop. Not so much for the view, but for the complete and total silence that surrounded us in the middle of this forest.

Can you hear it?

Can you hear it?

Click below for some shots of dinner …


Meanwhile … this weekend (report)

April 25, 2009

Have you ever seen Dan concentrate really hard at something? I mean really, really hard? Well, here he is playing bocce.

Hey batter, batter...

Hey batter, batter...

The more he sticks out the tongue, the better he plays.

never drink and bocce


could not escape the paparazzi

You can never escape the paparazzi

And actually, he was the best player –beating just about all comers. Must be that ‘cricket’ experience I keep hearing about.

We enjoyed a gorgeous day up in the Napa Valley with friends trying out vineyards we hadn’t visited yet on the Silverado Trail. From a doctor who bottles just one variety and has a tasting room in his home’s beat-up enclosed porch, to a faux Persian palace worthy of Las Vegas –it looks sorta like a cross between the Forum and the Alberta Mormon temple.


Gaggles of screeching drunk bridesmaids were at that moment descending on this location (their chauffeur is on the left). Always a risk in wine country, sadly. We finished the day at another temple –Downtown Napa’s newest culinary sensation, Ubuntu–where we worshipped their amazingly delicious vegetarian food. It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to take David here when he and Lisa were visiting a few weeks back. Allie, Susan, Afton –put it on your to-do list. Five out of five meat-eaters agreed –it was one of our best meals in recent memory.

carrot ghocchetti

Go Big Orange! (aka carrot gnocchetti)

Japan in a nutshell, Pt. 8

April 23, 2009

Day 8. Kamakura and Yokohama. We started with a train ride to quaint Kita (North) Kamakura, where we stepped off into quiet streets, which quickly became quieter as we walked uphill.

Just passing through ...

Just passing through ...

The “Big Buddha hiking course” took us into the woods, and along a ridge …

A view of Kamakura

A view of Kamakura

… where we got some lovely views of the town, and the beach at its southern end. Thanks to a helpful sign (that said, “You can see Mt. Fuji from here”) we turned to our right and … voila!

Look carefully ...

Look carefully ...

It was much clearer in person, btw. We stopped along the trail to check out the “Money Washing Shrine.” Despite having lived in Kamakura, I don’t recall ever going before. Troy and Peter loved it … you enter through a tunnel in the rock:


and come out into a large grotto, with the smell of incense everywhere.


You’re supposed to wash your coins and bills in the water that flows from the spring in the cave at the back, and somehow, someway, your money will “double” in value. Or so they say.


Shinto … I love it!

We walked on, through a shady forest, over the hill and down into the valley, until our footsore eyes (?!?) beheld the mother of all tourist attractions, the instantly recognizable icon of Japanese religion … ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:

The Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

Bet you never knew he had ventilation?


You can actually go inside, for the low, low price of ¥20, so of course we did. It’s a bit claustrophobic, but neat!

A short train ride took us back to Kamakura Station, where we had some satisfying set lunches in a basement restaurant on the plaza. To give our feet a break, we took a bus from the station up the main drag (whose cherry blossoms were not quite out yet) and east, toward a small temple off the beaten path, called Hokokuji.


I was there for the bamboo, but it had a bit of everything …

Peaceful garden

Peaceful garden

… including a garden with some caves in the back, flowering plants:


… exquisite little buildings, and of course, a “Haiku Post”:

"Haiku & Hike" it says ...

"Haiku & Hike" it says ...

where I presume you’re meant to drop off your poem.


Means “tell the nation temple,”

But it’s our secret.

Below the jump, my family history, and the mystery of Saturday night’s encounter revealed!



April 21, 2009

*** NYT Crossword SPOILER alert ***

If there is anything more self-involved than blogging-as-journal-writing, I suppose it’s blogging your birthday. So here goes:

Spent the am doing the Tues. puzzle and reading the tealeaves found in the answers. What do they portend for the next year?

The good:

– classic baseball theme (Tinker to Evers to Chance)– excellent

– best clue: 37-A: “Barbers’ touch-ups” (thanks, Will!)


The bad:

– concerning fill: PUSHY, EXES, ONKP (well, that’s usually true), EGO


– “what does it mean” fill? STAY IN, LOOM, NOME

I’m not sure what Queen Elizabeth and Robert Smith of the Cure are doing today to celebrate, but we will be going over to Oakland to eat some more Japanese food and see a play at the Berkeley Rep by the guy who directed In Bruges. Yesterday we escaped this awful heatwave with a drive down the coast for: a brewpub, a goat farm, a (yet another) cute, going-out-of-business bookstore and some beach walking. I’ve lost my voice from a very mild cold and Dan was a sport and kept up the majority of the conversation all day — even more than normal.


Oh- and we found a passport photo machine on the beach.

Japan in a nutshell, Pt. 7

April 18, 2009

Day 7. Yokohama and Tokyo. I completely forgot to write this day down in my trip diary, but of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t remember it. In fact, it was a pretty simple day, and it started with a bus ride from downtown Yokohama to the south side of the bluff … a neighborhood with a freeway running through it, and tidy suburban houses. I even thought I saw a strip mall on the way to … Sankeien Gardens –a massive plot of landscaped greenspace housing the collected houses of a wealthy shipping magnate from the late 19th century. As Japan was industrializing, and as the government of the day was hostile to the Buddhist church, Mr. Hara feared that historical structures and temples were at risk of being lost, and so he bought them, and moved them to his estate, where you can now see them. It’s sort of like Dearborn Village, both in concept and in execution, except of course, it’s very Japanese …

Picture perfect ... and designed that way!

Picture perfect ... and designed that way!

I like it because you can see a real samurai villa, one that belonged to a relative of the shogun in the 17th century:


Peter made the apt observation that it was laid out in the same manner as the buildings in Nijo Castle in Kyoto. In fact, the tea house up the way (to the left) was first set up in Nijo Castle, before being shipped around the country as a gift from one daimyô to another …


As I was standing there, fantasizing about living in it, the tour guide behind me informed his audience that of course, “you could never live there because … ” (something about the architecture I didn’t really catch). Okay, so you’d have to put in a bathroom.

Anyway, I was a bit miffed that the massive farm house in the gardens, the one Mr. Hara had moved in from the mountains in Nagano, was totally closed for renovation, but I’ll catch it next time I’m in town.

We moved on … taking a bus back around the hill, to a station near Chinatown, and a 40 minute train ride directly to Shibuya.

That’s right, the playground of trendy youth, and the home of the world’s most famous intersection …


Japan in a nutshell, Pt. 6

April 15, 2009

Day 6. From Kyoto to Yokohama. We packed up and left our luggage at the hotel, and took a couple of trains to one of Kyoto’s truly impressive sights: the Sanjusangendo. Sure, it’s not much to look at from the outside, which might explain why Peter asked these guys to pose for him:


But inside, the smell of incense and ancient wood awaits you. And in the dim light, you turn a corner and look down a hall that’s easily the length of a football field, and you see …


… 1,001 life-sized statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon (the bodhisattva of mercy) arranged on risers, on either side of a massive central statue of the same deity. You walk down the corridor, past rows of fearsome guardian kings carved in wood …

Don't mess with my buddha ... "snap!"

Don't mess with my buddha ... "snap!"

… and when you find out they also hold an annual archery contest there, in which the competitors attempt to shoot arrows down the length of the gallery, you think … wow.

And they're not all exactly alike either

And they're not all exactly alike either

Troy was pleased to learn they have a well on the property whose water has the ability to cure colic in infants … it’s called the “Night Crying Well.” Well … we also stumbled upon a wedding, just getting started:

The happy couple and a couple of priests

The happy couple and a couple of priests

So that was a fun way to spend the morning before our bullet train trip to Yokohama. We got back to Kyoto Station in plenty of time to load up on bentos and drinks, and (Mom, take note) were standing on the platform at least 10 minutes before this thing pulled in …

Going my way?

Going my way?

Troy wishes every plane trip could be magically transformed into a Shinkansen ride. Two hours, and lots of scenery, whizzed by, and before we knew it, we were checking into a small but friendly business hotel in the center of Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. Peter was so jazzed by his compact little room that he took a photo of it:


But we didn’t stick around too long. I had an agenda!

Follow me below the fold … and on up to the bluff …