Italy Again

I woke up at 3:30 am, according to my watch that I had set in the plane. I knew right away that I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, so I got out my computer and worked on it for the next 90 minutes. Just then, the phone rang with my wake up call. I was confused, since I had asked for a 6 am call, but my watch only said 5. I decided that I must be the one that was wrong, and then took a shower and got ready. As I walked down to the lobby 30 minutes later, I noticed that the clock above the stairs said 6:45 am, and figured that it must be 15 minutes fast.

The streets of Arona were dark and deserted, it seemed way too dark for 6:30, appearing more like midnight, but I decided to look around anyway. Arona left a much better impression on me than Milan had, seven months earlier. The dingy, gray, graffiti-covered buildings had been replaced by quaint stucco buildings akin to my hotel which lined the narrow streets of the village. I walked around the courtyard of an old church, and then walked down the hill to the lake front. It was still pitch black outside and I had yet to see a sole on the streets.

After circling the area, I wound up back at the hotel and saw that the cafe had opened up. I had been famished ever since I had gotten up that morning, since my eating schedule had been completely thrown off by traveling. I went inside the cafe and ordered a chocolate-filled croissant, along with a cappuccino. Maybe it was because I was hungry, but I swear that it was the best croissant that I had ever eaten- warm and buttery and flaky. I understood from the man who worked at the cafe that breakfast there was included in the price of my room.

As I walked past the front desk, I noticed that it was 6:30. That meant that I had been right about the time all along and that my wake up call had come an hour too early. As I neared my room, I could see that the clock on the stairs had not changed from when I first looked at it. I therefore set out once again for a tour of town, knowing that sunlight could not be far off. Alarmingly enough, stepping out the door of the hotel revealed that it was still completely pitch black outside. By the time I returned to the lake, however, there was a slight glow in the sky above it. After walking around some more, I was able to watch the sunrise over the lake.

I returned to the hotel once again and brought my bags downstairs in order to meet my taxi at 7:45. The same man drove me back to the airport, this time taking the main road the whole way and taking only 25 minutes to get there, but still talking to me in Italian the entire way. One bit of information I was able to gather from him this time was that Malpensa Airport was one of the busiest airports in Europe.

Upon my arrival, I could see that he was right- even though I got there 2 hours before departure; I barely made it to the gate on time. It took a full hour to check in and, by the time I got my boarding pass, it was already time to begin boarding, even though I had yet to pass through security. The line for the security checkpoint was unbelievably long- it reminded me more of our day at Disneyland, it wound back and forth so many times. Finally, after 35 more minutes, I arrived at my gate. Luckily, there was still a long line to board and I didn’t have any problems making the flight.

The flight to Chicago on a 747 didn’t have the individual screens to watch movies on, but I did catch “Ratatouille” as well as two Italian movies on the main cabin screen. I took a few cat naps during the flight, but otherwise didn’t really sleep. After we landed in Chicago, I stood at the baggage claim area, watching the luggage go around and around. Soon, there was no more on the conveyer, but still at least a dozen people standing there without luggage. The airport staff soon determined that there was no more luggage from the flight to be had and suggested that we all go through customs and fill out a claim for our lost luggage at the Alitalia ticket counter. I wasn’t particularly worried that they had lost my luggage forever, however, due to the number of people who were still missing theirs.

Trudy and the boys were waiting for me outside the arrival area, but had posted themselves at the wrong set of doors, so I went up behind Trudy and scared her by asking who she was waiting for. Soon, we embarked on a three hour drive through dense fog to get to my mother’s house. We stopped there briefly to pick up some of the things we had sent back with her during her visit, and then continued on the 90 minute ride to Galesburg, our home town. By now, the fog had given way to a light rain. Since it was Brennan’s 12th birthday, we stopped at our favorite Mexican Restaurant, El Rancherito, for a celebratory dinner, without even stopping at home yet. After our (mostly futile) search for Mexican food in Japan, it was good to be back! Brennan got to wear a sombrero and had fried ice cream for dessert.

By 8:30 pm, we finally reached our house. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Justin’s friends from high school has taken it upon themselves to dig our Christmas decorations out of our attic in order to put up a tree for us as well as put lights up in our yard. I helped Trudy unpack and put things away as long as I could, but by 11, I needed to go to bed. I had been up for over 24 hours for the second day in a row! The rain had now given way to sleet, and was supposed to turn to snow later on. I went to bed listening to the sleet hit our bedroom windows- I was definitely home.

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Leaving Japan

I woke up at 6 am, as usual, and helped Trudy with the rest of the packing. We woke the kids up at 8, and Kiyoe came by about 20 minutes later. She needed to pick up the keys to our house when we left, as well as wait for the man from the gas company, who was coming to turn off our gas. Within the next 10 minutes, Tsuneko had also arrived with Teiju; and Tadashi, along with his whole family, arrived as well. These families had agreed to take us to the airport, as our family and luggage filled more than one car load. By 9 am, we had the cars loaded with our things and we said goodbye to Kiyoe. Before we left, Mrs. Tsunomori came out with a gift for us. Just as we were pulling out, the gas man pulled up on his motorcycle, and I knew that Kiyoe would soon be on her way as well.

The 90-minute ride to the airport was fairly uneventful; the main thing I noticed this time was the cost of the tolls. Tsuneko had asked that we just reimburse her the cost of her tolls, nothing else. The total amount for her to drive from her house, in Kobe, to our house, then to the airport, and finally back home again, came to almost 6000 yen! I could see why so many people took public transportation in Japan. This was about the same price as the bus ride to and from the airport, but was obviously much more convenient.

At the airport, we had even more friends waiting to see us off. Yuko and her daughter Ayaka had taken the bus to the airport, along with Shohei. Including the newcomers, our entourage had now grown to 9 people! Everyone waited while we checked in to our flights, Trudy and the boys to Northwest, heading to Detroit, and I to Alitalia. Since I had gotten a round trip ticket with the latter, I was headed to Italy once again on my way back home. There was a little drama when we had to convince the former airline to check one extra piece of luggage, my poster, without charging us any extra, but it all worked out in the end. By the time we had checked in, we had less than an hour to get to our gates, so we said our goodbyes to everyone just before passing through the security checkpoint.

At 12:30, the Northwest flight began boarding, the family was on board 10 minutes later, and I headed to the other end of the terminal to board my flight by 1:10. For the next 12 hours, I caught up on all of the American movies I had missed while I was in Japan. I didn’t want to sleep on the plane so that I would hopefully be able to sleep through the night in Italy. Since we had little movie screens in front of each seat, as well as video on demand, I watched “The Pirates of the Caribbean III”, “The Simpsons Movie”, “Waitress”, “The Hoax”, as well as most of “Transformers”, before we landed.

There was a man waiting for me with my name on a sign as I exited baggage claim. I had booked a hotel that was in the opposite direction as Milan from the airport, figuring that I could see a different part of Italy this time around. The airport shuttle was the same price as the room at the hotel, but the total of the two still ended up being about the same price as the hotels which were right by the airport, with the added benefit of seeing some more sights. The “shuttle” ended up being a guy in a taxi, which was fine with me. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t speak much more Italian, but this didn’t stop him from talking to me the entire 40 minute trip to the hotel, which was located in the town of Arona, a town of 15,000 on the shore of Lake Maggiore, in the foothills of the Alps.

The few things that I thought I understood from my driver was that he was pointing out various sights as we traveled to Arona, as well as explaining why he left the main road and cut through various towns using the narrow side streets, along the way. The one Italian word I could understand, that he kept saying was “traffico”. The trip took twice as long as they had promised on their website and the man’s taxi meter nearly read twice as much as they had quoted me as the shuttle price by the time we neared the hotel. The thought did occur to me that the man might just be driving me around side streets in order to run up the meter, but when we arrived at the Hotel Spagna, my fears were allayed when they charged me the quoted price, despite the delay.

The hotel was in a narrow stucco building just off the main street through town and was fronted by a little cafe. The twenty-something man at the counter that evening was the only person I encountered at the hotel which spoke a little English, but I was certainly used to this after my seven months in Japan. I climbed the central staircase to my room, which was sparsely furnished but colorfully painted, complete with original artwork hanging on the walls, and went straight to bed, it was only 9 pm in Italy but was equivalent to 5 am in Japan and I had been up for nearly 24 hours!

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Cleaning Up

I hurried to catch the 8:00 bus for the first time in a long time, knowing that it would be my best opportunity to say goodbye to my fellow foreigners who usually rode that bus. Sure enough, Peter, the Slovakian, was there, along with two of my Chinese acquaintances. Unfortunately, my two best friends, Siddick and Su Yung, were nowhere to be seen.

Once I arrived, I spent some time straightening up my bench, but soon decided that I had better collect the papers that I would need to do my fifth writing assignment from America. I went through the stack of papers that I had already gathered for the previous review paper and made sure I had electronic copies of all of the relevant ones, since there was no way I could take home paper copies of them all. I also searched for, and downloaded, a number of other papers that I thought would be helpful. In the process, I organized the books and papers that were above my desk, either throwing them away, or stacking them neatly in piles.

Around noon, I suggested that Kiyoe and I go out for lunch one last time. We went to the top floor of the engineering building and had their “Christmas Lunch”, which consisted of both roast beef as well as pork medallions, in addition to the usual accompaniments. After we ate, Kiyoe stopped by the Post Office with me, to ensure that there was no misunderstanding about exchanging the money. When we returned to lab, I took the opportunity to give Kiyoe the gift that Trudy had picked up for her while we were in Tokyo- a beautiful decorative platter.

Although I had originally expected to be leaving early on my final day at work, cleaning up my bench and cataloging the samples that I wished to leave for future experiments ended up taking up the rest of the afternoon. At 5:30, I finally said my final goodbyes to my lab mates and caught the next bus home. There, Trudy and the boys were waiting to go to our favorite restaurant one final time. But first, we walked to the International House to pick up our Austrian friends so that they could accompany us. We waited there for a while for Bernard, who did not know of our plans, to come home, but finally decided to go without him around 7 pm. As we readied to leave, I ran into Su Yung, my Korean friend, coming from the latest bus to arrive on campus, and was able to bid him farewell.

Gabi, Thomas, and Benjamin then walked with us to Cha Cha’s, where we had our last supper. Justin and Brennan spent almost the entire time practicing speaking in German; I noted that if they had practiced Japanese with such vigor, they would probably have learned a lot more of it. That was one of the biggest surprises I had experienced in Japan- how little Japanese they had learned, despite hearing it spoken to them for almost 40 hours per week. The boys insisted that their teachers never actually attempted to teach them Japanese, that they just spoke to them and expected them to eventually catch on, which they never truly did.

After yet another memorable meal of Indian food, we walked home across campus, where we ran into Bernard coming in the other direction. Apparently, he had gone Christmas shopping for his family after work and had just found the note that they had left him. We dropped our friends off at their place, and continued home, where we finished the last-minute packing. We went to bed around 11, exhausted, leaving some of the packing for the next morning.

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Speaking Engagement

I needed to close out our bank accounts, so I left with Brennan and took the monorail to Senri Chuo. I had gone a little early, since I had realized that I actually had no idea where our bank was located. Kiyoe had driven me there the day I opened the account, so I knew only of its general location, not how to get there using public transport. Since then, we had made exclusively electronic deposits and withdrawals, and had not had to step foot into the bank a second time until now. I spend about 15 minutes circling the entire mall, looking at all the nearby buildings, when I finally stopped and asked a policeman where it was located. He pointed me in the right direction, and soon I had reached it- finding that it was almost directly underneath the monorail station, but that I had passed the stairway leading down to it early on in my quest! Despite this, I still arrived as the bank was opening, at 9 am. I inquired to the teller about closing my account, and she asked for my bank book and ATM card. I had brought the former, but had left the latter in Trudy’s purse!

I ended up taking the monorail home, getting the card, and taking it back to the bank. This took about 40 minutes, but at least I knew how to find the bank! I finally closed the account and re-boarded the monorail, taking it to work for what would probably be the last time. As soon as I arrived, I started my samples from the previous evening spinning in the centrifuge. Luckily, journal club had been cancelled, otherwise I would have missed it. This meant that my last journal club in Japan, two weeks prior, was also one of my favorite ones- the one about stem cells.

Soon, I had my samples running on a gel and headed to the Post Office to close out our account there. Unfortunately, there were 12 people on line ahead of me there, so I took a number and returned to my lab to check on the gel, which I would not be able to interpret the results of if run for too long. They were calling my number just as I returned to the Post Office, so I hurried to the counter and told them of my request. What I really wanted was to convert our yen to U.S. dollars before returning to America, but they said that they didn’t exchange money at that location, and that I needed to go to a branch on the other side of campus in order to do that. They then decided that they had better call the branch ahead of time, upon learning that I wanted to change all of our remaining funds, which came to a substantial amount. In the end, I was glad that they called, since that branch wanted me to return the following afternoon, after they had gotten a fresh shipment of American dollars.

I got back to the lab just in time to take my gel off and put it into stain for an hour. While I waited, I worked the final talk that I needed to give- a speech for kanji table. They had scheduled me to talk that afternoon for a few minutes in Japanese, so I had slightly altered Justin’s PowerPoint presentation on our summer vacation and decided to describe it to the class. I didn’t really write anything out that I was going to say, but I did jot down a few vocabulary words that I was unfamiliar with. At 2:30, headed to kanji table, laptop in hand.

After a considerable amount of time messing with the projection system in the room, the class finally got underway and my speech seemed to be well received. I took a few minutes at the end to say farewell and thank everyone for their friendship. My “five minute” talk ended up lasting about half an hour, all told, but nobody seemed to mind. Another person gave his last speech to class following mine, he spoke Japanese much better than I did but didn’t have any exciting visual aids. After he finished, I decided that I should probably head back to lab, rather than spend the remaining hour practicing more kanji.

I scanned the gel and soon had the results from my final experiment in front of me- the mystery samples only contained histone H1, not any of the core histones that we had expected to be there. We weren’t sure how or why this linker histone could completely replace the others, but this finding was consistent with both the enzyme digestion results I had obtained, as well as those from the ultracentrifuge. To find out exactly what was going on, however, would require further study, and my contribution to the work had come to an end.

I took the 4:35 bus home in order to make a 5:30 meeting at Justin’s school. Justin’s principal was there waiting for us, but soon excused himself and had us meet with his interpreter, Noriko. She went over his report card with us and discussed how the school year went. After awhile, Justin’s principal returned and we gave them both a parting gift. Soon, we were back on a train, heading to Mikuni for one last time. There, we walked over to Brennan’s favorite kaiten sushi place for dinner.

After we ate, we went to midweek service and watched a lesson from the Tokyo church on video. It was one of the most inspiring lessons we had heard so far, not just because it was in English, but because the speaker challenged us to always strive to growing as a Christian. He was very humorous and had a very positive outlook on life, something I hoped to always emulate. Afterward, we said our last goodbyes to the church members and finally dragged ourselves away about 10 pm, taking the train home for the very last time. We got home about 11 and went straight to bed.

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Parting Gifts

Instead of going to work first thing in the morning, I instead walked to Brennan’s school with him to pay for his final month of lunches there. Normally, they did an automatic withdrawal from a bank account that we had established expressly for this purpose, but it was not the normal time to make an automatic withdrawal, and our account balance was running low, besides. I then walked to Ishibashi and took the train to Toyonaka.

Brennan’s Japanese teacher had just happened to call the previous morning and mention that we needed to go to the Toyonka Municipal Hall by this day to fill out paperwork to withdraw the kids from school on the following Thursday. We hadn’t known anything about this previously, but I guessed that I should probably do it, although I wondered what would happen if we just left without jumping through all the required hoops, which also included returning to Brennan’s school to turn in the form that I had just picked up. The form was nothing more than a half sheet of paper with Brennan’s name and school written on it, but it carried a stamp from the Japanese equivalent of the Board of Education, so I guess that is why I had spent 90 minutes to retrieve it.

After this, I walked to the bank to close out Brennan’s school account and then walked to Justin’s school to turn in the same form for him. His school had actually not requested one, but I figured I had better be safe than sorry. I then stopped by our house to pick up my briefcase and finally left for work on the 11:20 bus, arriving there just before noon. Anna had beaten me in to work for the second day in a row. She, following her group meeting, was feeling a little down about the way her experiments had been going, so I took the opportunity to give her a little parting gift that Trudy had picked up for her: a notebook, a gel pen, and a pendent for her cell phone (a very common thing to have in Japan). This did seem to cheer her up a bit.

Kiyoe and I had scheduled a lunch meeting with the professor who was an expert in ultracentrifugation at 1 pm, so I just had time to stain and scan my gel, then discuss the results with Kiyoe, before it was time to go to lunch. The gel showed that the samples in question weren’t complete chromosomes, but that they did not consist of “naked” DNA, either. We therefore still did not have an answer to what they really were.

We met the professor, along with three of the students from his lab (including Saeki, who I had already met and trained in some lab techniques), at a French restaurant which was located in the building next door to ours, but that I had never realized was there. After the standard introductions were conducted in English, Kiyoe and the professor proceeded to discuss their future plans in Japanese. While I didn’t really contribute to our meeting at any concrete level, it seemed that my presence at Osaka University had brought about a deeper level of collaboration between our research groups.

The professor who organized the molecular biology class stopped by at 3, along with his associate that had also attended my class. They wanted to thank me again for my teaching efforts before I left and gave me a certificate of appreciation, along with a sweatshirt which read “Osaka University” in kanji. Soon after that, Kiyoe and I devised a plan to find out what our mystery sample consisted of. I would add a particular kind of acid to an aliquot of the sample, which would precipitate all of the proteins in it, allowing me to concentrate them enough to run a protein gel. After doing this, however, I left the samples in the refrigerator overnight, since Kiyoe’s protocol called for at least a 6 hour treatment. Before leaving for the day, I walked over to the IPR for one last time, and gave Sakari-san a gift to thank her for all of her hard work. I also showed her the poster that I had presented at the meeting, figuring that she would appreciate seeing how everything worked out in the end.

I took the 5:35 bus home and, after meeting the family there, we all walked to the restaurant called Friendly. There, I ordered pizza, despite the fact that I had eaten it the previous evening, while Brennan had a plate of mussels over pasta, and Justin had steak with all-you-could-eat salad bar. We played spades for a while after we got home, where Brennan staged a come-from-behind victory at the last minute. We all went to bed fairly early.

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Final Meeting

I went in to work wanting to accomplish one more thing: to characterize what the fraction of chromosome that did not precipitate in the presence of magnesium consisted of. I had not had time to pursue this before leaving for the meeting, but I really wanted to know before I left Japan. Anna was at her desk when I got in, a very rare occurrence. She had actually been there all night preparing for her group meeting that would take place later that afternoon. I took three of the samples that had given me material in the supernatants of my magnesium precipitations previously and treated them again. I then split what ended up in my pellets after spinning in the centrifuge with what stayed in solution, and cut the samples with enzymes. Later, I poured a gel to run in the coldroom overnight.

At 4:30, I attended what would be my final group meeting in Japan. As usual, two people were presenting their results for a total of 90 minutes. The final person to go was Anna, who presented in English. Thus, after 7 months of weekly group meetings, I finally attended one that I could completely understand. At 6, I loaded my gel and then left for home on the 6:35 bus.

Trudy and the boys met me at the bus stop but wanted to stop by the International House to use the internet before we got something for dinner, so I dropped them off there and went home to exchange laptops, since the one I borrowed for work did not have a wireless card. Trudy, Justin, and Brennan then proceeded to use the internet in procession, each then leaving for home after they had finished. Finally, after my turn came, I checked a few things and then walked to Chicago Delighta to order some pizza; it was about 8 pm by this time.

While I waited for the pizza, I walked home and dropped off the computer, retrieving Justin for the return trip to the restaurant. We ate our pizza on the couch, watching an old episode of “The Office”, since new episodes were still not being produced back home. We went to bed soon after our late dinner ended.

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Church’s Farewell

We got up and left for church like usual, arriving around 11 am. Ric, a Filipino man who would be returning to his country in January, gave the message. He gave an emotional sermon about making it through some difficult times, including his battle with cancer, and told of his wife and child needing to return to the Philippines without him 6 months earlier. After service, the church had a farewell party for my family, as well as for Ric. We ordered bento lunches and, after we had eaten them, sat in a row of chairs facing the church as they said their goodbyes. Behind our chairs, the members had posted a sign that read “Thank you”.

We started by playing a game where we all picked questions to answer about our stay in Japan, such as our favorite thing there, the hardest thing about our stay, and what we would bring back to America if we had the chance. Brennan and I both chose the latter question out of the container which was filled with them. He said that he would like to take all of the people in the church back with us, while I said that, next to all of our Japanese friends, one thing that America could use was some beautiful shrines like the ones I had seen in Japan. The whole family was then given parting gifts: I was given a book about raising a godly family, while Trudy got a beautiful table cloth, and the boys got shirts with Japanese writing on them. People then stood up and took turns sharing about how we had touched their lives while we were living in Japan- it was a bitter sweet moment for us, we were exciting about finally returning home but knew that we would miss all the new friends that we had made.

After the party, a cake was brought out a for those who had birthdays coming up. Brennan shared in the festivities, since his birthday would be the day after we left Japan. Throughout the afternoon, we continued to take many pictures of all of us posing with our church family. Everyone, including us, seemed to be reluctant to leave, but we eventually made our way home around 4 pm. That night for dinner we walked over to the McDonalds in Mino-o. We went to bed at a decent hour once again, in order to be ready for our last week of work and school.

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The Talk

I woke up early and left the house by 7:30, before the rest of the family was awake. I took the train in to Yokohama once again and headed over to the convention center, this time going into the tall building which was filled with individual meeting rooms, instead of to the main hall. I found the room that I was to give my talk in before anyone else had arrived, with the exception of a few people who were setting up the audiovisual equipment. I gave a flash drive which contained the slides for my talk to a man who was seated behind a computer, and he promptly made a copy of my presentation. I finally bought a coffee from a nearby vending machine and returned to the room to wait for the meeting to begin.

The session I was talking at started at 9:15 and was set to run until 11:45, I had been scheduled to be the penultimate speaker for the day, at about 11:25. About 200 people gathered for the session that day, which dealt exclusively with histones and their reconstitution into chromosomes. The first two hours of talks were in Japanese but were a little more understandable than the usual talk I had attended, owing to my increased familiarity with the subject material. Kiyoe came in just as the first talk got underway, having taken the shinkansen from Osaka that morning. As the talks progressed, I took note that Hitoshi got up and asked a question after almost every one. The talk before mine also ended up being in English, since the speaker was a Romanian girl who was working at Nagoya University.

Finally, it was my turn at the lectern. I started by thanking the organizers of our session for inviting me to speak, along with Kiyoe for giving me the opportunity to work in her lab. I then went on to describe how the levels of the two linker histones we had studied changed during embryonic development. I also summarized the system that Kiyoe had developed which would allow miniature chromosomes to be assembled in the lab. While she had previously just used DNA wrapped around two octamers of histones to form two “nucleosomes”, we had now increased the number to twelve. Before describing my results, I gave some background information on how the analytical ultracentrifuge worked.

I had talked for about 6 of my allotted 8 minutes before I was finally able to turn to my own work. I didn’t mention the first 5 months that I had spent making recombinant histones which didn’t end up forming chromosomes which were able to fold up in solution, but instead focused on the more recent research that had actually worked. I gave a detailed description of how the chromosomes had responded to the addition of more and more of the linker histones, emphasizing the differences we had seen between the two. To finish, I explained how we had begun investigating chromosome folding using the chimeric histones, but that the results were still fairly inconclusive. I finished my talk approximately on time and was then able to answer a few questions before the last speaker took the stand. Hitoshi, of course, asked a question, as did a few others. I was, however, fairly confident that I had been able to answer them satisfactorily.

The speaker which followed me was originally scheduled to speak in Japanese but had, as he explained, changed it to English when he realized that Bob Roeder was going to be in attendance. Bob, who was visiting from the Rockefeller Institute in New York, was one of the pioneers of the field and was therefore well-known to the meeting’s participants. I intended to seek him out and introduce myself to him after the meeting came to a close, but, as I scanned the room for him, found that he was already coming up to me. He had a few questions and was generally excited about our work. He suggested that he might be interested in collaborating with Kiyoe, who had also joined our conversation, sometime in the future. Before I left, Kiyoe told me that she was quite pleased with how my talk had gone and was encouraged by the positive response to it.

I took the train back to Takadanobaba and called Trudy to see if they had eaten lunch yet. Hearing that they had, I picked up lunch at McDonalds and then joined them at Don’s apartment. We left around 2 pm in order to make it to the airport for our 4:20 flight. To get to Haneda Airport, we once again boarded a JR train, this time taking it to the end of the Tokyo Monorail line. The monorail soon delivered us back to the airport, where we boarded our flight for home, arriving in Kobe by 6 pm.

We were all pretty tired by the time we retraced our steps back home from Kobe airport, taking the Port Liner train and then the Hankyu railway, changing trains twice before finally arriving in Ishibashi. On our ride home, we decided to go to Gyoza no Osho one last time for dinner. Trudy, however, didn’t feel like walking over there, so the boys and I went together and ordered Trudy’s food as take out as we prepared to leave. Trudy, meanwhile, had been busily putting things away from our trip. We were all ready for bed when the time came.

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Disney Sea

We got up early and arrived at Disney Sea right when it was opening at 9 am. Upon my return to Tokyo, I had planned from the beginning to visit Disneyland, which I had not yet seen, but had then decided that a second trip to Disney Sea could not hurt. After all, I expected the experience to be much different with the family than when Kristin and Christie had accompanied me there. Disney Sea was built around an artificial lake, somewhat resembling the Epcot Center in that respect, and had themed “ports” which were all loosely based on the sea.

We decided to use a strategy similar to that which we used for conquering Disneyland, circling the park in a counterclockwise fashion to make sure we hit everything. That meant that we began in Venice riding gondolas out into the central lake and back again. On my first visit, I had surmised that the boats were on tracks, like almost every other Disney attraction featuring “boat rides”, but this time I came to believe that they were actual gondolas. This theory was further confirmed by seeing someone being trained to pilot the gondola on our way back to the dock and seeing the boat drift back and forth while they tried to steer it.

We then made our way to the “American Waterfront” and went to the “Tower of Terror”, the newest attraction in the park, which had not yet opened when I had last visited. I knew what to expect, however, since I had gone to MGM Studios in Florida when I was there for a meeting in November of 2006. We ended up waiting 40 minutes for this ride, the longest that we would end up waiting for any ride that day. The fact that it was a winter weekday, along with the fact that Disney Sea was reportedly not as popular with families that had younger kids, all meant that the park never was particularly crowded that day. The kids liked the Tower of Terror the best of any rides, while Trudy found the free-falling experience in pitch dark quite horrifying.

We then rode an elevated train to “Port Discovery”, where the virtual reality “StormRider” could be found. I, however, decided to sit this one out, since I had found out the hard way that it wasn’t really for me. Instead, I went over to check out the wait time on the rides that were located inside of the massive, centrally located volcano which dominated the park. On the way, I spied a restaurant that I thought we might like to eat at for lunch- a Mexican cantina that was located nearby. I then returned to the StormRider in time to see the family coming out and accompanied them to the aquatic bumper car ride that was located next to it. We next entered the volcano to ride the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea before we ate lunch.

At the cantina, our 6 month quest to eat Mexican food together as a family finally came to an end! After four failed attempts to go to Los Incas in Umeda, Lisa and her family had accompanied Justin and I to the other place we found around the corner, but Trudy and Brennan had missed that trip altogether- something we all agreed was not such a bad thing to have missed. This time, we were all pleased with the Mexican fare, and were pleasantly surprised when a Mariachi band took the stage and began to serenade us.

After lunch, we caught the live Little Mermaid singing revue where the actors “floated” around the theater suspended by cables, then we went on “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, which ended up being Trudy’s favorite ride. There, an exploratory vehicle took us on a tour “underground” before turning into a fast-paced rollercoaster to end the ride. Since we were then in the roller coaster mood, we next headed to the “Lost River Delta” to go on another one.

The final area of the park was the “Arabian Coast”, where we saw “Sinbad’s Seven Voyages” and then went to catch a 3D movie featuring Aladdin and the Genie. While Brennan and I waited in line for the show, Trudy and Justin went to ride the nearby carousel. Unfortunately, they let us in to the theater while the others were still on the ride, and the two pairs of us ended up seeing it separately. After a quick return to the river delta to ride an Indiana Jones-themed ride, we returned to America and had dinner at a New York Deli.

After we ate, we just had enough time to tour the cruise ship that was docked nearby before going to see the nightly show where Mickey Mouse rode the “water spirit” boat out into the central lake to do battle with the “fire spirit” dragon. Although the park had not appeared crowded all day, it seemed like everyone that was there had crowded around the lake to watch the show. Afterward, the kids and I wanted to go to the “Tower of Terror” one last time before leaving for the night, while Trudy headed to the park entrance to watch the closing firework show as well as to do a little shopping.

For the second time in a week, we found ourselves leaving a Disney theme park just as it was closing and then trekking across Tokyo to arrive at our surrogate apartment after 11 pm, completely exhausted.

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One Final Shrine

I had promised the family another “down day”, which was just as well, since it was raining when we woke up. I grew restless, however, as the morning wore on and wanted to get out of the house, rain or shine. There was one more shrine that I was interested in seeing, the Meiji Jingu Shrine, the most famous shrine in Tokyo and home to the largest Tori gates in all Japan. The family, however, was officially “shrined out”, as the kids had no interest in going, and even Trudy took a little convincing. Although I had originally planned on attending various talks at the meeting the following day, I agreed to accompany the family to Disney Sea, instead, in exchange for her company at one final shrine. Besides, I figured that most of the talks were going to be in Japanese, and that I would probably understand little at the meeting.

Before we set out, we borrowed umbrellas from Don’s stash that he kept between his two apartments and then went to get lunch in Shibuya. The rain had slowed to a slight drizzle by this point and eventually stopped altogether. Trudy was interested in going to TGIFridays again, since she was almost as burned out on Japanese food as she was on shrines. We shared an appetizer for lunch and then took the train to Harajuku, where Meiji Jingu was located. I had actually stayed very close to the shrine the previous year when I had visited Japan and stayed at the Olympic Youth Hostel, but I did not learn of its existence until later.

We walked into Yoyogi Park and soon found ourselves at one of the two huge tori gates. The gates were the natural color of dark cypress wood, instead of being painted orange, as was most typical with other tori gates. They dated from the 3rd century, even though the shrine itself had not opened until 1920 to honor Emperor Meiji, making it one of the newest in Japan. We continued to walk into the park until we encountered the 2nd tori gate, reaching the main shrine soon after that. The shrine was nearly deserted. I tried to picture what it would look like on New Year’s Eve, when millions of people passed through to pay their respects, it being tradition to visit three shrines on that day to usher in the new year.

We left the shrine in the opposite direction from which we had come and eventually found ourselves at the next-closest train station. We rejoined the kids at the apartment, they had gone out for lunch at a nearby rice bowl restaurant, but had otherwise taken it easy. At 6 pm, we once again hooked up with Don and Bryce for dinner, this time going to an American diner-style restaurant known for its hamburgers. We all went to bed fairly early in order to get rested up for Disney Sea.

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