July 2000 Archives

Substitution of ingredients

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Substitution of ingredients is a fine art.

My collection of cookbooks contains a number of books purchased at the source. Thai cookbooks from Thailand; Singaporean food information direct from Singapore. The recipes they contain are completely authentic, down to odd local measures, seasonal vegetables with unpronouncable names, and spices that exist only in a two kilometer radius of the author's home. Trying to cook from them here in Japan is a challenge.

Last night we had friends over for a barbecue. Tod settled on satay, spiced beef on skewerd served with a chili-peanut sauce. I made gado-gado and compressed rice patties to accompany it. It was delicious, but not quite the same as when we made it in Singapore.

Shopping for exotic groceries here is a multi-step process. In Pittsburgh, I might spend a morning in the Strip, asking for something at all the oriental groceries there. But here, not only do I have to try to find blacan, a hard block of dried shrimp paste used in the gado-gado sauce, but I have to translate it into Japanese. How does it sound? What kanji might be used on the label--shrimp, dry, black, sauce, spice, foul-smelling? I haven't yet found the Tokyo equivalent of Pittsburgh's wide-ranging food wholesale district so my searching is confined to local markets or else takes me zigzagging across the entire city.

I suppose it could be worse. I have a few cookbooks in my collection that offer Asian recipes from an American perspective. They are quite amusing. "Asian barbeque sauce" combines tomatoes, green peppers and pineapple. I've never seen that in any part of Asia I've visited. The authors have obviously rewritten recipes to suit American tastes and ingredients. Ironically, I can't find their substitutions in Tokyo. I'll stick with the originals.

Screaming sirens

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Over the past few days, we seem to have entered siren season. There have been an excessive number of screaming sirens rushing past our house.

It started on Thursday when a cavalry of fire trucks flew past, decelerated and parked themselves across the street from Ban Ban Bazaar, a dry goods shop a block down the road. With the good timing that comes of procrastination, I had some dry goods on my shopping list, so I went out to buy them and to spectate with the crowd of neighbors. No idea what was going on, though. There was no smoke, no fire; I couldn't even tell which building the firemen were interested in. They were milling around as aimlessly as the onlookers.

Later that afternoon and every day since at least one each of police, ambulance and fire trucks have rifled past at top speed and top volume. Sirens aren't enough in Japan, the drivers also have a loudspeaker system that they use to continuously ask the drivers and pedestrians to move out of the way. It's always very polite, of course, when you can understand the rapid, overamplified speech.

Semi shigure

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"Semi shigure" describes the shower of cicada song that fills the air in midsummer. It is a perfect 5 syllables, just right for haiku.

Haiku, in case you've forgotten from your 8th grade English composition class, is a three line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. The poem must include words to invoke time, particularly a season. The words are often the names of plants or animals that are associatated with a certain time of year.

Oogoe de
Ame ga futeiru
Semi shigure

That's one of my own haiku which loosely translated means "Rain is falling with a loud voice, cicada showers." Haiku are difficult to write. The best ones are oblique; mine are always too direct. I claim it has to do with my lack of vocabulary, but my English ones are too direct as well.

Another day, another realtor

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Another day, another realtor

The day before yesterday, I got an unexpected phone call from Yoshii-san at Relocation House who had faxed me a floorplan a couple of weeks ago. I had made an inquiry about a house through one of the realty databases on the Internet and now Yoshii-san was following up to see if I was interested in seeing the place. I couldn't recall exactly which plan it was, and I couldn't quickly lay my hands on it (the pile of faxes on my desk is about three centimeters deep). It was easier to arrange an appointment with him than to try to explain my predicament. Goodness knows I've seen plenty of bad houses; if this was among them, it wouldn't matter.

Luckily for me, it wasn't bad at all. In fact, this out-of-the-blue place turned out to be surprisingly nice. It has reached the top of my list, in fact. Admittedly, that's not saying much, but this place was good. It had a nice blend of Western and Japanese tastes, it was large enough, bright and sunny. It isn't quite as excellent as the current house, but I could live there happily enough.

There are a few more places to visit in the next week or so. After that, I'm hoping that I will be able to make a decision and get this move out of the way.

Six month split

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Since I first read about them in classic novels, I've envied the jet-setters who split their year between two countries. Whether they were doing New York & Paris in the 1890s, or LA & New York in the 1990s, there's something about that ability to be settled, yet have change, that is extremely appealing.

And what an ideal solution for my "where am I going to live" dilemma. I can live in two places! Spend the summer in Chicago with Tod, then move to Tokyo for the winter. Maybe Tod would even come with...

Honestly, I think this may be the best solution we're going to see. Four years of discussion have yielded nothing like a single compromise city. Or even a shared country. Why not decide to make the best of both favorite places?

Being normal people, not characters in an Edith Wharton novel or members of the Screen Actor's Guild, we need to continue making a living. That will be challenging. Time to build up my international reputation as a writer; make a huge success of my book; take up the lecture circuit. Something.

There has to be a way to make this happen. Short of becoming lottery winners, I mean.

Househunting in one syllable

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Yesterday I spent 4 monosyllabic hours in a car with my realtor.

Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration; I do know a words of more than one syllable which I proved by repeating them. hiroi...akarui...kitanai...semai...

We visited five places yesterday. One won't be vacated until the end of July, so we just peeked at the outside. Of the other four, none really lit my fire. They were all OK in their way and horribly ordinary.

I like extraordinary living spaces. I also like places that are old and a little bit run-down. Already broken in. Buildings with character.

I videoed each place, to help me remember what each was like. After one or two showings, it gets hard to remember details. Which one had the chartruese bathroom? One of them had a dishwasher, right? Was there a phone jack in the bedroom? Tod viewed the tape and concurred--there's no match for us here.

So it's back to the drawing board--again. I will search at i-Size and at Chintai to see if there is anything new on the market. But I think the places I would like will come to me through word of mouth or serendipity, not from an Internet search engine.

If there's a Housing Fairy, I hope she leaves me a key under my pillow tonight.

Trash day

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Trash day and I'm up early to walk it down the block to the pickup point. All the neighbors put their trash in the same place (a big pile near a stone wall by the grocery store) and the little garbage truck comes to collect it. The trucks are cute--they are bright blue with the boxy, curved shape of a garbage truck but the size of a large pickup. Tokyo streets are very narrow; an American garbage truck would rip the walls off houses here.

We separate our gomi (garbage) into categories which are picked up on different days. Here in Sendagi, burnable trash is Monday and Thursday mornings. Non-burnables are Wednesday. Saturday is recyclables--glass, cans & newspaper. PET bottles and plastic shopping bags have drop-offs at convenience stores. If you have daigomi (big garbage) you have to call to make special arrangements.

There's not much of a resale economy here, though that is changing somewhat now that the economy has had a run of slow years. Back in the "Bubble Years" of the late 80's and early 90s, people had tons of disposable income and their slightly used or out-of-date material goods became disposable, too. Non-burnable trash days sparked urban legends (some true, no doubt). Stereo equipment, furniture, small electronics, kitchen appliances all in good working order, but no longer the fasionable color or model, would end up on the trash pile--a garbage picker's paradise. When we first arrived, I rescued some childrens books, but that's the best coup I've made on trash day.

Japan Summers

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The weather forecast predicts a 36 degree high today. Certainly the hottest day of summer. A good day to go meet a friend at Imojin and eat red bean ice and sip green tea. The office was 33 when I walked in this morning. Thank goodness for aircon.

Tokyo summers are dreadful. June brings rain, then July and August follow with their hot and humid glory.

There are plenty of distractions to keep people's spirits up. The cool blue and white patterned cotton of summer kimono; paper fans emblazoned with advertising and handed out on busy streetcorners; the delicate tinkling of glass windchimes. Nature is reproduced on the stuff of daily life--dishes, towels, clothing, linens.

Morning glories have their own summer fetivals. It's cool enough to enjoy an early morning flower festival. Thousands of pots of flowers turning their faces to the sun is a sight to see.

And at night, fireworks turn the sky into a garden of fire. There are a dozen fireworks festivals scattered around Tokyo this year. Some will attract 850,000 people. Sitting among them, it is amazing to hear the crowd fall silent as the show begins. The collective gasp at the first explosion echoes across the banks of the river.

So it's hot, but pretty. Japanese tempers never flare, like mine does. The only cranky Japanese person I've ever witnessed was 2 years old.

The veranda outside my

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The veranda outside my office is my only thriving garden. The planters out front have all shrivelled and died in the summer sun. The plants on the deck have died, too. But my peppers and basil and lavender all thrive because I seethem and remember to water them every day. I think I will bring my other plants up here to revive them.

Birds and butterflies visit my veranda. I love the trees that surround our house. I will miss this view when we move.

Today's Weather in Tokyo:


Today's Weather in Tokyo: hot and humid. (It is summer after all!)

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