October 2000 Archives

Halloween doesn't get a

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Halloween doesn't get a lot of notice in Japan.

Like most Western, Christian holidays, Halloween in Japan is more of a marketing idea than a day of fun or celebration. Only this one hasn't caught on the way Valentine's Day has.

I've seen very few jack o'lanterns, ghosts or witches in stores. I know of one shop that caters to foreigners and young Japanese; it has decorations and costumes. There is not a single bit of Halloween candy to be found.

Tonight at 9 pm, a group of crazy, costumed foreigners will gather to ride the Yamanote line, the train line that makes a loop around Tokyo. The train copmpny frowns on this gathering, but when the conductor chases the costumed revellers off, they just reboard another train. I think the train officials have begun turning a blind eye; the other passengers certainly do!

Wouldn't you, if a six foot-tall goblin was standing in front of you on the train?

The phone ringing in

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The phone ringing in the night is a demon screaming.

As a kid, my parents drilled into me that people don't call in the middle of the night unless its bad news. I don't think that we ever had one of those calls when I was a kid--news of a death in the family, or a similar tragedy--but the tenet was still in effect.

So now when the phone rings at an odd hour I expect the worst. So far, it's always been a night-owl friend calling to say hello or someone miscalculating the time difference. "Oh, it's 3 am there? I thought it was 9...sorry!"

But this morning at 5:40 the phone rang and I didn't get to it in time. Our current configuration of phones is such that our answering machine isn't working anymore. So I don't know who it was or what it was about.

My morbid imagination has played through all of the scenarios. But the demon's still screaming in my head, taunting me.

Lunch is a treat

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Lunch is a treat. I found a great little bento shop nearby.

Bento, the traditional Japanese box lunch, is one of my favorite meals. Half the box is rice; the other half is bits and dollops of vegetables, tofu, meats, fish and other dishes.

The bento shop in our neighbohood has a unique feature. You get to select your own dollops and bits from their display of dishes. When Tod & I went yesterday, there were easily 2 dozen things to choose among.

After much deliberation, I selected shitake mushrooms simmered in a sweet broth, spinach and tofu cooked in a smoky broth, cabbage cooked with carrots and a wiener. The woman who put our beno together thoughtfully added a small bonus--two spheres of konnyaku (devil's tongue starch) flanked my weiner. Very cute.

Last night after dinner,

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Last night after dinner, Tod & I stopped for coffee and dessert at a coffee shop that captured our eye.

The sign was decorated with a mosaic of elephants, and carved wooden elephants lined the display case. The name of the shop is "Zou no ko" which means Elephant Child.

One middle-aged man tended the 30 seat restaurant. Hand-lettered signs tacked up on the walls gave the menu and prices. We opted for a 700 yen cake set.

"Your choice of cake, " he said, gesturing to the glass case at the front of the restaurant. We selected our cakes while he started the coffee.

He used a vacuum pot, a contraption that looks like it came straight from a chemistry lab. Over a gas flame, a round glass pot of water comes to a boil. Snugly fit inside its rim is a tall, cylindrical container with the ground coffee. A pipe connects the two and allows steam to reach the coffee grounds. When the grounds are wet and the lower pot is almost empty, the flame is cut and the finished coffee flows back down into the lower chamber which turns into a serving vessel.

Coffee made this way is really wonderful and Zou no Ko did it well. Yet another handy neighborhood amenity.

The sun rose early

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The sun rose early this morning. Maybe I just went to bed too late.

The entire country is one time zone--pretty impressive for a land that spans 20 degrees of longitude. That's about the same as New York to St. Louis.

Hokkaido has it worst. Not only are they at the eastern edge of Japan, but they're pretty far north, too. The sun rose there at 5:43 this morning and they'll see sunset at 4:15 this afternoon. On the other side of Japan, Okinawa's day started almost an hour later at 6:34.

Tokyo saw the sun at 5:56. Our daylight ends just before 5 this evening.

Tonight, knowing that the sun rises at six, I will go to bed earlier. 10 pm would give me eight hours of darkness.

(You can find out what time your sun rises at Heavens-Above)

A week after arriving

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A week after arriving home from Italy, my brain is still swaddled in in the wooly feel of jetlag.

This morning I slept until 8:10. I had to get the trash to the pickup point by 8:30. So I leapt out of bed, quickly gathered all the trashcans and other garbage and made a run for it.

The trash truck was a few minutes late, thank goodness.

I must find something that will cut through this wooliness. Melatonin is illegal in Japan, so I hope coffee will do the trick...

The cupboard's been bare

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The cupboard's been bare since we moved in, so yesterday afternoon I shopped along one of my nearby arcades.

I bought one item at each of four or five stores. The old ladies who ran the tiny shops were pretty calm about a foreigner coming to buy katsuobushi, kombu and mikan. But when I pointed to some homemade nuka-zuke, a sort of Japanese pickle, and asked if I could put them in a plastic bag, the shopkeeper launched into a happy tirade.

"Oh, you like nuka-zuke? They are very delicious. We make these ourselves. I didn't know that foreigners like nuka-zuke. How many did you want?" she said as she reached for a bag.

So this morning's breakfast will be pickles and onigiri, rice sandwiches, made from last night's rice and seaweed paper. Mmmmm. Honest.

Expats come and go.

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Expats come and go. That's a way of life here. You have to make friends fast because they might be gone in a couple of months.

But when expatriates leave, they have "sayonara sales" to sell off the furniture, appliances and other items they don't want to ship back. So we get good prices on slightly used items.

Several friends have left this year and we've acquired books, a Dreamcast, plants and kitchen goods including a lifetime supply of Jell-o pudding.

Pat, who worked at the bank, is returning to America next week. We are the proud second owners of her dressers and bookcases, a heater and a lamp. She threw in some bonus goods, too. Now we have more hangers than we have closet space.

Thank goodness for our

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Thank goodness for our electronic Japanese dictionary.

We carry our Canon Wordtank everywhere. Last night at dinner with friends it came in handy several times. What's the Japanese word for "brisket"? Kantan means simple, but so does tonboku. Which one is better? How do you say "nuclear physics" in Japanese?

All these hurdles came up during dinner and the Wordtank leapt them, if not gracefully, at least with some ease.

BTW, brisket is mune nikku.

Our phone has started

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Our phone has started talking to us.

We tried to configure our ISDN terminal adapter to do what we wanted--route our two phone numbers to separate phones. Doesn't seem like a big challenge. But we still don't have it right. All of our phones ring no matter which number is dialled.

The phone displays caller ID now, when the caller doesn't send ID, it shouts something at us in Japanese. I think it's saying "Unidentified caller! Beware!"

That's awfully clever, but why can't we get it to ring the right phone?

Japan Webgrrls 4th Anniversary

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Today, one day only. Japan Webgrrls 4th Anniversary event, e-Lifestyles

This is the volunteer project that's eaten up all my spare time this fall. In fact, it's eaten all my sleep, too, at least last night. We'll have a video premiere, "e-Lifestyles" demonstrations, speakers and a keynote presentation. Plus refreshments, and really great door prizes.

Registrations are accepted at the door. We open at 2:30 and run through 8 pm tonight. Even if you're not interested in computing, it might be worth the 3,000 yen entry fee to see me trying to hide my jet-lag/video production lack of sleep with makeup and coffee.

Chanko nabe

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Chanko nabe is what makes sumo wrestlers fat.

Last night, too tired to cook at home, we had dinner at Kushikyu, a chain of restaurants that focuses on food to eat while swilling beer and whiskey. (I think of Kushikyu as the Denny's of the drinking set)

They were having a special on chanko nabe, so we indulged. Chanko nabe's a hearty soup of meat, fish and vegetables. Sumo wrestlers eat it in huge quantities. I shared a bowl with Tod last night. Recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen, of course, but I liked ours.

Large chunks of chicken, fish, and tofu swam in a clear chicken broth along with spinach, cabbage, onion and several varieties of mushrooms. Thick, wheaty udon noodles rounded out the dish.

I can see why sumo stars can eat this every day. It's delicious, like Mom's chicken soup on steroids. I could have eaten two bowls myself.

4:00 am, Tokyo

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At 4:00 am, Tokyo is very quiet.

The hum of my computers drowns out the distant sounds of sparse traffic. Birds are asleep; school children are asleep. The construction sites all around me are still.

The sun is waiting in the wings for his cue to come onstage. The sky is inky; streetlights dot the roads with circles of blue white light.

And I am up writing and working in this cool, quiet morning. Soon enough, the trash trucks will cruise by, commuters will parade past the house on their way to the station, and the world will wake up. But I'll have several hours of work tucked in under my belt. Maybe I can take a nap this afternoon.

Ah, home

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Ah, home.

The familiar sounds and smells of Tokyo welcomed me back home this evening. The musical train announcements, the sound of bicycles swerving to avoid pedestrians, the scents of oden and ramen wafting over the smell of car exhaust.

It's good to be home.

Travel weary

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How can I be here in Italy and have nothing to say?

I'm not sure, but I think jetlag has finally hit me. I could curl up under the table and sleep now (it's 11 am here). My powers of observation are limited to Internet points and caffe bars. Please, more caffeine and a 'Net connection.

Of course this is an art mecca and there are hundreds of famous paintings and statues within a 500 meter radius of my seat at this Internet station. Sure, there's plenty of glorious architecture just waiting to be viewed. But I'll skip it all for a nap and a book.

Don't let anyone fool you; travel is tiring. Caffe espresso, anyone?


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Today is a full moon, Friday the 13th, and our 11th wedding anniversary.

Normally on our anniversary, we visit the place where we were married--Pittsburgh's South Side--to stroll the streets, windowshop the antique stores and dine at Dairy Queen, just as we did on the day we eloped. This year, we strolled over the Ponte Vecchio and gawked at the jewelry, and ate gelato on a hilltop overlooking Florence.

"Level UP!" as they say in Tokyo.

Layers of Rome

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Rome is amazing.

Layer upon layer of history. We came across an aquaduct last night whose ancient water line was at street level. It's supporting arches were excavated to a depth of about 10 meters below the street.

Everywhere we turn there are more old things to see. Churches, temples, scavenged columns, Bernini churches and sculptures, Baroque and Rennaissance buildings side by side. History really comes alove here. It's bewildering but beautiful.

Rome is also a city for coffee lovers. We've already been into three bars this morning (coffee bars, not pubs) for caffe--a single shot of espresso. A mere 1,200 lira (about 60 cents) gives us enough caffeine to help counter the weird jet lag we're experiencing.

This afternoon we visit the Vatican. Tomorrow we're off to Florence.

I miss rice

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I miss rice.

I can understand why Japanese people seek out Japanese restaurants when they travel abroad. I am so sick of American food. Please, some miso soup and tsukemono!

Alas, it is not to be. I leave America tomorrow for Italy. In fact, for the next week postings will be erratic. I'll be in Italy and although there are plenty of cafes and coffee bars (I'm looking forward to that heavenly Italian espresso), I don't know how many of them have Internet access.

So pop in to check. I'll post if I can.

Phone call

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Sometimes a phone call is the most wonderful thing.

During this short jaunt to the US, I'm keeping busy helping with wedding preparations--always a lot of last minute details--so I don't have a chance to catch up with friends. But I called one today and chatted for a few minutes. Hearing a voice I love at the other end of the line was a treat.

E-mail is nice, chat is immediate, webcams are visual, but a phone call delivers so much nuance that's missing from Internet communication.

Shoppping in America

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Shoppping in America is really fun.

We've travelled back to the States for a family wedding and I spent my afternoon in a mall.

Ostensibily, we were buying things for the bride but I had a bit of a spree, too. I couldn't help it. Everything fits and it's all so inexpensive. I bought shoes today--a pair of clogs and some dress boots--and paid just a little more than what I'd pay for a single pair in Tokyo (assuming I could find ones to fit my long feet).

It's tempting to snatch up all sorts of bargain goodies. But I have only one small suitcaes with me, so I must show some restraint!

Bank tranfer

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On the Narita Express, 60 seconds from the airport station, Tod's cell phone rings. It's Susan Tani calling to give us the billing information for Sunday's move. "Can you pay promptly?" she asks.

We want to pay, but we're on our way out of Japan for two weeks. What can we do?

On the way from the train to Departures, Tod spies a Citibank ATM. We can transfer the payment from our account to the Tani's.

Tod's a wiz at furikome (electronic bank transfers) and his fingers blaze through the touch screens, inputting bank and branch, account number, name and memo. He's finished and we're on our way in 60 seconds.

If only the rest of the trip were so quick!

Trash collection

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Finding the trash collection point in our new neighborhood was an adventure.

Shimizu-san, a neighbor, paid a call on me yesterday afternoon to welcome me to the neighborhood. Or maybe she was a spy for her friend, Matsuino-san, who used to live here.

But I put her to the test when I asked if she knew where I should put my trash.

First she looked around the street for the city's color-coded trash sign. I could have told her she would not find one.

As we stood in the middle of the street, discussing the options, a woman preparing to mount her bicycle spoke to us. She suggested that the utility pole near our garage was an acceptable place. But it has no sign and Shimizu-san was doubtful.

So were were off to the mansion up the hill. Shimizu-san was sure there was a trash point there. But was it where Matsuino-san had put her trash? We asked the caretaker of the building.

"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked me right off. His wife, in the background, encouraged him with a hearty "Gambatte!" when I explained I spoke a little but was studying and getting better.

The trash collection point at the mansion is ours to use, but we must put our burnable trash out precisely on time at 8:30 in the morning on Monday and Thursdays. Too early make the neighborhood ugly. Recyclables are on Wednesdays and landfill day is Saturday.

I owe a debt to Shimizu-san for helping me find out what I needed. She lives "over there" up the hill. I hope I'll see her again soon.


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In Tokyo, everyone is registered with the city office.

Now that we've moved, we have to visit the Bunkyo-ku office and let them know our new address. It's fun to watch the clerks pull out the very thick, detailed city maps and note the change for our house. Our "green cards" will also be amended with the new address.

The registration helps the city keep track of people in emergencies, something you definitely want in an earthquake-prone place that's way overdue for the Big One.

Workday Sounds

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Our new neighborhood is a symphony of workday sounds.

Along the street there are two construction sites, one at the front of the house and one across from my office window. I think the workmen may be trying for a gold medal in Syncopated Hammering.

Opposite the front door is a small printing company. The whirring and clunking of the press is nearly drowned out by the noise from the dump trucks hauling dirt away from yet another construction site over the hill.

I've been assured that the construction will end in December. I can only hope that they aren't building a jet engine laboratory!

Today is census day.

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Today is census day.

For Japan's first census (1920), bells and sirens sounded at midnight on the appointed day. Where ever you where then, that's what you were to put on your census form. Apparently a lot of nighclubs and brothels closed early that day!

Today, we only have to mark our home address as of midnight.

There was a lot of marketing to promote the original census. Epigrams set to shamisen music were used to promote the new census.

  • "Although I do not speak out of jealousy, I wonder where you were at midnight."
  • "I let you start for home not because I turned sour on you, but because the census was on my mind."
  • "You are quite self-willed and I am so self-centered, but the national census is just self-evident."

Ah, those earnest, playful Taisho-era Japanese ad men. Their campaign worked. 56 million people were counted that year. 75 years later the population of Japan stood at 126 million.

The current census is expected to show the trend of an aging population. And more foreigners than ever...

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