February 2001 Archives

I think I'm becoming

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I think I'm becoming a computer expert.

Those of you who know me personally may think I already am one. I've been working with computers for the last ten years, after all. I know a lot of things. But I've never thought of myself as an expert. Experts are the sort of people who know tons about programming and care about things like gigaflops. They wear glasses held together with tape.

Well, I don't know much about programming and I don't wear glasses. However I'm a voice in computing. All the knowledge I've gained in the last ten years is spilling out now. I've got a list of technology article ideas a half a page long. I lead a women's IT group. I spend too much time at my computer (which is how you get to be an expert, I imagine).

Was this what I wanted from my life?

First Kitchen, a Japanese

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First Kitchen, a Japanese fast food chain, serves up the strangest side dish: french fries with flavourings. The hot fries are dropped into a paper bag, sprinkled with dried seasonings and mixed up Shake N Bake style.

This season's flavours:

  • Garlic Butter
  • Basil
  • Consomme: beefy, salty taste
  • Jaga-Butter: buttered baked potato
  • Cheese and Kimchee: a Korean twist
  • Ebi Chili: shrimp with spicy tomato sauce
  • Tako-Yaki and Cheese: savory batter-fried octopus
  • Natto Mayo: fermented soybeans and mayonnaise

Each year our language

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Each year our language school hosts a torture session. They call it a speech contest. I'm not sure which is worse torture--preparing and delivering a speech, or sitting through two and a half hours of others' speeches.

This year, Tod & I combined forces to present a skit about two frogs setting out to see the world. I painted backdrops and constructed frog heads of foam and fabric. We memorized our lines and practiced our blocking. It was fun.

And it earned us a prize. Our certificate reads "minna no kyoumi wo hiku ii spichi" which means "a good speech which drew everyone's interest."

Carrefour has a parking

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Carrefour has a parking lot. A big parking lot. Full of cars.

Carrefour is an international chain of super-size discount department stores based in France. Think "Kmart" and you're on the right track. One recently opened in Makuhari, across from the convention center where MacWorld was held.

Big stores and malls in Japan are normally vertical and crammed next to other stores that rise vertically on crowded streets. But not Carrefour. It sprawls over an area that might fit a hundred houses.

And then there is the parking lot. It is probably no larger than the parking lot of any Amerian discount superstore, but I don't think I've ever seen so much wide open space dedicated to cars here in Japan.

The parking lot was full. I estimate that 85% of the people shopping at Carrefour drove there. I've always wondered where Japan's cars go when they aren't congesting the roads and highways. Apparently they go to Carrefour.

I arrived a minute

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I arrived a minute or two before my 11 am appointment. I walked out the door at 1:30. A huge transformation occurred in the interval. I was coiffed, caffeinated and calmed.

First, a consulation with Dan Suzuki, my stylist. Although this salon, Watanabe Hair Dressing, has a reputation for really cool, artsy styles, we agreed on a cut that is easy to care for. After a delightful herbal shampoo, Dan cut off about eight inches of damaged hair. He smiled quietly to himself as the locks hit the floor.

Then a conditioning treatment. My hair was painted with goop and I sat under a steamer for twenty minutes, drinking tea and reading the latest issue of Elle UK. The conditioner was rinsed off and I was treated to a head, neck and shoulder massage. Ten minutes of bliss, really.

My hair's never looked this good. It's smooth and shiny and much shorter. My next appointment's already set.

MacWorld on a press

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MacWorld on a press pass isn't too much different from MacWorld without one.

The biggest benefit was that I sat up front during Steve Jobs' keynote speech yesterday. He announced some new iMac colors (Flower Power and Blue Dalmation) along with lowered prices, new video and more Japanese font support. His 105 minute keynote address was a good show, as Apple events always are. A mix of video, live demonstrations and rousing marketing speeches kept the attention of over a thousand people.

On Saturday, I will return to finish up my research for some articles I'm writing. I need to cruise the trade floor to see some of the local vendors and Japanese software vendors. There's some innovative stuff out there--my job is to find it!

Although the city hosts

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Although the city hosts six jillion "hair and make" salons, I do not belive it is possible to get a spur-of-the moment hair cut in Tokyo.

Yesterday in Omotesando, a ritzy part of town, I was seized with the desire to have my hair cut. I looked for a salon and found one called "Voice" that looked interesting. I walked in and asked if I could get my hair cut.

The salon's only two employees--a man with spiky orange hair and a woman with long braids (I said it looked interesting, didn't I?)-- greeted me. There were no customers. However, they asked me to make an appointment and turned me away.

So I didn't get a haircut. Tomorrow, I'll make an appointment somewhere closer to home.

Grocery store lunch options

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Grocery store lunch options you'd never find in America:

  • slab of salt-grilled salmon on rice
  • cabbage salad in a large-sized clear drink cup
  • breaded, deep fried oysters
  • french fries slathered with honey and sesame
  • steamed mustard blossoms

Fabric stores are truly


Fabric stores are truly international places.

The range of products represents the textile production centers of the world: lace from Belgium, cotton gauze from India, wools from New Zealand, shijira from Japan, gingham from America.

But even more universally, the shoppers, looking inward, quietly calculate yardage or compare colors in their mind's eye. Some go so far as to gesticulate as they imagine their work in 3D. And the children in tow hold bundles of fabric, or cling to toys as they plead with their mothers to leave.

But, like sewing mothers the world over, these Japanese women will temporarily ignore their children's whines in order to obtain that final bit of trim or to find the right shade of pink for the new pillow covers.

It's a small world when you have a needle and thread.

Who knew there could

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Who knew there could be so many foodstuffs made from plum?

We sampled and sniffed delicate plum tea, sweet plum wine, pink plum flavored steamed buns, bitter pickled plums, sour plum-flavored sesame seeds, plum-infused garlic, bright fuschia plum scented daikon pickles.

The foods, combined with the blooming plum trees, two enka (Japanese lounge music) singers, and vendors hawking clever bird-shaped whistles carved from bamboo, silk plum blossoms and lucky charms, made the Atami Baien's 57th annual Ume Matsuri an interesting place to spend a sunny afternoon.

Finally, I've seen a

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Finally, I've seen a plum blossom. Now I know spring has arrived.

We wound our way through a labyrinth of alleys towards our dinner destination yesterday and there it stood, shining bright pink under the glow of a streetlamp. What a delicate and beautiful herald of the new season.

Today we're going to take the train to Atami, about 40 minutes south of Tokyo on the Shinkansen, to stroll through a garden with 860 ume (plum) trees in bloom.

I'll bundle up well; the trees speak spring, but this morning's chilly air screams winter.

One group, a dozen

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One group, a dozen ideas.

Digital Eve Japan is the reincarnation of the Japan Webgrrls group. Our affiliation changed, but the goal remains the same: women sharing their information technology knowledge and skills.

Last night's launch party attracted an interesting mix of people: a music talent manager, a nurse who is also a database developer, a graduate student studying successful women in IT, a pronunciation instructor, an architect, an English teacher, a web developer, an editor, and a recruiter who read about Webgrrls in 1999 and just found the article again this week.

As we discussed the topics we'd like to have covered this year, so many interesting ideas surfaced. Everyone has a different take on what the group can be based on her personal reasons for joining. Looks like we'll have a chance to cover everything from presentations to "how to control your control panels."

It's going to be a fun year.

We were our own

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We were our own miniature parade and side show. Susan, Laura, Katie, Tod & I went to dinner together last night.

Susan is a lanky redhead; Katie & Laura are her blonde daughters. Laura, in her stroller, was the float in our parade. As we waited for the light to change at an intersection, she chatted animatedly with me and her mother. Passersby smiled at her. One man gawked outright.

Tod and Katie stopped to read a sign advertising tuna for sale. Katie, who is in the first grade, helped Tod with some of the kanji. The gawking bystander laughed when she read the sign aloud to Tod.

We certainly do stand out from a crowd, even without red rubber noses and extra big shoes.

Two dictionaries, three textbooks

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Two dictionaries, three textbooks and a pile of papers and notes took up most of the surface of my desk yesterday.

I spent six hours writing the draft of my entry for this year's speech contest. My language school, OLJ Academy, hosts an annual contest for its students. This will be my third year presenting a speech in Japanese.

With each passing year, my ability in Japanese improves, so my speeches must become more complicated. At the same time, I recall what it was like the first year, when I had very little understanding because the advanced students were using words and grammar way above my head. I try to write my speeches using words most students will understand and concepts that can be illustrated. Even if the words are incomprehensible, there are pretty pictures to view.

For this year's speech, Tod Now, how do I say "I started out early this morning and have been hopping ever since?"

For the past two

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For the past two weeks, every shop in Tokyo has displayed its Valentine wares in anticipation of today, the national chocolate gift-fest.

Women all over the country will present the men in their lives--husbands, boyfriends, bosses, coworkers--with elaborately wrapped chocolates. I've not seen any lace covered, heart-shaped boxes, but everything else is available: gold paper roses on a hexagonal black box; red foil paper decorated with white hearts; even pink Hello Kitty shaped containers of shiny plastic. Fashion designers offer chocolate for the season in their signature colors and elevated prices.

Note that women give to men, not vice versa. That's just the way it is. Ironically, common wisdom holds that men don't eat chocolate. I'm not sure what happens to all the fancy, expensive boxes they receive. Shoved in a desk drawer, perhaps.

There is some reciprocation. On March 14th, men celebrate White Day by returning white chocolate (or white panties, depending on the level of friendship involved) to the women who gave them Valentine's chocolate. A few years ago at work, I gave five or six Valentine's chocolates, but received only one White Day gift in return. Candies, not panties.

I'm off to buy some chocolate to improve my chances for new underwear this year. Happy Valentine's Day.

This week's big news

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This week's big news in the foreign community: a disappearance turned into a grisly murder when Lucie Blackman's severed body and cement-entombed head were found on Friday.

Lucie was a young British woman working in a hostess bar in Roppongi. She disappeared in July last year after phoning a friend to say she was going to the seaside with a client from the bar.

The client is suspected to be a man named Obara who is currently being held on suspicion of drugging and raping a half dozen women, and killing one. Lucie's body was found 200 metres from one of Obara's seaside condominums. He was seen there, shortly after Lucie's disappearance, with some cememt and a muddy shovel.

Strong circumstantial evidence points to Obara, but he denies any involvement. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

"Can you read the

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"Can you read the kanji written on the big stone?" read the metal plaque in the playpark near our house. "It says 'Ootsugi'."

The big stone, taller than I am, is a chunk of rock whittled into a rustic monument. Three kanji characters are carved into its face. The metal plaque near the stone is set at child's height. There is an old photograph etched into the plaque that shows a semicircle of people flanking the stone; an enormous tree stands in background.

The rest of the plaque (written for the benefit of children playing in the park, but at a reading level that makes it comprehensible for me, too) tells the story of the enormous tree. The stone and the photograph date from around 1900, I think. The tree was weakened in a wind storm, and eventually cut down in the 1950s, but the community planted four new trees of the same type in the park.

Discovering snippets of our local lore makes Tokyo a much more engaging city. Not merely concrete buildings and subways; we have a community and a history, too.

Ever been inside a

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Ever been inside a baseball stadium full of trade show exhibitors?

From the entrance at the top of the stadium, I saw a sea of black heads moving like water, currents eddying around islands of booths. The huge space, from home plate to outfield, was arranged to exhibit tableware.

The Tableware Festival had it all: plates, bowls, forks, spoons, chopsticks, lacquerware, candles, placemats & linens, everything that goes on a table was shown or sold. Famous interior designers mocked up tiny dining rooms, a contest of professional and amateur tableware makers hinted at the future of plates. Huge displays of regional Japanese ceramics filled sparsely decorated but extrememly crowded booths.

The attendees were primarily middle-aged women. Many of them dressed up for this event; how they tottered around Tokyo Dome in high heels all afternoon is beyond me. There were a few younger women and a sprinkling of old men. Aside from Tod, who accompanied me, and the event staff, there were no young or middle aged men. Quite a change from summer days at Tokyo Dome when the Yomiuri Giants host home games in the stadium.

I wonder what the next unusual Tokyo Dome event will be?

There's nothing like personal

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There's nothing like personal mail to brighten a day. I received two letters on the same day.

One arrived in my mailbox from Chicago. It is written in glowing orange ink on drawing paper pulled from a sketchbook. A "hello" from a friend who took a few minutes to think of me. I had just missed my train and I read it standing on the train platform while I waited for the next one. My irritation at being late vanished as I read.

The other letter appeared in my e-mail box. A friend from grade school, who I hadn't heard from in 16 years, ran across my e-mail address and decided to write. What fun to see where our lives have taken us after our childhood adventures. She's living near where we grew up and devoted to her kids, one of whom will turn 9 on Monday. That's the same age as us when we met in 1976.

If you want to make me smile, send me a letter.

The Yokohama Curry Museum


The Yokohama Curry Museum is quite a concept.

Indian curry and Thai curry are popular here, but most popular is Japanese curry, an odd melange of spices that blends flavors from all world curries into one dish. So a trip to the Yokohama Curry Museum with some friends yesterday promised to be a treat. Maybe I'd finally learn why the Japanese adopted every spice on the rack for their curry.

The reality of this newly opened museum was less exciting than I'd hoped. We took an elevator (operated by a young Japanesde woman costumed in a sari) to the 7th floor of the "PIA Station Amusement Theme Park."

Alighting from the elevator, we were greeted by anothe sari-uniformed woman in a darkly panelled and dimly lit lobby decorated with cartoon elephants carved in stone. Three Japanese curry restaurants occupy the lower level, with four Indian and Thai curry restaurants are above. There's a huge ship in the middle of the building with restaurants inside and on the upper deck. The museum aspect of the Curry Museum was relegated to small displays scattered among the snaking lines waiting for entrance to the restaurants. There are shops selling curry spices and other curry memorabilia to distract you while you wait, too.

When we discovered that the shortest wait for seating was 60 minutes, we decided to skip the experience, the shopping, and the lines. We'd go eat elsewhere. We walked down seven flights, as the elevator that brings you up does not work in reverse. Going down the stairs increases the chance that you will stop to play a video game or try some pachinko before you leave. But we abstained and escaped.

There's a Yokohama Ramen Museum that I hear is much better than the Curry Museum.

Stupid Japanese puns. A

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Stupid Japanese puns.

A hanglider is planning to fly off a cliff. What time should he leave?
Ichi ji han gurai da.
(Say the above quickly. Translation: About 1:30.)

With a rice cracker (senbei) in hand: Ichi mai, demo senbei desu.
"Ichi mai" means "one thing," "sen" is "1,000." Translation: One thing, but it's a senbei. Doesn't make much sense outside Japan, I guess.

10:30 pm. Three small,

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10:30 pm. Three small, unmarked utility vans pull up outside our house. They are crammed with construction equipment.

The doors burst open and five young men dressed in work clothes and yellow safety vests pile out. Orange traffic cones, lights and equipment carts fly from the back of one of the vans while two of the men energetically set them up right in front of our garage door.

This is strange. Construction workers are not energetic. They don't fling things around. They never look like they are having fun.

I open the window on the third floor and lean out to get a better view. What are they doing down there by our garage, anyway?

One of the men spots me watching. I smile. He waves. One of the other young men who is dressed in a bright orange, down-filled jacket, looks up at me. He says "Hello." Now it's English practice time. Where are you from? I love you. Are you married? Where is your husband? I'm sorry. Bye-bye.

All the while, the other four are arranging cones, writing on chalkboards and taking photos. That's a normal construction practice here--construction crews document everything with a digital camera--but not usually so merrily and rarely at 10:30 at night.

Within tem minutes of their arrival everything was packed back into the vans, including the men, and they were on their way. Off to photograph someone else's garage, perhaps?

Well, it's been Spring

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Well, it's been Spring in Japan for two days and I don't see any difference from winter yet.

The last day of winter was February 3, Setsubun. To celebrate the end of the season, you go to your local temple, and throw a handful of dried soy beans while chanting "In with the good luck, out with the devils."

More exciting than Punxsutawney Phil looking for his shadow.

So now it's Spring. Soon the plum trees will begin to blossom. When I see them, then I'll know Spring has really arrived. Until then, I'll turn up the heat and find some warm, fuzzy socks.

There are 31 Burger

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There are 31 Burger Kings in Tokyo.

Japan Tobacco owns 25 of them. But they want to get out of the hamburger business (which bled off several billion yen in the last five years) and plan to sell the outlets to Lotteria, another fast food chain, who will convert them to Lotterias.

Soon, Americans who want a treat from home will have to seek out one of the seven remaining Burger Kings. That will be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Or we could settle for McDonalds. There are plenty of them.

Dan Quayle, former vice

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Dan Quayle, former vice president and malaprop master, could be the next US Ambassador to Japan.

According to a newspaper article published yesterday the Republican party wants to give Quayle an "important post" such as a key diplomatic position. This is, apparently, to help soothe Quayle's ego since the party didn't support his bid for President.

He has expressed interest in Japan by making frequent requests to the Embassy here for information. How clever. If I ask questions at the Embassy, can I be Ambassador?

His verbal blunders are legend. A favorite is "I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people." Please, Mr. Quayle, don't try to learn Japanese.

Most accidents at home

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Most accidents at home occur in the bathroom. Not true in my case, as most of my accidents involve kitchen knives or boiling water. But last night, I scored one for the bathroom.

Upon getting out of the bath, I fainted and fell back in. What a surprise to come to all askew in the tub with an ache in my jaw. "Did I fall asleep in the tub?" I didn't even remember getting out.

I straightened myself out and stepped out of the tub. It wasn't until I saw a splash of blood on the floor that I realised I hadn't simply been napping.

By examining the evidence, and my minor injuries, I pieced together the scenario. I got out of the tub, felt a little woozy and leaned against the door of the bath. Usually any bath-induced wooziness passes in a moment, but not this time. I fainted and slid along the wall, striking the windowframe with my elbow, hand, and jaw before collapsing into the tub.

I was lucky. I didn't hit my head. I didn't go under the water. I wasn't even unconscious for very long. My cuts and bruises are irritating but not too serious. No harm done and a lesson learned. Sit when you feel faint.

The heading on the

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The heading on the catalog page is "Light Jeaning Style" Eh?

The photos show a mixture of denim skirts, snap front shirts and knit tops. Casual wear. Jeaning style.

Jeans are popular in Japan, as they are worldwide. Best Jeans, a Japanese manufacturer, holds a Best Jeanist contest each year. 2001 will be the 18th annual opportunity to vote for the people you think look best in their jeans. Kimura Takuya, a member of the boy band SMAP, has won for the past five years running and is not longer on the ballot.

All this Japanese jeaning style makes my frayed and faded old jeans seem even tattier than they are.

Last night, I had

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Last night, I had dinner at the Tokyo American Club.

Since escaping America, we've mocked the American Club as a bastion for bored, bridge-playing, ex-pat wives/socialites. And to be honest, I don't think we're entirely wrong. The building sends off "Let's impress everyone with our money" vibes.

The lobby is a vast expanse of carpet and seating areas, like a hotel. The ballroom where our dinner was served is decorated with a half dozen crystal chandeliers and walls draped in burgundy velvet and tasseled gold cord.

Dinner, a luxurious, six course affair with the usual bewildering array of flatware, was presented on TAC monogramed china by waiters who knew how to serve properly. The poor guy with the lobster thermidor was having a challenging time balancing the halved lobsters on his serving forks. Fortunately nobody at our table ended up with food on his lap (though there were a few close calls).

I certainly shouldn't mock the atmosphere too much. If it weren't for me being driven to do productive, creative work, I suppose I could be a bridge-playing, socialite wife. I knew what to do with all my forks and utensils.

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