April 2001 Archives

Some of Tokyo's streets

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Some of Tokyo's streets and alleys have been around for a long time.

Walk past the sento near our house, and when the street curves to the left keep walking straight ahead into an alley. The alley continues for half a kilometer, gradually narrowing into a passage barely wide enough for an open umbrella. At the very end of the corridor is a bit of netting strung up to prevent unobservant bicyclists from hitting the wall a few meters beyond. Just before the netting is a small city playpark with swings and jungle gyms. Since there's no way to reach the park other than the alleyway, I imagine that only local kids play there.

This is not the sort of road that was planned. It grew as people put up houses. And I imagine that it's been around since Tokyo's early days--several hundred years ago.

You never know what

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You never know what you'll see as you walk along Japan's shopping avenues. Here's Colonel Sanders dressed up as a samurai hawking his latest chicken confection--Twisters. What's a Twister? It's a chicken burrito. Why is a samurai/colonel advertising chicken burritos? You got me there.

43,000 yesterday. 46,000 today.

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43,000 yesterday. 46,000 today.

That's how many people are leaving leaving Japan via Narita Airport. Why? It's the beginning of Golden Week--4 national holidays in a seven day span. This week, a few precious vaation days can be stretched into a 9 day holiday. And about 10% of Tokyo's population leaves not only the city, but the entire country. Even more take trips to visit famous sightseeing locations in Japan or to spend time with far-flung relatives.

However, the smart bet is to stay in Tokyo and enjoy the quiet. I'll get a seat on every train this week!

Note to self: spend

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Note to self: spend more time with the old relatives.

Too many questions about the family become permanent mysteries when the generations change. My great-aunt, Sr. Louise Burroughs, died earlier this week. She and I had an e-mail correspondence going for over a year and she was always intersting to hear from. Aunt Lou was not a doddering old lady with photos of grandchildren; she dissected current events, described the beauty of snow on shubbery, and went to a Japanese restaurant after we'd discussed Japanese food.

She may have been the only person who could identify a sculpture that her father posed for in the late 19th century--it was described to me as a Peter Pan sculpture installed in a park in Chicago--and now that Aunt Lou isn't here to give me confirmation, I'll continue the research to try to find it but I'll never be completely sure.

Have you read "Memoirs

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Have you read "Memoirs of a Geisha" yet?

It's the fictionalised biography of a geisha in Kyoto before WWII. The book offers a glimpse into a lifestyle that is slowly fading away. It's well-written and extremely entertaining.

But the author, Arthur Golden, is being sued by his primary source--a retired geisha now living in New York. I guess she's been there long enough to meet some lawyers. She charges that he used personal information he wasn't allowed to reveal. She wants a cut of the profit for the pain of being identified as the geisha who life is the seed of the story.

Looks like we know

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Looks like we know who the new prime minister will be.

Junichiro Koizumi won the primary elections in the race for leader of the LDP, Japan's ruling political party. His "Change the LDP, Change Japan" campaign won over the party's voters. The country is ready for a change.

Koizumi certain represents a change in personalities (just consider his fashion sense: he wears brown suits and his hair is unruly) but will he be able to change the LDP? It's a sluggish monolith of a party plagues by financial scandals. It won't be easy to change.

Koizumi's appointment as PM be finalised until tomorrow, when the Diet (Japan's parliment) casts its votes, but the leader of the ruling party is always voted in as Prime Minister, so there's no guessing here.

Travel planning makes me

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Travel planning makes me growl.

My trips overseas are never simple. I wish I could just fly from point A to point B and be done with it. But it never works that way. Too many things to do, people to see.

June is coming fast and we're off to a family reunion in Cape May, NJ. That means a flight into the US. Then a domestic flight to Philadelphia. Then a bus to Cape May, I think. On the way back, we'll stop in Pittsburgh for a quick "hello" with the rest of the family. I'm trying to decide whether I can manage a day or two in Chicago on the way in or out...Tod can't. Is it fair for me to go without him?

None of this makes ticketing easy. But I mast face this grim task and get my tickets sorted out so I can enjoy my summer vacation.

7:12 pm. Two cups

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7:12 pm. Two cups of coffee.

12:44 am. Hyperactive would-be sleeper realises her mistake.

Wow, does coffee in the morning effect me the same way? I guess it must, but it's not nearly as noticable.

Although you may think of Japan as a place where everyone drinks green tea (and they do), coffee is extremely popular perhaps for the space and atomsphere as much as for the beverage. Coffee shops give people a place to relax outside their cramped quarters. You find kissaten and cafes in every shopping area and in many residential neighborhoods--they substitute for the "neighborhood bar" of blue-collar America.

Now that I can see how potent a drug caffeine is, I'll take it easier on the night time brew. Ironically, I have a DigitalEve meeting at the Yahoo! Cafe tonight. Just one cup, for me, thanks.

If you've ever been

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If you've ever been in a busy train station in Tokyo, you'll understand my problem.

I have to direct a half a dozen people to a meeting place in a two-level station that services three different train companies and innumerable lines. I can't simply say "Let's meet at the ticket window." The directions to the meeting point are starting to get pretty long:

"We'll meet at the Seibu Ikebukuro line ticket machines on the first floor, near the Seibu Higashi (east) entrance to Ikebukuro Station. If you're coming to Ikebukuro via the Yamanote line, other JR lines or the subway, note that there is a Seibu ticket area on the lower level--this is the wrong one. Please come upstairs!"

My friend, Lil, is

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My friend, Lil, is in the hospital with appendicitis. I went to see her yesterday. What an eye-opener.

Patients are required to supply their own towels, drinking water, and even tissues. There are no complimentary hospital gowns to wear while your friends bring you your proper pjs; Lil had to trundle herself and her IV drip down to the shop in the 2nd floor to buy a Japanese robe to wear.

Although she was diagnosed with appendicitis on Thursday (after being admitted on Tuesday), her operation isn't scheduled until Monday. If she were in America, she would already be home--the average length of stay for an appendectomy in the US is 3 days. I suspect that Japan's national medical insurance system rewards hospitals with more money for longer stays.

Good for business; bad for patients.

4:14 am. Squawk. Squawk.

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4:14 am. Squawk. Squawk. Squaaaaawk. Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squawk. Cheep! Squawk. Squaaaawk. Cheep! Cheep!

A baby bird sitting outside my bedroom window (but in close proximity to my ears) was having a pre-dawn singing lesson. He did well. His father sat nearby and sang intricate melodies. The baby bird bleated back awkwardly until his first real note, a little peep in F#, popped out. Then he set up a steady rhythm of squawks and cheeps as he flew off to wake other innocent slumberers.

My pile of business

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My pile of business cards, an essential tool for business and social relations in Japan, is starting to overflow. I am having trouble locating the ones I need. It's time to reorganize them.

I have two books with clear plastic pockets that are full of meishi already. I find this system to be tidy, but not altogether practical. One book is mainly contacts from my volunteer organization; the other is business contacts. But sometimes they overlap and my filing system doesn't have any place for the dozens of cards I pick up from restaurants. There has to be a better way.

Some people might suggest that I need to buy a little device that scans business cards and stores them electronically. But I disagree. What I really need is a Rolodex.

We turned our balcony

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We turned our balcony into a nice place to sit outside and enjoy the flower-scented air. Now I hear the heavy "flap, flap flap" of a pigeon struggling up from the railing to the roof.

A pair of pigeons flies around our house from ledge to ledge trying to find a comfortable place to roost. I am doing my best to discourage them. Waving the curtains at them scares them off for a few minutes. Opening a window and shouting at them works better. Flailing my arms adds an extra dimension to the hostilities and amuses my neighbors. Tod recommended a pellet gun but I'm not prepared for all-out war. Yet.

My friend Elizabeth came

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My friend Elizabeth came through with an explanation of Sanrinbou, which I wrote about on April 13th. Elizabeth's lived here for 35 years--she knows everything!

"SAN RINBOU... written with the characters for "three" (SAN), "next door" (tonari, also pronounced RIN) and "dead" (shinu, also pronounced BOU). part of a larger, very complicated system of superstitions. especially bad news for building houses (thought that 3 houses to rt, left, front, back would all burn down to the ground if built on such a day."

It sounds a little bit like my mother's cursed lasagne--every time she makes lasagne, the neighborhood suffers a catastrophe, usually a house on fire.

Our office room is

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Our office room is undergoing a transformation.

The balcony is sprouting a small garden suspended in oblong pots from the railing. Tara and I spent yesterday afternoon planting marigolds, pansies, and other orange blooms then fixing them to the railing with metal brackets. Tara washed the balcony floor and discovered a leak in the drain. I brought up one of our wooden chairs.

Meanwhile, Tod was putting together a metal rack for his computers. Now his four computers, two laptops, six external disk drives and even the printer are neatly stacked on shelves, with powerstrips wired to the rack at convenient intervals.

Everything's clean. It must be Spring.

Sometimes there are too

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Sometimes there are too many choices.

Tara & I walked to the local Mister Donut to pick up a breakfast treat while Tod & Seth slept. We know what sorts of donuts they like, so when we started to select our dozen, it was with them in mind: French crullers, custard cream, cinnamon, glazed plus a few chocolate ones and picks from the more esoteric types. We weren't even close to done, but we already had 14 donuts--at least two breakfasts' worth. We called a halt.

The most unusual donuts we purchased? Frankfurter Roll (a 'pig in a blanket') and Curry. I think we were carried away by choices.

Around the corner from

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Around the corner from the house is a public bath. Seth & Tod were having a poker night (no girls allowed), so Tara and I went to soak in the hot tubs of the sento.

The price of admission is 400 yen. After stripping your clothes into a wicker basket, you take your soap and shampoo into a big open room with taps and low showers lining the walls. There is room for two dozen women to wash.

The baths are hot and full of fun accessories. Not rubber ducks, but air jets, medicinal waters, even an electric bath that I dipped a hand into. The water tingled the way I imagine it would with a hairdryer in the bathtub. Definitely not my idea of a relaxing bath. One middle aged woman sat in that bath for at least ten minutes with no ill effects, but why?

Tara and I bathed until we were boiled like lobsters, then got out, dressed in loose clothing and drank cool green tea until our skin lightened to a healthy shade of pink. We walked limply home and flopped into bed while the boys played poker downstairs.

Today has double significance

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Today has double significance in America but none in Japan. Friday the 13th and Good Friday don't hold any special meaning here.

Today is "San Rinbou" according to the Japanese calendar on my fridge. I have no idea what that is. Rinbou doesn't appear in any of my dictionaries, so I think I'll just concentrate on trying to stay out of the path of black cats and from under ladders today.

There is a man

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There is a man standing in the gutter across the street. He has a basket of plastic pipe fittings at his feet and he is looking perplexed.

For the past week, a white van with long pipes strapped to the roof has appeared at 8:30 am and parked outside my office window. Two men, one youthful with fashionably frosted hair and an older man who is probably the boss, have alighted, taken out tools and proceeded to perform mysterious work on the hillside drainage systems of the houses across the way.

Today they are peering up at the elbow joints that peek out from the wall. Judging from the things they've taken out of the truck, they plan to build a channel from the elbows to a streetside grating if they can figure out which fittings to use.

My hands continue to

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My hands continue to ache and I find myself in front of the TV too much.

Last night's entertainment involved two sets of celebrities competing to guess what someone in a restaurant ordered. They watched the person order from a menu that each team also had in front of them ("Ah, I think it's on page 4!"), then the order went to the kitchen.

As one chef prepared the order ("Oh, look, slices of garlic and eggplant...is that chili?"), another chef prepared a most disgusting dish for the losing team. One round he deep fried eggrolls filled with pork, smoked fish, honey and wasabi then topped them with chocolate sauce; the next round it was a sticky mass of ground beef, jam, fermented soybeans, tabasco, and vitamin drink. He aimed to make the losers spit out their punishment.

It was funny to watch the contestants desperately guess what the real dish was. When the evil chef presented his dish, the losers tasted it first, with proclamations of "MASZUI!" (disgusting!) but curiousity always got the best of the winners and they tried it, too.

I wonder if it's possible to play a home version of this? I can imagine it as a kids' party game...

Japanese TV continues to


Japanese TV continues to amuse me. Last night I watched a show that focused on poor people. After identifying a target, in this case a man and wife with a small restaurant in Yokohama, the cameras moved in an filmed every aspect of their lives: the lack of customers, their high food costs, their single-room dwelling behind the restaurant.

Jump to the studio. The host polls a panel of three showbiz personalities: what does this man need? He needs to learn to cook chicken. They pack the man off to Kyoto to learn some new dishes.

The cameras follow him as he learns (and fails to learn) from the harsh chicken task-master. Many tears are shed. Pained looks of failure and frustration. But in the end he learns the new menu for his shop.

With the help of the TV program's budget, the shop undergoes a facelift and holds a grand opening. The new menu is a success.

Cut back to the studio. A vote. Does the poor man have to repay the TV program for the cooking lessons and the remodelling? The studio audience and the panel decide. Unanimous vote: No. The man beams and bows low in gratitude.

American shows never mess with people like that. But they ought to; it's very entertaining.

I have a lot

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I have a lot of photographs.

I was searching through them yesterday for pictures I could scan to use for a client's website. There are hundreds of photos from all over Japan. Some of them are really good views of Japanese cultural artifacts; others are silly snapshots of Tod.

My filing system is dated and I noticed that I haven't been taking as many pictures as I used to. I need to go on some photo safaris to build up my stock.

A friend from Tod's

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A friend from Tod's office organised a late-season hanami party at a Komaba park in Meguro-ku, about 40 minutes on the subway from our house.

It was a beautiful day. Cherry blossoms fluttered from the trees; breezes caused a flurry of floral snow. Our picnic spread represented all our nationalities--American, Canadian, Indian, British, Dutch, Middle Eastern--but was soon dotted with uniform, unintentional, pink garnishes.

The only disappointment of the day came at 4:20 when announcement to park visitors gave a ten-minute closing warning. We unwillingly packed up our picnic and headed home.

"Short, frequent breaks," is

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"Short, frequent breaks," is the mantra of anyone who's suffered from respetitive stress injuries (RSI).

Of course, I never listened and now I'm paying for that inattention. My hands and wrists burn from too much typing and mousing. This condition can lead to all sorts of nasty remedies including casts and surgery, so I'm trying to nip it in the bud.

My desk is outfitted with rolled up towels to position my hands properly; my computer beeps ever 30 minutes to remind me to take a break. A friend taught me some of her therapy stretches and shared hints on heating and icing my overworked tendons.

So now I'm listening. Short, frequent breaks! Ah, the computer's beeping. Gotta go.

Maybe some people would

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Maybe some people would have turned away but I was fascinated by the dead pigeon lying on the busy sidewalk.

It lay upside down. Pale underfeathers on the outstretched wings sought the fading daylight. In a macabre twist on the "dead pigeon" theme, its head and upper torso were missing. There was no blood or gore; it looked like badly butchered meat with wings and feathers.

Geeks at work in the 'hood?

Yesterday, I visited the

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Yesterday, I visited the Yahoo! Cafe in Harajuku, one of Tokyo's trendy neighborhoods. The two story buildling houses a Starbucks on the first floor and an Internet cafe upstairs. It's free to use, as Yahoo has cleverly gotten the sponsorship of major computer manufacturers and Internet service providers.

Each computer is donated by its maker and the Internet service is provided by competing vendors. YOu can try out the latest Sony laptop using NTT's ISDN, or IBM's notebook with DSL from Tokyo Metallic. I suppose if you were patient enough, you could could try them all and make purchasing decisions about which service provider was speediest and which laptop you wanted to buy.

I only sat at one Compaq laptop for about 20 minutes to check my mail and then I was off to continue my errands. But now I'm registered to use the cafe and I will return for a longer session later.

Flowers, flowers everywhere. Nothing

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Flowers, flowers everywhere. Nothing like a birthday celebration to fill the office with the sweet scent of blossoms.

Japanese businesses are keen on service. The florist's delivery man was exceptionally . He handed me the huge bouquet of pink lilies and alstroeameria, wrapped in lavender paper and wrapped with a fuschia ribbon, then he turned the flowers so that I could read the card, which was carefully handwritten in block letters. "Yomemasu ka?" he asked. Can you read it? I told him that I could, that it was my birthday and these were from my little sister. He grinned. I wonder if he wrote the card out himself?

It doesn't matter how

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It doesn't matter how drunken people are here, they still maintain courtesy.

We were sitting in a ramen shop waiting for our dinner. A group of three or four boozy businessmen had arrived before us and were enjoying their Nth bottle of beer, telling jokes and laughing loudly.

Their big bowls of steaming ramen arrived. Instead of tucking in and slurping their dinner down immediately, they waited until everyone had been served, paused a beat, then chanted itadakimasu, "We gratefully partake," before beginning.

If that's not civilised, I don't know what is.

Lithe bodies dressed in

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Lithe bodies dressed in black vests with glowing neon medalions above black leather hotpants and accessorised with green glowing bracelets and black sunglasses rushed onto the stage and gyrated wildly, stirring the crowd into a frenzy of consumer lust at the Tokyo Game Show 2001.

Wow, those X Box girls were hot. It's a shame that the product they represented, a new video game console from Microsoft, isn't as exciting. It's just a black box with a big green X on it. It plays games. The trade show excitement is left behind when you bring the real thing home. Phooey.

It snowed yesterday, cancelling

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It snowed yesterday, cancelling our plans for hanami, a cherry blossom viewing party, at Koishikawa Botanical Garden.

But the unseasonably chilly weather taught me two new Japanese phrases. "Hana bie" means chilly spring weather (hana is flower and bie is chill), and "botan yuki" describes yesterday's big-flake spring snow (botan is a peony; yuki means snow).

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