December 2001 Archives

Tradition, faith, and superstition


Tradition, faith, and superstition send everyone to the temples and shrines at midnight tonight to make the first homage of the year. Clapping hands or ringing bells, you capture the attention of the enshrined spirit, then toss some change in the offerings box and bow. On the way out, you might make a purchase of a lucky arrow or a charm.

It's an enchanting time. The temple grounds bustle and everyone is happy. Some places have festival stalls lining the street so you can get a nibble of fried noodles or a baby custard doughnut on the way home.

But I am worried that I might be cursed.

The year before last, I visited a shrine famous for keeping households safe; during the year we moved twice. Last year, I visited a shrine popular for its curative properties then spent the year chasing headaches and thyroid tumors. Maybe both situations would have been worse if I hadn't gotten the lucky arrows, but they were so extraordinary to begin with...

I'm not taking any chances this year. No temples. No shrines.

Here's a year-end writing

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Here's a year-end writing exercise for you. In 25 words exactly, describe your year. It's harder than you might think.

I've managed this:

Spent seven weeks on holiday in Maui, China, mainland US. Wrote lots, taught many, earned little. Saw the inside of my head. Didn't do enough.

Now through January 3rd

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Now through January 3rd is holiday time. We'll clean house and prepare auspicious foods for toshigama, the year gods, between now and Monday. Then we can kick back and enjoy the luxury of idleness for the first three days of the new year.

Except I think it won't work out quite like that in our house.

I'll sleep in all weekend, and fail to do the laundry. The carpets will remain unvacuumed while I go to the store on Monday to stock up on tinned soup and crackers to tide us over the days when all the stores are closed. On Tuesday we will run out of toilet paper. By Wednesday, Tod & I will be bickering over who has to go down into the unheated kitchen to brew more coffee.

Ah, holidays!

Good grief, we have

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Good grief, we have four coffee making devices.

In addition to the standard electric drip maker I use to make our morning brew, we have a stovetop moka pot, an espresso maker, and a siphon pot. We also have a french press packed away in storage in the States. We like coffee.

And lately we've begun roasting our own beans. It's actually very easy to roast green coffee. Put it in a very hot oven and wait about ten minutes. The beans turn yellow, then brown. They make popping sounds, "first crack," the indication that you could take them out at any point from then. They get darker, eventually releasing oils, hitting second crack and getting shiny. Or burnt. Tod likes his coffee ultra dark. I like mine medium dark. We argue at the oven.

Roasting coffee throws off lots of smoke. But it's fun and really easy and I recommend it to anyone who likes a good cup of truly fresh coffee. What pot you brew it in is up to you. If you need supplies, Sweet Maria's carries everything for the home roaster.

The end of year

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The end of year cleaning frenzy has begun. Everyone in Tokyo is tidying house before the new year begins. A friend once commented that the only time his kitchen was grease free was on the last day of the year when his wife finished the annual house cleaning.

The shops have every variety cleaning and tidying convenience--brooms, shelf paper, bleach. And plenty of new appliances including stoves, perhaps for those unfortunates who find the grease just won't come off.

As for my own cleaning, I'm focusing on getting rid of grease in the kitchen cabinets. Starting with a half-eaten bag of potato chips....yum.

Despite my aversion to

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Despite my aversion to Christmas, I really love the day after. Growing up in my family, we vied for the coveted spot on the sofa to read all of the new books we'd just acquired from our literary friend, Santa. We called it Couch Day.

This year, it's Bed Day for me. I've tucked up with a copy of Fresh Styles for Web Designers, Javascript Design, a story written by my mother, and a book about Ireland. I will have to get out of bed to go to Japanese class in a few hours, but until then I'm going to read.

Berate me as Scrooge

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Berate me as Scrooge or the Grinch, but holidays make me cringe. Even at a remove of 10,000 kilometers, there is pressure to follow traditions that don't apply here in Japan. I recall even more pressure to conform in the States, but maybe it was mitigated through commiseration --sharing the stories of cookie-baking marathons, rounds of holiday parties, and the panic of not finding the exact right gift.

I follow along with the year-end holidays because to skip them is to cause great offense to everyone who thinks that a cookie and some gift-wrapping mean that you care. I wish that caring didn't involve meeting everyone's expectations of what I should do. Regretfully, it does, so I send greeting cards and gifts. I'm cooking a holiday meal today.

Of course, I won't hate it and in a way I enjoy the bother and fuss (if only because it connects me to the trials of the rest of my family and friends back home), but I don't fundamentally like feeling forced to participate. Putting so much energy into holidays I don't care about celebrating takes energy away from those I prefer--the first snow of the year, the progress of the earth around the sun, spring flowers blooming. I get more satisfaction from seeing February's first peach blossoms than from an entire pile of Christmas presents.

We walked from the

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We walked from the Sun to Pluto this afternoon with Katie. Most people would have thought we were just walking down a street, but anyone who observed closely would have seen we were pacing off the astronomical units between planets and laying down planets to scale. Earth is a peppercorn; Jupiter is a chestnut; the Sun is a balloon.

It's an amazing way to get a real feel for the sizes and distances in our solar system. Mercury, Venus, and Earth are approximately one Japanese storefront apart. Mars is two away. Jupiter is almost to twenty shops down the street from Mars. I'll bet you didn't know that Uranus is halfway between the Sun and Pluto. Take the walk and find out for yourself.

The turkey is thawing

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The turkey is thawing in the living room. This is not, as you might imagine, a health hazard because the living room is only slightly above freezing.

Freezing cold rooms in wintertime are a normal feature of Japanese homes. Rooms are heated individually, not centrally and every room has a door so that you can shut it off from its chilly companions. Each room also has a nice draft so that the fumes from the gas heater (which gets its fuel from a gas outlet plumbed into the wall) don't asphixate you. It's a practical arrangement (though less frugal than you might think for a variety of reasons concerning lack of home insulation and the price of heaters) which makes me pine for the luxury of central heating.

Luckly, the turkey doesn't care.

I found a turkey.

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I found a turkey. Frozen. Priced at 3800 yen; the store didn't even an attempt to pricing it by weight, but it works out to about $3 per pound, I think. Soon it will be thawing in my refrigerator waiting for Christmas dinner.

This will be the first traditional holiday meal I've cooked in many years. It is my second turkey ever. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy. Mmmmm. I have to buy a roasting pan.

Yuki, yuki, yuki. (That's

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Yuki, yuki, yuki. (That's 'you-key,' the word for snow, not 'yucky.')

The weather report says 70% chance of snow today and a high of 5 degrees (that's 41 F). This is unusual for December--the weather is usually clear and mildly chilly until mid-January. Then we get some rain but rarely snow.

I'll bundle up in my chilly office today and drink lots of hot chocolate while I wait for the snow. How festive!

At 2 am, there's

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At 2 am, there's nothing but taxis on the streets. The trains stop running at midnight and late-night revellers catch cabs to get home. The taxi drivers must make a fortune with their 50% late-night surcharge.

Last night the streets around the Imperial Palace, hub of central Tokyo traffic, were jammed with taxis and their slightly intoxicated passengers riding home from a nijikai (second party) after their company bonenkai (forget-the-year party). I was in a taxi on the way from a friend's house where I watched Memento.

Two towers of brightly

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Two towers of brightly colored Christmas toys flank the entrance at Olympic, a local discount store.

On the left are the hot pink selections for girls: Hello Kitty kitchen set with a plastic stove and food; a Pengin pudding maker that steams real food; manicure kits with glitter stickers and fake nails.

On the right are the more subtle blues and greys of boys' toys: Shinkansen model trains; tanks that shoot fire; plastic sports equipment.

Strangely, I've seen more adults than children around these astonishing piles of fun. I stopped to play with an electronic doctor game ("Poor Mai has a stomach ache; what should she do?") and although I pushed the buttons for a good five minutes to get Mai to lie down and sleep it off, not a single child came around to look at the toys.

Yesterday morning, the Mita

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Yesterday morning, the Mita line was running late. Tod arrived at Kasuga station to board a train for work, but had to wait on the platform for 30 minutes. When he finally made it to Otemachi station, a train employee gave him a note to hand to his employer to explain why he was late.

Delay Certificate
Regarding the train you were riding, the punch-cut to the right proves the delay.
Otemachi Stationmaster.

This was the first time that we've ever experienced this. Some train lines are notorious for delays due to suicides, but we've managed to miss all of them. Once in a while a mouse or frog gets into a switch or an engine and the trains stop for repair. Heavy rains and snow also throw off the clockwork precision. No word on what caused yesterday's delay.

It's always a little

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It's always a little bit sad when guests leave. We've packed these two weeks with a thousand activities (though you wouldn't guess it from what I've written here lately) and from today, life goes back to its normal routines.

But the break from the usual grind was really nice. We did creative things like candlemaking and shibori dying. Travelled to Hakone and saw Mt. Fuji in all her glory. We ate some really fantastic meals at home and in restaurants around the city.

So there's plenty to tell about, right after I dig out from the pile of neglected work on my desk and in my e-mail box.

My digital camera is

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My digital camera is full of images that I promise I will share soon. Until then, you might want to take a look at some other people's photos of Japan: Reflections of Japan Mine will pale by comparison.

I might be the

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I might be the cleanest woman in the world.

We went to Hakone and spent the night at Yamadaya at Souzan. They have the most beautiful baths--three different rotenburo (outdoor hot springs) plus two mineral baths inside. In addition our room (#501, named Kintoki after the mountain it faced) had its own cedar tub with a view overlooking the foothills of Mt. Fuji.

From the time we checked at 3:30 until we left this morning at 10, I bathed 4 times. So I might be the cleanest woman in teh world, but I'm not because Kris bathed just as many times as I did.

Kappabashi is Tokyo's wholesale

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Kappabashi is Tokyo's wholesale restaurant supply district. A kilometer of shops line boths sides of a four lane street. Side streets shoot off with even more shops. All of them offer up specialty goods--pots and pans in this one, signs and menus in that one. Over here we have cast iron; across the street are the coffee-making supplies. Down the little side street is the best of the knife shops. This store sells bakery bags and twist ties. That one has plastic bento boxes.

When I first visited Kappabashi a few years ago, nothing was familiar except the Western pots & pans. Now I can identify most of the goods--this squat glass jar with a tiny spoon is for Chinese mustard; the taller one is for sugar. This short cylinder is a toothpick holder but that one holds a tabasco bottle.

Everything has its specific and precise use. No restaurant would ever dream of using a Chinese mustard jar for sugar, or putting tothpicks in the tabasco jar holder!

Walk signal blinks green.

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Walk signal blinks green.

Policeman calls "Abunai!"

But I sprint across.

Japan's traffic fatalities reached

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Japan's traffic fatalities reached 8,000 on Wednesday. That's 11 days later than last year.

Last month, prefectural police taught a special makeover course to elderly women. The idea that women would be more aware of traffic when crossing the streets if they looked nice and felt confident about themselves seems a little wonky, but maybe it made a difference.

Tokyo is so full

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Tokyo is so full of things to do that it's difficult to decide on a plan with visitors. Pottery exhibits, shopping, food, historical places? It makes my head swim. Maybe I could just retreat into my computerised world of work...but then I'd miss all the fun.

But what will we do today? I'm not sure.

I'm off to buy

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I'm off to buy a color printer today.

I've been putting off this purchase for a long time. Black and white is fine for me, really. But I designed a holiday card that looks better in color and I have no time to get them professionally printed. So I have to do it myself.and that means a color printer.

Deciding which one will be a challenge. They all seem so similar--it's difficult to know which will be best. I'll pick one and learn to live with its quirks, I guess.

The Crown Princess of

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The Crown Princess of Japan delivered a baby girl on Saturday.

The economists predict an upswing in the economy due to this happy news. Baby goods manufacuturers are all excited for their prospects now that there is a new princess.

Maybe they expect a surge in the purchase of rattles as gifts for the new princess. The companies claim that the birth will help people appreciate their children more. Perhaps a mother will say to her toddler "Junko-chan, you're not a princess but I love you anyway. Here, have this nice toy as a consolation prize"

The scope of hairdressing

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The scope of hairdressing products on the market is remarkable. Foam, wax, gel, spray, mousse...water.

Not just any water, this is Morning Water. The pictures on the spray bottle tell the story. A man in striped pajamas is in for a really bad hair day. His mop is sticking up all over and he's grimacing at the mirror. But Morning Water comes to the rescue! In the next frame he's got a suit and tie on and his hair is neatly combed. He looks ready for another day at the office.

Japanese habit is to bathe before bed. Bedhead would be a menace if it weren't for Morning Water.

A Japanese ice cream

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A Japanese ice cream parfait is a confectionery Frankenstein.

I remember parfaits from my childhood: a tall glass filled with layers of sweet sauce and ice cream, topped with whiped cream and a maraschino cherry. The waitress at Genetti's sometimes gave me an extra cherry which made me feel very special.

The Japanese go a bit further with their parfait artistry. Here's how to make an "Apple and Satsuma Imo Parfait"

In the bottom, place a few slices of banana in an apple flavoured syrup. Add vanilla ice cream, more syrup then another scoop of ice cream. Top that with a thick sprinkling of cornflakes, a dollop of marshmallow sauce, and another scoop of ice cream. Finally, pipe on some mashed sweet potatoes, dust with cinnamon, and add two rolled cookies.

But no maraschino cherry. I was disappointed.

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