Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Car for One

In Japan, you can find anything and everything in miniature. Isn't this car cute? Don't you just love its tapered profile? What about the jaunty way its steering wheel sits front and center? And it only needs one windshield wiper! Not to mention the ambidextrous doors -- also a pretty cool feature. I have seen a few of these vehicles parked around town but I have yet to see one in motion.

I have always had an affinity for scale, even before I began thinking about the relative size of things professionally. Once I succumbed to a giant Oreo cookie (ceramic) at Think Big in Soho (what ever happened to that store?). But in Japan, where space is limited, small stuff rules.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Egg Dog?

Egg Dog? Though I can't put my finger on it, there is something off-putting about this new product. It appears to be egg salad in a bun but I can not say for sure. From a design point of view, the three-sided wrapping could be a tidy solution to the messy problem of filling leakage. Perhaps this shape lends itself more easily to mass-production than the usual sliced bread. Quietly, I will admit the Egg Dog is kind of cute in a quaint, clam roll sort of way.

Yet, conceptually, there is something distasteful about the implicit cross species eating. According to a certain religion, even benign-seeming hybrids like nectarines and plucots are verboten. Not that this sandwich-wannabe would be any more appetizing if dogs laid eggs. It also didn't help that its convenience store display was not refrigerated. Doubt this one will be a big seller.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taco Belle

The other day my friend and I chanced upon an exhibit in the Spiral Building of accessory prototypes designed and made in Tokyo's Taito Ward. Apparently, Taito-ku is a hotbed of creativity. Or wants to be. The first item on display, a pair of high-heeled, pink lace-ups with frilly, fabric skirts encircling the toes, floored us. Kind of Wicked Witch of the West meets Little Bo-Peep. Absolutely ridiculous. Yet charming at the same time.

Our attention was then lured away by a second set of shoes. Sandal-like and slightly more practical, this pair seemed to be fashioned after folding beach chairs. Made mostly of wood, they did not look particularly comfortable. But they might function nicely as sushi serving pieces. Would that Eve had been with us.

My favorite item of all was the purse shaped like a taco. You can see it in the photo above, next to the man-bag resembling a baseball mitt. I am only speculating that Mexican food inspired this design. But on close inspection you will notice that it is made of tortilla-shaped, leather layers that fold and snap together at the top. Composed of two sheets, each layer is actually a flat pouch. Oh, how I love a purse with compartments. Yet the bag's coolest feature by far was the open space sandwiched in the middle -- the ideal place to stow the NYT. Japan certainly has a way with voids.

Now for my critique. The bag's designer, an elfin 32-year-old whose portrait hung on the wall nearby, ought to reconsider her color scheme. Does beige really go with everything or nothing at all? And the hardware was a little too Burlington Coat Factory for my taste. But those are cosmetic concerns. If she plays her cards right, this product could have a rosy future on the shelves of some swish boutique.

While I did not share these comments with the exhibit organizers, we did complete written surveys which awarded each of us a spin on the lucky draw machine. A bittersweet ending, we both missed out on the big prizes but won little packets of chocolates tastefully adorned with brown ribbon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

UT's Coats of Many Colors

Yesterday I had the pleasure of introducing a new pal to UT, the uber hip Uniqlo spin off shop just above Harajuku. Though UT carries some Uniqlo standbys, the shop's big draw are its limited edition tee shirts earmarked for teenagers and 20-somethings. At the moment the store is featuring a series of tops designed with Disney (can't wait till that sells out) and phasing in a new collection authored in collaboration with Crystal Ball whose parent company, Garcia Marquez, produces the must-have, printed plastic bags adorned with rick-rack. I can live without these too.

UT's rainbow line up of down jackets did, however, stop me in my tracks. A modest Y2900 apiece, they were hard to resist. Like my mother, I do have a bit of a weakness for jackets. But I only gave fleeting thought to ownership. What drew my eye like a magnet was the garments' clever and attractive presentation (the picture doesn't really do it justice). I just love the movie theater marquee above and the spectral display below. Maybe I should organize my closet by color too.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Astral Turf

This time of year I often look up and marvel at the brilliant foliage of Japan's ubiquitous maple trees. But the other day I looked down and saw their delicate leaves in an entirely new light. Splayed on the pavement, secured in place by rainwater that drenched the city the previous night, the leaves were no longer bright red and fiery orange. Many were now rimmed with brown or, perhaps, even further along in the decay process. Others revealed their silvery undersides. What grabbed me was their star-shaped profiles.

In a group, the identity of the individual leaf gets lost. And, earlier in the season, when the trees were ablaze with color, the robust hues practically eclipsed the leaves' delicate forms. Unless you looked close. (For this express purpose, I sometimes stand underneath a leaf-laden bough and look skyward since the sun's natural, back-lighting brings the lacy perimeter of each frond into focus.) Though new and interesting, my observation of the maple leaf's astral outline did not really seem blogworthy. Plus I didn't want to bore you with too much tree talk.

Then something happened that caused me to change my mind. A little further on, I practically stepped on a lost earring lying directly in my path. Just like the leaves, it was star-shaped! Composed of two dangling, silver-colored, five-pointers, it was neither the product of a design-genius nor made of precious metal. But this uncanny alignment of the proverbial stars was surely a sign of some sort. Don't you agree???

Pippi: Queen of the Forest

We all love our weekend retreats to Minakami. But, perhaps, none of us more than Pippi. In Minakami, Pippi gets to be a Real Dog. She walks off leash, exercises her nostrils, chases stuff and snoops around freely. In short, all the restrictions imposed by city life simply vanish and her inner Queen of the Forest persona comes to the fore as you can see in the photo above.

Yesterday, while the mountain people we live with were hitting the slopes (make that singular since there was only one open run at Kagura), Pippi and I headed for the hills too. Up and down we climbed, following the access road into the woods and then out again into civilization. We even did a little bush-whacking when the trail petered out. No sightings of bears or wild monkeys.

We ended our trek at the apple orchard just a few hundred feet from our house. We loaded up on apples (5 kilos of Fujis) and a bag of frozen chestnuts, rice-cooker ready. As "service" for our purchase, we received three, yellow-skinned Ourin apples. Pippi and I shared one as soon as we got home.

Walking back from the orchard, the mountain behind our house looked as if it were balding.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Temple Lanterns

On my recent trip to Taiwan, my guide thought I ought to see a little bit of her home country. Since I am an architect, I asked her to show me interesting buildings. We visited two: the brick home built by an English merchant and a combination Buddhist-Daoist temple.

To get to the temple, we had to take a 10 minute ferry ride and then walk a short distance up from the port. The area was very congested and teaming with activity. The main thoroughfare was edged with a mixture of shops selling clothes, food stuffs or souvenirs and seafood restaurants whose freshly caught menu stared out at us from ice-filled cases. Breathing status unclear. Motor bikes, cars and foot traffic took over the center of the street. A riot of color, sounds and smells, the sun-baked scene was thoroughly captivating. And completely overwhelming.

Angled towards the street, the temple was tucked away, off to the side, where it was slightly removed from the fracas. Every surface of the single-story building was covered with relief and tiny sculptures, each one more brightly painted than its neighbors. Next to this, the canopy of red, paper lanterns strung up in front of the temple had a remarkably calming effect. Maybe it was their uniform color. Maybe it was the way they seemed to float effortlessly, bobbing slightly in the breeze. Maybe it was the way they muted the sun's scorching rays. Maybe I just like grids.

Once my eyes adjusted to the interior's semi-darkness, the main sanctuary's golden statuary and piles of offerings (bundles of fake money ready for burning) came into view. The clattering of wood blocks falling on the floor startled me. Had I knocked something over?

No. At the very back of the temple, facing an awe-inspiring group of gods, stood the main altar. On top of the altar were several pairs of kidney-shaped, wooden blocks. We surreptitiously watched a woman pick up a pair of blocks and drop them repeatedly on the floor as if her life depended on it. And maybe it did. If both blocks landed face up or face down, she had to keep trying. But if one faced up and the other one down she could proceed to the next step and choose a stick from a basket nearby. The stick, in turn, had a marking on it and the marking corresponded to a poem which was then subject to interpretation by the temple expert. By the time we finished our tour, she was leafing through the book, looking for her poem, hoping it would have the answer she determinedly sought.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What's in a Name?

If you live in Japan, a lot. Take my name, for example. I adore my name. I love the way it sounds. I love the way it looks. I love its rich history. And here it is one of the most popular girls' names -- pre-Tiffany and Brittany but post-Lisa and Cathy. I once heard that girls' names ending in "ko" became popular after the war followed, more recently, by names ending in "mi". Though the spelling of "Naomi" in Roman letters is exactly the same in English and Japanese, the pronunciation is slightly different, "Nah-omi" vs. "Nay-omi." I use both. No one forgets the gaijin with the Japanese name. In fact, my most frequently asked questions are "Why do you have a Japanese name?" and "Is your grandmother Japanese?" Little did my parents know ...

Early on in my stay, a well-known architect decided I needed kanji (Japanese characters) of my own. In Japanese, there are many common spellings for my name which belongs primarily to women but to men as well. It was decided that I should have the same characters as his daughter: Nao + Mi = Straight Beauty. I can dig it.

As you can imagine, in Japan all manner of personalized consumer goods are available to me in kanji, romaji and hiragana: chopsticks, washcloths, pens ... you name it! Though I am amused by these items, I purchase few. Recently the girls spotted a "Naomi" cell phone charm at Besia, Minakami's Walmart-equivalent. I was set to take a pass but the genuine four-leaf clover and the message "wish your happiness" emblazoned on the flip side convinced me to make it mine.

And the other day, Pippi and I walked by a restaurant in our neighborhood that opened a few months ago. I still do a double-take every time I see its sign.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gingko Glory

About a month ago the air was full of a dreadful pong. The culprits? The innocuous-looking, but horrible-smelling, gingko nuts littering the ground. For most of the year gingko trees just meld in with the scenery. But come mid-fall, they take center stage, commanding the attention of the nose first and the eye second.

For little old ladies (and the occasional little old man), the telltale odor is a tip-off. Armed with plastic bags and trowels, they come out in force to pick up the nuts with their gloved fingers. (I once grabbed a gingko nut bare-handed. Big mistake. It took days to get rid of the rotting, earthy stench.) I am not sure how it is done, but proper preparation transforms these stink bombs into smell-free, savory delicacies. In fact, we had some for dinner last night at one of our new favorite restaurants. Slightly chewy and lightly salted, the roasted, yellow morsels have a unique texture and a nutty flavor that delights the palette.

A few weeks after the olfactory onslaught, the gingko's spectacular foliage comes into its full glory. This is not the first time I have seen the fan-shaped leaves turn light green and then brilliant yellow. But every year I marvel at them anew. (Is this an age thing?) I treasure Japan's appreciation of seasonal change. The gingko trees always do their thing in late November, just in time for Eve's birthday and Thanksgiving.

This morning Pippi and I took an early walk, as we like to do on the weekends, and routed ourselves through Arisugawa Park. We got there before the cleaners had a chance to sweep away the thick layer of yellow leaves that had accumulated overnight. The whole park had become a yellow wonderland!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Chiba Coast

Last weekend I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of 9th graders on a bike trip on the coast of Chiba Prefecture. Along for the proverbial ride,the threes moms bailed on the cycling because our grown-up kids needed all of the adult-sized bikes. But the day was absolutely glorious and we were hardly content to lounge around the lodge,tempting as it was. Instead, we joined the group for lunch at a very fresh fish restaurant situated at the very tip of the prefecture. After generous portions of kinmei, awabi and ebi, we decided to take a postprandial, 13 kilometer hike along the ocean.

We launched our trek from the promontory point where a lighthouse stands sentry, gazing off towards California somewhere out there. As lighthouses go, I have seen better. During the Meiji Period, Japan built lots of light towers, many the product of Brunton and other engineers imported from overseas to help the country get up to speed with its rapidly industrializing counterparts on the other side of the globe. I seek out these and other early feats of civil engineering whenever we travel around Japan.

While we did not take the time to ascend the lighthouse, we did climb onto a rocky ledge jutting out in front where a built-in bench was waiting for us. The ocean view was really spectacular. The rock formations and eddying tides reminded me of America's Pacific coast. All we needed were a few sea lions to complete the picture. I wonder how the two seashores actually compare. (If you have any thoughts, please leave me a comment.)

The walk couldn't have been better. The ocean is so mesmerizing and on that spectacular Saturday it was in exceptionally fine form. Deep blue, dotted with white caps. The stuff of postcards. Every so often we would round a cove where the waves were rolling in and the surfers were out in force. The only true ugliness was the occasional, shack-like eatery with kujira or whale dishes on offer, haunting evidence of Japan's utterly deplorable position on whaling.

We stopped briefly at an indoor market where one of my fellow hikers bought a sweet potato soft cream that was the most amazing color -- yakaimo yellow. I think ice cream of this hue, even soft cream, would be a hard sell in the US. But in Japan the yellowy-brown color is inextricably bound to the roasted tubers, a pleasant association that carries over even in frozen form.

When we returned to home base late that afternoon, we found a group of catatonic teenagers. Having pedaled 43 kilometers and swum in the ocean, I think the kids had a great day too.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Watermelon Juice

One of the nice things about living in Japan is that I get to travel to other foreign countries sometimes. Recently I was sent on assignment to a regional city in Taiwan -- my first visit to the tiny island nation. After our work wrapped up, my guide insisted that I sample the local watermelon juice. What a great idea.

First a little background information. I like the idea of watermelon a lot. Encased in its thick, greenish rind, the ripe, red flesh dotted with black seeds is lovely looking. But let's face it ... when it comes to taste, American watermelon is, well, watery. Japanese melons are certainly an improvement, both in terms of flavor and appearance. If you open our fridge during the stifling summer months you will probably find a dish of the succulent fruit, neatly cut up and ready for immediate consumption by Eve, me or Pippi. Last summer, I saw Japan's legendary square watermelons on sale in Shibuya. A real curiosity. At 150 bucks a pop I wasn't about to bring one home. A photo sure would have been nice but that was BB (Before Blog).

Streamlined shape aside, I doubt that Japan's cubic fruit could have competed with the taste treat the Taiwanese juice bar had in store for me. I could have quenched my thirst with any number of fruit or vegetable concoctions -- my guide opted for mango juice with milk. Dubious. I decided to play it safe and go for what I thought was a known quantity. I still watched with a little trepidation as the proprietor scooped chunks of melon into a plastic cup, followed by ice cubes and a heaping tablespoon of sugar. Nothing unfriendly, though I would have nixed the sugar had I known it was coming. After a quick spin in the blender, the bright pink puree was passed over to me. It was unexpectedly delicious! Icy and refreshing, the thick drink had the intense flavor of a Jolly Rancher candy, watermelon rendition. A smoothie of sorts, it tasted more like watermelon than watermelon itself!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I simply adore Uniqlo. Some might identify the moderately priced, youth-oriented brand as Japan's answer to the Gap but the two are far from congruent. The vibrant colors, uber-soft fabrics and excellent styling of Uniqlo garments really suit me even if some of the clothes do not fit -- sleeves too short, waist in the wrong place and other complications that I won't go into here. That said, the vast majority of my Uniqlo purchases have made it onto my 'favorites' list and they get frequent/constant air time.

Take Heat Tech. This product -- a line of extremely thin but remarkably effective thermal undergarments -- is pure genius. I have no idea what Heat Tech is made of but I live in these turtlenecks and camisoles all winter long. This year the company even introduced a few striped versions! Too much of a good thing? Oh, I don't think so.

Recently the company launched its +J line designed by none other than the German fashion great Jil Sander. On a recent visit to the brand's 5-story Ginza emporium I scored a +J jacket that is already destined to become a staple in my wardrobe. Unencumbered by padding or lining, it has a simple A-line silhouette rendered in a sturdy, synthetic fabric that sits comfortably on top of a sweater and accommodates the basic layered strategy I adopt during Tokyo's autumn and even winter (aside from those two wickedly cold weeks at the end of January when I try not to go outside). Jet black, my new purchase matches everything in my closet (I AM making a feeble attempt to break away from the monochrome palette favored by architects worldwide). The grosgrain ribbon outlining the zipper is a particularly appealing detail. But it was the collar that clinched the sale. Thanks to said zipper, the collar can be worn closed for a chic, funnel-shaped neckline or opened to perfectly frame whatever is going on underneath. Very adaptable and very flattering if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rhymes with Lost

One of the pleasures of living in Japan is the renewed appreciation of English it instills. I routinely get the chance to see my native tongue in a completely different light. Admittedly English has plenty of innate grammar and spelling eccentricities -- most I don't even notice. Though unique letter substitutions and unusual sentence structures have become a little less common in Japan, I wonder why so many English phrases still elude 'Spellcheck' before appearing on tee shirts, signboards and paper pamphlets. But thank goodness they do!

We found this little treasure at a take-out food shop en route to the subway station. We were rushing to catch a train but had to stop and snap. It took me a few seconds to process its meaning. What on earth is "tost" salad? Salad sandwich? Salad with toast? Croutons on top? And then it dawned on me. Maybe this abbreviated version of 'tossed' was meant to grab attention but it did not really stand out enough to do the trick. Maybe it worked better graphically. Maybe it was a simple oversight (note the correct spelling in the descriptive sentence below). To someone somewhere this peculiar little word made all the sense in the world. Once I realized that it rhymes with "lost" it did for me too.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meiji Chocolate gets a Makeover

Good news. Meiji Chocolate has changed its image. Gone is the gold lettering with 70s retro styling. To my eyes, the bar's former presentation was enticing but, frankly, boring. Not to mention, the chocolate's taste was vaguely reminiscent of the Burnt Sienna crayon (one of the mid-range browns in the 64-color box). Not that I was ever a crayon-eater. That was another breed of kid altogether.

But while we're on my childhood, I remember when the Nestle bars I knew and loved underwent a similar transformation. The wrappers' color schemes remained basically the same: red and white for plain milk or the blue and white for the almond-studded version. It was the loss of the brand's distinctive lettering that I really mourned. In lieu of its distinctive, sharply angled font, they substituted rounder, more European-looking letters. And from that point on, the product just wasn't the same. I may even have switched my allegiance to Hershey -- a true indication of how grave the situation had become.

We are convinced that the Meiji makeover is more than skin deep. But in a good way. The chocolate flavor of the reborn bar is more convincing and its texture far more toothsome. It is amazing what can be done with food additives today. Perhaps the recipe changed or maybe the bar's updated look has us hoodwinked. While the girls are a little dismayed by the new label, I have to admit that I find it very pleasing. The brand name is bold and assertive (but not in-your-face), the lower-case letters fit together nicely and the font has a fresh feel that continues to draw my eye. I think the designer got it just right.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hannukah lights up the Hills!

On November 1, we woke up and all remnants of Halloween had simply vanished! Sure there were a few stray chocolate wrappers caught in low-lying branches and a scattering of squished M & Ms on the street. But with Pippi around those didn't last long either, much to my chagrin. (I wonder why dogs, who are so intelligent, crave something so bad for their bodies?) Unlike Halloween, American Thanksgiving doesn't even exist here, outside of Azabu National Supermarket whose freezer case will be overflowing with Butterballs anytime now.

Last week, the blue and white lights made their annual appearance on Keyakizaka Street in Roppongi Hills. When the girls were little, we began joking that they heralded Hannukah's upcoming arrival and named them after our very own holiday. Little do the omnipresent shutterbugs know! Out in force, they aim their cell phone cameras, perfectly composing each shot of the twinkling, tree-lined street. Though ersatz, the street is fairly photogenic.

A couple of months ago, I met the fellow who authors the Roppongi Hills display every year -- imagine my surprise when he illuminated our professional interview with images of "our" lights. From his modest office in Aoyama, the designer and his staff come up with some of the city's most tasteful and innovative installations. No garish neon here. And not a pachinko parlor parody in sight. After a moment or two of contemplation, I decided not to let him in on our little secret.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Happy, Happy Melon Bread

I know this is going to strike some of you loyal readers as a bit strange. Today I had my very first encounter with "melon bread" ('meron pan' in Nihongo). How, you might ask, could I have lived here this long and not tasted melon bread? Why, one of our friends swears by 7-11 'meron pan' and eats one as often as possible. The truth be told, I was never that intrigued with this hemispherical hunk of dough. Though I appreciated its half-cantaloupe shape, there was something slightly off-putting about the idea of combining bread and melon. I mean, be honest with me, do YOU think they belong together? In Japan there is a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated objects. Taste sensations are no exception. Consider the potato salad sandwich or spaghetti with fish roe sauce -- neither of these comestibles have ever crossed my lips. And they never will.

But melon pan has redeemed itself. I met a dear friend for coffee today and upon arrival she produced four, freshly-baked, pleasingly warm buns purchased from her local, melon pan specialist. If I had been in the US, I would have tucked into my yakitate ("fresh from the oven") roll immediately as I sipped my Starbucks brew. But this is Japan where that sort of thing just isn't done. Needless to say, as soon as I got home I carefully arranged the treats, took their picture (bear with me, I am experiencing technical difficulties) and then had my inaugural nibble. Indeed the bread had a mild melon flavor. But the fruity overtone harmonized beautifully with the bread's pale yellow interior and its crispy, sugar-coated cover. Not too sweet and not too doughy. Now I am a convert.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Freak of Nature or Food Stuff?

Freak of nature or food stuff? I found these funky-looking carrots at a farmers' market near Minakami. Aren't they weird? I have never seen anything to top this, even at Vermont and Indiana's most organic produce stalls! Vegetables like these seem even stranger in Japan where grocery shops only sell perfectly round tomatoes, uniformly red strawberries and entirely unblemished apples. But this fetish for perfection is balanced by a fascination with aberrations that only Mother Nature could author. These carrots are right up there with gnarled pines trees, wonky wood grain and rocks with unusual characteristics. Even orthodontia is fairly new here. I am sure a good peeler and a paring knife could ready these orange tentacles for a nabe or stew but there is definitely something off-putting about their form that strays so far from the norm.

On a more savory note, the farmers' market also featured eight different varieties of white rice. I am not sure my unsophisticated palette could distinguish one from the other but the new harvest, locally grown rice we bought from 'the mushroom lady' near our house was sublime. The white, glistening grains were a totally different taste experience from the usual, supermarket fare. I have never had rice that was so light, fluffy and flavorful. No adornment necessary.

Monday, November 2, 2009


This is Chester. Chester is one my absolute favorite Tokyo dogs. A Brittany Spaniel with a luscious brown and white coat, he belongs to a good friend of mine. Chester has a great demeanor, an angelic face and is very well behaved, as you can see. He even understands Japanese! Unlike his pal Pippi, Chester has a remarkable ability to sit and wait patiently. While Pippi would have been barking her head off after a few minutes of down time, Chester assumed a position of repose and was perfectly content to watch the world unfold before him while we ate lunch nearby. The only thing that upset him was the occasional motor bike. He greeted passing dogs with a gusty bark and vigorous tail-wagging but then settled easily and resumed his relaxed, prone position. Just about everyone who came by remarked on Chester. How could anyone resist a pooch as adorable as this? Quick on the draw, I snapped this photo of a young woman taking Chester's picture.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eve's Grass Hat

Tonight is Halloween. Abby is going to be a flapper and Eve is going to be grass. You know, the stuff that lawns are made of. Getting Abby's costume together was not too challenging -- mostly this required combing our collective closets for appropriate garments. It helped greatly that I had the perfect dress and that Abby already had a navy wool cloche. Our only purchase was a long string of pinkish pearls. Fortunately Outlet in Hiroo came through for us.

Eve's costume, on the other hand, required some creative handiwork. Eve started with a length of fake grass purchased at the Cainz home center in Minakami. With Francia's help, Eve turned the pseudo-greenery into a cape and matching mini-skirt. There is even a square left over that will become Pippi's place mat in the country. Eve paired her custom garments with her "Green is the New Black" tee shirt and emerald tights, also procured at Outlet. (What would we do without Outlet?) I helped the cause by concocting Eve's head wear, pictured above and below. This entailed stapling strips of plastic sushi garnish together and affixing them in a spiral-ish pattern to a leftover party hat. Not bad.

Women Only

On a recent ride on the Toyoko Line, we had the pleasure of sitting in the “Women Only” subway car. This is the Tokyu Corporation’s answer to the groping problem that has reached epidemic proportions on Tokyo trains in recent years.

I never had any personal experiences with groping but when we lived in Yutenji, many, many moons ago, I used to take the subway to school daily. The start of my journey overlapped with the end of said Toyoko Line (it connects Tokyo and Yokohama hence the name). My route entailed riding one stop, getting off the train, crossing the platform and switching to the Hibiya Line which was often empty since many of its trains originate at Nakameguro. By contrast, the Toyoko Line was usually loaded with commuters on their way to Shibuya and I often had to push my way on to the train. The technique was to enter backwards or sideways and just give everyone a gentle nudge. If all else failed, the famous, white-gloved conductors were on the platform to help out with an added shove. It is amazing how many bodies can squeeze into a subway car!

When I first began commuting I carried a mikan (Mandarin orange) or two in my backpack. That is, until I wised up. You see, my segment on the Toyoko Line may have been short but the train was so packed that the skin of my mikan was ruptured, its juice oozing and the fruit no longer edible by the time I reached Todai. Imagine if subways in New York or Chicago were this crowded! I would never even consider riding them.

During our recent transit, the train was not crowded enough to squish a mikan or even a mosquito. Nor were the passengers in such close proximity that groping might be a threat. Nonetheless, we three women could not resist the draw of a subway car just for us!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Giant Garbage

Today I saw something I had never seen before. While walking along, I spied someone's garbage out on the street -- the usual carefully tied plastic bags waiting patiently at the curb for their appointed pick-up (OK, not quite). But on top of the bags was a toilet seat! In Tokyo I have seen some surprising stuff in the trash. But a toilet seat??? Never!

I suppose toilet seats, like other no longer wanted households items, have to go someplace too. And in Japan, where the appetite for used things is minimal (vintage clothing is one notable exception) and homes do not have much storage, lots of those items end up in the rubbish bin. To handle the load, the city periodically collects "giant garbage" (sodai gomi). The morning before the round up, the street can become a veritable cornucopia of used goods. Electronic equipment, furniture, toys, pet carriers are all there for the clandestine taking -- this practice is frowned upon by the locals.

Japan's propensity to discard stuff that still has life in it seems quite wasteful. And it is a little sad to see belongings that lived in someone's home relegated to the dump. I once read an article by someone who furnished his entire apartment from sodai gomi. I myself do not make it a habit to sift through other people's discards but there was that perfect set of wooden blocks I scarfed up for a friend's son and the dollhouse I stealthily picked up for Eve. Like the toilet seat, however, the vast majority really does belong in the trash and is best left alone.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wonder Wall

Today I saw the most beautiful wall. At the invitation of the architect, I had a chance to tour the new French Embassy before it is handed over to the client later this week. The wall I am about to describe encloses the main embassy building. Regrettably I changed bags, flew out of the house (I was a little behind schedule), and inadvertently forgot to take my camera. So no photo. So sorry.

Maximizing the site's wooded interior, the building stands near the edge of the property line. Because of proximate neighbors, the architects all but enclosed the south side of the building (there are some windows but they are few and far between). I know this sounds counterintuitive, especially in Japan where the southern exposure is highly valued. The rationale is that shutting out the sun will yield lower cooling loads and cut costs for the embassy as well as preserve privacy for everybody.

Created by a subcontractor out in Kofu, the wall itself is made of concrete panels dotted with stone aggregate: small brown pebbles, medium white limestone chips and large green chunks of granite. Before pouring the concrete, the manufacturer scattered the stones evenly on the bottom of a shallow metal mold. Then they slowly poured concrete on top, ever mindful of the distributed stones below. After curing, the contractor popped out the hardened panels and polished their molded undersides. As I listened to the architect's cogent explanation, I kept imagining baking metaphors. Though a whole lot more labor intensive than mixing up a batch of cookies, this process yields a very beautiful product.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Didn't I Think of That?

The other night, during our home Happy Hour, we enjoyed a selection of cheeses as we often do. On offer was Gorgonzola, a bit of Brie and a chunk of our locally made, Gunma Prefecture Edam. The Brie was a tad bit past its prime, but the others were quite tasty. We enjoyed them with a variety of crackers (carted up from Tokyo but European in origin) and beverages, including the local seltzer water which we deemed acceptable for country use but sub par for city consumption.

I did not really like the idea of the Edam so I hesitated to buy and try it -- Japan does not exactly have a great cheese making tradition. Not to mention, I was slightly put off by its milky white color and, measuring only about 1.5 inches square, it seemed overly precious. In terms of flavor, I was not entirely disappointed. But the slightly processed texture suggests that Japanese farmers ought to stick to things they excel at, such as rice or tomatoes.

The best part of this cheese was its accompanying, multi-functional tool. Totally blogalicious! I regret that I did not snap a photo of the package before we tucked in so you are just going to have to use your imagination. It consisted of twin, shrink-wrapped compartments: one for the cheese (which was swaddled with a secondary layer of plastic wrap to ensure freshness, I presume) and the other for a clear, plastic tool sealed in its own little cellophane pouch. The excessive wrapping was way beyond the call of duty and far from praiseworthy. But this little tool, a mini fork-knife with tines at the end and a serrated edge on the side, was very clever. And if it actually works, cheese enthusiasts can cut and spear in one blow! Why didn’t I think of that?

Friday, October 23, 2009


Oh, how I love Jinglish! The other day Eve spotted a new ice cream product in the frozen food section of the supermarket in Minakami. When she showed it to Abby and David they barely broke a smile. But Eve and I thought its name was hysterical. So tonight I just had to give this “dessert cup” a taste test run.

While out walking Pippi, we stopped at our local Am-Pm convenience store for ice cream, as we are sometimes known to do. The rest of the family opted for conventional Haagen Dazs. I wasn’t going to indulge but then Googeous came into view and my resistance melted away.
I had to wait to try my treat till we got home, lest some sort of mishap with a loaded poo bag occur. Once back in the comfort of our kitchen, I carefully peeled off the cellophane wrapper and gently lifted off the plastic lid. There, laid out before me, was a thick layer of chocolate cookie crumbs, crushed almonds and semi-frozen chocolate sauce. Complimenting this rich, brown topping was a surprisingly thin layer of caramel-colored coffee ice cream underneath. I tapped the brittle surface with my Hello Kitty spoon and then plunged in, scooping up a bit of both layers. Bitter yet sweet, crunchy but creamy -- a carefully orchestrated taste sensation that can only be described with one word and one word alone …… GOOGEOUS! (Took the word right out of your mouth, didn't I?)

Naturally we speculated about the etymology of “Googeous” and its possible meanings. Loosely translated as “over the top,” or something to that effect, the English word “gorgeous” has made its way into Japanese. I wondered whether ‘googeous’ was a transliteration of the Japanese version of ‘gorgeous’ but no go: the fine print on the carton includes ‘googeous’ written clearly as such in Katakana. Perhaps it was a misspelling that simply took on a life of its own? I can just imagine the focus group goings on. ('Googeous' ga ichiban! Yappari 'Googeous'!) One of the most common methods of Japanizing English is to simply lop off word endings, as in “pasacon” (= personal computer). Perhaps substituting an "o" for an "r" was a new variation on that theme.

Coming at it from another direction, I considered the target consumer. It is obvious that this frozen confection and its complex flavor are aimed at the sophisticated palette. Whatever its origin, Googeous definitely delivers in the nomenclature department. But when it comes to taste, I must admit, Haagen Dazs Bitter Caramel has got Morinaga licked.

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Eve's Feet of Espionage

The other day Eve and I were driving along Nisseki Dori when we spotted this pair of pink, bow-bedecked booties pounding the pavement. Thanks to Eve's superior espionage skills -- this photo was taken from the window of a moving car -- we were able to document our find for posterity. Please note that Eve and I have a bit of a footwear fetish. Our eyes always gravitate towards shoes, taking in heel height, toe shape, color and any unusual details. And we have a habit of pointing out particularly outstanding and outlandish footwear to each other, sometimes at the expense of our usually excellent manners. Imagine our pure delight when these came into view!

A country where shoes are generally removed before entering the home and even some work places, Japan not only authors some mighty fine footwear, it also tolerates fashion statements of all sorts, no matter how egregious. This is particularly true of shoes since they are often not seen, except outside. Some fashionistas attempt to coordinate their costumes with matching colors or styles, sometimes going overboard as in the lady dressed in rainbow garments from top to toe that we sighted recently. But many take a far more free-form approach by considering each part of the body and its clothing as a separate, sartorial statement. Juxtaposition alone does not justify coordination.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tally Marks

The other day Abby and I went to see what proved to be a very painful movie. It was about a sixth grade class that raises a pig at school and then has to decide whether to bequeath the class pet to the third grade or turn her into pork chops by sending her to the “meat center” (aka slaughter house). Before coming to a conclusion, many class votes ensue, each one recorded on the blackboard with a series of tally marks. But not the conventional US four verticals followed by that resounding, diagonal slash.

Japan also uses a series of lines to count groups of five but arranges them in the order of the character commonly read as tadashi and translated as “correct” in this context. Learned in first grade, this 5-stroke kanji is one of the easiest and most logical to write – all Japanese characters must be written with the correct stroke order or else! Ironically, teachers often use this tally system to keep track of bad behavior by marking each digression on the blackboard with a correctly ordered, chalk stroke. One of the boys in Eve’s class had the dubious distinction of twelve full “tadashis” in one class alone!

Now back to the movie. Towards the end of the film, after months, weeks and days of heated discussions, the class decided to vote one last time. Tear-stained, traumatized and tormented, they agreed beforehand that this would be their final resolution. Slowly, slowly those tally marks were recorded on the board, the vote swinging first in one direction and then in the other. Unsurprisingly, the result was a tie. This left the ultimate and deciding vote in the hands of sensei. Uh-oh. Let’s just say the director did not go for the Hollywood ending.

I suppose the sign of a “good” movie is one that makes you think, emote and ponder your own actions. As far as we were concerned, the movie was preaching to the converted. Hopefully it will persuade others to think first and eat second.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Teeny, Tiny Kaki

This time of year I make it my business to eat kaki, or persimmon, on a daily basis. I also like to keep them in a bowl (preferably one of the blue ceramic ones) on our dining table. I simply love their deep orange color. And their squarish shape appeals both to the eye and the hand. But the the teeny, tiny kaki pictured above is in a class of its own. As you can see, this mini-persimmon is barely bigger than a one Yen coin! I found it lying on the ground near a friend's home. I had never seen a persimmon this small so I relocated it to my kitchen counter where we all enjoyed its cuteness until rot set in after about a week.

The kaki season is not that long, roughly the end of September through the end of November. I prefer the flat-bottomed type and like to eat them when their flesh is a bit crunchy and that lovely pale orange color. I try to pare away the peel in one go (I am pretty good at this) and then cut the fruit into eight wedge-shaped pieces. I spear each piece with a toothpick (or use my fingers if I am feeling particularly lazy). Some varieties have big pips but I do not like their flavor as much and navigating around the seeds is a bother.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mount Fuji, Eagles and Eggplants

Ichi-Fuji, Ni-Taka, San-Nasubi (= Mount Fuji, Eagles and Eggplants). What could these three possibly have in common? On the surface I would say not much. But today I picked up a handy bit of information. In Japan, the dream you have on the night of January 1 is an indicator of how lucky your new year will be. During the Edo Period, the #1 all-time best dream topic was Mount Fuji, followed by eagles and, pulling up the rear, eggplant. It is easy to understand why dreaming of Mount Fuji might bring good luck. Even eagles -- those impressive, if somewhat scary looking, birds fit the bill (especially if you happen to be an ornithologist). But eggplant??? I love eggplant. They are beautiful and can be eaten in lots of delicious ways. But I never thought that a purple vegetable had the power to portend the future. Apparently eggplants are farmed in Shizuoka Prefecture. And Shizuoka Prefecture, formerly known as Suruga, was the home of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, hence the association between good luck and a good, locally grown crop.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Grave Matters

The other day I spotted this gem in the Oedo Line while coming home from the gym in Sendagaya. It asks, "Have you thought about your grave?" Well, perhaps riding the subway IS a good time to face facts and consider this weighty question. In New York City subways, signs advertise tattoo removal, torn ear lobe repair, breast implants and PI lawyers. But Tokyo train ads promote wholesome offerings such as English schools, wedding venues, and antidotes to every seasonal malady -- colds in winter, allergies in spring and energy pick-me-ups all year long. A careful composition of black and white (hidden message) with pink accents (uplifting), gold lettering (timeless) and an image of Buddhist statuary (serenity), this one features the sale of burial plots. Tours available! I wonder how many people choose their final resting place from a subway signboard ???

Monday, October 12, 2009

Now You See It, Now You Don't

This is a picture of a parking lot that was until recently the Azabu Juban Onsen (a public bath supposedly supplied with hot spring water). Though I did not frequent this bath, I enjoyed seeing locals laden with their washing supplies on their way to or from a nice soak. The scene hearkened back to an earlier time when this neighborhood was a charming, residential enclave and untainted by the rampant redevelopment that is turning its shoe-makers and bread bakeries into trendy snack shops and nail parlors faster than you can say "French tips, please." But in Japan few buildings are sacred. And parking lots are just construction sites waiting to happen.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Don't Jump!

Since there is no signboard announcing the impending demolition of this building, I could be jumping the gun. But let's face it. Things don't look good for the edifice we not-so-affectionately call the "Suicide Building." Note the gang plank crowning its top. (What was the architect thinking???) It is looking rather shabby and it has not had tenants for months. Truth be told, I won't be sorry to see this Bubble Era eye sore go. But in Tokyo there is no telling what will take its place ....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dog Days

Summer's dog days of may be over but in Azabu every day is dog day! There are so many dogs in this neighborhood! Labs, Goldens, Shibas, Dachshunds (long as well as short hair varieties), poodles and every type of "tea cup" pooch known to humankind. You name it ... we got it.

When we went to the ward office to register our dog, Pippi, we received a pamphlet about the proper way to walk one's dog. Here are some of the choice tidbits we gleaned. If you encounter another dog, always ask the owner first if it OK for your dog to "say hello" (let's practice .... "Ii desu ka?" "Hai, ii desu" or "Dame desu" -- both are plausible responses), always keep your dog on its leash (the equivalent of holding hands) and ALWAYS carry "etiquette water" to splash down any unsightly puddles. After all, the city is not the dog's toilet!

I have had the pleasure of strolling around town with new born babies and my puppy. Passersby barely bat an eye at a human baby. But a baby dog? Irresistible! When Pippi was little, well-heeled ladies often stooped down to give her a little pat and happily let her lick the make up right off their faces.

Eve and I spotted this little Chihuahua outside one of our neighborhood supermarkets. Isn't he/she a looker?