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.