Monday, July 19, 2010

Kirinya Curry

For years I intended to try the take-out curry from the tiny shop in Azabu Juban with the yellow awning and the signboard shaped like a giraffe, hence the name (kirin = 'giraffe' in Japanese). Inside the proprietor-chef, a shy, slender man dressed in culinary whites, takes his food preparation very seriously.

Colorful jars of spices line the white walls shielding the kitchen from view (I am sure it is spotless). But through the house-shaped opening the curry king can be seen slaving over a hot stove. The menu, complete with color photos of all the options (there are only abut 7 or 8), sits on the counter but it is also posted on the plate glass window (photos included). In Japan, you can always tell a good restaurant by its plastic food: high quality reproductions portend good eats. If the same principle applies to photos, then we were in for a treat.

Finally, I tested my hypothesis last week. I ordered two different curries, bean and vegetable, plus spare ribs for the carnivore. Both curries were very good but the bean version was exceptionally tasty -- exactly as I had imagined it would be. The mixture of chickpeas, yellow lentils, kidney beans and a few green peas was not mushy, the sauce was a little thick but not too spicy (nor too bland) and the color scheme delivered visually. Perfect with fluffy, fresh-cooked koshihikari rice. Now I am planning to become a regular. Don't you just love it when this happens?

Tree of Heaven

While snooping around the back streets of Moto Azabu, Pippi and I encountered these leafy fronds. The spiked leaves emit a very distinctive, almost nutty, smell that transports me right back to my childhood as the same plants grow rampantly all over Hyde Park, the neighborhood where I grew up in Chicago. In fact, a huge version graces the front of our house on Dorchester Avenue. According to my mother, who knows about these things, this growth is actually a weed called "tree of heaven." I am always amazed to find the same fauna (even weeds!) living on different continents. How does this happen?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pippi's Birthday

Today Pippi turns seven. I can vividly recall the October day we got her. Having located an available yellow Lab puppy on line, David went to Kuki, Saitama Prefecture to meet her owner Big Boy Saito (yep, that's his name), a fireman and a part-time dog breeder. Actually, Saito-san's real love is training his dogs, Labs and Border Collies, to compete in fly ball competitions. Anyhow, David came home glowing about Saito-san. And about the puppy too.

The following weekend we went back to Kuki on a family Mystery Trip (a frequent activity when the girls were little). After a lengthy car ride, we drove up to Saito-san's house. Assuming something boring was ahead, Eve refused to exit the car. But having noticed the jumping paraphernalia on the lawn, Abby required little convincing.

Upon entering Saito-san's house, Abby immediately spied the little Lab puppy playing in a wire pen in the entry foyer. She asked me if the puppy had a home. Yes, yours! Needless to say, both girls were thrilled. As we sat in the tatami room filling out various documents, burly Saito-san held our little Pippi in his beefy hands and stroked her fur gently as he said good-bye to her. Very sweet.

We also had a chance to meet Pippi's parents. Her mother, who is a black Lab, is Japanese. Her father, who is yellow, was imported from a well-known British kennel. A fly ball champion, he put on quite a show for us.

In honor of her big day, I have two presents for Pippi: a new squeaky ball (her favorite) and a new telephone-shaped tag with David's cell phone number inscribed on it. But even as we celebrate, I can not help thinking about another dog we met the other night.

While out on our evening expedition, Pippi and I encountered a very adorable, mixed breed and his owner. As the pups sniffed each others' bottoms, the humans launched into "dog chat." Turns out she volunteers at the hokenjo (= public health center) in Chiba Prefecture. Her dog (plus the two others she has at home) was slated to be put to death. His crime? Being born.

Apparently 300,000 dogs are slaughtered each year at facilities like this one in Japan. "This is not euthanasia," explained my new friend. These are healthy dogs that no one wants. Some are the products of accidental pregnancies. Others were purchased as puppies but, having grown up, are not as cute. Plus they require a lot of work. After just a seven day stay, all are subject to a long and painful death by gassing or asphyxiation, if I understood correctly. I am so profoundly saddened by this situation. I can not get those dogs out of my mind.

Instead, I will remember them as I give my dog extra hugs, more ball time, and shower her with even more love and attention.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Walking Table Cloth

Eve and I spied this young woman several weeks ago in Omotesando. After sneaking around and trying to surreptitiously take her picture, Eve took the direct approach and asked her permission (promptly granted). I took this as an opportunity to inquire about her dress. Turns out she did not sew the garment herself though it has a certain homemade quality and fits her perfectly. The white head band and shoes really complete the outfit.

I especially love the fabric pattern's Delft blue background and exuberant floral motif. So nostalgic and evocative of kitchens from the 1950s. When we lived in New York many years ago, I bought a table cloth with a similar design at the 6th Avenue Flea Market. Maybe my cloth is destined for reincarnation too.

Friday, July 9, 2010

So Long, Suntory Stripes

If I had to name one thing in my refrigerator at all times it would be Suntory Soda hands down. We are huge fans of seltzer. Abby and Eve have been imbibing since babyhood when we put it in their bottles and sippy cups. Personally, I am partial to San Pellegrino -- it is a little less bubbly. But I am often overruled, hence the plethora of blue striped bottles. But those days are fading fast.

First a word or two about stripes. When it comes to stripes, it is hard to go wrong. Vertical or horizontal, they look great on clothing (you should see my shirt drawer), on paper, and, sometimes, even on buildings. They connote fun but also geometric order -- big accomplishments for a simple series of parallel lines.

Yet even I must admit that Suntory's striped bottle design was a little tired and in need of perking up if its beverage is to compete with the swank brands out there on the super market shelves. Replacing the cobalt blue color scheme with sophisticated navy was a step in the right direction. The lozenge-shaped label is another improvement. And the once shiny hardware is now uber-cool, brushed metal.

But the best part of the makeover is the ribbon of abstract white squares just below the bottle neck (hard to see in this picture, sorry). Initially I missed those stripes and regarded the redesign with an air of clinical indifference. That is, until I realized they're ice cubes! How cool is that??? Well-represented and realistic enough, you can practically hear them clinking in a glass, providing refreshment before the chilled drink has even gone down the gullet. I am amazed at the power of suggestion proffered by this simple visual device though it is a little hard to say good-bye to an old friend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Toyota Mishap

It is not my custom to document private events or personal anecdotes. But this time an exception is warranted. This morning I had an appointment with the orthopedist who has been nurturing my until-recently injured foot. To my way of thinking, the purpose of the appointment was to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s since my symptoms are all but gone and my x-rays are clean.

In Japan, it is unusual to land an actual appointment with a doctor. Most favor the open office hours, first-come-first-served format. My doctor is no exception but due to special circumstances I was granted a specific time. So I drove to the clinic, parked the car in a lot nearby and entered the clinic's reception area. Everything was proceeding according to script until the secretary informed me that sensei is not in today -- his clinic day was yesterday. Bummer. I slunk out of the office feeling slightly embarrassed and slightly annoyed since I could have been playing with Pippi or working out or ... any number of things aside from driving across town in rush hour traffic on a narrow street. But keep reading. The story gets worse before it gets better.

I returned to the car, paid Y200 to get my wheels out of hock and climbed inside. No sooner had I begun to back out when I heard that nasty sound of shattering plastic and crunching metal. Now what? Hadn't I already had enough tzoris for one day? Fearing that I had hit another car or, worse yet, a person, I hopped out to inspect. Fortunately the casualties were not too bad but I did break the tail light, dent the fender and nick the side of the car in two places. If Toyota has their way with us, we will probably have to replace all the affected parts despite minor scarring to any of them (fender and tail light excepted). Beautifully designed for quick and complete repairs, our car consists of parts that pop out like Lego. Great for major damage, not so great for tiny dings.

So I went home and took the dog for a walk. As we set out, I noticed a string of missed calls on my cell phone and, just as I was trying to access the messages, the phone rang once again. Low and behold, it was sensei calling to apologize. Turns out the error was at his end. Apparently the mistaken receptionist raced out to retrieve me but to no avail. Just think ... if she had found me in time ... if I had returned to the clinic for my appointment ... Oh the possibilities! I know there is no use in crying over the proverbial spilled milk. Yet I also know there is a metaphor, message or moral lurking somewhere in this story. Honk if you figure it out.

Japanese Moss

In Japan, moss enjoys the good life. In America, it is a nuisance to be expunged, here it is a miracle of nature. In America, it grows uncontrolled, here it is a left to its own devices -- two different interpretations of the same phenomenon.

The lush green padding somehow brings out the best in Japan's old walls. From afar, it reads as a thick, velvety cover. But on close inspection it is composed of an infinite-seeming quantity of tiny leaves, each one as delicate as a snowflake. When space is limited, greenery is treasured, no matter how small.

I love the way moss accommodates to its host venue, filling in crevices and smoothing out rough edges. At the same time it encircles deep gaps and glitches, allowing the underlying concrete or stone to make its presence known. Every urban artifact it touches looks better as a result. One would never contemplate scraping it off.

Clearly these mini-plants flourish in the season's heat and humidity. Just looking at the soft green cover makes me feel cooler.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Minakami Blooms!

Minakami is in full bloom! The other day Pippi and I took a lengthy walk over hill and dale to inspect all the new growth up close. Voluptuous greenery is everywhere! And flowers, both wild and cultivated, dot the landscape with intense bursts of color.

Wild plums clustered together at the side of the road.

Though its apples won't be ripe for the picking until the end of August, Farmer Suzuki's orchard is already laden with fruit. Hopefully his blueberries will be ready next weekend -- the bushes are just barely bearing the weight of the berries.

Yet nothing impressed us more than the rice paddies: terraced plots of land now lined with neat rows of green shoots. Measuring about 9 inches high, they still have a ways to go until their autumn harvest -- no rice kernels visible yet. But they have certainly come a long way from the tiny plants tenderly placed in the mud last spring. Back breaking work that. No wonder all the local farmers seem to suffer from scoliosis or osteoporosis. It was hard to keep Pippi from nibbling the nascent plants. I suppose these water-logged grasses are just the thing on a steamy hot and humid day. Especially if you are wearing a fur coat.

Recessed in the ground, the bottom of each paddy is currently covered with a layer of water, maybe 2 or 3 inches deep. I noticed that its surface was shimmering and assumed that winged insects were making continual water landings. But a studied look revealed a submarine world in miniature.

The paddy was teaming with tadpoles! Little grey, wiggly ones at various stages of development. And where there are tadpoles, there are bound to be frogs. While the muddy water masked the swimmers, the bright green leaves were the perfect foil for the newly hatched jumpers. Active little critters, they do not like to sit still and pose for pictures hence the blurry images. But, as you can see, Mother Nature really gave them a running start by outfitting them with superb camouflage.