Saturday, April 30, 2011

Precious Asparagus

Check out this recent vegetable market find. These are the most beautiful asparagus I have ever seen. Bar none. But at those prices who buys them? For a single stalk, the green is Y150, the white is Y280 and the purple will set you back a whopping Y300! At the current exchange rate that's approaching $4.00 for a solo spear! Even in Tokyo those numbers are verging on the outrageous. Though tempted to taste test the different colors, we preserved their lovely appearance on film instead.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tulips in Hibiya and Hyde Parks

Modeled after a European public garden, Hibiya Park is one of the oldest parks in the city. I love to come here, especially in the spring when there is always something in bloom. When we visited the other day, tulips were everywhere.

All different colors. Many different shapes and sizes. And the park was teaming with people, some picnicking, some painting and some promenading, just like us.

My mother loved tulips so much. In due course she turned the front lawn in Hyde Park into a magnificent tulip patch that people stopped to admire every spring.

Naturally, tulips were the flowers of choice at our wedding. My mother ordered a huge quantity of the potted flowers -- all yellow -- to decorate the house. Afterwards, she painstakingly transplanted each one outside. And for years after that they bloomed again each spring. A nice memory.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Black Ribbon

This is the black ribbon. Secured to my clothing with a pin, it is cut to symbolize the pain of loss. I will wear it for 30 days in total. Its appearance marks a profound divide in my life. My mother once told my sister that "You can get used to anything." I hope that she is right.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Petal Snow Storm

Unsurprisingly Japanese has a special word-- hanafubuki -- to describe cherry blossoms as their petals swirl around. The meaning of the first group of syllables, hana, is flower and the second, fubuki, is snow storm. It is really an amazing sight when the wind blows and the petals fill the air like giant snowflakes. Though a little sad, I appreciate the flowers' remarkable beauty again in this evolved form. After they drift to the ground, the petals gather on the ground until someone comes to sweep them up. Replacing the petals, leaves turn the trees turn green and the blossoms into a fading memory.

By the banks of the Meguro River

The petals gather on the water's surface until the current gently washes them away.

Don't they look like snowflakes?

They are so lovely.

Each and every one of them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pizza Van

Pizza Van takes the meaning of food-to-go to a new place. In recent years I have noticed an increase in restaurants-on-wheels parked on Tokyo streets. Usually they hawk conventional fare like espresso or kebabs. Trumping them all, this fellow has a bona fide, tile clad, wood burning pizza oven fired up in the back of his souped-up VW van. Can this possibly be safe? His pies were selling like the proverbial hot cakes to the lingering crowds taking in the cherry blossoms one last time before the petals all blow off and sail down the Meguro River.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sakura Scenes 2011

Perhaps because of the earthquake, the sakura cherry blossoms seem exceptionally beautiful to me this year. I mean, just look at this tree! Isn't it lovely? Aoyama Bochi cemetery was curiously devoid of revelers. There seemed to be some kind of prohibition against partying amongst the tomb stones this year. Those beery picnics always struck me as a little irreverent. I had heard that people were refraining countrywide.

But Shiba Park was definitely preparing for the onslaught of blue, plastic picnic tarps.

I love to stand under a tree in full bloom and look up at the sky.

The flowers at their peak are truly an amazing sight. All you see are those delicate blossoms -- white tinged with pink.

Each one is so exquisite.

Half the fun is watching the people.

Nice shirt.

Look what the cat brought in.

Pippi had a good time too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tokyo Unplugged

In compliance with the country's energy consumption hold back, businesses from Tokyo Tower down to the ubiquitous vending machines have turned off their unnecessary lights.

Lots of store fronts in our neighborhood sport these little black and white signs in their windows, identifying them as setsu den chu or energy-saving entities. We walked by Food Magazine the other day and almost all of their window lights were off. Was the store open or closed? It was hard to tell. I wonder whether or not shops that cut their electricity use have more customers than their brightly lit competitors.

Despite their subterranean locations, subway stations have cut back as well. Dimmed lighting, darkened signs and dormant escalators are spooky. It seems like things are broken and that never happens in Japan. Especially where subways -- the city's circulation system -- are concerned.

Overall, the city seems to function perfectly well with less artificial illumination. In fact, I am amazed at the waste we lived with before. Yet the lowered light level contributes to the already somber atmosphere. It makes the city seem darker. Even during the day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The New Normal

Damaged during the quake, Tokyo Tower's wonky antenna tip.

We have been back in Tokyo for a few days and I am pleased to report that things seem to be pretty normal, albeit the new normal. We have only felt one earthquake and that was while we were at baggage claim the other day at Narita. The building shook quite strongly. At first I thought it was just another jumbo jet coming in for a landing. But I quickly remembered that jets don't make the building jump and then I heard airport personnel asking everyone to crouch close to the ground. I wish I had taken a picture. It was quite a welcome home.

We found our apartment completely as we left it. Though a few pictures were askew, there was no additional damage despite the many aftershocks that continued after our departure to the US. The girls are adjusting to their early schedule. Designed to dodge the planned electricity black outs (have there actually been any?), the school bus leaves at 6.50 am. Though we miss touring Chicago, Pippi and I continue to enjoy our morning walks. The shops have plenty of food, the petrol stands have plenty of gas and people are out and about. True, milk and bottled water are being rationed. But we are Litvak seltzer drinkers and there is no limit on San Pellegrino.

Yet something is fundamentally changed. Despite its continued cleanliness and relatively crime-free streets, Japan no longer feels entirely safe. But in a completely different way. Despite Japan's restored orderliness, chaos feels much closer than before. Just look at those decimated townscapes in Tohoku -- an area we enjoyed touring on several occasions and I have written about professionally. And we now know what Tokyo feels like when infrastructure elements we took for granted shut down and the city all but grinds to a halt. Though stories about radiation levels occupy journalists, the threat of more earthquakes bothers me more. I no longer regard those tremors as benignly as I cavalierly once did. I look at the cherry blossoms now peaking and their breathtaking beauty is countered by first hand experience of nature's overwhelming, destructive power. All of these realizations contribute to a profound and pervasive sadness that was not there before.

When I meet friends for the first time, I see worry in their faces. Our initial conversation all pertains to the earthquake. How could we possibly talk about anything else? The caretaker who cleans the public spaces in our building thanked me for the help the US government and armed forces have provided to the nuclear situation. Very poignant. Accompanied by a deep bow. Among my foreign friends, a little gallows humor temporarily relieves the incumbent stress.

Even with complete strangers, the subject is the first to come up. A taxi driver asked whether I was leaving Tokyo and returning to my home country. He thanked me profusely when I told him that I left and came back. Though we are removed from the devastation up north, it is hard not to replay those scenes in one's mind and think about the loss that so many are suffering. Those images are always in the back of my mind. I am searching for a meaningful way to help.

Gambare, Higashi Nihon! Hang in there, Eastern Japan!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Drop and Bark in Beverly Shores

Pippi takes the retriever part of her name very seriously -- no day is complete without at least 90 minutes of ball fetching. She not only seems to enjoy the movement, I think she likes the interaction with her humans. Chicago was heaven for a fetch-loving doggy like mine. Every couple of blocks there is a park or open green space where we could go at it with the Chukit. And that we did. The Midway in the morning, Bixler at midday or dusk. And in between we roamed the city streets, just enjoying the magnificently clear light (it was practically Pacific), the deep blue sky and, as you know if you have been reading my blog, the scenery.

Sometimes, when Pippi gets overly excited or perhaps a little tired, Fetch segues into Soccer of a Sort. This means foot wrestling with the dog for ball possession followed by a good kick, sending the ball off but not too far or too fast. At this stage in our play, ball conquering seems to be Pippi's goal. A natural blend of the two appears to be Pippi's new favorite game: Drop & Bark. The way this works is we hurl the ball with the Chukit or a kick and Pippi races after it. On the rebound, she drops the ball midway and then proceeds to bark her head off. Sometimes, if I turn around and begin walking away from her, Pippi will pick up the ball and bring it a little closer before lapsing back into her vocalization.

Needless to say, this is not my favorite game. It hurts my ears. Sometimes I try to modify it by walking towards Pippi and, thereby, limiting the raucous output. On a good day out on the Midway, we went from Dorchester to Woodlawn and back again 1.5 or 2 times. Better exercise for me plus warmer than standing still. See, maybe Pippi had my best interests at heart after all.

The day we went to Beverly Shores, all bets were off. It was so windy and bone-chillingly cold down at the beach that we had to keep moving. When we first reached the beach, Pippi went bounding into Lake Michigan's wavy, frigid water. I was frightened that between the undertow and the cold she would not be able to get out. But she quickly sized up the situation, realized that this lake was not warm like Yamanakako (her primary, previous lake experience) and raced back onto the sand. Despite her chilling dip, I think she quickly become the warmest of us all due to the energetic rounds of Drop & Bark that ensued following her swim.

We had the magnificent beach and the beautiful lake to ourselves. The lake was very active and the beach was quite narrow but that does not come as too much of a surprise this time of year. Hopefully, it will broaden by summer. It usually does. It is always funny to survey the landscape before the trees have regrown their leaves. You can see so much more. Houses I did not even know existed literally come out of the woodwork. The dunes' topographical outline is so sharp it looks like it could have been drawn with a pencil. Lake visibility skyrockets. And the colors -- blue sky, beige sand, silvery bark - are so vivid. Our house was in great shape. We should have spent the night but had our reasons for returning to the city.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chicago Metalwork

Located mostly at street level, Chicago's antique metal work is both decorative and functional. It is a beautiful counterpoint to the heavy stone and brick construction favored by those builders of yore. Such flourish! Such artistry! It is the perfect complement to Hyde Park's rich architecture. When Pippi and I saw these rails and grilles, it was hard for us not to get excited! We hope you will agree.

On Kenwood Avenue.

The Fischers' house next door. We used to have the same stair rails prior to our renovation in the 1960s.

Two views of the fence at Jackman Field: up close and ...

... from afar.

Window grille at Lilly House. A little creepy but full of character.

A grand gate near Botany Pond.

Somewhere on campus.

Not bad for a modern rendition.

A church north of 53rd Street. Isn't this splendid?