September 2000 Archives

Nutrition guidelines

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Nutrition guidelines vary from country to country. Japan recommends that you eat 30 different foods a day. It doesn't matter what--they figure if you get 30 different things into you, you're probably eating well.

What a challenge! Yesterday I managed 20 different things. I would have fared worse if I had not selected the mix sandwich for lunch. I improved my score with five different small half sandwiches: tuna, egg salad, ham, potato salad and tomato.

I don't know the exact guidelines, so I'm not sure about some points. How much counts? If there's a teaspoon of shredded carrot on top of my salad, is that one of thirty? What about condiments and sauces?

Regardless, these guidelines are an encouragement to eat a traditional Japanese diet, which is full of small dishes of foods made with many ingredients! I'll never get to 30 eating pasta and bread.

Crisp fall day

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Yesterday's crisp fall day inspired us to have lunch in the Imperial Palace north garden. It is an oasis of nature in the middle of the business district.

As we sat on a bench eating our lunch, we could see Tod's office building, but the wind through the trees scrubbed the air clean of city sounds and smells.

It is a quiet time of year for gardens, summer flowers are mainly done and we are another month away from leaves turning color. But sitting among the trees and sculpted shrubs with large expanses of green on every side helped to put me back into balance.

Stress just melts away when you're sitting on a park bench, eating a sandwhich and listening to the sounds of crickets.

Dragonfly

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A glint of light caught my eye.

A red-bodied dragonfly angled its wings to soak in the warmth of the morning. The gossamer wings reflected the light of the sun.

I moved closer to look at him. As I approached, he raised his long, crimson body and turned his head toward me to assess the danger. His giant eyes framed a cat's smile.

He didn't fly away. He turned his head back and settled himself, readjusting his wings to meet the sun. I wished I had wings for sunbathing, too.

Seasonality

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I love the seasonality of Japan because it's based on seasons. Sounds silly, but...

In America there are periods and cycles for clothing, decorations and food. But often they are based on a holiday: Christmas decorations; turkey dinner and all its trimmings for Thanksgiving; Easter bonnets. Some things have no season at all. You can buy blueberries in January in any major US city.

In Japan, the cycles are by season. In summer we see dragonflies adorning things, flavored ices, peaches, and yukata (cotton kimono) with uchiwa (fans) in hand. Autumn brings lots of rustic wooden decorations, simmered foods, nashi, and long pants.

Holidays don't add much to the mix here. Excepting the New Year, most other holidays are either quietly religious--the Autumnal Equinox is a time to tend graves--or civil holidays with little pomp or ceremony to mark them. Nobody decorates for "Health-Sports Day." We just take a day off.

Census

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Japan is having a census this year and we are being counted.

Last evening, a census enumerator showed up on our doorstep with a form for us. It's a one-page, computer-readable sheet with a small booklet of instructions in Japanese. There is also a separate multi-language translation.

The translated directions ensure us that the information in the census will not be shared with Immigration, the tax authority, or the police. I doubt that assurance is in the original!

Census day is October 1, the same day we are moving, so we won't be here for our enumerator to collect our form. When Tod explained and asked if we could mail it back, the poor woman ran off to find us an envelope. She returned five minutes later with exactly what we needed.

So we're ready to be counted. Next time you see statistics about the number of foreigners in Japan, think of us!

Geinojin

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"Geinojin ha koko ni kitta, ne..."

"An entertainment star came in here" the young convenience store clerk giggled nervously to a customer.

"Sou desu ka? Kowaisou?"

"Really? Was it scary?" the customer asked.

The word "kowaisou" means frightening or scary. Beware not to confuse this with "kawaisou" which means pathetic, or kawaii which is cute. I guess the star could have been any of the above!

Shellfish

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When ordering a dish with shellfish in Japan, be prepapred to see the shells and to participate in the removal of meat from animal.

Last night at dinner in an Italian restaurant, we ordered a crab and tomato pasta. The presentation was lovely--liguine piled on a plate and topped with a half a crab shell. The bright orange of the shell and the red of the tomato sauce were really pretty. When I reached in to dish some onto Tod's plate, I hit something hard and crunchy. A leg. There were threee legs and a claw nestled in there. Tod got them. I ate my pasta unadorned.

Our second course was scampi impanata. The portion was two 8 inch long shrimp, split open and breaded with garlic crumbs. The shrimp still had their eyes, antennaes, and all of their legs which were decorative splayed.

I really don't like knowing who I'm having for dinner.

3:00 am

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3:00 am. The strains of "La Cucaracha" invade my dream...and grow louder.

The song is so loud I suddenly realise it is not part of my dream. I look out the window in time to see three motorcycles, tricked out with the glow of blue and violet neon and a sound system loud enough to wake the dead (and certainly me), racing down the street with a police car chasing them. The police cruiser had its light on, but and mercifuylly spared us the siren.

I've heard of these motorcycle gangs, the bosozoku. They drive around the city at night making lots of noise and raising rabble. But usually in seedier areas--Shinjuku, Otsuka, Ikebukuro. I hope their trip through our neighborhood was the result of a wrong turn; I hate La Cucaracha.

The weather is cooling,

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The weather is cooling, finally. For the last two days I've had the aircon off and all the windows open. We get a nice breeze through the house and the fresh air enhances the grassy scent of our tatami floors.

But I'd forgotten how noisy our street is--particularly at 5 am when delivery trucks start making their rounds. With the bedroom window open, I could hear every truck, all the scooters, the paperboy. But the chilly draught from the window was so comfortable. I snuggled into the covers for another ten minutes' snooze...

We've found a new

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We've found a new place to live. It took almost three months to find a suitable replacement for the wonderful house we live in now, but we will be out of the current house before the deadline the owner imposed. He's selling, so we're moving.

The new house is built in the crook of a forked intersection and on a hill. It is oddly-shaped with lots of levels inside to accomodate the lay of the land. It's large, bright and airy and I think we will enjoy living there.

It also has a two-car garage but we have no cars. So if you know anyone in Tokyo looking for a place to rent for their car, have them give me a call.

Hiroshima reader

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"Kristen, guess what," a friend from Perot Systems started. "We were on a little island near Hiroshima this weekend, and I saw someone reading one of your articles in Tokyo Classified."

It's neat to find out that my work is being read.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm a writer. Inevitably they as what sort of writer or where I've been published. It's nice to reel off a list that includes a magazine people have heard of and maybe even read. At least in Japan.

Sirens tore down our

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Sirens tore down our street, then stopped before they receded into the distance. I peeked through the curtains, but coudn't see where they had halted. But I did see many of our neighbors heading in the direction the trucks had gone.

Seven giant firetrucks were parked on the street, a hose trailing over the ground from one truck, down the street and around the corner. The fire was down a narrow street where the trucks couldn't travel.

Tokyo is full of little streets and I imagine there are lots of instances where firetrucks can't get to their targets. But why did they bring three ladder trucks? They were over prepared.

The firemen themselves wore uniforms right out of a movie: soot-stained yellow suits with reflective bands; matching hats with a veil hanging down over the neck and ears; plus all sorts of accessories including oxygen tanks, masks and fire axes. They were quite impressive.

But, as it turns out, this was only a minor fire. By the time we arrived to gape with the other onlookers, the firemen were coming back up the alley towards their trucks. They carried their equipment, an empty stretcher, extra hoses. A scent of smoke wafted through the air, but it quickly dissipated. And so did the crowd.

Autumn fruits are appearing

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Autumn fruits are appearing on the market shelves. That means nashi, among others.

Nashi is very crisp. The skin snaps when you bite into it, and its white flesh yields in juicy, grainy bits. It is flavored like a pear but shaped like an apple. Its color is brownish-gold, a quintessential fall shade. It ranks high among fruits we like to have at hand.

In America, nashi are called "asian pears" or "apple pears." There are many varieties of nashi here in Japan, but I think American choices are limited to one or two. Regardless, I recommend giving them a try.

The mid-September moon draws

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The mid-September moon draws people out for annual moon viewing parties.

I suppose this harks back to agricultural traditions, when the nation's rice was harvested by hand and farmers had to work late into the night to get the harvest in before the typhoon rains started.

Now the moon viewing parties mainly mean lots of pretty candies imprinted with full moon and rice patterns on display in stores.

Mikoshi

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Mikoshi are portable shrines set on poles.

Once or twice a year, Shinto shrines bring out their mikoshi and parade them through the streets. Dozens of men carry the heavy wooden beams that support the small, ornately decorated shrines. The bearers wear short coats and white shorts. They bind their heads with towels or scarves and don white, split-toed socks. As they carry their mikoshi, they shout and jostle for position. It's very lively.

Some mikoshi are accompanied by a large, festive cart with a taiko drum. Others have a more sedate procession of traditionally garbed priests waving stalks of bamboo as a blessing over the onlookers.

Maps

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You cannot live in Tokyo without a map.

Tokyo addresses are organized in descending order by To, Ku, neighborhood, Chome, block and finally building number. For example, here is the address of the Diet:

Tokyo-to
Chiyoda-ku, Nagatacho 1-7-1

If you have an address and a map, you can find any place in the city. If you have an address and a vague idea where your destination is, you may find yourself wandering for hours.

When someone invites you to her house, she either gives you a map or offer to meet you at the station. When you go out to dinner with a group from work, you get a map to the restaurant. Maps are even printed on store flyers and business cards!

Immigration

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The Tokyo Regional Immigration Office is a hulking concrete building designed to intimidate people. The entrance underneath a long, shadowy portico sets the tone for what's inside.

Colored stripes on the floor help to herd immigrants to the proper room for their application type. We followed the pink strip to Number 6: Business Visas. The room is cheerless. Concrete walls are painted white and decorated with sample applications and warning notices. Rows of brown leatherette chairs face a TV bolted to the ceiling. Windows behind the counter look out onto the roof of the next building. The air is filled with the sound of the "take a number" machine and quiet conversations among the applicants.

The room is full of fear, too. Some of the immigrants are concerned about their visas--will they be accepted or will they be tossed out of Japan on the next plane. It happens. Most people waiting in the Room 6: Business Visas are bored, resigned, or impatient but the tension of it all gets to you, even when you have no cause to worry about your visa application.

Fortunately our wait was relatively short and our tension dissolved when we were handed new, three year visas. Not only are we allowed to stay here until October 2003, but we won't have to visit the immigration office again!

Typhoon season

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Typhoon season is upon us. From August's hot and muggy weather, we've reached September's torrential rains.

Typhoons are the Pacific version of hurricanes. This week we've been seeing rain caused by the arms of Typhoon 14. It's parked at the western end of Japan and it's predicted to head north towards Korea instead of east to Tokyo.

Still, it's a lot of windy rain.

Beer coupons

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Yesterday on the train, five business men stepped on at Yoga station. As they settled into their seats the oldest one, who carried the nicest briefcase and was probably the "satchou" or section chief, handed his companions a thick wad of coupons.

On top of the pile was a beer coupon.

Beer coupons are nifty. They aren't discount coupons, they're gift coupons that you redeem for a liter or a six pack (or some other denomination). Given as incentives, prizes or gifts, I watch people using them in our local 7-11 all the time.

There are other sorts of gift coupons, too. I have one for a liter of Kikkoman soy sauce!

Cash not Credit

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Consumers in Japan don't use checks to pay for things. In fact, checks don't exists; banks don't offer checking accounts.

Retail purchases are made by cash or credit card. The concept of a debit card is beginning to catch on now.

For bills and other transactions, payment is made either via a bank transfer or a postal account. For a bank transfer you go to your favorite ATM or branch office armed with the other party's banking information. You specify how much to transfer from your account into theirs, and voila! Bills paid.

At the post office, you can pay with cash that gets deposited into the seller's postal account (the Japanese post office is also a bank). This works well if you are a short term resident who doesn't have a bank account or if you want to make a somewhat anonymous payment.

Tsukiji

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Tsukiji is the wholesale market for fish. It's a great place to go for sushi. You can't get fish much fresher than at the market that supplies the city's restaurants!

We had lunch at Kura Maguro a kaiten zushi restaurant in Tsukiji that serves mainly tuna (called maguro in Japanese). Yum!

At a kaiten zushi shop, the sushi chef stands in the middle of a work island, surrounded by his ingredients. He assembles the sushi, sits it on a saucer-sized plate, then puts the plate on a conveyor belt that rings the island. Customers sit on the other side of the conveyor belt and pluck off the plates that interest them.

When you've eaten your fill, a waitress comes over and counts your stack of dishes. They are color coded according to price. At Kura Maguro, the sushi ranged from 100 yen green plates (cucumber rolls) to 600 yen golden plates (ground raw tuna topping a roll of rice and nori).

Kura Maguro's selection is limited to tuna prepared five different ways, egg custard, cucumber rolls and sweet shrimp. The limited selection made choosing easy and since maguro is one of my favorite sushi fish ("Easy on the palate," a friend commented), I was content.

Can hardly wait to return.

Door-to-door sales

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"Sumimasen! Sumimasen!" a high pictched voice called urgently from outside my front door. I rushed to answer it.

A young, slightly moon-faced girl wearing a white shirt, blue skirt and a name badge stood on my steps. Behind her, a middle aged man dressed in a yellow shirt and khaki pants watched.

"Konban ha" she started and she launched into a sixty second prepared speech delivered in a songlike, reedy voice completely with hand motions. It was such an interesting performance that I marvelled at it without concentrating on the content. So when she got to the end of the pitch, I had little idea what she had just told me.

The flyer she handed over had photographs of the aged and infirm in wheelchairs and doing crafts, so I made a quick guess. Old people's charity. What was she selling? Cleaning cloths.

I dug for the money in my purse and the girl accosted me with questions, some in English, some in Japanese. I'm from America. I am 34 years old. I am married. Yes, this is a tattoo.

I haven't yet learned to end these sessions gracefully. There must be some magic phrase that lets everyone know it's over. As it was, I handed her the money, she wrote out a receipt for me and I thanked her. Then she thanked me even more politely and asked me some more questions, punctuated with exclamations of awe. I countered with a cheery "Otsukare sama deshita" and closed the door.

As the latch clicked shut I hear her and her companion calling out yet another thank you. I have no doubt that they were bowing.

Moving shop

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On Wednesday morning, we lived across the street from the Bunmeido Book Store. By Wednesday night, we didn't.

A few weeks back, workmen started picking apart the building. First all the bricks around the bottom floor disappeared, then big hydraulic jacks were put in place to shore up the walls. I guessed they were either raising the building to add another story or installing an earthquake safety system.

But on Wednesday night when we arrived home after Japanese class and pizza, the building was gone! Vanished. The interior tile floor was still there, but nothing else. Not even any rubble.

How mysterious. I was in my office at home all day and never heard or saw a thing. How can you silently demolish a building?

On Thursday night, Tod came home from work and called me to the front door. "You're not going to belive this," he said."Look out there...they moved Bunmeido!"

Sure enough, there it stands on the end of a patch of vacant lots two doors down from where it was on Wednesday morning. Astonishing.

Crazy proprietor

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"Crazy proprietor?!?" was Brendan's greeting to us as he cracked open two Red Hooks and handed us a menu at Pizzakaya last night.

Brendan, the refined and dignified proprietor of our favorite Tokyo pizza establishment, had read my Gallery Show entry on this website. I did indeed refer to his as "the crazy proprietor." But I meant it in the nicest way...

We have dinner at Pizzakaya every Wednesday after our Japanese lesson. The California-style pizza helps to wash away the memories of verb conjugations. Perhaps that's why my Japanese does not improve.

Brendan, if you're reading this, next week we're going for soba after class. :-)

Tachiyomi

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Patrons of bookstores in Japan have a long-standing tradition called tachiyomi. Literally translated, it means "standing reading."

In practical terms, this means that the aisles of Japanese bookstores are crowded with people reading books. In a recent visit to Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain, I counted half a dozen people in the foreign book section alone, reading the merchandise. They weren't skimming over the table of contents to see if the book was suitable before purchasing. They were reading page after page after page.

I was the only person in the section who walked away towards the checkout counter.

Mama trudges

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Mama trudges up the hill with the Mom cycle. Son, decked out in toddlers' playclothes and a hat, sits in the basket behind.

"Mama, mite!" he points enthusiastically across the street at nothing.

"Eh?" Mama continues to watch the ground she rolls across.

His hands flail more wildly in the same direction. "Koko, koko..."

"Doko koko?" Mama says as she looks up and smiles at him.

Autumnf ashion

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Autumn is coming to Japan. I can tell by the change in clothing.

Even though the last two days have been extremely hot (nearly 38 degrees), women are wearing fall outfits with long sleeves and all. Greys, blacks, fashionable browns, plums and burgundies are all on the streets now.

Which isn't to say that everyone watched the calendar change to September and immediately unearthed their sweaters and wool pants. I, for example, have persisted in wearing tank tops and gauze. But in a few weeks, I'll be among the remaining few. I'll start getting funny looks on the subway if I wear my sandals into October.

I guess it's time to take all those sweaters to the cleaners...

Taiko drumming

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During dinner, we heard the sound of taiko drums. That meant that they were dancing the traditional festival odori dances at the Hakusangaoka matsuri festival. I grabbed my video camera and we headed down the street to record the event.

Odori are danced in a circle around a raised stage and drummers. The motions are fluid--arms up to one side, sway to the other side, out in font, clap twice; step back, forward, forward, turn--and pretty easy to follow even when you don't know them as long as you keep your eye on someone who knows the dance.

I know one dance and parts of some of the others. When they played the music for "my" dance, I was busy filming some little kids in yukata. A few songs later, several rather effeminate men tried to persuade me to dance, but the video camera was my albatross. I could imagine it flying across the crowd and landing in a crumpled heap.

So I didn't dance, but I was consoled later on when the taiko sensei invited me to play with his sticks. He showed me how to hold them to strike an imaginary drum and how to twirl them. Tod was encouraged to play the brass gong during one of the songs, though he didn't keep the rhythm quite the same as the original song...

Disaster Prevention Day

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The first of September is Disaster Prevention Day. In a country where volcanoes erupt and a major earthquake is decades overdue, perhaps preventing disaster is impossible. But preparing for it is not.

The well-prepared household has 8 liters of water on hand for each member of the family, dried food enough for three days, a first aid kit, flashlights, emergency blankets and other assorted supplies. They are boxed together and stored near an exit, with smaller kits of water and rations kept near each bed.

On Disaster Prevention Day, officials and citizens band together to enact a mock disaster. Everyone gets to practice with fire extinguishers, banadaging wounds, carrying litters of injured patients. This year 5.5 million people around Japan participated in these events.

So if a disaster occurs, since we can't prevent one, we can at least be prepared.

Computers in another language

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Computers in another language.

Being presented with a consistent user interface on applications is a boon when confronted with menus and files in a language that is unfamiliar.

Sit me at any computer running Japanese MacOS or Windows and I can stumble my way through getting an Internet connection up and running. Even in Japanese applications I've never used before, I can open a document, make changes and save it.

Of course when I make an error I must struggle to read and obey the message box.

"Hmmmm. What does this say? 'Tadaima...kanji kanji wo kanji-masen.' Looks like we have a problem," I am forced to admit. I select whichever option is highlighted as the default and try another tack.

Without a consistent interface, there would be no hope of bilingual computing for me. So thank you very much, Jobs, Wozniak, & Gates!

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