November 2000 Archives

The postman rings pretty

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The postman rings pretty many times.

Two days ago I found a notice from the postman in my mailbox. He had tried to deliver a package while I was out. The form gave me many options: specify a date and time for them to redeliver; have the package delivered to a different address (residence or business); or pick up the package at the main post office. It even provided a map.

I lost the slip in the rubble on my desk and didn't fill it out right away. My bad. Yesterday, there were two slips in the box. Postman-san tried to deliver at 13:14 and again at 14:20. One slip was marked Ma-ku-ri-n, an approximation of our name in Japanese, but the other was marked Matsuo, the people who lived here before. I was stumped. Do we have one package, or two? Maybe we have three!

This morning, Tod grabbed the newspaper from the mailbox and discovered that a package had been stuffed inside sometime last night. The postman must have been tired of carrying is around.

We tucked the redelivery slips in the box for the postman anyway. If we have three packages, I guess he'll bring us two more. If we have only one, I hope he will ignore them. Or maybe he'll go out and find us two.

(P.S. Thanks for the candy, Jenn.)

When I was a

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When I was a kid, I sat on the floor a lot. Maybe I was preparing for life in Japan.

In the traditional Japanese home, furniture is low to the ground. Windows are near the floor; everything is grounded. You've probably seen the classic, low dining table with cushions scattered around it. Maybe you've slept on a futon laid out on the floor.

The introduction of Western furniture and modern lifestyles has influenced the design of furniture and there are some interesting hybrids. While low writing desks have been used for centuries, low computer tables with keyboard draw and a shelf above are relatively new on the scene. So is the low armchair; imagine you favorite lounge chair and take off the legs and several inches of the bottom. Add a swiveling base and a side pocket for your collection of remote controls and you're hitting the heights of hybrid furniture fashion.

When I shop for furniture, I try to stick with one style or the other though I will mix up styles with impunity. In my living room I have a normal sofa and chair plus a pile of zabuton, the traditional floor cushions. But no low chairs

From 1960 to today,

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From 1960 to today, Japan's population has increased 130%. Its energy consumption has increased 550%.

Looking around my house, I can see how that happened a little bit at a time as each new convenience and luxury was introduced. In the kitchen, I have an electric water pot that is on 24 hours a day, even though I only use hot water from it once or twice a day. Another half dozen small appliances are stored in the cupboard and wait their turn on the counter.

In the bathroom, the toilet seat is heated and it includes a motorized bidet. To flush this toilet, I must press a remote control on the wall. I'm sure that take some power. The vanity mirror is heated, too. There is a small fan heater under the sink to keep toes warm. Two exhaust fans blow air through the room.

Our living room has 22 lightbulbs installed in two chandeliers and eight downlights.

Except for computers, which we have in overabundance, I think we own a minimum of gadgets. But when I look around carefully, I realise that I'm wrong. We have a lot of things that make our life easier, warmer or happier. And many of them use power.

I think its time to switch off some things now...

There is a restaurant

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There is a restaurant chain here in Tokyo called Kushikyu (which is a wordplay too difficult to describe in English) that serves "foods without a country." Their menu features fusion cuisine--rice ball croquettes, kim chee stew--that are ultimately uniquely Japanese. It's always a treat to see what specials they are cooking up this week.

Not only does the menu have strange combinations of flavors, it contains a joke. It's teh first joke I've ever seen in Japan and I was stung by not quite getting it.

The word toriaezu means "that's all for now" and is often used in restaurants when you've ordered your drinks and appetizers, but will order an entree later. Tori means chicken. And To is the number ten. When I read the weekly specials I see:

10. Tori aezu

I figure that #10 is a chicken dish with a cute name. So we ask the waitress, "What's this tori aezu?" And she patiently explains that it is a joke. The laugh was on me, for sure.

Banking online is a

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Banking online is a brilliant idea. We do it all the time because it gives us ready access to our American accounts. We even have an account at a bank we've never been to in person.

But it has its drawbacks. My banker is a web page (well, a whole bunch of web pages). And my banker is irritating me. I can't open a new account or a CD online because I don't have an American address--I can't choose a state from the pull-down menu and my Japanese postal code is 7 digits long--nor do I have a driver's license. Yet I already have accounts at this bank. Opening another one shouldn't be a problem.

I pointed this out to them in a letter and they replied with a form letter that doesn't address my problem. Argh! Customer Dis-Service strikes again. Now it's time for another round of letter writing and then perhaps a change of banks.

There's a new, huge

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There's a new, huge apartment building on the main drag in our neighborhood. It's the largest building on the street--taking up an entire block and 20 stories. It's a really posh place, called L'Age.

For the last two months, the construction workers have been fixing up the sidewalks and the landscaping and it's beginning to look less like a construction site and more like a residence. Although I don't think anyone's moved in yet, the first floor shops are beginning to open up. Yesterday a new gourmet grocery introduced itself to our neighborhood.

I decided to join the curious crowds at lunchtime on the first day of "soft open" (I guess this is what happens before Grand Open) and see what the new shop, Queen's Isetan, is all about. It's about trendy vegetables, a meat-carving station and foreign foods. Rather hipster and upscale, but I'm not complaining.

Queen's Isetan is going to save me a lot of running across town. I used to have to go half an hour by train to get American ingredients like molasses and ground ginger. Now I just have to go around the corner and across the street.

I spent my high

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I spent my high school years going to auctions with my mother, looking for vintage linens and clothing for her shop. Auctions were a lot of fun. I loved to bid on the boxes of odds n' ends.

LOT #46: pots, pans and assorted items. Minimum bid, $1.

It was a thrill to win that auction; to open the box and find treasure under the dented old pots--a stack of 1970s rock LPs.

Online auctions aren't quite the same. There's not much mystery--people don't sell odd lots. Bids can be made coolly and logically without the influence of other bidders' body language and tension. I have never looked at an eBay auction and thought "No, I will not bid more than $50 for this lamp. Oh, wait, she just bid $70. Maybe I can stretch to $80"

Yet winning an auction on eBay is great fun. And when it's on item that is simply not available in Japan, something you wanted to buy but could not, and you get the auction at a really good price, it's even better. This morning, Tod is the winning bidder on a McCormack pre-amp for our stereo system.

A double dose of

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A double dose of holidays today.

In America, it is Thanksgiving. Turkey dinner, football games and parades.

In Japan, it is Labor Thanksgiving Day. No special traditions, though I suppose we should be thankful for our employment, perhaps celebrating by joining a labor union.

No matter, it's a day off for most people and they will go shopping or enjoy some leisure. I'll be working on a database project so it doens't make much difference to me.

Without maps I'd never

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Without maps I'd never find my way in this city. Tokyo's is so big and I get around it quite a bit, so it's difficult for me to keep track of where things are even when I've been there a few times.

"Meet you at TUC in Omotesando? OK, I know where that is." And I do know, but which exit is it when I get to the station? There are a dozen exits at Omotesando. No problem, the address is in the phonebook and I can get a map online at Mapion. How long will it take to get there? Hmmm...Kasuga to Omotesando is 24 minutes according to Ekisupato.

So I'm all set for today's meeting across town. Now if I can just decide what to wear...

The Prime Minister of

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The Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, survived a vote of no-confidence last night. I'm rather surprised.

Mori replaced PM Obuchi when Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke earlier this year. The selection was controversial at the time, as Mori had little experience in international diplomacy. His tenure as PM has been described by the press as "full of gaffes." Still, he was able to win an election in July to retain his seat as PM but his popularity has dropped below 20% recently.

Over the past six weeks members of his own politial party, the LDP, have been increasingly aggressive about getting Mori out of the PM seat. His main opponent, Kato, led the drive to a no-confidence vote last night. But at the last minute, Kato abstained from voting. The LDP threatened to oust anyone who voted against Mori; perhaps that kept Kato in rein.

Mori is a goofball whose name is often associated with "gaffe." He referred to Japan as a "divine nation," a phrase that hasn't been publically uttered since before the war (back then, Shinto was the state religion, the Emperor was a god and Japan was divine). His command of English isn't strong and he's made some embarrassing mistakes when speaking to world leaders.

Is Mori a good PM? Who knows. He certainly keeps the political scene lively.

When my sister and

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When my sister and I were kids, we would rate the restrooms at every restaurant we visited. It kept us occupied while our parents enjoyed an after-dinner coffee. Soon this hobby spread to other public bathrooms and we even considered writing a book. (At the time that was a joke, but these days, it would probably sell...)

Yesterday I visited the bathroom to beat them all. While it wasn't luxurious, it was interestingly designed.

The entrance started at a tall, curved wall that circled in to hug three inner rooms, also circular. Those circles each contained 10 sinks and mirrors. A fourth circular room clung to the outside of the curve. Each circle was color-coded--coordinating sinks, counters and walls in shades of green, red, blue and cream.

Beyond the circular vanity areas, was the entrance to the toilets. They were arranged in four square rooms (color coded again) with three walls of stalls per room--a total of 84 toilets! In the center of each room was another circular bank of sinks, this time with a low frosted glass wall and no mirrors. The sinks were tiny, just for handwashing, but they also matched the color theme--forest green in the green room, navy in the blue room, scarlet in the red room.

This was one of the most efficient and well designed women's rooms I've ever visited. With so many toilets, I can not imagine there would ever be much waiting but if there were lines, there was plenty of room to accomodate them.

Where was this amazing complex of bodily functions? At Venus Fort, a huge shopping mall on Tokyo Bay. The mall is great, too, but this bathroom is the ultimate public restroom.

With the new year

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With the new year approaching, we're starting to see snakes everywhere. Not real snakes, but decorative snakes adorning everything from greeting cards to flower vases. In six weeks we will begin the Year of the Snake.

Having often eaten in American Chinese restaurants, I'm pretty familiar with the animal years. Year of the Horse, that's me. My sister and husband are both Year of the Rooster. But these twelve horary signs printed on restaurant placemats have another set of signs attached--the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water).

The elemental cycle has a yin/yang aspect to it. This year is a "yang metal" and we are enjoying the very auspicious Year of the Golden Dragon. Next year's element is a "yin metal". Since yin usually has a negative connotation, maybe we're about to enter the Year of the Tin Snake.

We're hosting an office

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We're hosting an office party in two weeks, so now I have incentive to find curtains for the living room and a place to store CDs.

To that end, I went shopping yesterday. I came home with sheets and a calendar, not quite what was on my list. But that's not all. I came home humming Christmas songs.

Every store I visited played them. Seibu LOFT had Japanese Christmas carols playing, perky upbeat tunes composed especially for happy shopping times. I didn't know if was possible to rhyme Japanses words with "Santa Claus" but they managed it.

Tokyu Hands played "The Rat Pack Celebrates Christmas." Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Sammy Davis, Jr. all crooned from the loudspeakers. Loud was the key word.

I hate Christmas carols in shops. I like a nice Christmas carol playing on my stereo while I bake holiday goodies or wrap packages. I love to sing carols. But I don't like being forced to listen to them while I shop for curtains.

But they worked their magic on my yesterday; those store carols influenced my purchasing. The sheets I bought I bought are pine green.

My desk is a

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My desk is a disaster of piles. Everything I use gets put on top of whatever else I've just used.

An archeological dig (currently out of fashion in Japan after the revelation that a well-known archeologist faked the findings at two of his digs) of the pile to my left reveals:

  1. pen
  2. video camera remote
  3. tablet
  4. city atlas
  5. printout of documentation I'm writing
  6. notebook
  7. Toast manual
  8. Notice of construction work (jackhammering to begin this morning)
  9. Calvin & Hobbes cartoon clipped from newspaper
  10. passport
  11. folder of information on a video project completed this spring
  12. 3 teacher's manuals for a first grade class
  13. sheet of scribbled "to do" notes
  14. Japanese food magazine, Lettuce Club
  15. catalog of household goods
  16. my watch

It was my watch I was after. Now that I've found it, everything is going back on the pile in the opposite order. :-)

Although 94% the Japanese

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Although 94% the Japanese are Buddhist or Shinto, Christmas is gaining ground.

Shops are decorated with Merry Xmas banners, displays of lights, and wreaths. Some are having sales, others plan special events of singing or illumination. Takashimaya in Shinjuku has a huge display of lighted figures outside their store. Departments stores have sections devoted to Christmas merchandise and wrappings. I bet that if I looked in the right store, I could find an artificial tree for sale.

Even the 100 yen shops, the Japanese equivalent of the dollar store, are getting into the act. Every one I've seen in the past two weeks has tinsel garland and fake greenery for sale.

I don't remember this much Christmas activity in 1998. Of course Christmas is an enormous commercial success in other countries, so why not Japan, too?

"Hello? Hello?" I hear

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"Hello? Hello?" I hear a young voice calling behind me and getting closer. I stop and turned. Looks like another session of English practice.

Two high school girls, dressed in short skirts and tall boots, come to talk to me. "We are doing a project for our class," they read from a sheet of paper. "May we ask you some questions? Is video OK?" they ask as they wiggle their camera for emphasis.

Now I am on the stage of diplomacy. I am an ambassador for all English speaking people, ready to answer their questions with a cheery smile. "OK." I answer (best to use simple English in these situations). "Tell me about your project..." I ask.

Girl number one, who has been doing the talking, looks fearful. This is not on her list of questions and answers. She looks greatly relieved when I tell her in Japanese that it's OK to speak her own language. The story spills right out. They have a foreign teacher and...

Eventually, I am stationed in front of a KFC near the subway exit and the interview begins. Do I like music? (yes) Have I ever tried karaoke? (no) Do I prefer Western or Japanese music? (difficult question, I like both) Who is my favorite musician? (my husband) Oh, is his famous? (no, he's not)

Soon enough the trial is over and I'm captured on tape. The assignment is to find two foreigners to talk to and I am their second. They look quite relieved to be done.

So am I.

Recently, Tod asked me

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Recently, Tod asked me to bake his favorite cookies, a special ginger snap. Since our new house has an oven, I was happy to agree.

But there is no molasses in any of our local shops. No problem, in a day or two, Tod found a gourmet grocery on the 'Net and had some delivered to us.

Dried, ground ginger proved to be a challenge, too. And baking soda. It's funny what things are difficult to purchase. But we found them, eventually, in another gourmet grocery store we popped into.

My recipe is American, so it uses American measures. But my tools are all metric, so I had to convert--an American cup is 237 ml; a teaspoon is about 5 cc. Tod's quote on that episode: "I worry when Kristen uses math in the kitchen."

The oven, which is new to the house, is American and its dial is calibrated in Farenheit degrees. But it doesn't seem to be accurate or perhaps it is extremely slow to pre-heat. The 350 degree oven wasn't hot enough. The 400 degree oven was too hot.

The cookies came out OK despite all the adjustments. But next time I make the recipe, I'm going to the gourmet grocery to buy some American measuring cups and an oven thermometer.

Ah, another Monday. The

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Ah, another Monday. The sleeping men will be out again at lunchtime.

Since the weather turned nippy a few weeks ago, I've observed an odd custom at lunchtime. Working men with vehicles--delivery drivers, plumbers, construction workers, salesmen--park their cars and trucks on my street and take a nap.

Sometimes there are two or there men sharing a vehicle. One may be sleeping with his head tucked into his shoulder and his feet on teh dashboard while the other reads a newspaper and the third leans slack-faced against the backseat.

It was disconcerting the first time I walked past a long row of delivery vans and saw their uniformed owners napping. Were they all dead? No, no. At 1:00, they started their engines and drove away for their afternoon's work. Now I'm used to them and I tiptoe by quietly on my way to lunch. Wouldn't want to wake them...

Soy can be transmuted

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Soy can be transmuted into dozens of edibles.

You're probably familiar with soy sauce, soymilk, tofu and beansprouts. Maybe you've eaten miso soup; miso is fermented soy bean paste.

But there are some stranger items. Have you ever seen frozen-then-dried tofu? It looks like pumice and reconstitutes into a spongy block. How about tofu skins? They are like pudding skin--skimmed off the soymilk as its being processed into tofu. The curds of soy, what's left over when you press the soymilk out of soybeans, is very fibrous and flavorless but cooks into a delicious side dish that's popular in Japan.

Soy is even used for fertilizer, but that's another story...

Yesterday, Matsuzakaya, one of

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Yesterday, Matsuzakaya, one of Tokyo's venerable department stores, delivered a Winter Gift catalog to our house. In the packet were enticements to us--a free ticket to Matsuzakaya's next art show and a washcloth.

But the catalog itself was the showpiece with 16 pages of boxed gifts. 550 variations on a theme, really. Let me explain.

The gifts are arranged in price points with 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen being the most common. In the 3,000 yen category, here are some samples of what you might give (or receive):

  • 2 canisters of green tea
  • 12 cans of Asahi Super Dry beer
  • 6 bottles of salad oil
  • 7 jars of instant coffee
  • assorted cookies
  • 2 small hams
  • 24 pickled plums
  • 8 cans of soup
  • 2 embroidered hand towels
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 15 bars of handsoap
  • 3 boxes of laundry detergent
  • 4 packets of bath salts

The 5,000 and 10,000 yen gifts are more of the same. 5 pairs of sock. 24 bars of soap. Two slightly larger hams.

There is a half page in the catalog labeled "Unique Gift." While I wouldn't call their suggestions unique, a board game, a clock, potpourri, a Pinocchio puppet and a travel pillow are strikingly individual after the 500 boxes on the preceeding pages.

Some families discuss politics

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Some families discuss politics or sports or movies. We talk about talking, reading and writing.

I don't think we can have dinner without discussing Japanese grammar. Last night, Tod read aloud from Anthony Burgess' "Language Maid Plane" about the structure of Asian languages while I brought our meal to the table.

The night before that, having dinner with friends at Pizzakaya, Tod & Mike joked about making up nonsense words in Japanese by conjugating verbs in pattern phrases. For example, Ohayou gozaimasu which is used as a morning greeting but literally means something like 'it is honorably early' could be conjugated into Ohayou gozaimasen which is the negative. Native speakers don't say that, of course, and they look at you funny if you try it as both Tod & Mike can attest.

And two nights ago, I had a Webgrrls meeting at the house. Tod and Hiromi discussed whether the passive causative verb form (i.e. to have been made to do something) was common. Hiromi's answer, "No, not really."

Sometimes I think sports and movies might be more entertaining...

Being on the other

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Being on the other side of the world, yesterday's U.S. presidential election coverage was conveniently timed. I checked the results on CNN.com and Reuters at lunchtime and then throughout the afternoon.

As I watched Florida fall to Gore, then Bush, then neither, I wondered why polling isn't computerised. I do my banking, investing and shopping online. Why can't I cast a vote online, too?

Real-time election results beamed directly from the Internet to the news services would be too easy. No confusion or recounts. No drama. Voting utopia?

I think we'll see online voting when Harry Browne is elected President.

I've lost my voice.

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I've lost my voice.

When a writer says that, it could mean a nasty bout with writer's block. But that's not what I mean. I've lost my ability to speak. Everything I say comes out sounding like a 14 year old boy trying to make a good impression. When it comes out at all.

I've never had laryngitis before. Aside from the pain, it's kind of amusing. I have to find creative ways not to speak. Tod gets a break from my incessant prattle. And I have a really good excuse for drinking lots of tea with honey and lemon.

But please don't call me today. I won't be answering the phone

Last night as I

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Last night as I shivered under a blanket waiting for the bed to warm up, I leafed through a department store "white sale" catalog. And I discovered more than one way to stay warm indoors.

How about a hot carpet? It's like an electric blanket for the floor. If you prefer the look of bare wooden floors, you can pick up a hot carpet topped with wood instead of wool. Prices range from 12,000 yen (about $120) for the polypropele and wool rugs, to 49,800 yen for the wooden one.

If a chilly bathroom is your problem, I think the electric toilet seat topper might be what you need. It's vinyl for easy cleaning, and U shapped to fit every toilet--just tape it into place and plug it in. 4,980 yen.

Because I was still shivering under the covers, the devices for warming feet caught my eye. In fact, there are two designed specifically for the bed. One looks like short sleeping bag wired for warmth; the other is a more standard electric pad. At only 8,980, I think one of the foot bags might spare Tod from my cold feet on his side of the bed. And that would make both of us happy.

At the Inokashira zoo,

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At the Inokashira zoo, we saw an old elephant and some squirrels.

The elephant was born in Thailand in 1947 and came to the zoo when she was 2 and a half. Japan's school children named her Hanako. At the advanced age of 53, she has no teeth (I guess elephant dentures are out of the question) her food is chopped up into small bits for her by the zookeepers. To amuse herself, Hanako paces her concrete playground incessantly and lifts her tail to emit bellows of gas. Visitors squeal though whether in delight or disgust I'm not sure.

The squirrels were much cuter. In Japanese they are called "risu" which is written with the kanji characters for chestnut and rat. Japanese squirrels are reddish grey and have tufted ears and bushy tails. About two dozen of them live the high life in the squirrel version of an aviary. The Inokashira zoo created a caged, wooded environment where people can enter and the squirrels run free. The little critters eat directly from children's hands and scurry overhead and underfoot. This was the most popular area of the zoo. Sad to say, it's difficult to find squirrels running wild in Tokyo; even the parks don't seem to have much wildlife except for crows.

The zoo has other animals, of course. The unique Japanese tanuki, lots of beautiful Japanese birds, some wild boar and a handful of imported treasures. But for me, the highlights were Hanako and the squirrels.

Chrysanthemums are the flowers

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Chrysanthemums are the flowers of autumn.

They are also the symbol of the Imperial family and every autumn for hundreds of years, chrysanthemums, called kiku in Japanese, have been highlighted at festivals.

Kiku are trained into plants I'd never guess were chrysanthemums: tiny bonsai with roots growing over rocks; massive two meter wide bushes with hundreds of flowers per stem; flower heads a foot wide on a single stalk a meter tall.

The colors most popular at these shows are pale yellow, white and lavender, not the golds, russets and burgundies I associate with mums back home. But for all the differences in color, shape and size, chrysanthemums still mean autumn to me.

Central heating is something

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Central heating is something you don't think about too much unless you're an American living in Japan.

I will grant that winters don't get bitterly cold in Tokyo. Temperatures dip below freezing on the coldest nights but during the day, they hover around 40. But living in a house whose ambient temperature matches the outdoors is not too pleasant.

Knowing the Japanese penchant for "high touch" luxuries, I'd imagine that central heating would be a posh and desired feature in a home. But it's not. People heat their rooms individually with gas-powered space heaters. Every room has a gas outlet.

We have three gas heaters for our 1800 square foot house. One is secured to the wall in the dining room; another lives in our office. The third moves room to room with us. The kitchen has "floor heat," an electrical pad underneath the linoleum, and one bathroom has a small blower at floor level.

Walking into a warm room is a luxury I never imagined until I lived here.

Today is a national

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Today is a national holiday--Culture Day.

Recently a friend and I were discussing the soul of Japan. We have different views. She seems to believe that the soul of Japan is missing; the uninspired, boxy concrete architecture and lack of outdoor spaces in Tokyo indicate a country with no culture; no heart.

But I look at all of the things people do--study flower arranging and tea-ceremony, hone their bodies and minds with marital arts, cultivate plants and flowers into bonsai--and I see plenty of soul. But it's the sort of spirit that you can't get to know superficially.

To know the soul of Japan requires some effort, I think. Learning the language helps as does getting to know people. Studying a craft or a skill along with others who are interested is another way. The soul of Japan is changing, as it has changed over the centuries. But it hasn't disappeared.

And there's even a national holiday to remind us.

I've always known bowling

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I've always known bowling wasn't my game. Now I have a prize to prove it.

Last night, I attended Perot Systems' annual bowling party. My job was to film the event to include it in their year-end video. But I was also assisgned to play on a team!

Of the three people listed on our roster, only Egon really bowled. I was filming and though I did bowl the second game, I bowled one ball in the first. Our other teammate was so late he missed 7 frames of the first game. Poor Egon looked exhasted.

His skill, combined with my own, won me the "Semi Worst Striker" award; a tin of tea and jar of jam. I think maybe that's a hint that I need to stay at home and curl up with a good book...

Out running errands, I

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Out running errands, I paused at the corner of a tiny street to let a small bus pass through.

The driver bowed to me as he eased the bus through the intersection. Inside the bus was one very aged woman wearing a brown sweater and a young woman in a red vest and skirt, a pink blouse and a pillbox hat. The bus attendant nodded and smiled at me as they glided by.

The bus was decorated with a cheery rainbow and flowers under the windows. Although I couldn't read the writing on its side, I think this must be the municiple "yorouin" bus from the Bunkyo-ku Home for the Aged nearby.

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