December 2000 Archives

Click. Click. Click-click. The

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Click. Click. Click-click.

The rhythm of wooden sticks has echoed through our neighborhood for the last few evenings as "fire patrols" make their year-end rounds.

Groups of four to eight men (and a rare woman) from the neighborhood walk through the streets, looking at each building to make sure none is on fire. The leader clacks his sticks and the others respond with a chant. "Yo-ii-yo-ii-yo!"

It's a tradition dating back to the days when Tokyo was mainly built of wood. Today's fire patrols vary widely in form and style. But whether they are a handful of tipsy old men carrying paper lanterns, or a platoon of uniformed neighbors, the gold braid on their caps glittering in the beam of their flashlights, they all pound out the same staccato beat.

Because we live at a confluence of streets and neighborhoods, there have been several groups walking past each night. I've enjoyed watching them. I think it would be fun to join in with them. Maybe next year.

Yesterday was the last

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Yesterday was the last business day of the year and most employees spent their afternoon cleaning.

At the printer's across the street, they washed and buffed the delivery trucks and the forklift. In restaurants, wait staff dusted picture frames and scrubbed all the corners that are normally overlooked. In the subways, uniformed cleaning staff halted esclators and scraped out the grooves of the stair treads.

I was not quite possessed with the fervor year-end cleaning though I have done a fairly good job with other loose ends. Cleaning will happen today as I bleach the kitchen counters, finish removing fingerprints from windows, and mop all the floors. Maybe I'll even break down the cardboard boxes in the garage so they can be recycled next week.

I'd better go don my cleaning uniform--an apron and rubber gloves. I usually skip the high heels and pearls but you can call me Mrs Cleaver, anyway.

Everyday tongue twister

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Although there's no phrase for "tongue twister" in Japanese, the language has quite a few words that are challenging to say.

Japanese has 5 vowel sounds (plus a few dipthongs) ah (a), ee (i), oo (u), eh (e), & oh (o). Paired with the 11 consonant sounds, this means pronunciation is very regular. Ko is always ko. Bu is bu.

But it means you have to be careful in the words you say. A slip of the tongue can cause you to lose all meaning. For example, kabu means turnip but kaba is hippopotamus. I'm sure I've gone to the produce section and asked a question that made me sound like I was on safari.

But the words I have most trouble with are the long strings of similar syllables. In class this week, I encountered mitsukerarerusou desu. I've been practicing it for the past couple of days and it still comes haltingly from my lips. Mitsu-ka... rats. Mitsu-ke-rrrrrrra-re-ru.

What does mitsukerarerusou desu mean? "It is said that you can find" Fortunately that doesn't come up in conversation too often.

There are four days

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There are four days left to complete the year-end cleaning.

Before the new year comes, everyone in Japan cleans the slate--and the house, their accounts, broken relationships, and all the other loose ends that are dangling. It's a great system, giving everyone a fresh start for the new year but it sure is a lot of work.

I have so many loose ends to attend to...there's a movie a borrowed from a friend, the shower really needs some scrubbing in the grimy corners, there's money to be invested before the 31st, and I'm not even thinking about the fingerprints on the glass doors. All those things I ignored, put off, or actively avoided during the year have four days to be resolved so I have some good karma in 2001.

If I were really Japanese, instead of merely following along with local customs, I'd also be cooking osechi ryori, the lucky new year foods. More about food tomorrow, I must go find the window cleaner.

It rarely gets very

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It rarely gets very cold here in Tokyo, but I am glad I have a pair of gloves.

Yesterday's high was about 10 (50 F) but the temperature dropped quickly in the evening and the wind was blowing. I'm sure it didn't dip below freezing but people on the streets last night were bundled up as if Omotesando were the South Pole.

Shoppers and people heading home from work hurried along to the station wearing hats, scarves tightly wrapped, gloves, and heavy coats zipped all the way up. Everyone looked chilly and very serious about keeping warm. I pulled on my knit gloves and zipped my jacket partway so that it wouldn't blow open in the wind.

As I made my own way to the station (with a wind-assisted push) I remembered that yesterday's low in Tokyo was the high temperature in Chicago earlier this month. The wind seemed a lot warmer after that.

Christmas: cookies; creativity; and

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Christmas: cookies; creativity; and caffeine.

I spent my Christmas morning baking an army of gingerbread men and citrus wreaths. They were beautiful and lots of fun to decorate. Each gingerbread person had a distinct personality and the accessories to prove it.

My day's plan was to bake cookies, arrange the gifts shipped from family and then in the late afternoon, deliver cookies to Tod's office and spirit Tod away to go Chirstmas shopping. When I checked in with Tod at noon, he told me that he might have to work til 7 as his colleague's daughter was ill. Oh. no! No shopping! I hadn't bought any gifts in advance.

Since I knew what I wanted to get, but didn't think I'd find it in the neighborhood shops, I decided that I'd surprise Tod with a Christmas tree of some sort. But as it was Christmas day, all the shops had replaced Xmas decorations with New Year ones. so I went the creative route and created a paper and copper wire sculpture in the middle of the living room.

Banners of shoji paper formed a conical tent from ceiling to floor; a meter-high cone of paper, lit from inside, stood in the center of the tent as the tree. I decorated the tree with spirals of copper wire hanging from the apex and a circle of spirals at the bottom. Held together with tape and office supplies, it was a little makeshift, but it had the desired effect--Tod's eyes went waide and he was surprised.

As it turned out, Tod's coworker came in to relieve Tod at five, so we did go shopping after all. I brought a huge basket full of cookies in, and Tod passed them around. There were 90 cookies when the basket arrived and four remaining when we left to go shopping. A hungry office!

When we arrived home after shopping, we ordered a pizza (delivered 30 minutes later by a man in a Santa suit) and settled in to unwrap presents. As we went along, we discovered a theme: caffeine

The Zous, our stuffed elephants, gave Tod a traditional Italian, all-metal coffee/espresso maker. I followed up with a coffee grinder and espresso beans. Tod, trying to guess the contents of a gift from my parents, guessed that it was coffee beans; it turned out to be one of his favorite snacks, corn nuts. Tod's parents really did send coffee beans. And they sent a steam-expressed espresso/cappucino maker. Our "coffee life" is very happy.

By the time we finished unwrapping the gifts it was 11 o'clock. After our long, busy day, sleep was very welcome. Merry Christmas!

We spent our Christmas

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We spent our Christmas Eve getting into the spirit of the season.

A visit to the Japan Toy Museum gave us a dose of playthings. They have 8,000 toys on display. Arranged by era and type we saw traditional wooden toys, dozens of post-war tin toys, kitchy 60's era spaceship and robot toys (with "Mysterious Action and Glowing Lights"), and collector Barbies. As usual, we spent more time there, looking at the toys, talking about them and trying out the displays, than any two visitors combined. When we left, the curator gave us a Toy Museum poster.

Next we walked to Kappabashi, the restaurant supply district, to look at grownup toys. I love the displays of pots & pans and arcane kitchen gadgets. Tod was patient while I browsed the pottery shops but in the end all I walked away with were some gingerbread man cookie cutters. We came home and made cookie dough to the music of George Winton's December album. Very Christams-y.

Today I'll bake Christmas cookies, then deliver them to Tod & his coworkers this afternoon. I wonder if I can find a Mrs. Santa suit somewhere?

It's Christmas Eve, a

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It's Christmas Eve, a big date night here in Japan.

Couples have made reservations months in advance for dinner and a room at swank hotels. For the younger set, a Christmas Eve date means Kentucky Fried Chicken & an hour or two at a love hotel.

A Ginza Printemps department store survey said that women expect somewhat less for Christmas this year, with the average gift receiver anticipating about $300 worth of presents. Last year, they calculated something closer to $500 per gal. 57% of the women surveyed hoped for jewelry.

For those whose Christmas dates yielded a marriage and family, it's the day to bring home the Christmas cake and go look at the displays of lights in Ginza or out in the ritzy Western suburbs.

Will I have a date for Christmas Eve? Of course. But at the moment, he's still sleeping and doesn't know what's in store for him. (Probably KFC & a love hotel...)

At one of the

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At one of the busier stations on the line, there was a minor disruption in the carriage I was sitting in. Someone spoke in a loud, sharp tone, a disembodied voice carrying over the general hubbub of the crowded train. A few heads turned, curious to see who it was, but bodies blocked the view and soon enough, the loud language stopped.

A few stops later, the train cleared out to reveal an older woman lying down on the bench seat on the other end of my carriage. Her umbrella and cane were propped against the handrail, her shoes neatly tucked under the seat and her head rested on a bundle. She looked tidy but a bit incongruous. Most people who sleep on the train do it sitting up, heads bobbing, chin falling to shoulder as they sit squashed between other passengers.

A few more stops passed and I was nearing my destination. The old woman was still resting as I tucked my book into my bag. When I heard the loud voice from earlier in the journey, I looked up. It was the resting woman, holding up her hands in the air. She lay on the seat calling out "Sumimasen!" "Excuse me!"

She needed a hand to help her rise. Nobody moved. She called again. Nobody moved. Finally, a young college student, dressed in a duffle coat & hand knitted scarf got up and offered his arm. She thanked the young man with a deep, seated bow and a string of humble and polite words.

Then the old woman began spitting invectives at the two uniformed high school boys across from her. "Baka!" she shouted. That was the only word I understood in her tirade, but it means "stupid-idiot" and is very rude. She was telling off these kids for not respecting their elders, I guess. They just sat there, impassive.

I got off at the next stop, with the feisty woman still muttering curses at the boys as she put on her shoes and arranged herself.

Train tickets don't usually include the price of entertainment. What a show!

The Lovely building is

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The Lovely building is no more.

Down on Hauksan Dori, the major thoroughfare near our house, stood a building that made me smile every time I walked by. It had a certain style, a panache that the buildings surrounding it lacked.

Seven stories high, it fit in with its neighbors. Except for one feature. Running down the center of the building from the top floor to the entrance was a giant tile mosaic. The background was pale green & pink, turned dirty from years of traffic. In the center a daisy with stem, leaves and all, was interpreted in realistic white, yellow and dark green. Near the bottom, picked out a 1950s advertising script in gold tiles slightly tarnished with age, was the word Lovely.

Shortly after we moved into the neighborhood the Lovely building was surrounded by scaffolding. I had hopes that they were renovating and cleaning the mosaic.

But earlier this week the scaffolding came down to reveal a giant hole. The Lovely building is gone. I'm sure they will build something new in its place, but I'm sure it won't be as Lovely.

Earlier this month, we

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Earlier this month, we received three yellow cards from the post office in quick succession, all of them telling us that we had foreign packages to be delivered and asking us for instructions: redeliver? When? Where?

When a package arrived the next day and the postman hadn't taken the redelivery slips I'd filled in, I figured he'd had gone a bit overboard on the notices and we only had one package after all. I had it now and all was well.

Well, we really did have three more packages! And yesterday, Tod & I went to the post office to fetch them.

Our slip, one with a dire handwritten notice that the packages would be mailed back on the 20th if we didn't come and get them, directed us to the yu-yu window of the main post office. (The Japanese word for postal service is yubin, so "yu" shows up in a lot of the promotional words.) The man at the yu-yu window took our slip, asked for ID, then dashed into the back room. Moments later we were presented with three rather large boxes from Tod's parents.

And a dilemma. There were no taxis to be had outside the post office. The nearest subway station was a ten minute walk. But we estimated that we could walk to our house in about 15 minutes, providing we didn't get lost on the way. We decided to walk home carrying our boxes.

"It's this direction, more or less," Tod announced and we headed off towards the west. Although it is a maze of twisty streets just like every neighborhood in Tokyo, ours is actually very easy to navigate as long as you keep some of the taller landmarks in sight--the new apartment building and the city office. From those two, we were able to triangulate our position and with the help of a map we walked past, we made it home without getting lost at all.

And we solved the puzzle of the three delivery slips. At last.

My friend Brendan, the

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My friend Brendan, the crazy proprietor (he hates it when I call him that) of Pizzakaya , recently finished looking over the entire 361 pages of my book manuscript. (Thank you, Brendan!) Now I'm going over it again, marking in more changes of my own and thinking about his comments.

In addition to the expected corrections of awkward and incorrect language use, Brendan gave some real thought to the structure of the book and to what worked and didn't work in my stories. His insight is really valuable and I've taken to heart some ideas that will make the book more enjoyable and interesting to read.

I have a lot of rewriting to do now, but I think it will improve the book immensely. My goal is to have the MS done and a book proposal to send out to agents/publishers by the end of January.

Being a writer is like being an actor. It's not necessarily your talent that carries you. Who you know, people who are willing to promote you, recommend you, and use your work. are the ones who count in my career now. I'm developing connections with a few mentors and friendly editors, so with some luck my book will eventually see the light of day on a bookstore shelf. Perhaps before the end of the next millennium. (That's 3001, by the way.)

I hope it's sooner. I need the royalty checks. :-)

What is it with

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What is it with foreigners and candy?

Yesterday on the train a middle-aged Japanese woman, atypically fat and garishly dressed, sat next to me. My first thought upon seeing her unconventional appearance was "Oh, no, she's going to try to talk to me."

I was spared that torture, but as she rose to disembark a few stops down the line, she pressed some throat lozenge candies into my hand and moved toward the door. I started to protest, but decided it was easier just to thank her.

"You're not going to eat them, are you?" Tod asked later. Of course I am not. Mom taught me not to take candy from strangers.

When we went to dinner last night, we paid, donned our coats and left the restaurant. As we turned from the door, the waitress burst out behind us. "Excuse me!" she called to us as she handed us...two lollipops. "Ame. Candy." she beamed.

So I'm not sure what makes us look like we welcome candy. Perhaps foreigners have a repuation I'm not aware of. But I wonder, does that waitress qualify as a stranger? The lollipop is appealing.

Today is a day

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Today is a day when I have nothing to say.

I spent all of yesterday at my desk completing a project for a client. Tod & I ate leftovers for breakfast and dinner and pretty much sat in the office and typed all day long.

I didn't even make it as far as the mailbox to get the newspaper. This morning there will be two waiting for me.

But I won't be home to read them. Today is a day of running around to other people's places. Which is why this is so short. I must gather my things together and head out.

I hope I'll have some adventures today so that I can entertain you more properly tomorrow!

When the doorbell rang,

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When the doorbell rang, Tod was in the kitchen making coffee so I ran down to answer it. Maybe it was one of those packages we keep missing.

It was a high school student, dressed in his school uniform of navy blue pants and a matching military style jacket. He explained that he was conducting a survey. Would I be interested in participating?

"Language practice," I thought. I agreed to help him.

We stood together outside to do the survey, leaning on the mailbox so that I could fill in the answers. He read each question aloud to me, running his finger along the page so I could follow, and helped me with the words I didn't know. I ducked inside to get my electronic dictionary to help me with the more complicated concepts.

I have taken countless surveys in America (I find surveys to be quite fun) but I never realised how complicated they can be. If you answer "very good" to 5a, it doesn't make sense to choose "very bad" for 6b. I'm sure that there were some questions that I didn't quite understand because at least one of my answers elicited a quiet response of surprise from my questioner.

It took 20 minutes to get through the 13 pages of the survey. The topic? Steamed buns.

At the end of my labours, I was rewarded with a book token. I think I'll go buy a cookbook.

Yesterday was a beautiful

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Yesterday was a beautiful winter day. The sky was blue, the sun shining and the air was warm.

I was out running errands (mailing those Christmas packages) and decided not to head back to the office with a take-out lunch. Instead, I found myself at the Koishikawa Botanical Garden with a picnic.

I sat on a bench under the bare trees looking across at the huge glass greenhouse. A few Japanese maples still held their leaves, adding scarlet accents to the scene. I love the view of the bright blue sky through the lacy, red leaves.

After sharing my lunch with some well-fed cats, I went off in search of nice smelling plants. My first stop was three huge cinnamon camphor trees that stand at one end of the specimen garden. They are beautiful, with millions of small glossy leaves and the scent of cinnamon when you touch their bark. I spotted a beetle and breathed in the air for a few minutes, then I picked up a fallen twig to give to Tod and headed to the medicinal herbals garden.

Everything at Koishikawa is labelled in Latin and Japanese so sometimes I have to identify the medicinal plants by smell. I grew a handful of them in my own garden years ago. To see and smell them again brings back lots of memories. Lemon verbena, oregano, wormwood. At this time of year, only the perennials are left in this garden; the annuals have been lifted and their beds raked over for winter.

I made my way back to the office a little later than usual, but full of fresh air and renewed vigor. A good exchange, I think.

I'm running earlier than

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I'm running earlier than usual this year, but I don't think I'm going to make it.

For Christmas the past two years, gift shopping & shipping has been a last-minute, mad rush. Nearly everyone on my gift list received similar items (yukata in 98, "winter gift" in 99). They were shipped via overnight mail just a few days before the holiday.

This year I've shopped online (but I'm not telling where) and supplemented with small stocking stuffers.

I wrapped the stocking gifts yesterday and packaged them up for shipping. Now they are ready to send to America and I'll take them to the post office this morning. That gives them ten days to arrive. Will they beat the deadline?

Maybe, but it's cutting it close. Next year, I'm sending my packages in November.

A new subway line

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A new subway line opened this week. The Oedo line makes a loop around the city, connecting points that have previously been on the fringes of other subway lines.

Our station, Kasuga, is one of the Oedo line stops. In fact, the new station bridges three lines here which means we can walk underground from our closest station entrance all the way to Tokyo Dome a kilometer away.

The new subway is giving an economic boost to the neighborhoods it passes through and making some big changes. In Kasuga, we're seeing new residential towers just completed, including the one that houses our new gourmet grocery. Tsukushima, a quiet, blue-collar neighborhood on the other side of town, is being remade into a district of luxury apartment buildings.

Whether all this is good in the long run, I don't know. A lot of traditional areas here and in Tsukushima are being destroyed to make way for the new. But the Oedo line is here to stay and it means a quicker trip to a number of places for me. Self interest rules the day (again).

A long time ago,

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A long time ago, I discovered I was allergic to cola drinks. Now I discover I'm sensitive to urban wariness, too.

Back then, I tried an elimination diet to confirm my allergies. I stopped eating all the foods I was allergic to, then one by one reintroduced them to my diet. This helped me to find out not only whether I was allergic but also what symptoms were associated with each food.

Coke gives me a headache. I was astonished to find that out. After all, I'd been drinking it almost every day for years and never noticed the nagging back-of-the-head pain. I was just contantly cranky and irritable.

Being alert on the streets of Chicago also gives me a headache. I get the same cranky irritibility when I have to spend my time on the street being alert for possible dangers.

"Who's that across the street? Is there enough distance between me and that car that's been circling the block? Is that group of men on the corner a threat to me? How can I avoid them? Is there an escape route? What if...?"

This internal dialogue flashes through my mind quickly, expertly and without conscious effort. I can converse with my companions, even laugh, but I'm on edge.

Edginess is not a feeling I enjoy. And here in Japan, even in Tokyo where the train companies are planning women-only carriages to avoid unwanted groping during the drunken holiday season, I never feel the pain of urban wariness.

I don't drink Coke anymore. Should I avoid US cities, too?

When we arrived home

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When we arrived home last night, the new houses across the street were under wraps. Big blue tarps stretched across them to hide them from view. That's a normal practice during construction since buildings in Tokyo are so close together, the tarps keep construction grime off the neighbors.

But in this case, I think that maybe they were trying to hide something other than dust and dirt.

By this morning, wind had loosened some of the tarps and I could peek through to see the buildings underneath. In our absence, workers have begun to apply the finishing touches to the buildings, including stucco on the outer walls.

The buildings are citrus colored. One is lemon yellow, the other is bright orange.

Luckily these houses are outside my kitchen window so I will arrange a tableau of real citrus fruits on the windowsill to coordinate the picture. An orange house...

ANA's fleet of Boeing

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ANA's fleet of Boeing 777s has a really nifty feature--the cockpit camera. Passengers can see the view out the front window as the plane takes off and lands. In flight, the camera angle switches to a straight down view of the landscapes below the plane. Even confirmed aisle-sitters like me get a great window view.

We had an earthquake (just a tiny one) right after we got home. Japan is welcoming us back. Even though our holiday was terrific, it's nice to be home. We have bento for dinner tonight. Mmmmm.

Still more uses for Lever 2000:

24. Liquid filler for a London Scene Snow Globe
25. Artificial Snot
26. Tight ring remover

We're more than a third of the way through the list now! If you think of more uses, please e-mail me.

And yet more uses

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And yet more uses for Lever 2000:

19. Killing ants
20. Etch name on dirty surfaces
21. Terrorize Lever Consumer Hotline
22. Amuse friends by thinking of uses
23. Weighing down pickle pots
24. ...

More Lever 2000 uses:

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More Lever 2000 uses:

12. dog shampoo
13. laundry prewash/stain remover
14. lava lamp ingredient
15. temporary glue for paper holiday decorations on windows
16. "wash your mouth out with soap"
17. eyeglasses cleaner
18. wanking lubrication
19. ...

Snow! Tokyo doesn't get

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Snow!

Tokyo doesn't get much snow. Whether it's the normal climate or global warming or the city's "heat island effect" I'm not sure, but my last few winters have been nearly snowless.

So a trip to Chicago in winter is a treat. When it began snowing here, I was delighted. By morning we had about 5 centimeters on the ground. Not a blizzard by any means, but it made a respectable white covering on cars, rooves and roads.

Most of the snow has been trodden into a brown mush, but on the curb outside a shop, someone managed a snowman complete with a carrot nose.

When I have a

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When I have a problem getting an appliance or bit of equipment to work, I grab the manual and a translation dictionary and spend hours translating.

When our friend John had some trouble with his security system yesterday, he grabbed the phone. A chat with a technician got the problem solved in a few minutes. I guess there are some advantages to living in your homeland--ease of language being key among them!

Lever 2000 Uses sent in by clever readers:

6. Dish washing soap

7. Finger paint (with the addition of food coloring)

8. Very temporary nail polish

9. Lip gloss for a masochist

10. Bubble solution ingredient

11. Fish euthanasia agent

12. ...

What else can we do with Lever 2000? Send your ideas to kristen@lm.com

,Lever 2000, a brand

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,Lever 2000, a brand of American "family body wash," claims on its bottle that it has Over 70 Uses.

Intrigued, I called the Lever Consumer Hotline (1-800-598-5005) to find out more.

"Hello, Kathleen," I began after the introductions. "I have a bottle of your body wash and it says there are over 70 uses. Do you have a list you can send me?"

"Oh, I'm afraid not," she replied. "Just as we say the soap is "For all your 2000 Parts" even though people really don't have 2000 parts, we don't really have a list of uses. It's only for marketing."

I am disappointed but also determined. There must be 70 uses, I just have to think of them.

  1. Wash face
  2. Wash vegetables
  3. Laundry soap
  4. Shampoo
  5. Lubricant
  6. ...

"Um, I think we

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"Um, I think we have a gas leak," Tod called from the bedroom.

Sure enough, the room was filled with the odor of natural gas. (Do you know that that stinky scent is added to the gas to make sure that when there is a problem, you can smell it?) Time to call the gas company.

An hour later, two gas men armed with tools and a huge flashlight arrived and got to work. To check for a leak in the line, they pumped air into the pipe with the gas company's version of a sphygmomenometer. The dial didn't drop once the air was in so there was no leak in the line.

They took apart and greased up the valve. A lack of grease was the culprit. Finished.

Earlier in the day we had discovered an outlet that didn't work. Tod asked them if they could take a look at it before they left.

We all sat around the gas outlet in the living room peering in at it. They took it apart and found a cracked knob. They patched up the knob, put a dab of silicon compound on the valve and now we can heat the living room.

Tod & I watched as they worked and they talked to us, warming up to our slow Japanese, but happy to tell us some safety things and to talk about their tools. By the end of their visit, they had offered to look for a new knob to replace the one that was cracked and broken. Kameoka-san will call next week to let us know. "Service," he said.

He wasn't kidding. Great service from Tokyo Gas.

We hosted a holiday

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We hosted a holiday party for some of Tod's coworkers.

17 guests represented 7 nationalities: Australian, Irish, British, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and American. Quite international.

Yuki, a Japanese woman who works on the NT team, confided in me. "When I am married and have a house, I want to have a home party like this."

Interesting. She referred to the party as a "home party." Japanese parties normally take place in restaurants or hotels because houses are often rather small and not designed for parties. We were hosting an anomaly that merits a special name.

On this crisp, sunny

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On this crisp, sunny morning, the woman across the way is hanging out her laundry.

Her first action is to wipe the city grime from the laundry poles. She lifts the pole down at one end and her hand sweeps along its length. This looks more like ballet than a household chore.

In the laundry room, the housewife clipped sock and undergarments to the plastic relative of an octopus. These are now hung on the ends of one of the poles.

Then the real fun begins. She pulls the freshly laundered clothes from a basket with a flick of her wrist. With well-practiced grace and speed, she threads pants and shirts onto the poles. Shirts, crucified for cleanliness, are given a little tug to bring them into line. Pants skewered from waist to ankle are smoothed before she turns to the next item in the basket.

Now she walks through the rows of poles, inspecting her work and adding blue and pink plastic clothespins to shirt collars and readjusting anything that's come out of plumb. Then it's back inside and downstairs to make breakfast.

Me? I'm going to go have some coffee and throw some clothes in the dryer.

When I was a

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When I was a kid, I loved joke shops, the sort of places that sold fart cushions and plastic ice cubes with embedded bugs. One of the jokes I never tried was the toothpaste that makes the victim's teeth turn black.

Now that I live in Japan, I don't have to be subvert. Binotomo "Nasu Detrifice Jet Black" is an actual product on the shelves and is a pricey, high-end toothpaste at that. It's one of the more disturbing toothpastes I've ever tried.

The package is pretty. A black label sports a jaunty purple eggplant and white lettering spells out the name and tag line: "To keep your teeth in perfect condition use this detrifice night and morning."

I managed perfect condition only one morning. Taking off the cap, I squeezed a dab onto my toothbrush. The product lives up to its name. It's black. It's also salty and slightly gritty, like chalk, with a very slight flavor of vegetable. It's so slight that I can't tell you what vegetable though I'd guess eggplant (nasu is eggplant).

But the most disturbing ascept is that it creates copious black foam. I looked like a rabid dog from Mars. Mornings are bad enough as it is, I hardly need to feel like an alien canine, so I put the toothpaste into the cabinet for an emergency. Or a really good joke.

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