Japan Society

September 16, 2008
A Pox on Tod?

Tod was cursed two weeks ago by the god of the samurai.

Taira no Masakado was a traitorous go-getter who lived over a thousand years ago. After he was beheaded for having misstepped in politics and family life, his head was brought to the fishing village that would later become Tokyo. Masakado's spirit and his head in a wooden bucket were enshrined on a little hill overlooking Tokyo Bay. The hill is located in what is now Otemachi, the heart of Tokyo's financial district. Tod passes by on his bike almost every day.

Masakado is as powerful in death as he wanted to be in life. When his shrine is neglected or falls into disrepair, bad things seem to happen - businesses fail, natural disasters occur. Plans have been made to move him, but they are always canceled. People fear his spirit so much that the buildings around "The Hill of Masakado's Head" do not have windows opening towards it. In the surrounding offices, desks are oriented to face towards the shrine. In Tod's office the corporate services people have verified this and if you are unlucky enough to get a rare desk with your back to Masakado, they will give you a special amulet to attach to your chair to ward off any evil.

Shortly after Tod dug into this old legend, bad things began to happen to him. Someone ran into the street without looking just as Tod whizzed by on his bike. Both men went down, but only Tod was injured. It was quite dramatic as blood coursed down his arm while I patched him up at the convenience store.

He was halfway healed when he tumbled off his bike again. This second accident left him with another big scrape on his arm and a bruised imprint of the road the size of a dinner plate along his thigh.

When he mentioned these incidents to his Japanese teacher at class the next week, she was well aware of Masakado and his abilities. She urged Tod go to a temple and get himself a yakuyoke charm and an exorcism. He paid his respects at Masakado's shrine, and made a visit to our local temple for a more formal and powerful cleansing.

Since he bought his evil repellent charm and hung it on the bicycle, he's been safe. I hope that Masakado leaves him alone now and that telling this tale isn't going to get me into trouble.

Posted by kuri at 05:52 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
June 27, 2008
Legitimize your Presence


Twice a week, I walk to my Japanese lesson through busy lunchtime crowds and I've been people watching as I go. It is interesting that about 75% of the people I pass along the way are wearing ID/security badges on straps around their necks. Those cards are truly ubiquitous nowadays.

I've been playing a game with the other 25% of the people on the street. If you hung a security card around their necks, how does my perception of them change? The guy in the black jeans and funky styled hair goes from "college student" to "designer." Anyone moderately well dressed turns into an office worker if they have an ID badge.

Even unlikely prospects can become legitimate with an ID badge. The old lady with the cane tottering down the sidewalk is professor or a volunteer of some sort. The woman with the toddler is a flex-time worker on a day-care run. The multi-pierced goth chick now works at the record store.

What if as a tourist you wore a security card as a disguise? The perception of people passing you on the street would change. Not a tourist anymore, you become one of the crowd.

If you don't have an actual ID card from your current or former job, you can easily fake one. Since you aren't going to try to enter a building with it, nobody is going to look too closely, so make it neat but don't worry about being perfect. Use a computer, cut and paste, or draw the elements by hand.

1) Buy a strap and card holder. I've seen them in the 100 yen shops here; I'm sure any office supply store would have them.

2) The ID side of the card should include an image of you or someone else and a name printed underneath. It needs a company or building name and logo. It may have a decorative element like a colored stripe or a subtly patterned background. A barcode orreally long ID number is a nice touch.

3) On the back side of the card, make a fake magnetic strip. A 1/2" stripe in black pen will work fine. Add some tiny text as a disclaimer or "if found return to" section.

4) Put the card in the holder and test your new identity.

Posted by kuri at 05:39 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
April 16, 2008
Tokyo population rises again

As of the last census in October, Tokyo is home to 10% of the nation's population. 91,000 more people came to live in Tokyo during 2007. So if the trains seem more crowded, that's why.

This is the highest percentage it's been since 1979. The highest ever was 11.1% in the late 1960s.

Japan's shifting population is interesting. 37 rural prefectures lost population last year. People over 75 outnumber people under 14 in a half dozen prefectures. Deaths outnumbered births by 2,000 nationwide. What will the next census tell us?

Posted by kuri at 10:17 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
March 17, 2008
Ambulances & Emergencies

A few months back there were several news reports about ambulances in Osaka having so much trouble finding an ER to take their patients that the patients died before seeing a doctor. This week a survey by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency reported that nationwide in 2007, 24,089 ambulance patients were rejected by hospitals more than three times before being admitted somewhere. In 2006, a different agency reported only 667 such cases.

That is not good. But why is this happening and how can it be resolved?

Partly because hospitals are facing budget and staff crises and closing or cutting back their ER facilities. That seems to be a perennial, or perhaps cyclical, problem with hospitals.

Partly because hospitals rotate ER days. Not all ERs are open 24/7/365. The ambulances know the schedule and call ahead to confirm that there is a bed for the patient. If one ER is busy, or doesn't have the right kind of doctor on staff, they reject the request.

Partly because many ambulance crews are not trained in medicine. Some have training beyond basic first aid, but it is not a requirement.

So how can this problem be fixed? From my armchair vantage point, I see a few obvious things that would improve the situation right away:

  1. Staff paramedics and other medically trained people in the ambulances. This would give the patient timely triage and accurate reporting of the situation to the hospital.
  2. More hospitals on rotation in the ER schedule. This is a challenge due to budgets and staffing, but it is certainly the most immediate fix. No more ER holidays.
  3. Establish local "urgent care" centers for non-traumatic emergencies, like earaches and food poisoning. Right now, you have to find an off-hours clinic or go to the ER (in an ambulance). This would free up the hospitals to handle trauma and more complicated issues.

I am sure that people in power are thinking along these lines, and in Osaka earlier this year, this issue was at the heart of the gubernatorial campaign.. I just hope it gets fixed before I need to go to the hospital in a rush.

Posted by kuri at 12:05 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
September 02, 2007
Obligations of Free Things

I'm reading Ruth Benedict's book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword for the first time. It is a study of Japanese culture written in 1946 as a way for Americans to understand their Oriental enemy. It's rather academic, but mostly on target even today. That is pretty amazing because Ms. Benedict didn't have access to Japan at that time (we were at war) but conducted interviews with Japanese Americans, read Japanese books, and watched Japanese films instead.

The book is mainly concerned with what motivates the Japanese behaviours that can seem so contradictory to Westerners. Some of the concepts she details are things I already understood to a certain extent just from having lived with them for nearly a decade. But having them well-described in writing gives me a further and fuller understanding.

For example, yesterday when we were handing out Morsbags at Alishan Market Day, many people accepted the bag and said "Sumimasen," which is a way of saying thank you, but also "I'm sorry." This may seem a little weird, but it makes sense when you understand the Japanese idea of obligations. Benedict explains it charmingly:

In English, sumimasen is translated 'Thank you,' 'I'm grateful,' or 'I'm sorry,' 'I apologize,' You use the word, for instance, in preference to all other thank-yous if anyone chases the hat you lost on a windy street. When he returns it to you politeness requires that you acknowledge your own internal discomfort in receiving. 'He is offering me an on [a favor and an obligation] and I never saw him before. I never had a chance to offer him the first on. I feel guilty about it but I feel better if I apologise to him...I tell him that I recognise that I have received on from him and it doesn't end with the act of taking back my hat. But what can I do about it? We are strangers.'

And that's what happened to us yesterday. We handed out bags to strangers and some of them felt uncomfortable accepting this favor from us. A few refused the bags but most took them. They seemed more cheerful when we didn't hand them out directly but let them choose as if they were shopping.

Some of the stall owners repaid the favor by giving us produce. Even though we wanted to give our bags no-strings-attached, it is really impossible to do so here. I certainly accepted the return gifts with happiness. We got all kinds of vegetables, some crackers and this huge cabbage!

Cabbage in Trade

Now I may understand why many Japanese find volunteering a strange concept. If you volunteer your time to a cause, who repays the favor to you? The world at large? The organizers? The simple cycle of obligation and one-to-one repayment is broken and that is out of step with the usual way of doing things.

Which means I may owe a debt to all the people who have volunteered for Morsbags. It's easy enough to give a fabric donor a bag and clear the debt - but how does one repay the people who volunteer their time and talent? Do fruity drinks and our post-Morsbag dinners count? Is that a payback in equal measure in a reasonable amount of time? Maybe I'd better keep reading Benedict's book and see if she has a suggestion.

Posted by kuri at 11:10 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
August 10, 2007
Morning Golfer


Every morning shortly before his shift begins, our building's maintenance man takes a pair of golf clubs to the little patch of lawn below our balcony and practices his golf swings. Often I'm watering my plants while he's down there, but we have never acknowledged one another. I feel like I've peeked into his secret life beyond the building's trash cans and dust.

Posted by kuri at 07:58 AM [view entry with 5 comments)]
May 28, 2007
Yanagisawa's Robot Nation

This is the Robot Nation video I showed at Design Festa this weekend. I opted out of doing sound for it (DF is so noisy that nobody could have heard it anyway) but might revisit it to add some sound effects now that it's onlnie. The Japanese version is online at YouTube, too.

During the weekend, thousands of people just passed by without pausing, but a few hundred stopped and watched it all the way through. Reactions were either expressionless viewing or laughing at the right places. A few people got to the racy scene and turned away. A handful of people (mainly men) watched it several times in a row. One young man called his girlfriend over to watch it - that pleased me.

I'm not sure if the message got across to everyone, but I hope it did to at least a few people.

Day 2 Stats
31 capsules vended
9 friends greeted: Bob & Tomoko, Sayaka and her daughters, Jim & Yuka, Tracey & Ashley (thanks for coming!)
2 interviews given

Posted by kuri at 06:44 AM [view entry with 2 comments)]
February 20, 2007


I guess the icons on the buttons aren't clear enough to indicate open & close.

Posted by kuri at 08:56 AM [view entry with 2 comments)]
January 29, 2007
Do not litter

As if the Turning Point Exam last April wasn't enough of a clue, I got another clue today that I've graduated into Japanese middle age.

Walking home from lunch, I saw two high school students walking their bikes up the hill near my house. One laughed and opened a couple of those prize-filled globes that you buy from bubblegum machines. Then he threw the hemispheres on the sidewalk.

I was outraged. How dare he litter my neighborhood? I stood in the path of his bicycle and stopped him.

"Sumimasen ga..." I pointed at his trash and paused to conjure up the right words in Japanese.
"Eh? Excuse me?" he answered in English before I could say anything else.
"You dropped something. You should pick it up."
"Oh. Sorry." He called to his friend to wait for him as we marched over to his trash.
"This is my neighborhood. I like to keep it neat." I tossed two clear plastic tops into his bike basket as he picked up the colored bottom halves.
"I'm sorry."
"That's better." I smiled and went on my way.

I totally rained on his toy parade, but I'll bet he doesn't do that again soon. Confronted by a middle aged gaijin lady! The shame, the shame.

Posted by kuri at 03:35 PM [view entry with 6 comments)]
December 18, 2006
Wedding Wranglers

My good friends Bob & Tomoko held their wedding ceremony at a reception hall on the Kanagawa coast earlier this month. I taped the ceremony and party and have been editing together a couple of highlight reels for the happy couple.

Throughout the celebration, several staff members - I've started calling them the Japanese Wedding Wranglers - kept things on track by guiding the bride and groom through the space, handling props and timings, setting up microphones and doing all the background tasks you would expect - though perhaps to an extreme not usually seen in the US.

Here's a short film highlighting all the work they did that day.

Posted by kuri at 10:32 PM [view entry with 3 comments)]
December 17, 2006
Shibuya Panhandling

I have always been proud to say, "There are no beggars in Tokyo." But two incidents in the past month have made me a liar.

The first took place at Shibuya station a couple of weekends ago. Tod was buying a ticket for the Hanzomon line. When I looked to see if he was done, there was a balding man dressed in grey pants and a blue jacket talking to him. He looked like a do-gooder trying to help a confused tourist with the machine. I saw him talking to a different foreigner as we went thought the wickets a few minutes later. When I asked Tod about their conversation, he said the guy asked him for 500 yen. In English.

The second incident was also at Shibuya. As we passed along the street from the Hachiko side to the Toyoko side of the station last night, a filthy, dreadlocked rag-man got a bright look in his eyes and shambled in our direction. I watched in my peripheral vision as he walked along with us for a couple of steps, face angled toward us in a hopeful way, before he gave up and stopped. He didn't try this with any of the gazillion Japanese also walking along that way.

So it seems that foreigners are being targeted by panhandlers in Shibuya. Has this happened to you? What did you do?

Posted by kuri at 04:14 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
December 02, 2006

Bob & Tomoko in their finery

We attended UltraBob and UltraGirl's wedding party this morning at a seaside complex near Zushi. What a delightful day it was with sunshine and waves outside, and 50 happy guests enjoying the celebrations inside.


Posted by kuri at 11:59 PM [view entry with 3 comments)]
November 21, 2006
Movie Moment

The little boy dressed in brown corduroy pants and a red sweater stood at the stoplight. Two older girls in school uniforms called "Ebi-kun!" but he ignored them, intent on getting across the moment the light changed.

"Arrrrwah!" he growled and took off at a run, six-year-old legs pumping as fast as they could towards a large cluster of chatting middle school students on the opposite side of Kasuga Dori. He dodged their blue uniforms and turned left, running full bore through another rank of after-school conversations.

Two boys at the perimeter saw him coming and held out their hands, smiling. He tore through their barrier, turning to shout a greeting as his fuchsia tote bag flew behind him like a cape. He barely broke stride before swinging back towards his destination, a side street into a residential area.

By the time I crossed the Kasuga Dori and reached the street he turned down, he'd vanished. I wonder what compelled him to run so urgently? He seemed too happy to be late. Maybe his mother baked him cookies. Regardless, it really did look like a scene from a little European art film.

Posted by kuri at 10:16 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
October 17, 2006

Elizabeth Andoh selects dishes for a photo shoot.

One of the many benefits to doing ad hoc creative work is that I sometimes get requests from friends to help them out in interesting ways. Yesterday I went over to Elizabeth's to take some pictures of ceramic dishes.

Her dish cabinet, which she says fit exactly the width of the room she and her husband lived in when they first married, is stuffed full of treasures to reflect the current season. She changes the cabinet's contents as the weather shifts. The off-season ceramics are stored in a weather-proof shed on the balcony.

Jessica Wickham's nesting bowls

As she picked out her favorites from the cabinet, Elizabeth shared their histories - a 250 year old miniature bowl belonged to her mother in law, an original Bizen dish, pottery made by friends and famous associates, rare pieces and bargain finds from recycle shops. The mix is eclectic but perfectly harmonious and our photo session turned out some good results.

Posted by kuri at 09:36 AM [view entry with 2 comments)]
October 12, 2006
Gaijin Complaint

I'm feeling sick of having my differences pointed out.

It's a condition I think most foreign residents in Japan suffer at some point. For some people, it gets so bad their only treatment is to return to their home countries. Others find a suitable remedy and recover with time. I've been relatively symptom-free for over eight years but all of a sudden, I'm struck down with Gaijin Complaint.

What are the indications?

1. "We Japanese" phrasing starts a raging fever.

For example, a friend's Japanese teacher did it to me the other week. "We Japanese use those as sewing boxes," she said when I was showing my friend a beautiful Showa-era cabinet I intended to use as a jewelry box. Would she have said that to a Nihonjin? Certainly not. Did I need to be corrected? Certainly not.

Then a few days later, a shopkeeper called me mezurashii (unusual) because I filled in a form without actually looking at it and wrote my name on the address line. "Japanese people would have put their name here," he said, pointing. If I were Japanese, would he have said that? I think not.

2. Assumptions about my eating preferences make me lose my appetite.

I do not want a fork with my conbini salad; I'd prefer chopsticks just like all "you Japanese." Thank you.

3. Excessive staring causes me to withdraw.

I grapple with a desire to blend in and the knowledge that I never will. I am sized and colored differently to 99% of the population. I am a novelty who is tired of being noticed. On the other hand, I don't want to hang around the gaijin hot spots like the Pink Cow, Yoyogi Park or the foreign ghettos in Minato-ku

4. Presumptions about my comprehension make me to prickle all over.

Whether it's what they are saying or some aspect of culture, it aggravates me when people think I don't understand. I'm sure in lots of ways I don't but I'm not entirely clueless.

For example, yesterday there was a handwritten notice in our lobby stating "Futons are bulky trash and need to be collected by the city for a fee; please contact the management office." When I left the building in the morning, the manager caught my eye and rose from his desk, which he only does if I am stopping by to pay the water bill. Did they assume that I had thrown away a futon? Ha, ha. It wasn't me.

I don't like this dis-ease. I love living in Japan. I want to be comfortable again, so of course I've been thinking of possible palliatives. Cheerfully embrace my gaijin-ness, or strive to behave more like Japanese? Improve my language skills, or bury myself deeper in my English-speaking bubble? Point out discrimination in a polite non-confrontation way, or pitch a screaming fit every time I'm offended?

Somehow I think some of these might work better than others. What do you think? How did you handle your spell of gaijin complaint?

Posted by kuri at 09:59 AM [view entry with 11 comments)]
September 24, 2006

The man who drove into Tod last week called to check up on him and asked if he could come to make a formal apology - owabi. Tod told him it wasn't necessary, but of course it really was important to Ootusbo-san.

So today we invited him into our house and sat with him for a few minutes. I wasn't sure what to expect; Tod hadn't given me any sort of description of him. He is my age or maybe a few years older. His hair is short and simply cut; his skin is tanned from outdoor work. He wore all white, like a spiritual pilgrim: white pants, new white sneakers, a white cap and a white t-shirt with a heather blue sweater vest over it. He had his keitai tucked into his back pocket, with various colored straps and characters hanging from it.

I think he didn't quite know what to expect, either. He came into the living room and commented on our stack of zabuton cushions. We put them to use, sitting on the floor at our low table. After presenting us with a box of rice crackers and dorayaki, Ootsubo-san gave us his account of the accident. He was driving back from a job in Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture, and exited the highway to escape the Friday evening congestion. In Otemachi, he turned at the intersection, then slammed on the brakes when his passengers all shouted "Abunai!" They had seen Tod in the crosswalk. Thank goodness he used the brakes. He asked several times after Tod's various body parts, all of which are healing fine, and apologised to me for causing me worry and trouble.

After the sembei and the chat, Ootsubo-san passed Tod an envelope. "It's really not much," he began. Tod tried to refuse the money, but Ootsubo insisted. "It's not about the money. It's about my own feeling. Please accept it."

Then he asked Tod if he could snap a photograph of the bicycle and explained that his car insurance company needed to see it so he could get the van fixed. He said they might call to verify the circumstances of the accident. Apparently Tod left a pretty big dent in the van. So Tod and Ootsubo-san went outside together, but only after Ootsubo-san gave us a deep bow and a pro forma "I have no excuse. I'm very sorry." I think he really was glad that it all turned out alright.

Posted by kuri at 08:29 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
September 17, 2006

Today I was witness to a remarkable event.

While I sat chatting with Tod, our friend Shinji, and two of his "older sisters" in Sugimoto's kimono shop on the promenade leading to Nezu Shrine, two women popped their heads in the open doorway.

"Um, do you remember us?" one began. In a moment they revealed that all four women had gone to grade school together 62 years before. These 70 year old ladies turned into schoolgirls in the blink of an eye. They caught up over half a century in a flurry of words so entangled that I could not follow unless I looked at one of them at a time and read her lips.

How lucky I was to be there for that happy, once in a lifetime event. It made me wonder if I would recognise my classmates from 30 years ago in a chance encounter?

Posted by kuri at 09:46 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
September 02, 2006
Til 2009

The visa and re-entry permit

Hard to believe it's been three years since our previous visa renewal, but it has and our papers to re-up were turned in a few weeks back. Yesterday evening Tod handed me our passports newly plastered with self-adhesive, QR coded visa extensions. We're good until 2009.

And then? Maybe an application for permanent residency.

Posted by kuri at 09:10 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
August 30, 2006
Matsudai roundup

I've been away from the computer mainly spending more time in Matsudai. So much happened last weekend that I'm hard pressed to recount it all, but here I go.

Thank you to Hanako Murakami for introducing me to Matsudai and its people. I really do love that town. And congratulations to Hanako for shepherding an amazing performance of mushroom dancing at Nobutai on Friday last week. "Kinseees!" was an energetic, delightful surprise.

Higashino-sensei's dance as the お化けキンコ (mushroom ghost) was exactly the right complement to the old folks doing their dances. She encouraged them, teased out their special talents and made the evening flow. Motohei-san, at 82 the oldest dancer in the group, was so full of joy and humour that it was hard not to whoop and holler during all his little solos. I know how much work everyone put into creating the evening's entertainment, and I think all 160 of the audience members were impressed. I didn't take my camera that evening, choosing to enjoy the event without the lens between me and it - a wise decision, even though it means no pictures for you.

One of the items in the Kinseees! program was each dancer's favorite mushroom. The モグラ was often mentioned, but we don't know "mogura" as a mushroom - it's a mole. Now Tod does cutest impression of a mogura (the mole, not the mushroom) that makes me giggle and ask for encores.

The two days after Kinseees! were the Matsudai matsuri. We hung around town to tour the Triennial art and spent Saturday evening drinking and singing with the adult children of some of the dancers. I had my recording gear and turned the evening into the latest Hanashi Station podcast.

play mp3 Matsuri in Matsudai (10'15" 9.4 MB MP3)

Matsudai, population 4,000, is divided into three sections: Kammachi, uptown; Nakamachi, midtown; and Shimmachi, downtown. We were at the top of the hill in uptown most of the night, where the drunken karaoke and dancing took place. Midtown and downtown were equally lively, but more family-oriented.

Early in the evening, before the party really started, the skilled singers encouraged Tod & I get up and do a duet. You really cannot refuse people who ply you with sake and snacks. We flailed our way through John Denver's Country Roads - one of the few English songs in their midi-based karaoke system. Later on, we were called on to perform again - "Mr. Tod and Kristen dancing please!" - and foxtrotted clumsily to some beautifully sung enka.

The town reporter captured all of this and more with his camera, so I expect there will be at least one photo of us in the local newspaper. Horrors! But I wonder how I can get my hands on a copy of it?

Over the course of the evening, we were treated to many plates of food, cups of drink and little gifts. I was so stunned by the generosity that I took an account: 6 onigiri; 2 bowls of kenchin soup; 2 dishes of pickles; 10 sticks of yakitori; 4 shiso-cheese gyoza; 1 plate of fried octopus; 2 grilled sazae; 1 packet of otsumami; 1 harisen clapper; 1 pink stuffed monkey; 1 pair pink sequined devil horns; 1 pair of sequined devil horns; 2 glasses of tea; countless cups of sake.

All that, plus a few things I was actually allowed to pay for, made up the feast of the evening as we sat around the streetside fire pit. Thank goodness there were a lot of people in our little tribe to share the bounty. I don't think anyone went hungry that night.

After the matsuri, I rolled a very tipsy Tod down the street to Kimie-san's family's second house, where we spent the night with Hanako and her crew. In the morning, before anyone had a chance to sip their coffee, Kimie-san turned up with freshly cooked rice and laid our breakfast table of pickles, simmered dishes, soup and rice. She is such an amazing hostess.

We took our leave of Matsudai the next day, after watching the kids' parade of mikoshi (portable temples). Tod helped to pull one of the huge wagons full of kids. I turn turns with the local police are trying to catch fish with a paper spoon. I took photos which I will develop and post eventually.

If this were my last trip to Matsudai, I'd be sad, but I am hoping/planning to go back in a couple of weeks to harvest rice with Akira-san, Kimie's husband. I may be a liabiliity, but I will work hard and it will be a good experience. Matsudai always is.

Posted by kuri at 08:48 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
June 25, 2006

Takarabune, the treasure boat of the seven lucky gods

Each god is represented by his or her sigil.

As a surprise, Shinji gave us his takarabune as a present. He bought it thirty years ago to bring his good fortune. Now he has everything he wants, and he passed his lucky boat to us. It's a symbol of the Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods.

Posted by kuri at 11:31 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
June 23, 2006
Boiled Egg

"We'd say you are a 'boiled egg'," Shinji laughed last night. Is that a compliment, or an insult? I'm not entirely sure.

Am I turning Japanese? I really don't think so. Even if I do make dashi from scratch.

Posted by kuri at 07:02 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
June 07, 2006
Inaka Hospitality

The weekend in Matsudai was primarily spent taking photos - I shot 530 in two days - and two of the photo sessions were with local obaachan & ojiichan (grandmas & grandpas). They dressed up in old-timey clothes and let us come take pictures in their gardens and alleys. And then they invited us in.

Sekiya-san and Kadoeya-san spread an elegant table of cool glass dishes and colorful fruits.

Kadoeya-san's house is beautiful. It's full of traditional Japanese colors and textures, seasonal decorations, multi-generational calligraphy. She is an elegant woman and her home reflects that. She also loves to sing and dance. While we nibbled fruit, she and Sekiya-san danced for us. I don't think anyone has ever performed a dance for my entertainment before. I was truly touched by their grace and generosity.

The Six Beauties of Chitose served up a meal of home cooked vegetable dishes from their gardens

Kodoeya-san's son drove us to the next village, Chitose, for our other shoot. Six women were waiting for us - I hadn't expected such a crowd - and invited us inside the old farmhouse while they finished getting ready. What an amazing building. Built 76 years ago, the rooms are two stories high with timbered ceilings. Thatch peeked through in places, though the roof had been tinned over years ago. And the walls crumbled in patches. Old, well-used and beautiful.

After the shoot, they surprised us with a feast of their specialties. I'll write more about those soon. In the meantime, you can have a look at home photos I've added to my Matsudai Flickr set.

Posted by kuri at 10:00 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
December 06, 2005
Whiskey Health

In this month's issue of Health magazine, there are articles on stretches for different body types, a guide to aromatherapy, how to keep your hands and feet warm during winter, and a pull-out section on the benefits of whiskey.

Yes, you read that right. "Relaxing with Whiskey's Fragrance" is the name of the 8-page booklet. It has lovely photos of whiskey in crystal glasses, and many pretty charts proving the benefits of having a good belt after dinner. Did you know that whiskey scent is more relaxing than the smell of the forest? It's a good blood thinner, too, improving circulation (and keeping your hands and feet warmer as a consequence).

There's even a procedure for making the perfect whiskey mizu-wari to draw out the healthful aroma:

  1. Fill a glass halfway with ice
  2. Pour in a measure of whiskey
  3. Add mineral water in equal measure (or up to 1:2)

I guess I know what I'm going to have after dinner tonight. My feet are freezing!

Posted by kuri at 06:49 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
November 28, 2005
Crazy Artist

Walking along the neighborhood shopping street near T's new place yesterday, we stopped to pet a huge shaggy grey cat perched on a makeshift plywood table. At the other end of the table was an older woman, long grey hair pulled back from her face, wearing clothes that looked like they'd been worn a long time. She was drawing pictures in colored pencil.

I have a feeling she is the local character who is a touch crazy but harmless. It's hard to tell in broken Japanese. She seemed happy to chat with us foreigners.

Turns out she's writing and illustrating a children's book. She gave us a plot summary and rummaged through her packrat collection of boxes and art supplies to locate a picture she wanted to show us. She sketched us a rose. I showed her my sketchbook from Paris and we traded compliments.

Despite our 15 minute conversation, we never exchanged names. But I know where to find her, as she seemed to be parked outside her own home--wedged between the fish market and the futon shop. I'll have to go back in a few weeks and find out how her meeting with the publisher went.

Posted by kuri at 03:50 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
July 26, 2005
Shoes on Train

Fashionable commuter feet.

Yesterday afternoon, I whipped out my sketchbook on the train and drew some shoes. But the feet in them kept moving around and they got off a few stops after I started sketching, so the drawing is really loose and wonky. But I like it anyway and colored it in this evening (loosely and wonkily)

Posted by kuri at 11:09 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
May 15, 2005
Taxi tech

Technology has revealed two classes of taxi drivers: the old school drivers who have memorised every road, turning and landmark in the city and can optimize a route from any point A to any point B taking into consideration the typical traffic conditions; and the younger generation who rely on car navi systems to tell them where to go.

Tod encountered this yesterday when he took a taxi from his office to meet me at a museum in Ueno, a distance of about 3 km. "Ueno park, please, but not via Chuo-dori because there is a festival going on," he instructed the driver.

The youthful driver punched the coordinates into his navigation system and then consulted it at every pause in the drive. Red light: switch view to a wider area. Stalled traffic: scroll along the route. Waiting to turn: flip on the "street level" viewer to see the intersection.

That driver is never going to learn how to get from Otemachi to Ueno on the back streets, even though he did it yesterday.

Posted by kuri at 10:29 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
May 14, 2005

This morning, Tod & I finally got ourselves to the police station to report the three robberies we've suffered since March. I was a little bit nervous--would they get all "I sorry, no speak Engrish" when we spoke to them in Japanese? Would they dismiss our robberies as trivial? Would we get into trouble somehow?

I shouldn't have worried. After arousing an initial curiosity from all and sundry at the Reception counter, the staff quieted down and a man in a fishing vest took our report in hand and told us to sit and wait.

Tod passed the time reading all the posters in the lobby--aloud. Did you know that over 50% of burglars enter by breaking a window? Or that robberies trend upwards in the autumn? Neither did I. By the time Tod was done with the posters, Mr. Vest emerged from a side door with his colleague, Mr. Briefcase. "Let's go," Mr. Vest said enthusiastically, brandishing a digital camera.

And we were off to study the scene of the crime. Mr. Briefcase opened up his kit and examined the genkan with a strong light (so much dirt!) and dusted for fingerprints with a soft rabbit hair brush and some grey powder. Mr. Vest went downstairs to talk to the management guys and to test the door. He showed Tod how most "auto-lock" lobby doors can be fooled into opening by sliding a paper through the door from the outer lobby and waving it around. So much for security.

But that's not how our robber got in. Mr. Vest spotted a footprint and some dirt on the sill of the window in the lobby that overlooks a small garden. The window had been left unlocked for air circulation, as it sometimes is. The robber scaled the wall, dropped into the garden and slipped in through the window, bypassing the auto-lock door.

After nearly an hour of investigations, a brief visit from the police chief, and a few minutes fingerprinting us for comparison with prints gathered, our two detectives went back to the station.

Mr. Vest told us that they catch about 70% of the burglars they seek; I hope we're on the side of success.

Posted by kuri at 10:22 PM [view entry with 3 comments)]
January 03, 2005
Tired of holidays

Today's the last day of the new year festivities. To be honest, I'm sick of it already. I've eaten too many chocolates, indulged in too much triple-fat French cheese, moved too little. I'm getting fat and bored.

I want to get back to work, to dig into the list of unfinished things and get a few of them crossed off. I want my pool to open so that I can swim every day. I want a regular bedtime that's not interrupted by late-night merrymaking.

明日から、ね。Ashita kara, ne.

Posted by kuri at 11:11 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
November 08, 2004
Bad lessons

Oh, no. Please, no. There are better mentors, Mr Koizumi.

Koizumi wants to learn from Bush how to cope with worldcriticism

TOKYO Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Thursday he wants to learn from U.S. President George W Bush about how to endure global criticism in exerting leadership, fueling views that he is resolved to go along with Bush's policies on Iraq no matter what.

"He is exerting leadership despite being criticized so much by the world and enduring massive criticism from the domestic media. That's something. I have to learn by watching it," Koizumi told reporters when asked for his view on Bush's leadership following his reelection. (Kyodo News via Japan Today)

Posted by kuri at 08:58 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
August 11, 2004
Cash and credit

I was down to 1236 yen in my wallet this morning, so I went to the post office ATM to get some money. As usual, I withdrew 50,000 yen--about a week's worth of groceries, train fares, restaurant meals, and small purchases. It doesn't seem like a lot of yen to carry around, but if I convert it to US dollars, it's more than I would ever consider carrying in that country. $450? No way. $20 and some plastic...

I used to pay for just about everything with a debit card that deducted the amount directly from my bank account. Groceries, gas for the car, lunches, clothes, snacks at the convenience store. Every shop in America has a credit card machine next to the cash register. And everyone uses them almost to the exclusion of paper money.

In Japan I carry cash. I like it better.

Cash is discreet. Nobody needs to know what I do with my money. If you examined my ATM card use, you could tell when and where I withdrew money, but not what I spent it on. With a debit card there's a detailed record of your spending habits. Creepy.

Cash is concrete. Money in my wallet waxes and wanes as I withdraw and spend. It's easy to keep track of what I have left for the week. It gives me pause when I spend. A small pause, anyway. It's shocking to take out 50,000 on Wednesday and spend it all by Thursday night. But with a debit card, it's easy to forget exactly what you've spent.

Cash is neat. It's so pretty--all the colors and patterns (the guilloches are particularly lovely). The microprinting and fibrous paper, the holograms, watermarks and slivers of shiny ribbon running through it offer hours of fodder for daydreaming and fine observation. No credit card has ever capture my attention for so long as a 1000 yen bill has.

Posted by kuri at 03:35 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
August 02, 2004
Gaijin in the pool

"I'm here all the time, love," replied the foreign swimmer in the next lane when I said hello this morning and noted that I hadn't seen him before.

Well, he was exaggerating. He isn't there all the time--usually on Sundays and sometimes during the week. Seems nice enough and he swims 2 km on Sundays. Not sure how far he went today, but he's planning to swim around a small island in September, so I guess he's preparing for that 8 km trek.

I don't usually talk to people when I swim, so it was a treat to meet an English speaking neighbor who likes the water. Hope to see you again soon, Sean. But not on Sunday; the pool is too crowded.

Posted by kuri at 10:14 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
May 15, 2004

Yesterday as I sat on the stoop of a defunct shop, waiting to meet a friend, I heard a wild whoop coming from someone down the block.

A young man, slightly moon-faced and sporting a fringe of mustache, tottered along the street in a lime green t-shirt. He moved jerkily, the weight of his bent body pulling him along from step to step. His fist pumped the air and he brayed with joy. An attendant hovered close, arm extended for support or in case of a tumble.

I looked away, embarrassed by my curiosity and a little ashamed for being fully-functional. But as they passed by, I peeked again. His lopsided gait was explained by his braced shoes: feet in opposition and one ankle turned inward.

He was excited to be walking. I tracked forward with my eyes to see a wheelchair waiting for him 50 meters further on. As he approached it, his hoots became a happy wordless keening.

He dropped into the chair, grinning and accepting the congratulations and praise of his orderlies. I caught his eye and we exchanged broad smiles as he was turned and wheeled away.

Posted by kuri at 11:57 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
May 08, 2004
Tattoo trouble

For the very first time since having my skin colored at the Meeting of the Marked convention in 1993, my tattoo has caused me trouble.

On Thursday, I decided to get off my lazy butt and join the Tokyo Dome Fitness Club. I took the tour and was filling in the application when an employee came over and waved some sheets of paper at the woman who was helping me. A conversation ensued--the rules, look at her arm, we can't!

And I was turned away. "I'm very sorry, but our rules say no tattoos. And it's the rule, so I'm sorry. There's really no excuse but it's the rule. It's Japan, you know. Very sorry."

So I seek a more tolerant gym. Maybe I will be working out and swimming with the four-fingered crowd. That's OK by me, I just have to find them.

Posted by kuri at 09:03 AM [view entry with 12 comments)]
March 15, 2004
Smoking manners

jt-manners2.gifJapan Tobacco launched a new campaign to remind smokers to mind their manners. This ad is one of four designs that evoke misleading newspaper diagrams. The messages are good--I cringe every time Tod lights a cigarette on a crowded street--but the delivery is weird.

Although Tokyo's nowhere near as anti-smoking as the US, the past few years have seen more public spaces become "no smoking zones." Japan Tobacco makes an effort to teach their customers better manners while promoting smoking. Will better manners prevent anti-smoking laws? Maybe. If smoking ceases to be a daily nuisance for non-smokers, then why bother with laws? But I don't think than an ad campaign is enough to make a difference.

jt-manners.gifAnd neither does Japan Tobacco. "Smokers' style" is their ongoing smoking campaign title. It has a cute stylised leaf logo--so natural, just like smoking.

Smokers' style is more than just ads. They maintain a large indoor smoking space in Akihabara and two mobile trailers (SmoCars) in no-smoking zones to give people a place to feed their addiction. JT also sponsors clean-up teams that sweep the streets free of cigarette butts and hand out portable ashtrays.

You can find out more about the Smokers' style manners plan, including photos of the SmoCars and all of the new ads at JT Delight World.

Posted by kuri at 11:26 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
March 03, 2004
Mansions in the Big(ger) City

Tokyo's population has reached a new peak. By the current accounting it is 12,378,974 people strong, with nearly 90,000 more inhabitants than 2002. (That's just the 23 wards; a census of the "greater Tokyo area" adds another 20 - 25 million people.)

The increased population is a good thing, because there are more and more places for people to live. As I've written before, there are a lot of new apartment buildings going up around the city. Here are some floor plans from the latest brochure to appear in my mailbox:


This is an 87.85 square meter (945 sq ft) 3 bedroom apartment (aka mansion) for 72,000,000 yen (about $720,000) And in the same building, there's a 130 sq meter, two-storey mansionette (no price given) and this 102 sq meter (1,097 sq ft) apartment for 80,800,000 yen ($808,000):


Luxury buildings like this one are springing up all over the inner city as lower cost housing is torn down to make way. I sure hope the 90,000 Tokyo newcomers are rich.

Posted by kuri at 09:32 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
February 17, 2004
Foul-weather Friends

Some expats bemoan the loss of friends when their compatriots move back home. I don't mind at all when friends come and go from my life; it seems quite natural. I think I'm well suited to being a long-term expatriate.

Despite that, it's comforting to have a few friends who I know will stick around. I don't see them all that often, but I know they're there.

I had dinner tonight with Greg, who is actually a newish friend, but has been in Japan for more than a decade. He's applied for his permanent residency, so I think he'll be sticking around for a while. We talk about creativity and organizing our lives. We swap movies. Greg introduced me to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and loaned me the Edward Tufte book that I hadn't read. He came to Design Festa in November. We made nengajo together. I taught him about CSS and Movable Type templates.

Also among my long-term resident friends is Elizabeth Andoh, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years, teaches Japanese food culture and writes for the New York Times and Gourmet. Various colleagues from Tod's office and MJ, of course, are here for the duration because they've married Japanese nationals.

Which is something that I wish I could do, too. Not that I want to give up darling Tod (never!), but couldn't I have a Japanese husband, too? Sure would make the visa issues easier...

Posted by kuri at 10:26 PM [view entry with 3 comments)]
January 12, 2004
Phone greets

Nearly everyone I know has a cell phone that displays the caller's name and number when the phone rings. Some can even pop up a photo of the caller. It's extremely handy. This isn't exactly new tech; even in the US, Caller ID was introduced in the 90s. These days, I don't answer the phone unless I know who is calling.

It got me thinking about how phone transactions have changed over time.

1894: Operator-assisted calls required long waits and sometimes multiple transactions before conversation commenced.

"Operator. How may I direct your call?"
"Albany, New York, please."

1954: Before conversing, you needed to have a brief exchange to determine who was on the other end of the line.

"Hello, Jones residence. Myra speaking. May I ask who's calling?"
"Hi, Myra, this is Jane."

2004: Technology allows preliminaries to be skipped. With a glance at the display, the person answering can just start talking.

"You're running late?"
"Sorry. At Shinjuku now. I'll be about 20 minutes..."

Posted by kuri at 02:10 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
January 04, 2004

I've been reading an interesting classic text on Japanese psychology: Anatomy of Dependence by Dr. Takeo Doi. It was written in 1971 and Doi was hailed as the Freud of Japan.

In the book, he explains amae. It's odd but I can't even begin to explain amae even after reading nearly 100 pages of the book, instinctually understanding the concept, even having a few "Aha! That explains that thing I experienced" moments as I read along.

Amae isn't unknown to Western culture, but there's no word for it. It's part unconditional love, part dependency, part selfishness, part generosity, part obligation, part indulgence.

For example, amae is what Tod and I experience when I bring him coffee in bed in the morning--he is relying on me to indulge him and I am (usually) happy to do so. When he tucks me in at night, that's amae I get a warm loving feeling as he indulges my desire to be cuddled and made safe before I go to sleep. It makes me want to bring him coffee in the mornings. What goes around, comes around.

The book is good. I'm not all the way through it, but I expect I'll have quite a few more "aha!' moments as I see why Japanese people sometimes behave in ways that seem odd to me. If you are interested in why Japanese seem "different" to Westerners, this is a good place to start your explorations.

Posted by kuri at 11:58 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
December 16, 2003
Map gift

Yesterday afternoon as Tod was leaving for work, he found a white tube outside our door and handed it to me

"Dunno what it is, but everyone seems to have them," he said, scanning up and down the hallway.

I pulled off the packaging to reveal the 2004 Metro Network Map. It's a large, detailed map of the subway system with exits and underground passageways marked. We held it up to the wall in the genkan and followed streets and trains until my arm felt numb and Tod was definitely late for work.

But we're not sure why we received this. Maybe Eidan is giving them to all the people who live along the exposed portion of the Marunouchi line? They were doing some work out there recently; maybe this is a little "pardon our dust" present.

Posted by kuri at 10:05 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
December 06, 2003
Takamado Hime-sama

I've never talked to a real princess before.

But tonight at the Australian Embassy's Ancient Future reception for Patricia Piccinini's "We Are Family" exhibit at Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa (how's that for an introduction?), I had a conversation with Princess Takamado, the sister-in-law of the Japanese Emperor.

She gave an eloquent toast in Japanese and English (delivered with a lovely Cambridge accent) talking about her late husband's definition of art--it must be beautiful, not merely freedom of expression as art was originally made as a gift to God.

It brought tears to my eyes. I had to say hello. But she was being monopolized by a guy wearing a backpack, and I have not learned the gentle art of butting in. So MJ's embassy contact, Katherine, helped us out and sidled over. The backpacker vanished and then a woman slipped in with a bouquet of pink and yellow tulips (in December ?!) and had her photo taken. And then we talked with the Princess.

It wasn't a very long conversation; perhaps six or seven minutes. First it was about the art exhibit, then we moved on to the Princess' involvement in judging speech contests and how men usually won, even though 75% or more of the contestants are women. Why? Because women don't deliver their speeches as well. She said that women trying to tell jokes made everyone slightly uncomfortable. (Interesting.)

Princess Takamado is gracious, graceful, and well-spoken. I'm very happy to have conversed briefly with her. Even though she'll never know who I am, I'll take her as a role model. I feel special for having spoken to a real, live princess.

Granted, this is all reflected glory...but...but...I talked to a princess! Not bad for a girl with hands perfectly shaped to use a plow.

Posted by kuri at 12:31 AM [view entry with 4 comments)]
November 19, 2003
Exceptional people

Every foreigner you find happily living in Japan is an exceptional person. Not everyone is likable, but they are definitely out of the ordinary.

Living abroad requires a sense of adventure, a willingness to learn, and either a flexible open mind, or a seriously strong sense of self. Most gaijin living here are also intelligent--dummies need not apply for international assignments. Anyone who comes to Japan without those attributes seems to find their way home as quickly as possible.

Because everyone is interesting, I find myself surrounded by a cast of characters ready-made to populate a comedy: the glamour queen; the frantic freelancer; the party animal; the downtrodden sensei; the struggling artist; an insane business owner; the boy next door; some privileged expats; and the Japanophile.

So when you read in the credits of my first feature, "the characters in this film are fictional and do not represent any person living or dead," please know that it's only partly truthful...

Posted by kuri at 12:49 PM [view entry with 5 comments)]
October 28, 2003
Chopstick studies

Boston University School of Medicine researchers tested 2,500 Beijing residents over 60 years old to discover that the repetitive motion of using chopsticks causes degeneration of the joints and causes arthritis.

I'll bet that they got a lot of money to do that study. And what's the point? Nobody's going to stop using chopsticks. We all know already that repetitive motion of many sorts causes damage to joints and ligaments.

Maybe they'll come study my typical repetitive motions: typing, mousing, and flipping the bird at stupid researchers.

Posted by kuri at 08:37 AM [view entry with 2 comments)]
October 26, 2003
Indian community

Last night, Tod & I attended a party to celebrate the Indian festival of lights, Diwali (aka Deepavali). Murali, one of Tod's colleagues, planned the party for the Indian IT folks working at several of the investment firms.

The party started at 6; we arrived at 6:15 to find a nearly empty room. Nalnish greeted us with a chuckling explanation, "Everyone is running on Indian time and will be here an hour late!"

Sure enough, by 7, the room was full of people. Diwali is a happy celebration, though exactly what it celebrates depends on what part of India you're from. It really doesn't matter--Diwali is a excuse for fun.

A dozen children dressed in party finery ran around playing games, while two dozen men and women mingled or sat in laughing groups. Young mothers dressed in gorgeous sari, glamourous salwar kameez, and stunning gold jewelry collectively watched over the children, keeping them out of harm's way and ensuring that they all played fair.

We played musical chairs, bingo, and a challenging game of "Guess the Hindi Song." We feasted on curries, poori, biryani, carrot halva and sweets and then set off fireworks along the river.

It was, in many ways, a pretty typical family-oriented social event. But it was different, too. Not because of the curry dinner or the exotic silks and gems but because of the relationships.

It's difficult to write about this without sounding either sappy or like a clueless ethnologist. I envy the Indian community in Tokyo. It is a real society of families and friends.

Perhaps the practice of arranged marriages fosters a larger, tighter social network, since couples aren't burdened with the wrong-headed notion that their partner is the one and only person they will ever need to rely on. All of the couples seemed to care for one another, but they were equally connected to their friends.

By contrast, the "foreign community" that I belong to is mostly unmarried or childless couples like me and Tod. The bonds among our set are much looser than those I saw last night. Whether it's the lack of children or a general difference in culture, I don't know.

I like the idea of a very close group of friends, but I don't know if I'd like to live in one. I'm set in my ways and those ways include a lot of time alone. Distance. Sedentary separation. Focus on work. Momentary irritability when someone changes my schedule unexpectedly. Well, I exaggerate. I used to have a house where people just dropped by whenever. And I loved that...

Next weekend, there is a Diwali party in Futako-tamagawa where 2,000 people are expected to attend. Maybe I'll be among them as part of the larger, looser circle of the Indian community.

Posted by kuri at 11:42 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
September 30, 2003
Visa renewals

visaextension.jpgAny foreigner who's lived here a while knows the nail-biting tension of having a visa renewed. We are all here by the good grace of the Japanese government and once every three years we must submit ourselves for inspection and a new seal of approval. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

So what's it like?

After collecting reference letters, employment contracts, tax documents, marriage certificates, and university diplomas, a trip to the Immigration office and several thousand yen worth of revenue stamps get the application in the queue. It vanishes into the fog of Japanese bureaucracy.

There is no way of knowing what is going on behind the scenes; only a sketch of the rules is written down for applicants. Do they check all those letters and contracts? Do they consider you by nationality, income, criminal record, age, or some sort of karmic merit system?

Who knows?

We sailed through the process this time. Whatever mysterious tests were applied to us, we passed. Our visa applications were filed on September 10 and we received the renewals yesterday. We've been granted another three years' stay in Japan. Our life continues, uninterrupted by any immediate international moves.

Posted by kuri at 12:37 PM [view entry with 6 comments)]
September 25, 2003
Counting fingers

When you indicate the number 8 with your hands, how do you do it?

If you're American you probably hold up your hands like this:
8-american.jpgSide by side, in front of your face. The left hand indicates five and the right hand shows the remaining three.

But in Japan, it's done like this:
8-japanese.jpgWith the hands held palms together. The hand behind shows five and the hand on top gives the rest.

I imagine that other places use this method as well, and it makes sense. The person looking at your hands only has to focus in one location and to check out the fingers on top to know the number. With the American method, I always end up scanning across the hands, taking in the face of the person holding them up, too. Not nearly so efficient.

A similar ease of use follows in the Japanese method for marking groups of 5. It uses the five strokes of the kanji for five. This is used all the time in restaurants:

At a glance, you can see the correct number. The American system of four vertical lines topped by a diagonal a slash across always forces me to double check wither it's three or four lines marked down and so on, though I have no problem when it's five or one. Maybe I'm just a little slow.

Posted by kuri at 11:54 AM [view entry with 10 comments)]
September 23, 2003
At the game

We went to a baseball game with a flock of friends and Zousama looked at me so sweetly as we left that I picked him up and brought him along.

But when we reached the entrance gate the guards were a bit bemused.

"Um, is there a Japanese speaker?" said the man doing the bag check as he scanned our group for Nihonjin. We assured him that we'd be OK if he spoke Japanese.

"So, well...." he started.

"Oh, it's like a pillow," MJ said enthusiastically patting Sama's back. But the guard looked dubious and glanced over at the more seriously dressed superior off to the side who nodded in a "go ahead, continue" fashion.

"Well, um...well...." he stammered. His cohort chimed in with "You see, the seats are narrow..."

At which point, Tod came forward with Zousama's ticket. We had an extra. He placed the ticket on Sama's back. "This is his ticket. Is that OK?"

The guards attending to us giggled. So did all their friends who'd come over from other gates to watch this spectacle. Elephant with a ticket? Well, let him in!

Sama had a great time at the game, as did the rest of us.

Posted by kuri at 11:29 PM [view entry with 8 comments)]
September 16, 2003
Elderly fortitude

At lunch today, an elderly man occupied the table next to mine. He dined in the company of his portable oxygen tank.

I've seen him around before, ambling along the sidewalk with his tank in tow. Narrow plastic tubes pass under his nose allowing easier breathing. His hands are bloated and unwieldy. Maybe he suffers from emphysema. He's sometimes accompanied by a woman I assume is his daughter and a little boy that must be his grandson. Today he was on his own.

After finishing the tuna-tomato pasta (we ordered the same thing), he had a cup of coffee. He fumbled with the tiny tab on the container of "coffee white" for a moment or two before using his teeth to hold it while his hand pulled the packaging open. Then he struggled with his medications--five blister-packed pills--and with some effort managed to push them open.

It's a bitch getting older. Nobody escapes the inevitable physical decline and we can't predict how gracefully we'll age. But this old man was out there living life. He's slowed down, but hasn't stopped. I hope I can say the same thing in 30 years.

Yesterday was "Respect for the Aged" day. 19% of Japan's population is over 65.

Posted by kuri at 07:43 PM [view entry with 2 comments)]
August 11, 2003
Ode to a Custodian

Mr. Janitor, I do not know your name.
You mumble Itterasshai!
Greeting me kindly as you polish the big brass gate.

I try to engage you in idle conversation
But chitchat and weather are unimportant
When it's trash day and there are fingerprints on the glass.

You sometimes bump lightly against my door
On Tuesdays, as you vacuum the hall.
Like a tree-fall in the forest, I hear you excuse yourself to no one.

Godliness is no match for cleanliness.
Today, I caught you wiping a city property--
The sign outside our building that tells how to put out the garbage.

After work, you change into a suit to go home.
I hardly know you without your blue coveralls.
But you recognize me and say hello as we pass in the street.

Posted by kuri at 03:41 PM [view entry with 5 comments)]
August 01, 2003
Henna gaijin

Henna gaijin literally means '"strange foreigner" but it's got a somewhat more derogatory sense than just strange.

A henna gaijin is someone who has a deep knowledge of some Japanese arcana--the esoteric details of the tea ceremony or karate or Japanese food or kanji--but fails to understand the daily basics. In other words, someone who can create an exquisite flower arrangement in the ikebana-morimoto style, but who buys sushi to grill it.

I worry sometimes that the longer I stay here, the more I am becoming a henna gaijin. I am concerned when a Japanese person expresses astonishment at some bit of Japanese trivia that I know. "Oh really? I didn't know that!" sends shivers of dread down my spine.

But what can I do, really? I love to learn and it's details that interest me. Fortunately, I don't focus my study in any one area, but drink in whatever comes my way.

For example, did you know that most Japanese people didn't have surnames until the Meiji Restoration (1870)? Ironically, when they selected their new family names, they borrowed from the powerful shoguns that had recently been deposed.

Or that if you keep a bit of iron in your nuka pot (for pickling) the eggplants will keep their color? Iron is a mordant for cloth dye as well.

Or that the genkan entryway where you take off your shoes, was originally in farmhouses where the animals and people shared the same structure? It was a practical way to keep mud and dirt from getting into the living quarters and was much higher than the small step commonly found today.

I hope these bits of knowledge aren't enough to make me a henna giajin but all this talk of henna makes me think I need to dye my hair.

Posted by kuri at 11:59 PM [view entry with 5 comments)]
May 28, 2003
Crime map


The Tokyo Metropolitan Police publish an annual map of crimes in the city. It's fascinating to see where the hubs of bad behaviour are. I'm happy to say that Bunkyo-ku seems to be the safest inner-city section. Shinjuku, on the other hand, is a dangerous place.

Click the map above for a larger version, or visit the police site for even better detail in Japanese.

Posted by kuri at 08:48 AM [view entry with 6 comments)]
May 27, 2003
Posing for Photos


I don't know for sure, but I suspect that Japanese women have some sort of special training in "posing for cameras."

We all know about the V sign that everyone, young and old, makes for the camera, but there's another common pose struck only by fashionable women. It's a modelesque chin-down-pouty-smile-eyes-focussed-on-lens-legs-poised pose that I can't believe is entirely unlearned.

Yet they do it gracefully and without consideration for the surroundings. I've seen women arranging themselves this way in front of landmarks, in clubs, in purikura photo booths, on the street with friends. It doesn't seem to matter what they are wearing or who is holding the camera. The ones who are best at it go on to become event models at technology and automobile conventions.

Perhaps there is a special schoolday in the 6th grade or so, when boys and girls are taken into separate rooms and the "facts of life" are explained. Same as when I was a schoolgirl, but in Japan the girls get an extra lesson in modelling. We missed out on that in my elementary school, so all I can do is look slightly goofy in photos.

Posted by kuri at 11:26 AM [view entry with 4 comments)]
May 14, 2003

50 members of a cult group have been driving their dying leader around the countryside of Japan for the last three years, looking for a place that is free of electromagnetic waves. The Panawave Laboratory members say that their cancer-ridden leader, Yuko Chino, 69, feels worse in the presence of EM radiation.

They stop along country roads and break out their supplies--meters and meters of white fabric, which they use to drape trees, guardrails and the vans they drive. Apparently, white reflects the waves. Everyone wears white and they use mirroed shields to hold back the police who come to move them off the public thoroughfares.

Harmless kooks, more or less. Except that they are also doomsday cultists. Panawave believes that the world will end this Friday, when an EM surge realigns Earth's axis, or Planet X appears on the horizon, or some such drivel depending on which account you read.

Here are a few for you to sample:

Profile of cult leader Yuko Chino (Daily Mainichi),
Photo essay on the Panawave cult(Daily Mainichi),
An overview of the recent Panawave attention (The Independent),
City council gives cult a year to close shop even though the world ends in two days (via Japan Today),
and the Panawave Laboratory home page (in Japanese).

I have plans for Saturday, so the Earth had better not end on Friday!

Posted by kuri at 11:01 PM [view entry with 5 comments)]
April 22, 2003
Election time

This Sunday, Tokyo wards elect their mayors and Diet representitives. Forty five men and women are running for the Diet. Only two men are hoping to be Bunkyo's mayor. Election signboards like this one are placed at intersections and other public property.

But campaigns aren't entirely neat and tidy. People also paste posters to their garden walls and other surfaces. Things get pretty colorful around election time.

They get noisy, too. Many of the candidates have loudspeakers mounted on little vans and they drive around the city waving out the windows and thanking everyone for their support. They stop at train stations to get out and give speeches that none of the harried commuters listen to.

Posted by kuri at 07:31 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
April 16, 2003
Luck falls down

Tod is looking very thoughtful as he waits for a plate of fried rice at a restaruant in Suidobashi.

Above his head, hanging over the door, is a small tapestry embroidered with the kanji for "luck." It caught my eye because it's hanging upside down.

"Oh, yeah. Luck falls from heaven," Tod explained. "So you hang the kanji upside down."

Just like putting a lucky horseshoe over the door with the opening at the top so the luck doesn't fall out.

Posted by kuri at 12:25 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
March 12, 2003
Bike parking

Side street bike parking. Ikebukuro. March 9, 2003.

Posted by kuri at 08:22 AM [view entry with 4 comments)]
March 11, 2003
On the road to beauty

kojiflowers.jpgThe sewage department was working on my street today. As I went out this morning, they had their equipment splayed across the street and a sign up that said "Pedestrian passageway." The sign was embellished with a close-up photo of flowers; I think these were camillias.

Lots of construction signs in Tokyo are decorated this way and it's ironic, since there's not all that much foliage around and sometimes the flower photo is the only nature in evidence. But it's a cheerful (if futile) attempt to make a construction mess a little more tolerable.

I was on my way out this morning to get my hair cut. I hauled across town to the stylist I like (I'm not going to repeat my December mistake again) and spent three hours being cut, colored and coiffed.

Beauty under construction. They really should put a sign with flower photos in front of me while they do their thing. I can't watch Dan as he works; I stick my head in a fashion magazine the whole time because if I look up, I see this middle-aged woman with crow's feet, a sagging chin and circles under her eyes staring back at me.

I'm not sure what it is with Watanabe's mirrors but they reveal in too, too vivid detail the mortal, aging side of me that I try to deny. I noticed that this was the case with everyone there. We all looked...weary. Moth-eaten and friable. I think I'll blame it on the lights.

Posted by kuri at 06:43 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
March 04, 2003
Empress Aiko

The Times reports that the Japanese government is looking into the possiblity that the Crown Prince's daughter will someday reign. Aiko, who turned one on December 1st, is causing quite a controversy.

Japan hasn't had a woman on the throne since 1770 and the Imperial Household Law specifies an Emperor, never an Empress. Personally, I think that's just because MacArthur and his cronies were mysoginists who couldn't even imagine that a woman might be in charge. Let's face it, they had a big influence on the current constitution whether or not anyone actually admits that.

So I suppose Japan's going to have to alter the law to replace "Emperor" with "Emperor or Empress" and "he" with "he or she." It doesn't really seem like it should be that big a deal, but government officials are worried that making any change will rile up the People and they will demand dissolution of the monarchy entirely.

Japan's Imperial family seems pretty mild and is part of the charm of Japan for me. America needs a monarchy. I think I'd make a good monarch--sort of like the Red Queen.

Posted by kuri at 09:31 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
March 01, 2003
Pickup line

Standing on the Sobu line platform yesterday afternoon, I was approached by a middle-aged (but not all that much older than me) salaryman sporting a punch-perm and wearing a dark grey suit, a blue polyester tie, a pale blue shirt and some sort of office ID on a neckstrap. Pretty bog-standard salaryman. We had the following conversation in Japanese.

Him: Do you understand Japanese?

Me: Yes, a little bit.

Him: (not hearing me) Huh?

Me: A little.

Him: Are you French?

Me: No.

Him: Are you American?

Me: Yes.

Him: (glancing at my hands). Ah, you are married.

Me: Yes, I am.

Him: Is your husband Japanese?

Me: No, he's American.

Him: Would you like to come to a hotel with me?

Me: I don't understand your Japanese. I'm sorry.

What this man thought I was likely to answer is beyond me. I thought about punching him, but he apologised and walked away before I could let my violent American tendencies reach the surface.

Posted by kuri at 12:31 PM [view entry with 10 comments)]
January 20, 2003
Another mad cow

Mad cow # 6 was announced today. This one came from Wakamatsu via Hokkaido.

To put this in persepctive, Britain's mad cow epidemic was 155,000 cases over a ten year span--as many as 1,000 new diagnoses per week at its peak. So Japan's six cases in a year isn't as bad, but it's still not good.

I've been eating beef. Have I also been playing prion roulette?

Posted by kuri at 10:41 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
January 18, 2003
Mongolian blue spot

Until today, I'd never seen a naked Japanese baby.

But we were invited to dinner at a friends' house this evening and got an entertaining bonus--admission to the daily bath. Our friends' son is such a cutie and so patient as his mama washed his hair and baba held his legs. Junior thinks he's swimming in his tub and kicks like crazy.

And I learned something interesting from this bathing 6-month old. Many Japanese babies are born with a blue birthmark in the "sacral region." It looks like an ink blot or a dark bruise. But it's not a bruise and it fades with a few years. His is just at the end of the tailbone.

Apparently this Mongolian Blue Spot is a genetic marker traced back to the Mongols and it appears not only in most Asian races, but also Turks, Greeks, Africans, Eskimos and Native Americans.

I've uncovered two folk explanations for the spots. The Mongols say they are the mark left by the spirit who slaps the baby to life. Chinese believe that if you are reluctant to be reincarnated, the King of Hell prods and kicks you until you agree to go. The more spots, the more reluctant you were to be reborn.

Posted by kuri at 11:41 PM [view entry with 36 comments)]
January 08, 2003
Smelly street

The sewage department has been busy on our street this week--the entire neighborhood smells like benzene. Or maybe it's some other aromatic hydrocarbon but whatever it is, I'm glad that I'm inside where I can't smell it.

The workers are out there, unprotected. Nobody I've seen is wearing a filter or mask. Won't long exposure to something so strongly scented cause them harm? Just walking along the street past the construction area, I was really happy to go a little faster than usual.

I'm not even sure what they are doing. Two days ago, they were airing out the manholes with fans and aluminum ductwork; yesterday they had a camera on an optic fiber--sewage endoscopy?

Posted by kuri at 11:59 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
December 28, 2002
tick tick tick-tick

Two nights ago, the neighborhood fire patrols started their year-end rounds. These are our neighbors out there carrying lanterns and wooden sticks. They walk around the neighborhood in pairs or small groups checking for fires. Back in the days when Tokyo was all wooden, I guess this had some meaning. Now it's just a tradition for the new year holidays. A festive addition to the season.

I love the sound and rhythm of the sticks they beat together to signal all is well. Wood makes a hollow, ringing tick sound that echos against the concrete buildings. It's an unmistakable sound and always brings a smile to my face.

Some of the patrols keep a faster rhythm than others. Some are very lax with their timing, others are precise, but they all follow the same basic pattern. TICK (...2...3..) TICK (...2...3..1...) TICK-TICK (...1...2...3...)

Someday I'm going to figure out how to join our neighborhood association so that I can go out on fire patrol, too.

Posted by kuri at 09:07 AM [view entry with 2 comments)]
December 22, 2002
Nipponjin with scissors

Last week I made a tactical error in the sartorial department. I decided to not go all the way across town to my usual stylist for a haircut, but to try a beauty shop in my own neighborhood.

I took the photos of my Amelie cut that MJ snapped. I explained that I just wanted my hair cut a little shorter. I ended up with...not the same thing and about 2 months of regrowth before I think I'll be happy with my hair again. I might hand MJ the scissors next time we get together and see if she can do something to fix it. It can't get too much worse, really.

The trouble started when trying to make small talk, I asked the hairdresser--a 20-something man with dyed yellow hair and a nose pierce--whether Japanese hair and foriegn hair are similar. His answer was pretty standard (No, Japanese hair is thick and springy) but the word he used for Japanese really took me by surprise.

Nipponjin. This is the way is used to be said in Japan's expansionist, Korea-is-really-our-colony-and-so-is-China history. Before the war, Japan was commonly called Nippon and its people were Nipponese or Nipponjin (hence the wartime word for the Japanese enemy, Nips).

But after the war, as a concession to peace, the country renamed itself to the softer Nihon and its citizens became Nihonjin. So when I said Nihonjin and Mr. Hairdresser answered with Nipponjin, I really didn't know what to think. Is he a nationalist? Am I having my hair cut by someone who hates foreigners? Does he drive those loud black trucks on his days off--the ones that cruise around town blaring the national anthem and shouting for foreigners to go home?

So with that dread in mind, I sat back and tried to enjoy my haircutting experience. It was OK until he attacked my head with the thinning shears. Some thinning is OK, but he really went at it. I think he was trying to cut away all of the waviness--which simply cannot be done to my hair.

Now I have sections that stick stright down, really short bits underneath (I found one last night that's about one centimeter long) and one nice wave in the front that flies off into the air like a wing. There used to be other hair that supported it, but it was all thinned away. My head looks like a badly waving flag.

Posted by kuri at 09:53 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
November 25, 2002
Japanese Mark Twain

I had a bunch of things to write about here today, but then Tod pointed me at this essay on quitting smoking by Kenji Tsuchiya, a member of the philosophy faculty at Ochanomizu University. It's so funny!

I don't smoke; Tod does. We were both in hysterics reading this. It's in English, translated from the Japanese. There are a couple of grammatical errors, but not enough to be distracting. Kenji is a funny guy. If you like this, I can recommend his other essays, including Did You Know the Origin of Christmas Pudding?.

Here's an excerpt from the Christmas Pudding essay that Tod & I absolutely related to and laughed over:

"Imagine someone is talking to you at the University. Even in a light chat, it is important, in order to promote friendship between Britain and Japan, to carry on the conversation without it being discovered that you don't understand what he says. Suppose you pick up just the words, "How long ?". Success is almost yours, with this small clue. You can easily infer by the direction of his eyes that he is not asking how long the corridor is. You can also infer that he is not asking how long one million miles divided by thirty nine thousand feet is, or how long the Onin-War in ancient Japan continued, using common sense that one usually does not ask such questions in the first part of coversation. By the process of elimination, you reach the conclusion that he is asking either how long you have been in Cambridge or how long you are going to stay in Cambridge. The rest is easy. You can give an answer which fits both of these questions, such as "I came here last September and shall be staying until next June"."

If you bellylaugh while reading this, you've probably lived in a country where you didn't speak the language very well.

Posted by kuri at 10:32 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
November 19, 2002
Mouse music

I had drifted off while reading, taking a nap because I'm feeling not 100% today, when I realised I was hearing music. Had I left the stereo on? No. Was the neighbor playing their good jazz music (their living room is one thin wall away from our bedroom)? No...

This was the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, tinkled out in loud, electronic tones. As I identified it, it morphed into the "yaki imo" truck's traditional Japanese wail. The sweet potato truck drove slowly through the neighborhood and I didn't hear any more mouse music.

I know our potato vendor doesn't deviate from his usual tape loop. Where was the other music coming from?

Posted by kuri at 04:41 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
October 29, 2002
Cyberterrorist in the backyard

In 1995, the Aum cult attacked Tokyo's subways with sarin nerve gas. Since then, they've regrouped, renamed themselves Aleph and have focused on computer technology.

In April of this year, the CIA listed Aum in a report to a US Senate committee on potential threats. "[Aum] is the terrorist group that places the highest level of importance on developing cyber skills." So what is Aum getting up to?

A year or so ago, there was an article about how a Japanese government IT project was being fulfilled by an Aum-connected contracting company. Oops.

Posted by kuri at 10:57 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
October 22, 2002
Media hype

Arriving back in Japan, I checked the local news. The top headline:

Soga observes crested ibises on Sadogashima Island

"OK, what's this all about," I wondered. Is Soga a minister I've never heard of? A famous ornithologist? Are the crested ibises of Sadogashima more important than other ibises?

Then I read the story:

Sunday, October 20, 2002 at 18:00 JST
MANO -- Hitomi Soga, one of the five Japanese nationals on their first homecoming since being abducted to North Korea in 1978, enjoyed observing crested ibises Sunday on Sadogashima Island, Niigata Prefecture.

Soga, 43, and her supporters visited the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center in the village of Niibo. (Kyodo News)

Geeez, it's just the Japanese media making the most of the North Korean abductees. There are tons of stories about them--will this couple register their marriage and three children in their hometown? This woman visited the site of her abduction. One abductee's father said his son was told by the North Koreans that he was useless and should go home to Japan--but later retracted that comment. One abductee is married to an American defector.

With all this trivia about a dozen people filling the news channels, I wonder what else is going on in the country? What is the government (through their tightly controlled news kisha) hiding with all this "news" about what these dozen people are doing on their visits to their hometowns and the sites of their abductions?

Posted by kuri at 11:09 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
September 25, 2002
Sun-dried laundry

Although almost everyone in Tokyo has a washing machine, very few people seem to have dryers. Laundry is usually hung outside to dry.

In apartment buildings, that means hanging your undies out on the balcony and draping futons over the railing or out windows. Sunny days look a little bit like a bazaar with clothes flapping in the high rise breezes. Several buildings in our neighborhood have communal space for laundry on the roof--they're completely caged in to keep things from blowing into the streets below.

I have a dryer but I still like to dry things outside. I'm amazed at how quickly towels dry in the sun. Half the time of doing them in the dryer. Sheets are dry in 30 minutes on a breezy day. And despite the polluted Tokyo air, things dried outside smell fresh.

Posted by kuri at 03:02 PM [view entry with 4 comments)]
September 09, 2002
Hiccough cure

How do you cure hiccups in Japanese? By answering a simple question: What is tofu made of?


This evening at dinner, it worked better than holding my breath, drinking out of the wrong side of the glass or being frightened. Soy beans have magical powers...

Posted by kuri at 12:33 AM [view entry with 5 comments)]
September 05, 2002
A sleepy commuter

This sleepy commuter was completely crashed out on the Mita line last night. When I snapped his photo, the flash went off but he only stirred a bit then settled back into his snooze. I wonder if he got off at his station?

Posted by kuri at 02:05 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 26, 2002
People on roofs

People do weird things on roofs in Tokyo. Across the tracks, on top of an office building, a man is practicing the trumpet. He comes out to play at lunchtime once or twice a week. He's not too bad, though he's not really playing more than scales and phrases. On a nearby apartment building, Tod tells me, a man practices swordfighting late at night. I've never seen him at it.

Posted by kuri at 01:10 PM [view entry with 1 comments)]
August 17, 2002
Japanese TV is silly

Japanese TV is silly. This afternoon I watched as two young male TV talents met the lovely spokeswoman for the upcoming Pan Pacific Swimming Championship. They challenged her to a high-stakes Jenga game. If she lost, she had to go out on a date with one of the guys. To add to the hilarity, each Jenga block had a truth-or-dare style stunt to perform. "Do a 3 second promo for the Pan-Pashi (Pan Pacific) in a baby voice" "What's your favorite sport for a date?"

Following the game (the spokewoman lost), I changed the channel and watched a food travel show. A portly, but very genki woman enthused about the famous uni (sea urchins) of eastern Hokkaido. I find uni extremely revolting. The yellow-brown color of baby poop, it is a mass of slightly gritty eggs. Blech. But the woman was funny to watch. As she checked into the ryokan where she would stay and have her dinner, she asked several times about the uni. "Do you have it with your dinners here?" She was assured that there would be plenty of uni. When dinner arrived, she had uni in abundance--raw, steamed, over rice. She was so excited that she couldn't even manage "Oishii!" after her first bite. A squeal of delight was her only utterance. It was subtitled, ala the 1960s Batman TV show, naturally.

Posted by kuri at 05:57 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
July 31, 2002
Man studying piano score

Man studying piano score on the Namboku line between Nagatacho and Kasuga.

Posted by kuri at 09:13 AM [view entry with 3 comments)]
July 30, 2002
Urban hiking

This band of elderly urban adventurers has just been to visit the graves of prominent historical figures at Denzuin. After crossing the street with their guide waving his flag to point the way, they are heading to the station to conclude the tour. The guide looks back and waits for stragglers who have moved into "casual chatting" mode after spending too much time in "paying attention to important sights" mode.

Kristen's Guide to Identifying City Sightseeing Tours

  1. All members of the touring party will be wearing hats.
  2. Look for matching hatbands (this group wore light turquoise) or badges with the tour company name.
  3. Attire is always long pants, a long sleeved, button-front shirt and sensible walking shoes.
  4. Most adventurers will carry daypacks and some will sport extra accessories, such as water bottles and cameras.
  5. In challenging weather or hiking conditions, you may see: white cotton gloves, raincoats with hoods (never umbrellas as they restrict the view) or rustic walking sticks.
Posted by kuri at 08:42 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
July 20, 2002

I've been reading Underground by Haruki Murakami. It's a work of non-fiction about the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Attack. Murakami interviewed people who were vicitms and members of the cult that perpetrated the attack and compiled them into a very compelling read.

The attacks occurred well before I came to Japan and I never really learned much about what had happened. Needless to say, my eyes are opened. A dozen people died and five thousand were injured by the poisonous nerve gas released on five trains during rush hour. The subway lines and many of the stations involved are on my daily routes around town.

Riding the subway the past few days and thinking about what happened seven years ago, I've been more aware of how vulnerable we all are to terrorism even here in this relatively safe country. You might think those musings are a little late, considering all the press that terrorism has been getting in the past ten months. Maybe so, but reading about the attacks from the view of individuals has given me new things to think about.

One big point is that it's not entirely wise to rely on agencies and services to save you in a crisis. Not that you can be prepared for every possible situation, but a broad knowledge of how to handle various disaster scenarios is probably good preparation. I realise that I lack a great deal of that knowledge. For example, I don't even know precisely where the nearest hospital is...

Posted by kuri at 12:34 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
June 15, 2002
Bunkyo-ku merchants

Bunkyo-ku merchants have banded together to create a point card system. Pink banners with cartoon figures of bees declare "I (heart) Bunkyoker" let you know which shops give points.

Last night, I filled up my first card. As a reward for spending 35,000 yen at the ward's independent stores, I get 500 yen off an upcoming purchase. It's not much of a prize really, but it's nice to get to know the local shopkeepers.

It took me 20 weeks to fill the card; that means I should see my next one filled in early October.

Posted by kuri at 08:44 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
June 13, 2002
Construction flagmen

What on earth are these construction workers doing? They are taping a battery powered, blinking light stick to the hand of their colleague--the mechanical flagman whose head and helmet are visible in the upper right corner of the frame. I guess his must have burned out; he's not really able to just grab himself a new one.

Mechanical flagmen are pretty common, but they don't seem to take jobs from the human ones. Walking through this construction zone near Roppongi last night, there were six men pointing the way along the already well marked paths around the site.

The flesh-and-blood flagmen bow and ask you to be careful as you walk. They apologise for the inconvenience they're causing. Quite a contrast from the wolf whistles you'd get in the States...

Posted by kuri at 07:56 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
May 18, 2002
Tax office efficiency

Yesterday I went to the tax office; I needed to pick up a copy of a form I'd failed to fill in at tax time.

I pondered for a moment over which office to enter--the none of the complicated kanji combinations on the directory in the lobby exactly matched the one on my letter--and finally decided to choose the office closest to the front door. It was a good choice.

A young man leaped up to help me and handed me the form I needed. As I moved towards the end of the counter to fill it in, he gestured me to the center of the counter, saying there was more room there. Then he proceeded to find me a sheet of carbon paper and clipped it between duplicate forms.

After I'd finished filling in the form, he looked it over, then reached down to a closed file box at his feet and pulled out my tax return. He checked everything over, made copies and told me that my refund would be transferred to my bank account in June or July.

Now that's good service.

Posted by kuri at 06:26 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
April 18, 2002
Octogenarian croquet

Octogenarians if they're a day, these croquet fiends have a little course of three wickets, all numbered with faded flags, and they laugh and cheer one another as they make their shots. Tod passes them in the park every morning on his way to work. Today I snuck a photo to share.

Posted by kuri at 01:03 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
April 17, 2002
Standing reading

Thank goodness for tachiyomi. Literally "standing reading" it what everyone does in bookstores here. It's perfectly acceptable to stand at the shelves and read books and magazines. It's a great way to kill time.

I had some time to kill when Ben called to say he'd be an hour late meeting for lunch. He was having a rough day--cleaning, closing bank accounts, shipping boxes, final packing--as it turned out we didn't have time for lunch. Ben had to catch the Narita Express to the airport becasue he's moving back to California today. Another foreign friend bids a fond sayonara.

It's always hard to say goodbye. Maybe I should take a cue from those long-timers who only befriend foreigners with permanent residency.

Posted by kuri at 03:34 PM [view entry with 0 comments)]
April 04, 2002
Cogaru Club

Cogaru Club! Only 18,000 yen!

What's Cogaru? According to Jeffrey's Japanese-English Dictionary she is an "obsessively trend-conscious teen-age girls who may offer themselves for enjou kousai [ aka "compensated dating"] with older men in order to finance their lifestyle."

This leaflet appeared in my mailbox last night. In addition to listing off the sexual treats in store for the customer, the ad claims that they are a specialist in slim schoolgirls. Home and hotel meetings. Low price, but we have good figures, manners, service, and confidence. Credit cards ok.

I've edited out the phone number. No girl needs a Louis Vitton purse that badly.

Posted by kuri at 07:38 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
March 17, 2002
Library cards

We have library cards.

We took a long walk yesterday and discovered a small library not too far from our house. We stopped in and marvelled at all the books: a huge children's collection, cookbooks and magazines on the first floor; music, novels and non-fiction on the second floor. Mainly in Japanese, of course.

We decided that we'd get library cards. The librarian was a little bit flustered when we wrote our names in English. But with the help of her colleague, she got us sorted out and presented us with cards that allow us to take books from any of Bunkyo's twelve libraries.

Having a library card makes me feel really settled in.

Posted by kuri at 10:02 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
March 16, 2002
Documented work

Outdoor workers are often accompanied by a photographer to document their work. In a case like this, it would be difficult to tell in a few weeks' time if the work had been performed adequately, so photos tell the story and prove the work was done.

The sign notes the date and location as well as cryptic notes. This one says ikegaki karikomi nezumimochi 4/m in chalk. Ikegaki karikomi means "hedge trimming" But as far as I can tell, nezumimochi is not a real word. Nezumi means mouse or rat. Mochi is a sticky rice cake. Perhaps it is a gardener's codeword for a style of cutting.

Posted by kuri at 07:58 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
October 03, 2000

In Tokyo, everyone is registered with the city office.

Now that we've moved, we have to visit the Bunkyo-ku office and let them know our new address. It's fun to watch the clerks pull out the very thick, detailed city maps and note the change for our house. Our "green cards" will also be amended with the new address.

The registration helps the city keep track of people in emergencies, something you definitely want in an earthquake-prone place that's way overdue for the Big One.

Posted by kuri at 06:01 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 27, 2000

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.

Posted by kuri at 06:56 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 26, 2000

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!

Posted by kuri at 06:06 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 25, 2000

"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!

Posted by kuri at 06:09 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 23, 2000
3:00 am

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.

Posted by kuri at 07:39 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 09, 2000
Door-to-door sales

"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.

Posted by kuri at 07:00 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 06, 2000

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.

Posted by kuri at 06:14 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
September 05, 2000
Mama trudges

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.

Posted by kuri at 06:55 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 31, 2000
Gaze Aversion

How to Make People Avert Their Gaze in Tokyo

  • Sit on a park bench, read a book and laugh aloud at the funny parts.
  • Walk carefully balanced along the edge of a fountain.
  • Strike poses while perched on a rock or ledge.
  • In the middle of an open plaza, stretch out your arms and spin.

If you do any of the above, people will pretend you are invisible. Guaranteed.

Posted by kuri at 07:16 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 19, 2000

When I was a little girl, I learned a craft called "paper quilling" that involved curling long thin strips of colored paper around a pin to form spirals then joining them to make patterns and pictures.

The Japanese have one-upped paper quilling. The art of paper knotwork, called mizuhiki, is extraordinary. These paper cords were originally used to decorate gifts for the Emperor; later they became integral to a samurai's hairdo. Today we're back to using decorative mizuhiki on gift envelopes and new year gifts.

The knots, always in two or more colors, range from simple but perfect bows to swooping double butterflies and woven cranes.

Even the least expensive gift envelope has mizuhiki drawn on because the colors and patterns form a code. Red and white cords are for happy occasions; blue and black cords are for sorrowful ones. The sort of knot, the direction of the ends and the combination of colors tell the recipient exactly how much gift money is in the envelope!

Stationery stores stock a wide range of gift envelopes, each mizuhiki outdoing the last for beauty and elegance. When I recently asked a clerk which envelope would be appropriate for a wedding, she pointed to a section that contained about 300! Spoiled for choice, indeed...

Posted by kuri at 07:40 AM [view entry with 1 comments)]
August 07, 2000

Another form in the mailbox.

I never seem to be home when packages arrive, so I often see the mailman's special slip telling me he'll be back. This one was a little different, though. It was from the Kuroneko takuhaibin (courier) service.

Essentially, these forms are the same. They tell what time they tried to deliver and give instruction on how to arrange redelivery. But the courier services, who offer speedy delivery, allow you to phone the courier's cellphone to arrange a convenient time directly.

Printed in very careful handwriting underneath the courier's phone number, was "I don't speak English."

The courier made a follow up call and left a message on my machine. In addition to giving the basic information about my package in Japanese, he added " I dontu speeku Engrish. I'm sorri."

So this morning I must call the terrified courier and persuade him, in Japanese, to deliver my box. I hope I manage to be an acceptable ambassador for my English-speaking clan.

Posted by kuri at 06:19 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 05, 2000
Chibikko, baby hotelier

"Our next guest is only 3 years old," the bubbly woman TV announcer cooed.

[cut to TV crew approaching door of resort hotel]

"Irrashaimase!" two women in komono bow to their guests in greeting.

"Irrashaimase!" a tiny voice joins in, a half a beat too late.

[camera tilts down to see Chibikko-chan, dressed in a bright yellow kimono, bowing to the arriving guests just like her mother and gransmother]

Chibikko is astonishingly well trained. She helps out all over her family's hotel--cheerfully greeting guests, which she says is her favorite task, turning slippers towards the door in the onsen's lobby and pressing the elevator buttons. She knows all the right polite phrases to say, even bowing and saysing "Go-yukuri kudasai" (Please enjoy yourself) as the elevator doors close.

In the dining room, she carefully carries trays of green tea and hot hand towels to diners. Her step is sure and she places the tray on the table exactly the right way, setting it down on the table, then sliding it into position in front of the customer.

For the benefit of the TV audience, she was sent on an errand. She took a nine minute walk alone (except for the camera crew who followed her) to the local farmer's stand. She bought two onions and asked for a receipt. The farmer tried to slip a little gift--a cucumber--into her bag, but she plucked it out and saying "No, thank you." Then she walked home, trailed by the camera crew, to give her grandmother the onions. Reward? A pat on the head. Good girl.

Posted by kuri at 07:31 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 02, 2000
Business cards

Above and beyond the simple task of providing names and addresses, the business card is an invaluable resource in Japan.

For business transactions the card, called a meishi in Japanese, lets you know exactly who you are dealing with. A junior associate, the section leader, the big boss? This is an important clue to your relative worth as a client.

Business cards are used in personal transactions, too. I have dozens of cards from friends and acquaintances. The best cards are those with people's personal e-mail and phone numbers handwritten on them. That is a good clue that the owner of the card welcomes you to contact him or her.

Meishi also help remind me where I've shopped and eaten. The little Italian bistro in Nakameguro, the Greek restaurant in Shibuya. The pigment store near Nezu station.

When I'm researching an article about an area of Tokyo or any aspect of Japan, I end up with a pile of meishi related to my research.

The cards you collect are your network. A good group of cards can help you to find a solution to anything in a hurry. But you'll only find the cards you need if they are neatly organized.

I used to have all my cards in a pile in my desk drawer. But the pile grew into an unwieldy mess. Fortunately, it was easily tidied. The stationery industry has an entire class of business card holders--binders of various sizes & shapes with pockets to slide the cards into. Personally, I prefer a card file to a card binder because it's easier to move things around in a card file. Re-alphabetising my binder is a pain in the patoot! But I do have a binder and I will need another one soon; my collection of cards never stops growing.

Posted by kuri at 07:11 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
August 01, 2000
Commuting in Tokyo

Commuting in Tokyo can be a major part of a person's day.

From door to desk, the commute to Tod's office is about 25 minutes. 6 minutes to the subway + 5 minutes to wait for the train + a 9 minute ride + 4 minutes to the office. We think this is a reasonable commute, but we pay the price in high rent.

Others prefer a lower rent with a longer commute. If we were to live 60 minutes away, we could rent a comparable house for around 60,000 yen ($600) less than what we pay now. Is the shorter commute worth 2,000 yen a day? I think so.

Yesterday I met a woman whose objective isn't time or rent, but living outside Tokyo. She lives in Fujisawa, about 50 kilometers southwest of the city. It's pretty in Fujisawa--lots of trees and greenery. But it is a long, expensive trip in to work--from Fujisawa to Otemachi is no less than 70 minutes on the train. One-way train fare is 1,100 yen.

People generally do not drive themselves to work. Perhaps for a special event--leaving for holiday right after work, or bringing something heavy or bulky into the office--but commuters take trains here. If you're riding in a car to work, you are probably being chauffered. There are plenty of big black sedans toting around the chairmen and presidents of large corporations.

Posted by kuri at 07:17 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]
July 24, 2000
Trash day

Trash day and I'm up early to walk it down the block to the pickup point. All the neighbors put their trash in the same place (a big pile near a stone wall by the grocery store) and the little garbage truck comes to collect it. The trucks are cute--they are bright blue with the boxy, curved shape of a garbage truck but the size of a large pickup. Tokyo streets are very narrow; an American garbage truck would rip the walls off houses here.

We separate our gomi (garbage) into categories which are picked up on different days. Here in Sendagi, burnable trash is Monday and Thursday mornings. Non-burnables are Wednesday. Saturday is recyclables--glass, cans & newspaper. PET bottles and plastic shopping bags have drop-offs at convenience stores. If you have daigomi (big garbage) you have to call to make special arrangements.

There's not much of a resale economy here, though that is changing somewhat now that the economy has had a run of slow years. Back in the "Bubble Years" of the late 80's and early 90s, people had tons of disposable income and their slightly used or out-of-date material goods became disposable, too. Non-burnable trash days sparked urban legends (some true, no doubt). Stereo equipment, furniture, small electronics, kitchen appliances all in good working order, but no longer the fasionable color or model, would end up on the trash pile--a garbage picker's paradise. When we first arrived, I rescued some childrens books, but that's the best coup I've made on trash day.

Posted by kuri at 06:56 AM [view entry with 0 comments)]