Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Masked Men (and Women)

Yokohama - Masks are practically de rigueur for any serious outing in Japan. I think they probably really cut down on health problems. The only problem for me is that when my eyes meet the eyes of a passing masked stranger, as they often do, I wonder: "Do I know you? Are you my neighbor?" Then the question is: Do I bow and greet them or just pretend we never saw each other (which is actually an art form here that I have yet to master but am working on). If I don't know them, and then bow to greet them, I risk becoming the weird foreigner who always bows and says hello to everyone. If I don't bow and greet them, and they turn out to be my neighbor, I'll be forever labeled "that rude foreigner" or worse. Either way I'm doomed.... unless I too join the masked masses hiding behind the veil of anonymity.

This would be "perfect" for me!

When I first saw this mask advertised on TV, for some reason or other, I immediately thought it must be used to ward off the Avian Flu. I'm sure it must really work, if I were a flu bug I think I would definitely be scared off by this mask.

The CDC recommends that you use your sleeve to cover your cough when you don't have a tissue. My son has a technique of his own. I'm thinking about sending it to the CDC to see how it measures up against using your sleeve. Here is a photo of me using my son's cough covering technique (he uses it for sneezing t too).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Present

from Temple Valley

Where it just wouldn’t be Christmas without chicken (most often fried) for dinner and the traditional Christmas cake("glorified strawberry shortcake")...

and of course the man with a cap and suit of red...

Sanders Claus!

Which I guess explains the tradition of chicken for dinner. The Colonel's resemblance to Santa also makes things a bit confusing. 

Now Santa Claus, not the Sanders Claus, does visit on Christmas and typically leaves one present for children. That is, up until they stop believing in him or until they reach puberty, whichever comes first. In either case, comes Christmas morn it’s still up and off to school (and work) because for most people here it’s just a regular day. Even though its practically business as usual, it's still...

A Magical Season                                                                   
I think we live in a magical place and this is why: things disappear during the night. The first time I noticed it was about a year ago. I had just made myself a cup of fresh brewed coffee that I was about to sip down with some delicious vanilla cream sandwich cookies that I had bought the previous night and had been looking forward to enjoying all day long. I opened up the cupboard where I had carefully stored them away, when to my shock and dismay I discovered nothing but a sad vacuous space where my cookies once lied. At first I thought I was mistaken about buying the cookies but then it happened again, and again, and again. One night, a quart of milk and a package of cookies, gone. The next night, a bowl of tangerines, vanished. Some nights it would seem like just a minor foray into the kitchen cupboard to knock off a package or two of instant ramen noodles, others nights would be an all out blitzkrieg. The wreckage that washed up on the shores of the kitchen sink the next day told a tale of carnage beyond all imagination. Dotting the surface of the water might lay an empty yogurt container, the sinking vessels that once held the leftovers from last night’s dinner, and floating crumbs of a completely devoured loaf of bread. With virtually nothing left to fill the breakfast table, these were truly the morning’s that tried men’s souls. After discussing the mysterious events that occurred in the dark with all the likely suspects (my two sons, 18 and 10 years-old), there was only one reasonable conclusion I could come up with to explain the Bermuda triangle that had become our kitchen: the house was inhabited by fairies. I’m not the only one who believes in fairies here. My ten year old son Jiro relies on them. He recently lost another one of his baby teeth and without giving it a second thought stored it under his pillow before going to sleep (he’s super afraid of crows, bees, and other flying creatures but winged pixies messing around underneath his pillow during the night, no problemo). Tonight, as we were walking home from the train station together, he automatically put his hand in mine as he often still does and proceeded to ask me “Why does Santa wear that red suit if nobody sees him, why doesn’t he just wear regular clothes?” Then he quick realized he was holding my hand and jerked it away, before looking around to see if anyone noticed. He’s been asking a lot about the existence of Santa, more than ever this year. I’m sure his belief in the man in the red suit along with the tooth fairy will disappear one of these nights too. Still, no matter what, I believe it will always be a season of mystery and wonder. In fact I was cleaning up the house today in preparation for Christmas when my eldest son, Ichiro, emerged from his room bearing a pile of empty potato chip bags, milk cartons, wrappers of all varieties and a stack of dishes I had given up for broken or just plain missing-forever months ago (which kind of burst my fairy theory). He was spontaneously cleaning up his room! It was truly a mysterious wonder to behold. God bless them and God bless us everyone.  May your stockings be filled with wonder and your Christmas be full of hope.                                                                                                                   

Here's Wishing for Peace on Earth and Romance in Japan!

Colin Joyce from the Telegraph writes that in Japan Christmas "has been reinvented as the most romantic time of the year. To find out the "true" meaning of Christmas in Japan try reading: "Why Japanese Girls Want Christmas Romance."

* I haven't been in every Japanese household but I think it's safe to say that this one on the Encyclopedia Britannica site is pretty atypical.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking for Love This Holiday Season?

You can find it all around the world......

The folks behind the Love Project say you can "join in by lending your own voice to Watch streaming video from countries around the world and then join in by singing All You Need is Love yourself. For each video submitted, Starbucks will make a contribution to the Global Fund to help fight against AIDS in Africa. You can also help increase the Starbucks contribution to the Global Fund by submitting a drawing to the Love Gallery."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sanders Claus is Coming!

Outside the KFC store in Tsurumi, Yokohama.

That's Colonel Sanders Claus to you!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Yes We Can!

Tokyo - Japan offers an endless smorgasbord of the most bizarre food stuffs ever assembled in one country. Take this vending machine food fare option I spied while waiting for a train on the platform of Tokyo's Akihabara (aka "Electric Town) station: Canned bread!!! I couldn't believe my eyes. I laughed out loud for all to hear and even took a picture to share this epicurean oddity with all my friends.

Then I remembered.....

I think it may have been the only bread my mother ever made (no, that's not true, she made an out of this world delicious Irish Soda bread with just the right crumbly texture, but that was when she used to have flour). It was the perfect accompaniment to Boston style baked beans.
In his thoroughly fascinating tome, Why Does Popcorn Pop? And 201 Other Fascinating Facts About Food, best-selling author Don Vorhees explains that: "Baked beans and Boston have been together since the days of the Puritans. Work, including cooking, was forbidden on the Puritan Sabbath, which lasted from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday. Beans would be prepared on Saturday in a large pot and kept warm to feed the family over the Sabbath. Many local bakers would call on households on Saturday morning and pick up the family bean pot for baking. It would be returned by Saturday night, usually with some brown bread. The beans and bread were eaten with fish cakes for Sunday breakfast and lunch. This led to a huge baked bean business in Boston that still thrives today." I have it on some authority that Monday morning was traditionally known as the "Unholy Fart* Fest," but that's another story for a different audience.

Less urbane readers please disregard the following footnote.

*Read: "Flatulence" (forgive me dear loyal readership for the vulgarity).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Give Me a Break!

My most recent find in the Orient, discovered while trekking through the local marketplace, known to the denizens of this region as "7-11."

Ginger Ale Flavored Kit Kat Bar (only in Japan)

Tasting Notes
Appearance: Lemon yellow; Nose: Fruity bouquet; Palate: Smarties and cream sandwich cookies; Finish: Orthodontic grade tooth paste
While America and England (the birthplace of the Kit Kat) offer a paltry 4 or 5 varieties of the Kit Kat bar, Nestle's Japan boasts a range of Kit Kats that encompasses the entire international dietary spectrum. I vow to try them all! Wish me well dear readers as I embark on an epicurean journey that is bound to take me into the very bowels of the Japanese confectionery industry as I cruise the back aisles of the basement level supermarket of a well renowned Yokohama department store not too far from where I live.

To find out more about Kit Kat bars in Japan try:
18 Kit-Kat Flavors You've (Probably) Never Tried (from Food Network Humor)
Japan Snaps Up "Lucky" Kit Kats (on the BBC)

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Christmas has always been a time for reminiscing. Back in the 19th century, thoughts of home and Christmas for German immigrants living on America's open prairie were filled with visions of fine glass-blown ornaments hanging from the branches of the tree that had become the centerpiece of the holiday.

Lacking the means and opportunity to buy such an extravagance, these ingenious settlers used what was available to recreate the magic of Christmas' past in their new homeland.

That tradition lives on to this day on the Kanto plain of Japan.

Each year I blow the filling out of as many eggs as I can find and handcraft them into eggsquisite Christmas tree ornaments. I often give them as presents and everyone is very impressed.

Of course, I'm not expert at it yet and there are lots of mistakes along the way. I once brought a few egg ornaments as gifts, along with some holiday eggnog, to a year-end party (bonenkai). Everyone was blown away by the workmanship and demanded to know how it was done, so I explained the process. Needless to say, the secret behind the egg decorating process detracted from some of the allure that the eggnog originally held and I suppose most of it was fed to the plumbing before the night was over. Today I have improved on the process and own the device pictured here that allows me to pump out eggs all day long without a single one ever touching my lips, reducing the chances of my bodily fluids mixing with the eggs to practically zero. We've come a long way since the 19th century.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Oh No! Not Again.

Tokyo - Okay, as far as I know there are only two of these in the world. One in New York and another in Paris. I spotted this one in Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront recreational area. What's going on and is that the Verrazano-Narrows bridge I see in the background?

See related post: Monumental Theft

Get a Grip on Holiday Cooking

I don't know if the Aunt Bessie's Mash Van that serves up this delicious year-round treat of mashed potatoes and gravy topped off with a banger and sprinkled with green peas is still rolling around the byways of Britain but if it crossed the Atlantic it would no doubt, at least figuratively speaking, stop the hearts of meat and potato lovers everywhere. It's a virtual cornucopia to go. Think of it, no more hassles of preparing a huge holiday dinner. Replace the banger with a turkey sausage, put it all in a cone and off to the mall you go. Who knows maybe some day Aunt Bessie will open up shop in a food court near you or if luck would have it bring her ice cream truck-styled Mash Van right to your very own neighborhood. Doesn't the thought of that just make you want to shout, "STOP!!!"

This article originally appeared in "Direct from the Underground" a now defunct website devoted to everything tubers.

Monumental Theft

Missing Something?

Kawasaki, Japan - I can't believe I found this, and half away across the world to boot. Hello New York. Does anyone even know that it's missing. Obviously they've tried to hide it with a coat of white paint but they didn't get anything past this savvy native New Yorker (well, savvy native greater New York metropolitan area-er to be more accurate).

Highly Collectible

Warning! If you have any of the symptoms illustrated below, you could have collectible fever.

Practically every train station in Japan has at least one kiosk that sells boxed lunches (ekiben) for passengers on excursions both long and short. This is a kiosk operated by the Kiyoken Co., Ltd. of Yokohama. Kiyoken's roots lie in Yokohama's famous Chinatown and for that reason their boxed lunches feature an assortment of Chinese fare, including dim sum.

This one's my favorite. Instead of the balanced meal in a box that is typical of Japanese bento lunch boxes. This one is loaded with pork filled dumplings (or shumai).

What I like most about the box of shumai is that they come with one of these. It's a single-serving porcelain soy sauce container. It's shape is supposed to resemble a gourd (or hyotan) that would traditionally be used to hold liquids of various kinds. They are very collectible.

I have lots of them.

I have no idea what to do with them.

I thought about making earrings out of them.......

but I don't have a matching pair.

Then I thought about making a game with them......

but the design on each piece is sort of unique and if I lost one who knows how many boxed lunches I would have to buy before I found an acceptable replacement piece.

And then I was seized by the spirit of the season...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Real Sweet Shop

I sometimes read blogs by other foreigners living in Japan who speak fluent Japanese. They often complain that when they are out in public, even if they speak Japanese, Japanese people usually respond in English. I hope nobody listens to their complaints because I rely on Japanese people speaking English.
Shortly after I first arrived in Japan, I got lost walking around the city of Kawasaki, about a five-minute train ride away from my home. I met a number of old ladies on my journey and in my limited Japanese asked them all for directions to the train station, but the response was the same every time I asked, “I don’t speak English.” Finally I happened upon a farmer working in his field (I didn’t even know they had farms in the city of Kawasaki and in retrospect I may have strayed farther than I thought). I asked him for directions in halting Japanese and he replied in perfect English! In less than five hours I was home again. Today I speak Japanese a little better and know my way around a little better too. I still get lost though, both in conversations and walking around the streets, as well as frustrated with my lack of progress. When I get really down in the dumps about it I go to a little manju shop close to Temple Valley. It’s not just the sugar in the manju that lifts my spirits there's something else about this place that offers sweet sustenance for both body and soul (or the ego at least). My last visit went like this (maybe you can get the picture):

Me: This one.
Manju man: One box of manju cakes? Coming right up.

Manju man: If you put them in the refrigerator they will stay fresh for up to three days.
Me: Oh.

Manju man: They go well with both hot and iced tea alike.
: Oh!

Manju man: You speak Japanese very well. You rarely encounter a foreigner who speaks so fluently. I've put a little something extra in the bag for you.
Me: Thanks.

Shinsen Gummies

Each bag of Shinsen Gummies comes with a miniature sword.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Holiday Theft

Halloween in Japan isn’t huge but it’s getting there. Last Halloween about 3000 adults turned out for a costume parade through downtown Kawasaki City. It's sort of sad, almost as if Halloween has been stolen. If everybody has Halloween it just makes Halloween in America a little less special and to me that’s a crime.

At our house we usually carve a jack o’lantern or two (and even more sometimes) and set it out in front of the door to our home in Yokohama. Passersby usually stop to look and some even take a picture. This year no body paid them any mind, I’m afraid they’re becoming commonplace.

I feel somewhat guilty for this "crime." We used to have big Halloween parties for the kids in our neighborhood. We first held them at home. They eventually got too big for our humble abode and so we moved the party to the grounds of the local shrine (which is kind of akin to having a Purim party in the basement of a Catholic Church). They were great parties with traditional and not-so-traditional Halloween party games, costumes, lots of treats and more that ended with groups of four or five kids carving their own pumpkins. When my youngest son, Jonah, hit eight we stopped having the parties. But the parties didn’t stop. The kids who came to our party began having parties of their own and now there are thousands of Frankenstiens and other monsters parading the streets of Japan every Halloween with no end in sight. It’s gotten so that Halloween has become as Japanese as apple pie with sushi on top. Now that’s scary.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Now Crass Lepeat After Me

The other day my 10-year-old son had an English (as a foreign language) class at his Yokohama City public elementary school and came home with an accent. It was weird.

About the photo: High school class in Kanagawa, Japan, ca. 1963 by Takato Marui via Wikipedia

FYI: Japanese students consistently score high marks on international tests for mathematics, etc. Click here to learn more about education in Japan.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I was going to ride my bike the other day when I noticed the back tire was flat. I tried to blow it up with a pump but it was still as flat as a pancake so I removed the tube and checked for leaks. I found a hole as big as a dime. There was just no way to fix it. I was really bummed out over the loss of an otherwise perfectly good tube until, flash, I remembered my sister's birthday was coming up. I now had the perfect gift for her right in my hands. Well almost, I still had to make a few modifications until I came up with the:


You too can make your own Tubelt.

Here's what you need: one old punctured tire tube and a belt buckle (I got mine at a fabric store for about a dollar)

Here's what you do: Scrub the tube up so it looks as good as new, snip off the valve and thread the ends of the tube through the two belt buckle pieces. Then put it all inside the box that contained the new replacement tube you just put on your bicycle and voila! You've made a totally environmentally friendly fashion statement that adds a whole new meaning to the word ReCycle.

The Tubelt

Expanding and contracting
to suit your lifestyle.

Tube or not to tube.
Tube is the answer.

“It’s like totally tubular man.”

Happy Birthday Maryann!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Aging Well

Forget the Fountain of Youth, I'm drinking from the Aging Well.

This comes from my nephew, E.S. (that stands for Extra Special), on the occasion of my birthday:

"...when cheese ages it either gets moldy or more delicious- now this could be taken many ways but let's just say you have the wisdom of sharp cheddar. In another light one might say that age is like wine: you become more refined and sophisticated. I would say you are on par with a wine and cheese party, which is a very good thing."