Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Classic TV Dinner

The local television station is rebroadcasting the classic 70's private eye drama, Kizudarake no Tenshi (Battered Angel). Go ahead and make your own video remake of this opening scene and be sure to post a link to it in the comments section below.

Here's what you'll need:

1.  One ripe tomato
2.  A shaker of salt
3.  A large fish sausage
4.  One package of crackers
5.  Can of corned beef
6.  Small glass bottle of milk
7.  Newspaper
8.  Light-blocking Goggles
9.  Quiet headphones
10. Leather jacket (optional)

Or better yet. Procure all the items on the list, plop yourself down in front of the tube, set the dial to TVK (that's channel 3 for Kanagawa) and put on the feedbag.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Art of Saving the Planet

This poster from Japan's Ministry of the Environment illustrates a myriad of uses for the traditional Japanese furoshiki. Sort of a refined version of the bandanna, the furoshiki is an earth friendly wrapper that can be reused over and over again to cover everything from soup to nuts (well maybe not soup but just about everything else in between) whether it be a gift or something for your own personal use or consumption.

Tokyo Station under wraps
A couple of years ago my son, Jiro,  came up with perhaps a new use for this wonder cloth. Dubbed  "The Furoshiki Project," his idea was to narrow down all your earthly possessions to a precious few essentials that could all fit squarely within the confines of this knotted linen. I thought it was a great idea and since then I've been on the hunt for a piece of cloth big enough to hold all that I need. Today I think I found just what I've been looking for (pictured above right).

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Long Road Back to School

After bidding fond farewell to the last day of summer vacation and crying themselves to sleep last night, public school kids in Temple Valley were back on the road to school bright and early this morning. The photo above, taken in April of 2005 (it's still way too hot and muggy to be wearing jackets here at this time of year), comes from our files. A fifth grader gives a struggling first grader a hand with his back pack on the first day of school. Luckily she just has to carry her sub-bag and is free to help him bear the new burden. 

At the beginning and end of the week grade school kids in Japan are 
Heiwa elementary school 平和小学校 _16
Photo of school bags
 by ajari via Fickr
usually weighted down with a surprising amount of gear that typically includes a sturdy leather backpack known as a randoseru, a sub-bag like the one seen here for who knows what (maybe oversize items that don't fit within the skimpy parameters of the randoseru), a bag containing their "indoor sneakers" (uwabaki) that they change into at the school building's foyer before setting foot in the hallways, an umbrella if it looks like there's a chance of rain and maybe a big heavy thermos containing a cool drink to wet their parched lips if it's especially hot and the school administration is liberal enough to allow such a luxury as cold water.*

*My sons' elementary school allows the students to bring tea or water. Actually every public school I've been in (and  I've been in more than a few) has plenty of cold water. They don't have any hot water (or warm water either) but they do have cold water, especially in winter when they have really really cold water.

Related news: Read about what could very well be this year's "it bag" in Japan (hint: it's a lot like the one pictured above) here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Going to Extremes

This whole Japan experience is really wasted on me. I just don't have a good appreciation for the traditional Japanese arts and culture that have captivated the imaginations of people around the globe for centuries. On top of that I find all the cutting edge gadgetry as puzzling as that other twin mystery of this oriental land, anime and manga. Then there is fashion. While the unique sartorial styles wrapping the denizens of metropolitan Tokyo and beyond haven't totally  escaped my attention, I really just don't have a good grasp of the whole fashion scene.

The other day my 16-year-old niece, Flower Bud, asked me if I wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea with her. I couldn't refuse her kindness.

After tipping her cup to drink the last drop she suddenly rose and to my utter shock and embarrassment she was wearing nothing below her waist but a pair of pink underpants. Unable to bear the sight, I quickly covered my eyes with the palm of my hand.

"What are you doing?" she queried.

"You're standing there in your skivvies. I can't look," I uttered in total disbelief of what I had just witnessed. 

"They aren't underpants!!! They're pants!!!!" she protested vehemently before storming out of the room.

Then I suddenly experienced something like deja vu. I had the distinct feeling I had seen those pants before. Where could it have been I wondered. Then it hit me.

"Those are the same pants Uncle Pinky wears," I cried out.

I had seen them covering the bottom of Uncle Pinky, a local middle-aged male resident widely known for his shocking pink attire (click on Uncle Pinky and you'll get the picture).

In a flash Flower Bud had returned after undergoing what can only be described as a complete wardrobe metamorphosis. I still don't get the whole couture picture but when it comes to Japanese threads I guess that's the long and short of it.

Related post: Say "Cheezu!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Say "Cheezu!"

Costumed manga fan poses for the cameras
 at this summer's Comiket convention in Tokyo

(For more cosplay from Comiket 2011 try this
 Google images search result.)

Related post: Unlocking Imagination

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Sticky Situation

Temple Valley, Yokohama, July 22 - That sound. There it is again. Pitter patter pitter patter. Now it's gone. Lifting my head to get a look at the clock, I see it's only a quarter after six and the sweat soaked pillow case clinging to the back of my neck drags me back to slumber again. Pitter patter pitter patter, the sound returns only this time with intermittent giggling. Then I remember. This is the sound of summer. The sound of little footsteps racing across the pavement that snakes around my home and up to the Bear Shrine just beyond.

I'll never get used to this, just the idea of it goes against practically every moral principal ingrained in me during my formative educational years. As a rule, summer vacation is for sleeping in and relaxing, with some notable exceptions like rising early to hit the beach before anyone else or to go fishing. It's been barely 18 hours since the school chimes rang to herald the dawn of summer vacation and kids across Temple Valley are up and jumping. That's jumping as in jumping jacks. 

The scene is a familiar one, played out in neighborhood shrines and parks across the archipelago. Known as rajiotaiso (radio exercise), kids and adults gather together to move their bodies in sync with the classic radio exercise program of the same name broadcast daily at 6:30 am. 

I can't really blame these kids though. The whole idea for rajiotaiso started in America. The brainchild of the Met Life Insurance Company, the program aired for a couple of years back in the early part of the twentieth century but never really took off until it caught the antennas of a couple of visitors from the Land of the Rising Sun. The pair, from a Japanese life insurance agency, were in the US on a fact-finding mission. Charged with bringing back ideas for raising Japan's life-expectancy rate, which was dismally low at the time, their discovery of this health-boosting radio exercise program was shear serendipity. The whole thing was music to their ears and now rajiotaiso is as Japanese as azuki bean pie.

It's really not all that bad and of course there are rewards that come with exercise. Kids are usually given a rajotaiso attendance card on the last day of school, often to be worn around their necks, that they bring with them to their local neighborhood morning exercise session. As a grade schooler, my oldest son, Ichiro, used to regularly don his attendance card necklace every summer to jump up and down at the crack of dawn with the other denizens of Temple Valley. He would dutifully get his card stamped every day he attended and after the two week "ordeal" was over he was rewarded with a five hundred yen (about five bucks) bookstore gift certificate! Not too bad for two weeks work. The kids in Temple Valley have actually gone soft over the years. When Ichiro's mother was a school kid here, rajiotaiso lasted all summer long.

There was one year the adults in charge of the Bear Shrine morning exercise romp decided to mix things up a bit. One of the folks overseeing operations suggested it might be fun for the kids to get an assorted pack of goodies instead of the usual boring old gift certificate. Another adult in the group, who had just become a member of the newly opened Cosco food and more wholesaler, knew the perfect place to purchase the items all at a rock-bottom price.  

That was the year my niece, Flower Bud, ate an entire pack of Elmer's glue sticks. It was an easy enough mistake for the fourth grader to make. A lot of the items sold at Cosco were from the US and hence unfamiliar. The white Elmer's glue sticks, bearing the Elsie the cow logo had all the earmarks of a dairy product. Maybe it didn't taste like any cheese she had ever eaten but it didn't have any noticeable adverse effects on her either. After all school kids in the U.S. have been eating Elmer's glue for decades. Now this great American culinary tradition has joined the ranks of that other famous cultural import, rajiotaiso. Only time will tell if it too will stick.

Here is the televised version of rajiotaiso aired daily by Japan's public broadcaster, NHK.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Fair No Way

"Simon and Garfunkel fans — and lovers of puns — take heart," writes Amy Zimmer in an August 4th article appearing in the New York-based online news magazine,  DNAinfo. So what do we have to take heart about? As  Zimmer explains, "there is a new bread in town called Scarborough Fairway"  and "it is, of course, made with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme." The wreath-shaped staff of life comes from one of New York's newest nosheries, the Fairway Cafe to Go, located in the Upper East Side's Fairway Market. In wrapping up her article Zimmer muses, "Who knows? Maybe Art Garfunkel will stroll in and sample it at the café. He lives nearby..."

It's a nice thought and if you're thinking it's possible, think again. Just like a reunion of this dynamic duo, it is sooo not happening. Just four days after DNAinfo was whetting New Yorkers' appetites a report from the Toronto Sun noted that the Fairway bakers got burned for copyright violation and  "have been forced to pull their signature bread." Who knew a little parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme could cause such a heated controversy?

BTW Talking about Copyrights and Wrongs

This weekend Tokyo will once again be the site of one of the world's largest gatherings of folks openly flouting current copyright law.  Read more about it in a post on one of last year's conventions entitled: Unlocking Imagination.

See New York Magazine's No Longer a True Loaf of Mine for a few more choice crumbs on Scarborough Fairway.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hot Spots

If the sweltering heat of the Tokyo streets wasn't enough of a reminder, the outfit donned by the Peeing Boy at Japan Railway's Hamamatsucho Station should make it clear that swimming season is here. As a kid I used to spend a good portion of my summer vacation submersed in saltwater. When the beach was crowded the watchwords were "watch out for the hot spots." These were the warm zones which were most likely recently visited by real live versions of the Peeing Boy. Covered by water from at least the waist down, gangs of kids on the go could  secretly hose down large swaths of the sea with total impunity.

While recovery efforts are still underway to restore Japan's tsunami-ravaged northeastern  Pacific shore line, there have been reports that beach traffic is also down along the less battered coast just north of Tokyo. Fear of radiation contamination from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors is keeping swimmers out of the water and away from local beach resorts. It seems as if "hot spot" is once again the phrase of the day. Much of the fear stems from TEPCO's dumping of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima atomic power plant into the sea. The strategy, used to gain control of the runaway nuclear crisis, was much derided by critics who felt TEPCO was contaminating a large swath of the sea with total impunity.  

Related post: Flower Power

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twist Of Fate

A-Bomb Dome Interior from Google Street View
Saturday marked the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Tora-kun,one of Temple Valley's most beloved residents, attended this year's memorial ceremony held at Hiroshima's Peace Park just as he has every year for about half a decade now. That’s more times than the US government has sent any official representative to the event. In fact last year was the first time the U.S. sent a delegation to the ceremony. Just like the rest of the dignitaries in the audience they sat up front in a reserved section where underneath their chairs were bottles of chilled mineral water to help them survive the sweltering heat of a typical August morning in Hiroshima.

After the final speech was delivered, signaling the end of last year's ceremony, Tora-kun hung around the park for a few moments of quiet time. Suddenly he spied out of the corner of his eye something that seemed out of place. It was an unopened bottle of mineral water wasting away beneath the seat that minutes before cradled the bottoms of the U.S. ambassador. Tora-kun made a bee line for the ambassador's former perch and upon arrival stuffed the sealed, slightly chilled bottle in his satchel.

The next time I saw Tora-kun he gifted me with this treasured discovery. He explained how it struck him as somewhat ironic that he should find that particular bottle of cool mountain mist left lingering in that most conspicuous of places. After all, he noted, everyone had just spent the better part of the morning remembering the countless victims who, on the day that death mushroomed in the skies over Hiroshima more than half a century ago, were begging for just a sip of water to cool lips that would be parched for an eternity.

Touched that he would remember me in that way and was thoughtful enough to bring back a souvenir, I placed the bottle in a niche of honor inside my humble abode. There the bottle remained untouched until, in perhaps another twist of irony, Wednesday, March 23. Thanks to the leaking nuclear reactors in Fukushima, on that day the radiation level in the Tokyo water supply spiked so high that the government advised pregnant women and children under one year of age to refrain form drinking anything from the tap. Although my youngest is a lot older than one, when he was looking for something to quench his thirst that day, I pulled out that bottle of mineral water, twisted off the cap and poured out the contents into a glass for him to drink in. Since then we've run out of mineral water but our fears of radiation poisoning have been steadily replenished by a growing list of radiation-tainted foods from an ever-expanding geographical zone that encompasses areas of northeastern and central Japan.

This year Tora-kun called me from Hiroshima to tell me the mayor was delivering a televised speech in English for all the world to hear. In that message delivered against the backdrop of the shelled out A-bomb Dome, I spied a well spring of hope. Calling on everyone “to do everything in our power to abolish nuclear weapons and build lasting world peace,” the mayor also urged the Japanese government to “quickly review our energy policies, and institute concrete countermeasures.” Living in a world where nuclear clouds loom large over the horizon, maybe this is as close to finding a silver lining as we'll ever come. The hope that the lessons of the past will illuminate our future is all we really have now.


I don't know how Tora-kun does it. The guy has got a lot of time but not much of an income. Actually he has made a science of traveling on the cheap. Eschewing the more expensive express trains or planes that would get him there in virtually a blink of an eye, he uses only local lines. After 14 hours and who knows how many transfers he winds up in Hiroshima, located halfway across the country from Temple Valley in Yokohama, all for a grand total of less than two thousand yen (a little more than twenty dollars)in train tickets. If you have more time than money to spare, it's definitely the way to go.

Related: 2011 Hiroshima Peace Declaration

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Footloose in Tokyo

Where Old is New

A bar was added to this public
bath house which now does 
double duty as a concert venue.
Kichijoji, Tokyo - Here old and new worlds have collided in a big bang that is taking downscale to new heights.  A tony leather bag shop coexists in synergistic harmony next to an open-air fish monger hawking marine gizzards and other pedestrian seafood favorites. A local artist has found a niche above a sewing supplies shop to call a gallery. The entire market is a living, breathing place where art and life blend seamlessly together. It's urban renewal gone organic and it's all good.

Kickin' It Kichijoji Style

Shoeless Shopping

Oh to feel the air molecules freely flowing through your toes as you peruse a plethora of products for purchase. This is what they must mean when they speak of the virtues of the free market.

It's customary in Japan for guests to remove their shoes at the foyer (genkan) before walking into the host's home. The same goes for schools, doctors' and dentists' offices, as well as some workplaces, where according to protocol, upon entering the building you slip out of those shoes you've been schlepping all around town in and into some more comfy slippers (either your own or those provided at the door). The shoes are either neatly aligned facing outwards toward the portico or stowed away in a little cubbyhole (getabako) designed exclusively for this purpose.

This is the first time we've seen the practice extended to a shopping emporium and never have we seen the shoes lined up outside the door. It was quite a remarkable sight for those of us who hail from a country where people have killed one another over a pair of Nikes. They were all here, free for the taking if one were so inclined. We still wonder about it. Could the store have been so crowded that there just wasn't a cubby left for patrons to park their soles?

We'll never know. We were in too much of a hurry to get to this recital to unearth the mystery behind all that footwear. On our way home from the recital we kind of forgot all about the shoeless store. That's mostly because we were instinctively drawn like bees to honey by this long line that snaked around the corner. We just had to buy whatever they were selling on the other end.

We "discovered" later that they were 
selling meat and potato croquettes.

That is until we spied three Japanese cowboys decked out in authentic western ware, from the top of their ten gallon Stetsons to the tips of their Tony Lamas, hightailing it through the market. These three caballeros had to be off to somewhere interesting (maybe a Japanese rodeo) so we followed their trail until they gave us the slip at the bus depot. Having lost track of our prey we headed back into town with our tails between our legs.

We had to bring back something to show for our day's outing so we settled for artisanal Japaneses pickles...

The dudes with the bleached-blond hair had
 tattoos so I was afraid to take their picture.

sold by some of the hippest looking traditional pickle makers (a couple with bleached-blond hairdos) on the planet. It was the perfect souvenir of Kichijoji, a combination of sweet and sour, old and new all wrapped up into one.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Expecting the Unexpected

I've learned to expect the unexpected guest(s) when I arrive home. Let's see. Today there are sixteen shoes. Divided by two that means eight. Eight boys in the house. Definitely time to expect the unexpected.