Friday, September 30, 2011

Voice of the People

Maybe you already know what democracy looks like. Here is a little bite of what it sounds like from Occupy Wall Street, the growing protest rooted in New York City that is taking aim at reining in corporate greed with an eye to bringing equality and much more to all.

The voice of a people united: 

This is a meeting of the NYC General Assembly held on Wednesday night at lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park(aka Liberty Plaza). If you were wondering why everyone is repeating every word out of the speaker's mouth, it's to skirt a NYC noise ordinance that prohibits the use of amplification systems. While many believe the ordinance is being used to stifle dissent, it seems to have had an unintended consequence with resounding democratic overtones that makes this meeting even more participatory. Available wherever people gather, the no-batteries-required "people's mic" is guaranteed to spread the word even to the nosebleed section and from the looks of the violent police reaction to these peaceful protests it looks like everyone is in the nosebleed section.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the One Hand

Here we have Kentaro Kobayashi, fifty percent of the comic duo known as the Rahmens (seen in the video accompanying the previous post), giving us an electrifying performance in his one-man hand mime act.

Hand Mime

On the other hand we have the unplugged version of the same.

Hand Mime Unplugged

Hand movement related post: In Training

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Have a Ball

Enjoy this offering from the comedy duo, The Rahmens, as they pair their delicious brand of comedy with traditional Japanese cuisine.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cutting It

Hosogiri vs. Sengiri  (I call these cuts Skinny and Fatty 
after the classic Japanese movie of the same name)

My poor sengiri chops
This is sengiri, literally "a thousand cuts," but I haven't come anywhere near to perfecting the knife skills needed to slice these vegetables (gobo, or burdock root, and carrot) to perfection. Strikingly similar to the julienne, sengiri is one of the basic cuts used in traditional Japanese cooking. Today I'm making kinpira gobo, a simple side dish that involves cutting gobo and carrot into thin strips and then sauteing them briefly in a little sesame seed oil before simmering the combo in a broth consisting of soy sauce, sugar, and sake (the Three Musketeers of the standard Japanese culinary set up followed by the sweet cooking rice wine, mirin, playing the role of  d'Artagnan) before topping the whole thing off with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and chili pepper flakes. I'm making as part of tonight's supper but I'll save a little to go in my son Jiro's bento box (that's the traditional Japanese lunch box)tomorrow morning.

Bento Italiano
I'm not so confident about my Japanese culinary skills so the other day I decided to go Italian with Jiro's lunch menu. My plan was to stuff his Monday lunch box with rotini (those noodles that look kind of like screws) doused with my legendary killer tomato sauce, along with a couple of meatballs and a sauteed vegetable medley. I spent a good portion of Sunday making the sauce and 
Pizza topped with cheese and fall
veggies (sliced pumpkin, eggplant, etc.)
meatballs. Since I wanted to avoid serving the same kind of meal two days in a row, I decided to embark on another nearly half-day project of making pizza dough which I could top off with some sauce, cheese and sliced meatballs for Sunday night's meal. Everything was moving along like clockwork. The pizza went off without a hitch and was voraciously consumed with absolute delight by absolutely everyone. 

Came Monday morning, I was up at near-dawn boiling the rotini, sauteing the veggies and laying on the holy grail of gravies. The sauce was sheer perfection. I don't care what anybody says, the whole thing was a meal to die for.

I wrapped up Jiro's bento box with a kerchief (aka furoshiki) along with much fanfare and sent him on his way to school, imagining the look of serendipity that would flash across his face the minute he pried open the container holding this miniature Feast of San Gennaro.

That evening I anxiously awaited his return, as I usually do, only this time there was a twist to my anticipation of his arrival home. I was lying in wait ready to pepper him with a zillion questions about the magnificent lunch I so lovingly prepared the minute he crossed the threshold.

Then suddenly my heart skipped a beat as I heard the gate latch being lifted and the iron gate swing into the steps leading to the door that was now opening wider and wider as Jiro made his long-awaited entrance.

"I just couldn't do it." Those were the first words out of Jiro's mouth as he bounced into the portico while handing me the slightly weightier-than-usual empty lunch box. The full impact of what he said didn't really hit me until I peaked inside his lunch tin. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight I had just witnessed. I had never seen anything like it heretofore. It was untouched, unempty, completely full! Wiping the tears from my eyes,I heard some mumbling emerge from the corner of Jiro's mouth. "I love pasta but maybe not for lunchtime," he said with a shrug.

I guess it was too much of a shock for him. Thinking outside the box just isn't his forte. He's very traditional in some ways. If it's not a serving of rice accompanied by some Japanese culinary odds and ends, it just doesn't belong inside the lunch box as far as he is concerned. So I'm back to the Japanese bento basics. The Italian bento had been squarely defeated by tradition and along with it my dreams for a whole United Nations of bento boxes all cut to the quick in a death by a thousand cuts.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fountain of Youth Found

Photo of AKB48 by Skawt via Wikipedia
They've finally done it! In some backroom laboratory on the eighth floor of a discount shopping emporium nestled deep within Tokyo's famed otaku* mecca of Akihabara they have discovered the secret to eternal youth. The formula, called AKB48, consists of a group of pretty young talented girls too numerous to count on all our hands and feet combined. "AKB" is short for Akihabara while the "8" in "48" references the floor of the Don Quixote discount department store where the band's home theater is located (and I'm not too sure what the "4" is for).  Although this singing/dance phenomenon known to everyone as AKB48 has been around since 2005, the members haven't aged a day since the band's inception. Unfortunately there are limitations on the AKB48 formula for lasting youth. A notable one is that it really only works within the artificial boundaries of the entertainment world, but it does work. 

As noted in a September 19th Temple Valley Times article,the formula is simple enough for just about anyone to follow. All any talent agent or producer need do is "find a few pretty faces with sweet voices to match (although this is optional),  choreograph their every move, put them in front of the camera and voila, you have an instant money making machine whose parts can be periodically replaced before they wear out." 

That last ingredient is the real key to keeping the group forever young. While the life of an idol band like AKB48 can potentially span  decades, the individual members often change with the passing of each season. There is such a constant flow of fresh new faces in AKB48 that they all seem to blur into one imperceptible image of teenage desire. Even though Yasushi Akimoto, the production genius behind AKB48, may have perfected this formula for success, he certainly didn't invent it.

The roots of what Ponce de Leon once referred to as the fuente de juventud (Fountain of Youth) stretch far back in time to the tropical island paradise of Puerto Rico. It was on the shores of this sunny island nation that Edgardo Diaz hit upon an idea more precious than gold. The time was the late 1970's and the all-boy wonder group of Diaz' creation was taking the world by storm. There was no stopping this swirling musical force as it swept the western hemisphere and eventually the world. The band was dubbed "Menudo" and while the name (I believe) means "small change," this group was anything but. Like the current reiterations of this cash machine (including AKB48, their older sisters, Morning Musume, and a host of other variations on the same basic theme), the members of Menudo would move on to greener pastures as soon as they saw their sixteenth birthday, grew facial hair, or, heaven forbid, their voices changed (whether it be for the better or worse). 

Forced retirement at such a tender age may sound awful but it's not always the end of the world for these blossoming entertainers. While, the meat slaughtering industry aside, there is perhaps no business more brutal than show biz, it's not all one big meat factory either. A few "graduates" of AKB48 have gone on to enjoy successful careers in the entertainment field in the same way Menudo has spawned adult singing sensations like Ricky Martin and more. 

While inorganic creations like Menudo and AKB48 may sound very cold and modern to some, the truth is the whole idea is as old as the hills of Austria. When it comes to all-adolescent groups who rotate their members with the falling of the winter leaves, this has got to be the granddaddy of them all:

The Vienna Boys Choir

*Otaku is the term often used to refer to those obsessed with all things anime, electronic games, electronics, etc. It's often translated as geek or nerd.

Related post: Dancing to a Different Beat

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bread and Cocco

It's said that "a person cannot live by bread alone..." Thank goodness we also have singer and song writer Cocco giving us a few inspirational words  to live by.                                      

"Cocco pan" from
Cafe de Yagavent
The word is Cocco used to buy her favorite bread not too far from Temple Valley at a place called Cafe de Yagavent in Hakuraku, Yokohama (they are now in the process of relocating). Is it any wonder it was her favorite? Her name is written all over it.

Friday, September 23, 2011


This week the New York Times reported that "R.E.M., the underground band from Athens, Ga., that helped invent the alternative-rock sound of the 1980s, said on Wednesday that its members were splitting up after 31 years of making music together."

The announcement on the band's website stated:

"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."

It's the End of the World as We Know It

P.S. (9/24)

If you're interested in finding out more on this story just type "RIP REM" with "It's the End of the World as We Know It" into your Internet search engine and choose from over a zillion stories on the subject, all with the same exact title. What can I say except, I guess all great minds do think alike.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perfect Storm

                                                                       ( M)

I still haven't fully recovered from the "trauma" of yesterday, perhaps I never will.  I'm sure all the stress following on the winds of the fifteenth typhoon of the season to hit Temple Valley took a toll on both my body and soul. I think I passed away just a little bit yesterday. That's what stress does. It wears away at you until nothing is left.

After knocking off work early, I spent a good part of the day in the kitchen (making pizza) which always knocks my equilibrium off about ten to twelve degrees. My landlord who used to live in the house my family and I now occupy had removed one of the structural support columns in the kitchen/dining area to gain extra space to stretch out. Over the years the weight of the second floor has been pushing down on the first and now the floor sags just a smidge. It's great for rolling marbles or little cars but kind of dizzying when you have to stand at that precarious angle for the length of time it takes to prepare a meal for a family of big eaters.

In between the terrifying gusts of wind that periodically swept through and shook the house (some corners of it more than others), I was able to make four pizza pies. More importantly, I was also able to make just as many temporary, pillow-lined emergency storm shelters in the lower lying nooks and crannies of our humble abode in the event the winds became too much for the house to bear. While the stress born by the high winds continued to mount and wear my nerves to a frazzle, my wife (M) seemed to be thoroughly entertained by all the construction work going on. She was just sitting calmly at her desk singing away as she pounded out some silly translation on the computer keyboard. It was as if she didn't notice or didn't care a bit that the sky was crashing down all around us. It was like she had no sense of urgency in the face of impending doom. She reminded me of those senseless surfers, who just a few weeks before were risking life and limb to ride the mile-high waves sweeping the east coast of the U.S. just a step ahead of Hurricane Irene. It's not  easy living with a dare devilish thrill-seeker but I guess without her my life would be as off balance as my kitchen floor.

Related post: Typhoon Hits Temple Valley

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Protests Past and Present

Reuters journalist, Nick Rowlands, reports that yesterday 60,000 people took to the streets of Tokyo to march against nuclear power. It was the country's largest such demonstration to date.
Popular protests are not exactly anything new to Japan. Here is a glimpse at news coverage of past and present protests in Tokyo.

September 2011 no-nukes rally                               April 1957 H-bomb test protest

Click on the photo to view the newsreel clip
on the British Pathe website

I like the musical accompaniment to the 1957 newsreel story. It makes a dramatic difference in the way the whole story plays out across the screen. If I had been the director though, I think I would have gone with something in 2/4 or 4/4 time (like a rumba) to match the serpentine movements of the protesters.

Dramatic musical scores still play a powerful role in news reporting today. Witness Australia Broadcasting Corportation's Fukushima Syndrome. This in-depth report by Mark Willacy, looks at the David and Goliath struggle between Japan's nuclear power giants and the ordinary citizens who oppose them. It's chock full of emotive tunes that underscore the more gripping moments of the story but we probably didn't need a musical cue to realize that radioactive contamination is frightening stuff.

Into the Whirlpool 

The now banned snake dance, or uzumaki (whirlpool), seen in the newsreel clip,  was a 1960’s invention of Japan’s New Left. Rather than a crazy dance it was a deliberate strategy that prevented police from corralling or sandwiching protesters into a small cordoned off area. It was a whirlpool of humanity.

I wonder if this "whirlpool of humanity" was the inspiration for the cover of a 1969 magazine (Shukan Ampo) taking aim at the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan,a.k.a. Ampo. Writer and political activist, Makoto Oda, issued the first edition of the publication (financed by renowned author Kenzaburo Oe) with a heading that read, "Towards the Smashing of Ampo: A Whirlpool of Humanity." The idea behind this whirlpool, says Peter Kelman in Protesting the National Identity: the Cultures of Protest in 1960s Japan, "was that ordinary citizens would be dragged into the current of activism that was being nurtured and sustained by the active organizations and movements at its center. The longer that the energy lasts the larger the whirlpool becomes as people are dragged into the commotion of protest and activism.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dancing to a Different Beat

Over the years more than a few music producers have discovered that the trick to reaching musical stardom can be as easy as one, two, three. In Japan, where all-girl and all-boy singing groups like AKB48 (boasting 60 members - divided into four "teams") and Exile (whose membership I think is even more legion than AKB48) rule the airwaves, they have that trick down to a science.

The formula for success is simple. Find a few pretty faces with sweet voices to match (although this is optional),  choreograph their every move, put them in front of the camera and voila, you have an instant money making machine whose parts can be periodically replaced before they ware out. While the life of a typical idol band can span over a decade, the individual members often change with the passing of the seasons.

Back in 1992 Idol Japan Records tweaked that basic formula to produce the all-girl sensation, Seifuku Kojo Iinkai (The Better School Uniform Committee [?]), adding a dash of political and social protest to the mix of songs the group serves up. While the financial results have been less than stellar, the group is still nothing less than brilliant!

Here is Seifuku Kojo Iinkai  singing their anti-nuke number, Da Da Datsu Genpatsu (Gone Sour on Nuclear Power). You can find a translation of the lyrics accompanying the video on YouTube and while we don't know for sure, you just might find Seifuku Kojo Iinkai themselves at the no-nukes rally that kicks off around one o'clock this afternoon from Tokyo's Meiji Park.

Here is the translation of the lyrics that accompanies the YouTube video uploaded by Idol Japan Records: 

That it really unforgivable story
Even if these are national policy
But lying about it had a dangerous
"Not immediately affect the human body is!"Even if it's a wonderful invention 
Full of words that never learned 
Becquerel, Cesium, Meltdown, Turbine building Monitoring and High microsievert, oops 
Remember Proponents of nuclear power 
You can stay if you say it's safe 
Greenhorn who cause trouble 
Aren't you ashamed?
B,B,Break out Nuclear Power Plant B,B,Break out, 
Big whoop Shout to the world that the real dangerPoliticians do not work in case of like this 
Always keep hold honor and wealth 
The migratory birds fly now over the unexpected nature 
Do not know where the evacuated area isAll we do remember 
Nuclear power plant accident (Fukushima) 
All we do remember the magnitude of the damage 
Land and sea, Secondary disaster, 
Up to people's minds

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Definitely Worth Reading

Statue of Kinjiro Ninomiya 
 Wikipedia photo by Tak1701d

Don't miss Worth Reading, a roundup of great articles on Japan and beyond, at the Shisaku blog, where Michael Cucek has been shedding light on Japanese politics and society since 2004. It's all pretty smart stuff, so if it's not in your nature to handle brainy material just skip on down to the bottom of the post where the spotlight is shined on a recent comment by Temple Valley Times editor-in-chief, Johntaro (J.T.).

You can read less of the same from J.T. in one of today's letters to the editor in the Japan Times.

Also worth reading in the Japan Times today is Political Elite Can't Stand Outsiders, in which media analyst Phillip Brasor lifts the shroud of confusion surrounding the recent resignation of former trade minister, Yoshio Hachiro.

Related post: When Every Minute Counts

Friday, September 16, 2011

Now You See It, Now...

Somewhere in the middle of Tokyo 
something seems to have disappeared

"You don't see any ads from major Japanese companies in the Tokyo Shinbun newspaper any more." That's the word on the street in Temple Valley these days. Folks here believe the supposed disappearance of the major ads has everything to do with the paper's anti-nuclear leanings.

To get a better picture you'd have to go back and look at copies of each daily paper issued over the last year. Unfortunately the Times' archival holdings of the Tokyo Shinbun only go back a month but after combing through each issue, our research staff did manage to find an ad from one of the smaller Japanese automakers along with a number of adds from the country's major banking institutions.

So is the rumor true? Only the Tokyo Shinbun would know for sure but the perception here is that the anti-nuclear viewpoint is under attack. An article (entitled Demo taiho wa miseshime) in today's Tokyo Shinbun quotes a human rights representative and others claiming the unjustified arrest of 12 peaceful protesters at a Tokyo anti-nuke rally this weekend was meant to serve as an example to others that dissent over the nuclear power issue will not be tolerated.

Many here say Japan's major dailies are content to toe the official line, quoting government advisors like Dr. Shinichi Yamashita, who unabashedly tells the citizens of Fukushima, "the more you smile, the less radiation you get...If you don't smile the rays will effect you." It's a reassuring, feel good message that's easy for readers to consume in these uncertain times. If the Tokyo Shinbun has lost some sources of major ad revenue, maybe their less sugar-coated style of reportage is to blame. All is not apparently lost though. The Tokyo Shinbun still seems to have plenty of ads for the bitter kale juice known as aojiru and while their critical viewpoint may be as difficult to swallow as the green veggie drink, it's surely just as good for you.

Related post: The Art of Saving the Planet

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Safety Nets

Last month the now defunct Tokyo Bounce website had a story about "a bracelet with a story to tell."  The article reported on how "post-tsunami, a group of women from hard-hit Sanriku went to work on some donated fishing nets...making misanga bracelets to provide themselves with some income..."

You can learn more about the bracelets and where to get one at the Sanriku Shigoto Project website.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I'm On It

Thirty five of 101 two letter words that can be
used in official North American Scrabble tournaments

I spend a lot of my time proofreading and editing documents, etc. that other people have translated from Japanese to English, which I get paid (not too much) for. The work can be challenging at times, depending on the quality of the translation, subject matter and type of job(technical, ad copy, etc.). Recently I faced the biggest challenge of my entire proofreading/editing career. The end client, a car navigation systems maker,  had a question about a particular word I used in a product brochure I worked on. The word in question was "via." It's a great little word, one of my favorites, that can cover a lot of territory. Their question was "what does it mean?" It was an easy enough problem to solve. I just quoted Webster's. "Via, 1: by way of; or through the medium or agency of; also by means of."

"That was easy," I thought, until I heard back from the client. "Please don't use big words like 'via' anymore," they said. Using only words no bigger than two letters would pose quite a challenge. I didn't know what to say, except:
"Uh, ok. I'm on it."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Just When You Thought

It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

Somehow I'm drawn like a magnet to this little metallic statue that stands atop Tokyo's Hamamatsucho train station. At least once a month I make a pilgrimage to the station platform where I visit this cast metal homage to the peeing boy, marvel at his cute new outfit and then snap his picture. This month he is decked out in the uniform of Marine Rescue Japan, an association dedicated to saving the lives of drowning swimmers and others who may find themselves in aquatic peril.

This week residents of Temple Valley are concerned about a water-borne danger of a more atomic nature. Over the past six months radioactive substances released into the environment from the leaking nuclear reactors in Fukushima have found their way into Yokohama city's sewerage system in the form of radioactive sludge. So far the city has been incinerating the sludge. While this process  sounds like it could pose some risk to human health and the environment, local residents seem to have been kept largely in the dark about it. Outside of some scant coverage about the city's September 9 announcement regarding plans to dump the ash that appeared on the local pages of a couple of major dailies, there has been little to no public discussion of the issue. The incineration process, harmful or not, is designed to reduce the sludge to a less bulky ash that can then be safely stored away at two separate facilities located in Yokohama's Tsurumi and Kanazawa wards. Now, after running out of places to store the radioactive ash, the city that is home to the "Port of the Future" (minato mirai) has come up with a bold new plan: dump it in the bay

Is there anyone who can save us? 

Read more about Yokohama's plan to begin dumping radioactive waste in its harbor this Thursday on the Ex-SKF blog.


The dumping will occur just days ahead of an upcoming international triathlon to be held in Yokohama (one third of which will of course take place in the water).

Update (9/14)

Thanks to the valiant efforts of citizens and lawmakers, Yokohama City has decided to postpone their planned dump into the bay and hold a public hearing before attempting to do so in the future. 

Related post: Hot Spots

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Trains vs. Planes

In a February 2010 article appearing on the Mother Nature News website, US-based author, Jaymi Heimbuch, explains how a 13-hour 
train ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles is better than a one-hour plane flight. Among all the reasons she lists, ranging from more comfort to less of a carbon footprint, I like the bonus reason she mentions best of all. The bonus is that "people wave at trains." 

Heimbuch writes that during her journey, "every so often, as people waited at track crossings or even while standing on the beaches, they waved at us. It brought up a feeling of friendliness, of excitement around travel and seeing trains go by, of community support in some vague way. No one waves at planes ... what's the point? But they still wave at trains. It was neat to slow down and experience that."

Experience it here in this ad for Japan Railway Kyushu's new bullet train:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Trained Eyes

I don't know what kind of train this is exactly, or perhaps more importantly the next one barreling down the track, but it seems to be special to an awful lot of people who have come here to make it the focus of their camera lenses. Nearly a national pastime, the art of trainspotting has perhaps hundreds of thousands of adherents throughout Japan. This same exact scene you see here atop the platform at Japan Railway's Craneview Station in Yokohama can no doubt be found along the entire length of track that this train will travel today. Perhaps nowhere else on earth has the love of public transportation been so elevated. It's an appreciation many in the world are now just beginning to regain. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In Training

While riding the train on my way from Temple Valley to Tokyo the other day I noticed these three elementary school girls. They had just boarded the same car where I had seconds before managed to stake a claim to some floor space directly in front of the door. All three were dressed exactly alike in the classic Japanese sailor suit school uniform but that familiar sight is not exactly what captured my attention.

It was their eyes that got me. They seemed to be aimed right at me, piercing my body like arrows. Then all of a sudden they started to move - in unison. Their gestures were exact mirror images. I wondered if they might be on their way to becoming Japan's next hit all-girl adolescent singing group, now brushing up on their dance routine before auditioning for some big Tokyo talent agency. Then I was gripped with fear as I came to the sudden realization that they could be some kind of crazy karate cult killing every foreigner in sight with their bare hands. Searching for divine intervention, I lifted my head  heavenward and was blessed with a vision.

It was "Train Vision." That's what Japan Railway (JR) has dubbed the video display monitors above every door on practically every train they run. The programs played on the in-train video channel run the whole gamut, including news, entertainment, cooking, educational fare, and lots and lots of commercials. On this particular day and time the train channel was featuring an educational segment with the dance group Hand Sign who for the past year or so have been introducing riders to Japanese Sign Language.

These grade school girls weren't even giving me a second look. Their eyes were glued to the TV  monitor. Best of all they weren't practicing karate, they were building up their sign language skills. Thanks to JR's train vision, there's never a dull moment and for these kids never a wasted moment either.

Here's a look at a couple of monitors in action.

Related post: Out of This World

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The It Bag of the Decade

The otona no randoseru from Akujidou
   (Photo via Akujidou website)

Behold the it bag of the decade. Dubbed the otona no randuseru (the adult school bag), this stylish leather backpack from Akujidou is a scaled up version of the standard school bag (aka the randoseru) carried by every grade school kid from one end of the Japanese archipelago to the other. While this sturdy bag comes with a hefty price tag to match (88,200 yen, roughly 900 U.S. dollars ), it's not that much more expensive than some of the rucksacks you see on the backs of a lot of school kids in Japan. You get what you pay for though.* The run of the mill randoseru school bag is designed to last the six-year length of a typical grade school career. If the otona no randuseru is made just as well, and it looks like it is, it could be the only bag you'll ever need.

Read more about the otona no randoseru at the Japan Pulse website.

*My oldest son Ichiro used to carry the cheapest randoseru I could find on the market. Priced at about 200 dollars, the bag just barely survived six years of continual abuse. Jiro, my second oldest, had a more expensive bag from the upscale Takeshima Department store. The life of the straps were about a year shorter than Jiro's six-year-long grade school career but the nearly 500 dollar price tag for the bag came with an almost unconditional warranty which included the use of an even snazzier loaner bag  while his was in the shop for repair.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I noticed this video from the instrumental group Sakerock on Youtube today. Sit back and enjoy this little musical interlude from Sakerock playing Insutoband (Instrumental Band).

Monday, September 5, 2011


Q: Why did the elephant wear his red    shoes?

A: Because he wanted to hide in the strawberry patch. 

That riddle always pops into my head whenever I see these Japanese school sneakers. It came to mind again today when my son's pair arrived in the mail today. No, the school he goes to isn't  Clown College. Although I was having such difficulty finding his size school sneaker I thought about trying to purchase a pair of clown shoes. They look practically the same. While the official shoes of students across the Japanese archipelago may resemble the footwear of circus stars who bear names like Buttons or Binky, they are not. They are in fact uwabaki, indoor sneakers stowed away at the end of the day in individual cubbyholes found at the foyer of practically every school building in Japan. Upon stepping foot inside kids will make a quick change out of their "outdoor shoes" and into these spiffy indoor numbers.* 

These stylish slippers are typically available  with either white, blue, yellow or red rubber soles. Craneview Junior High School, where my son Jiro attends, has opted for the more flashy red soles as part of the standard school uniform. They can usually be found wherever shoes are sold but only up to a certain size.

That's the problem. Size is always a big deal with my kids, whether it's the size of their appetites or the size of their feet. My oldest son, Ichiro, hit the shoe size ceiling in Japan somewhere around fourth grade. That's the year he was crowned the tallest one in school, towering over classmates and teachers alike. It became super easy to spot him in the crowd at school events, even at school-wide athletic events where everyone, outfitted in identical dirt-covered gym uniforms topped off with a colored cap, was huddled together in a big jumble of kidmanity. Jiro, who is a little smaller, breached that same size barrier a couple of months ago and we've been waiting for his special order red rubber soled sneakers to arrive in the mail ever since. 

These last couple of weeks the poor kid's feet have been under a lot of pressure. I would say just wear any old sneakers that fit, but Jiro is more of a staunch a conformist (in his own peculiar way)at heart. Actually he and Ichiro, despite setting new standards for "unusual" behavior, are like two peas in a pod on that score. Neither of them like to stick out in the crowd. The problem is when you're as "outstanding" as those two, the differences make blending in almost as impossible as it is for an elephant to hide in a strawberry patch,  whether they have their red sneakers on or not. 

*Just because they never leave the building doesn't mean these shoes don't quickly dirty.  By the end of the week there isn't a trace of white canvas left. That's why the kids have to bring them home in a special uwabaki bag every Friday so their parents can scrub them clean and begin the vicious cycle all over again comes Monday morning.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

When I was a kid my mother used to take a few of slices of Velveeta, sandwich them between a couple of slices of bread, wrap it in saran, throw the whole thing in a brown paper bag along with a crisp juicy apple and bing, bang, boom me and my lunch were out the door and on our way to school.

Making lunches in my household today is a whole other story. An awful lot of work goes into filling these two little boxes. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology that has given us the refrigerator and freezer much of the prep cooking can be done days in advance. The little goodies that sit side by side together in the bento box (lunch box) can be prepped and  sealed in little containers to be stored away for another day. That frozen ice chamber, occupying a significant chunk of real estate in my kitchen, is a real life saver. I think some day I should pen an ode to that massive chest and tape it to its broad shoulders for all the world to see. 

Doing the cooking in advance also means I don't have to do it all myself. Here at the Shiritori Cafe (that's my kitchen) we have an entire team of cooks slaving away at the stove night and day in a bid to satiate the ever-growing appetites of my continually-growing sons. It's only a team of two, my wife and I, but you know what they say, "helping hands make light work,"  "misery loves company," etcetera, etcetera. Anyway we've got our act together and we're making tiny miracles happen every day. 

Here's the little miracle in a box that happened in our kitchen this morning:

  • Steamed whole rice topped with pickled takana (a slightly sour leafy vegetable) and spicy cod fish roe
  • Omelet
  • Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) simmered in broth (mirin, soy sauce, fish stock, brown sugar)
  • Sauteed carrots and string beans
  • Finger lickin' good boneless fried chicken

Related post: Like a Charm

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Have a Ball

...and enjoy this short instructional video from the Japanese comedy duo, The Ramens.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lunch Boxing

Bento (lunch box) wrapped with furoshiki

Here's what's inside Jiro's lunch box today.

I've been told the rice is supposed
to go in the larger container.

All organic:
  • Steamed whole rice topped with pickled plum paste and a sheet of  sun-dried seaweed
  • Japanese style spinach omelet
  • Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) croquette
  • Fried chicken nuggets prepared by my PAL (PAL is my food coop)
  • Sauteed string beans
  • Sauteed julienne burdock root and carrot

I have to get up extra early to prepare the food that gets stuffed into this lunch box but it's worth it for the feeling of supreme satisfaction I get once the deed is done. I can't explain the sensation that comes over me after I've served up breakfast, finished frying up the last croquette and have tied the final knot on the cloth that holds the two-tiered lunch box together (and will later serve as a neat place mat). I guess it's the taste of victory.

I used to make lunch for my older son, Ichiro, when he was in junior high too. Before embarking on the task, I thoroughly researched the subject. Bookstores in Japan dedicate miles and miles of shelf space to books all about bento,the quintessential Japanese lunchbox. In the end it was a toss up between a tome on how to make the ingredients inside the box resemble your child's favorite Pokemon character or how to make the healthiest lunch on the face of the planet. I went with the latter and oh boy was that ever a mistake.

After receiving an overwhelming number of customer complaints, Ichiro's mother stepped in to save the day. We started taking turns with the lunch box duty and the flood of complaints were halved to a steady stream that flowed only every other day (my lunch box duty day). She and her lunch had thoroughly won the heart and stomach of Ichiro. I felt utterly defeated. 

How did she blow away the healthiest lunch in the world? I can explain that in one word: volume, volume, VOLUME!  She jam packed that box with more meat and oil saturated delectables than anyone in class 3-F had seen in their entire 12 years on earth. Anything but willing to throw in the towel, I dug in and took aim with a voluminous secret weapon of my own.

Each new year in households across Japan, families sit around the table to enjoy an elaborate array of sumptuous foods stuffed into an equally elegant wooden lacquered box. Known as osechi-ryori, it ranks up along side sushi or sukiyaki as one of the most renowned dishes in Japanese cuisine. That was my secret weapon and that's exactly what Ichiro got the next day for lunch and that's what got me permanently fired from lunch box duty (and maybe part of the reason Ichiro eventually stopped going to school altogether).

All was not lost though. I still had the delicious memories of each lunch I had lovingly  
prepared and if memory failed I always had the photographs. You see I had faithfully recorded each lunch box that went out the door on my new digital camera. As a photographic theme it was perhaps ahead of its time. No one had seen anything quite like it. Today you can log on to the Internet and find a panoply of Japanese blogs known as "bento diaries,"  essentially annals of what people made and ate for lunch. I can say I was a pioneer in the field and I have the pictures to prove it. 

If you don't believe me just ask Mrs. Suzuki. Before I got fired from lunch box duty M had lent Mrs. Suzuki our new camera to take pictures of some school event. Flipping on the camera switch she was surprised to see the photographic collage of lunches. Obviously having never witnessed a body of work quite like it ever before she asked, "are these pictures important?" M didn't know what to say. Of course they were important but what's even more important now is that I'm back on duty and the bento boxes are better than ever.