Thursday, January 31, 2008

Springtime ogres

In her excellent children's book I Live in Tokyo, author/illustrator Mari Takabayashi writes about Setsubun, Feb. 3, the day before the first day of spring (according to the old solar calendar). On this day children are known to throw roasted soybeans, a.k.a. soynuts, at a pretend demon -- or real person wearing an Oni mask -- while shouting, 'Out with the ogre! In with the happiness.' In other words, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (Demons out! Luck in!) The Oni of Japanese folklore are often depicted as scary trolls with red or blue skin, claws, wild hair and horns. Maybe we'll make our own Oni mask and have the boys throw roasted soybeans at T's head on Sunday. That would be fun. Apparently you can also throw the beans out your front door to help drive away misfortune. Another thing to do on Setsubun, I'm told, is to eat the same number of soynuts as you are in years. You can buy the bland bits in cute packaging to give as gifts. I bought these at the supermarket:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

boys on a bus

en route to school

and the correct answer is...

C, carrot.

Thanks to all who participated.

T said when he saw the carrot on his plate his first impulse was to take a picture of it, but he hesitated, not wanting to look foolish, but then went ahead and took one anyway. After he snapped it several of his Japanese colleagues took out their phones and took pictures of their carrots too.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

pop quiz

in the
is a ...

A) karaoke

B) candle

C) carrot

D) winning
in a


Pocky all around!

While the boys and I were buying Pocky at the corner store, T and his colleagues were using the chocolate-dipped cookie sticks to stir their drinks. He just got back from a "team dinner" which was followed by a two-hour karaoke session (how's that for a Monday night on the job!) during which much shochu was consumed. The Pocky sticks were served right along with the bottles of Japanese vodka, decoratively arranged in brandy snifters (like flowers in a vase) and resting on ice.

There are several wacky Japanese TV commercials for Pocky that you can catch on YouTube. Click HERE to watch one. The ad is only 15 seconds long, so go ahead and click!

Apparently the name Pocky refers to the Japanese onomatopoetic word for the sound you make when you bite into one, pokkin (ポッキン). We used to buy them at Han Market on Clark St. in Brooklyn sometimes. I didn't realize they were so crazy-popular here. The Japanese company Ezaki Glico Co., HQ in Osaka, introduced them in 1965 and they have since gone global. Dozens of flavors have been introduced over the years, including Men's Pocky (?!) which Ze Frank mentions in this highly-unsuitable-for-young-ears episode of The Show: 05-03-06

Monday, January 28, 2008

David lives up the road

After dinner tonight I realized I didn't have any bread to make sandwiches for the boys' lunches tomorrow, so we went for a little walk up the street, to this little bodega ('fraid I haven't learned the Japanese term yet) that I've been wanting to check out. We opened the sliding door and walked into a tiny space with narrow shelves jammed with cookies, crackers, instant noodle bowls, bottles of soda and green tea, paper towels and cleaning products, but alas, no bread.
We bought some Pocky, then moved on to the small produce market next door for apples and strawberries. I did my best mime of slicing a loaf of bread and sputtered, "Doko...?" (Where..?) to the man who sold me the fruit, and he grinned, pointed north and said, "7 Eleven." Five minutes later we had bread.

On our way home we passed an otherwise unremarkable low-rise office building with a bronze replica of Michelangelo's David standing in an alcove out front. Seriously, it's right next to the sidewalk, and I think it's the same size as the real thing. The boys couldn't stop staring at his...kneecaps.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

our band on tour

Since I couldn't be in New York this weekend to sing karaoke with Iva (Happy Birthday!) I went on tour with the band. We earned more than 1,000 new fans plus enough dough to hire a manager and get tattoos. T is our lead guitarist, while the boys and I take turns on drums and vocals. We usually have one person work the foot pedal while another uses the sticks. (Special thanks to Papa Jack for getting us the Xbox 360!)

New rug!
This drummer is about to walk...It's in their contract: strawberries at every gig.The Rock Paper Sharks


Our edition of the International Herald Tribune includes the English edition of The Asahi Shimbun, the second most popular newspaper in Japan after the Yomiuri. So it's been all sumo, all the time, at least in the Sports section (Giants, what?) these past couple of weeks, as there is a tournament going on right now in Tokyo (there are only six a year, three of them here).

Attending a sumo match, where ringside floor cushions are pricey and sell out fast, is only one way for fans to get their fix. Some of the stables where the wrestlers live and train let you come and watch the early morning training sessions for free (some start as early as 5 am!), as long as you keep the noise and numbers down and bring along someone who speaks Japanese. Some say it pays to bring the stable master a bottle of sake too.

Sumo smackdown:

Friday, January 25, 2008

home movie

We have started working on a movie project. Working title: Mechagodzilla vs. Lizard. The boys have worked out a plot, it seems, though it keeps changing. I'm still not sure if "Lizzy" (barely visible behind a wooden race car, left) is good or evil. Filming starts tomorrow. Last night was the dress rehearsal:

The townspeople, sadly, have nothing but a suitcase, a beer stein, a bucket, a shrub, a witch's hat and a single torch to defend themselves against the beast. Run for your lives!

school assembly

At a school assembly today, C's class, the Year Two Blackberries, presented a report about what they have been learning this term about Tokyo and Japanese culture. Each child took turns speaking. They talked about how the buildings here are "squished together" because there is a big population and everybody needs a place to live and work. They talked about their recent field trip to the Tokyo Tower. It was very orderly and impressive. The other primary school classes filed into the gymnasium and sat down on the floor in tight rows while the teachers sat on folding chairs to the side, parents on chairs in the back. In front of us was a sea of navy blue and charcoal gray (uniform colors) and I couldn't believe how long these kids, ages 3-8, were able to sit still and pay attention. Nobody had to shush them! I filmed most of it with my digital camcorder and will try to edit the footage and post something online soon. Stay tuned, it will be worth a look...C delivered his lines perfectly and with enthusiasm and not a hint of shyness. At one point the kids took turns calling out words that make them think of Japan, like sushi, chopsticks, green tea, etc. What did C shout? SAMURAI!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

what we're reading these days

C is having no trouble finding books to check out of the British School library. There's a whole stack of Asterix and Tintin titles, and he's only just getting started.

D is beginning to sound out words on his own, and as the British system pushes literacy much earlier than in the States, he's expected to be reading for real by May. But no pressure!

skype magic

T has been in Germany all week, so tonight we Skyped him. My mac has a webcam, so T can see the boys but they can't see him, so they just watch the live video feed of themselves on the screen while they talk, and do a pretty good job sharing air time.

The first photo gives you the long view of our living room (see the Muji beanbag chairs?). That sliding door leads to a third bedroom, which we are saving for all our visitors (hint hint). The second shot shows the room off the kitchen that I am going to turn into a home office. That's my laptop bag propped up against the wall. Sad.

progress and preserves

T's company pays a relocation company to help us get settled, and it's the only reason we have alien registration cards, cell phones, home delivery of the Herald Trib, a place to live, etc. Their people make telephone calls for us, read notices that appear in our mailboxes (apparently we had a package waiting at the post office) and highlight points of interest on maps.

But my 3-hour, one-on-one orientation this morning beat all. Now, thanks to Dendo-san, my Japanese mentor-guide, I know scented from unscented, 2-ply from single-ply, whole milk from low fat, butter from margarine, sugarless gum from rot-your-teeth gum, and straight soy sauce from soy-based soup concentrate that's so much better for making noodle broths. I now know about a wholesale meat market that I can get to by bus, and I have a cheat sheet in my wallet with the kanji characters for buta-niku (literally, pig meat, i.e. pork), gyu-niku (cow meat/beef) and tori-niku (chicken). I can now tell the difference between rice that has to be washed before it is cooked from that which does not. And I now have a debit card for my local supermarket, the Daimaru Peacock, with which I can earn points and get special discounts and earn cash back. Without Dendo-san there I would never have been able to complete the application or figure out the automated machines that let you add value or redeem points.

But here's the kicker: I am happy to report that I now know how to direct taxicab drivers to the British School and to my apartment, turn by turn, in complete Japanese sentences and in a polite manner. It's all written down in a notebook I keep in my bag, with correct spelling, phonetic spelling and English translation. The bus is great, but we all have our days. (I suppose I could give the driver a map with these destinations marked--even locals do this as many streets are not named and cab drivers here are notorious for not knowing how to get anywhere-- but that would be too easy, and plus this way I get to decide the route!)

To celebrate all this learnin' I bought a jar of my favorite Bonne Maman.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I found Maker's Mark for just 2,680 JPY ($25.50) for a liter bottle. That's a bargain, right? Or did 8 years in Brooklyn Heights completely warp my sense of how much things (should) cost?


The delivery service that brings us the International Herald Tribune every morning left this for us the other day. I don't think I've ever been so excited to receive a bill.


In his after-school origami class today, C made a spaceship out of a sheet of light blue paper. He made a smaller thing out of shiny dark blue paper that fits inside, and so when he flies it, the two pieces separate before fluttering to the floor. "It breaks apart just like the real space shuttle," he explains. I'm pretty sure he's referring to rocket boosters, not the Challenger or Columbia disasters.

We've been doing our own origami projects at home. We can really spread out as there is still no furniture in our living room to get in our way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

a cat would've just moved on

This bronze statue outside Shibuya station is said to be one of the most popular meeting places in the world. It's of Hachiko, an Akita famous for accompanying his master to and from the train station every day for about a year sometime in the 1920s. One day Hachiko's master failed to return, having died at the office, and so Hachiko was left waiting at the station, where he remained, waiting and waiting, for nearly 10 years, until he himself died. (It's a sad story really... ) A children's book about Hachiko was published in the U.S. in 2004 and apparently a movie is coming out soon starring Richard Gere.

box of wine

The English-speaking manager at the Peacock supermarket where I shop told me this was a highly regarded plum wine, but the fruit on the carton looks suspiciously like apples. Whatever, all I know is that this "traditional Japanese fruit liqueur" is quite good, if you like that sort of thing. In restaurants I've seen it served with a golf ball size hunk of ice, but I'm taking mine straight-up, baby. (That's our Toshiba microwave in the background.)

UPDATE 1/23: okay so here's what I learned by doing 30 seconds of online research: umeshu (plum wine) is made by steeping still-green ume (a type of Asian plum) in sugar and shochu (a distilled alcoholic beverage) so that explains why the fruit on the box is green. Mystery solved.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday in Ueno Park

This picture was taken from just outside the front door to our apartment, which is on the third floor. The boys are waiting for me in the courtyard, just inside the sliding glass doors that block off the small vestibule. It's Sunday afternoon and we are headed to Ueno Park, where there is a zoo.

Here you can see our building in the background, the white one behind the little red delivery truck. We cut through Ebisu Prime Square plaza on our way to the train station.

There are billboards all over town advertising Nintendo's Wii Fit.
In this one, a lady demonstrates how to ski.

This whale outside the National Museum of Nature and Science
reminds us of another museum we know...

The line is way too long for the museum's "Great Robot Exhibition" featuring karakuri (traditional mechanical dolls), more advanced walking robots and futuristic robots as depicted in manga (comics). We'll have to make it back there before the show closes.

"Hey, those kids are younger than me and they have cell phones!
When am I going to get one??"

We stroll through an open-air market where merchants are selling teapots, teacups, plates, bowls, chopsticks and sake. D convinces his Dad to buy him a wooden spoon and he is psyched.

We almost make it to the zoo gates when the boys are distracted by a giant cat:

They beg us for a chance to take a spin inside Pikachu:

"Got any 100 yen coins?"

Seems it can't get any better than this...

Oh, but it can! This ride is deceptively kiddie-like. It runs on a short flat oval track, but really whips around the turns.

The concession stand sells gelato, crepes, caramel popcorn and beer!
Tallboys are 350 yen and come with a bag of mixed nuts.

By the time we are ready to leave this little amusement park, it is starting to get dark and the zoo is about to close....

We decide to save the zoo for another day and instead visit the nearby Toshogu shrine, built in 1627 to honor Ieyasu Tokugawa , founder of the Edo shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Something like 200 stone lanterns decorate the entrance.

C studies wishes left by shrine visitors:

Cool pagoda, below. (Backstory lifted from a Aug. 2007 article in the Japan Times: "
After Ieyasu Tokugawa moved Japan's political capital from Kyoto to Edo in 1603, in 1625 his successor, Hidetada, decided to build Kaneiji, a temple meant to protect the city's northeast corner, the one Buddhists believe most vulnerable to evil spirits. An impressive pagoda from the former, vast temple complex survives today in the zoo, near the elephant enclosure.")

D snapped this shot of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki flame, kept lit to commemorate the A-bomb tragedies and as a call for world peace:

On the train ride home D admires his fellow passenger's bling and soft furry coat.

We grab a quick dinner at one of those places where you feed money into a machine, press a button, collect a ticket and hand it over to the cook, who then passes the food over the counter to you on a tray. The order machine is all in kanji, so we point to plastic samples in the display case outside and then the cook shows us which buttons to press. Next time we'll remember: No. 32 is fried pork cutlet over cabbage with a bowl of soba noodles in broth, and No. 34 is katsu and egg over rice with a side of soba. Just two "sets" fed our whole family for $13, a record!