Saturday, January 31, 2009


I finally learned the name of the ramen place down the street, Tukumo Ramen. (The little flash animation you see on the website ends with "Irashaimasen!" which means Welcome.) This place is known for its cheese ramen. They grate Hokkaido cheese on top of the noodles. Can't say I've tried that, as I prefer miso ramen, and in spring/summer, the grilled chicken and cucumber strips over noodles in a cold sesame broth. There's often a line of people along the sidewalk waiting to get in, standing quietly, in a perfect line, behind a rope. Sometimes the wait staff brings menus out so they can pre-order. It's small and cramped and they have terrific gyoza, only you can't order that until after 3:30pm.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


At Costco in Chiba today, I asked someone if the store had ice packs. I had just bought a pile of meat and nothing frozen to help keep it chilled during the journey home. (My friend Brenda drove me. Thanks Brenda!) A sales guy said "vending machine" and pointed to the exit where another employee was checking receipts (just like they do at the Costcos in the U.S.). Sure enough, there was a coin-operated dry-ice dispenser. Only 50 yen per serving. You slide open the glass door, hook the handles of a plastic bag so that it's right under the open end of a metal chute, close the door, put in your five 10-yen coins, press the green button, and's like a blizzard in there! Crushed dry ice drops out of the chute, and there's a loud whooshing sound, and some of it blows out of the bag, but most of it lands in it. When that's over you slide the door open, grab the bag now half-full of dry ice chunks, tie it up and you're outta there.


"You know how I did that?" Dylan asked me, while I was testing him on this week's spellings. He had just written the word because.

"How?" I asked.

He smiled and said, "Big elephants can't always understand small elephants."

Monday, January 26, 2009

fire and rum

At a school assembly last Friday, Dylan's class, the Year 2 Pearlberries, presented what they have been learning about the Great Fire of London. Here's a clip.

Dylan is the boy in the middle, in the plain white shirt. You first see him holding up a poster and then he recites two lines. In case you can't hear it clearly, this is what he says:

Dylan: "But surely you could have dialed 999 and called the fire engines to put the fire out!"

Classmate: "No, we didn't have fire engines at the time. We used leather buckets and squirts to try and put the fire out but it was really no use. The fire was too strong!"

Dylan: "The information text we read told us that people pulled the houses down with fire hooks and blew houses up to make fire breaks to try and stop the fire from spreading farther."

Another classmate then mentions the Great Fire of Meireki, which killed 100,000 people and destroyed much of Tokyo (then Edo) 9 years earlier, in 1657.

After the history lesson, a song and dance number! Again, Dylan is the guy in the middle, plain white shirt. Lyrics posted below.

Pirate Song

When I was one, I sucked my thumb, the day I went to sea
I climbed aboard a pirate ship and the Captain said to me
'we're going this way, that way, forward, back, over the Irish sea
A bottle of rum to fill my tum, and that's the life for me

When I was two, I lost my shoe...

When I was three, I climbed a tree...

When I was four, I shut the door...

When I was five, I learned to dive...

When I was six, I met some chicks...

sometimes I get a good one

My iphone takes crappy pictures normally but I like this one, of Shinjuku at night

they do sell everything

the $20 doggie umbrella, available at Tokyu Hands

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kua 'Aina

On Wednesday, some 15 hours after Obama's swearing in, I took the boys to dinner, to a "Hawaiian sandwiches" joint in Aoyama. We had been meaning to try this place, Kua 'Aina, mainly because it seemed to be the one good burger restaurant in town that we hadn't tried yet. The point is, there was this big framed photo of Obama by the register. The picture shows him at the Kua 'Aina in Honolulu. Now I had been kinda down this week in the days leading up the inauguration, I think because I had been feeling completely disconnected to what was going on, removed from this Big Moment in History, so out of it, being so far away, and the fact that the live coverage was at 2 am local time didn't help.

But seeing that photograph, which shows a beaming Barack in a gray T-shirt and Chicago White Sox cap, standing at the counter with two of the shop's employees -- I don't know, it just cheered me up. And when we got home, after the kids were squared away, I went online and watched a bunch of video clips of the events and read some of the articles and blog posts and looked at some friends' inaugural ball photos on Facebook, and, bit by bit, that bummed out feeling went away. I used to live in Washington DC, and I'd been to two previous inaugurations (the first Bush in 1989, Clinton in 1993), but this week was the first time in the 16 years since I'd moved away that I actually missed the place and wished I could've been there, watching a Jumbotron with the huddled masses.

Around here, at least around the British School, nobody was really talking about the inauguration, and why would they, anyway, right? But the election had been a hot topic of conversation in and around the halls of the school and at the Starbucks where the moms tend to congregate after drop-off. I had Brits, Aussies, French and Japanese moms all talking to me about it. One Japanese mom told me she had been moved by Obama's acceptance speech, when he talked about the "old lady." I had people patting me on the back, giving me high-fives, congratulating me for electing the right guy. "I'm so happy for you," they would say, sometimes pausing for a moment and adding, "you are happy, right?" One English lady who lived in Westport, Conn., for two years (and absolutely loved it) said that on election day she wished she was an American just so she could've voted for Obama. It was exciting. We finally had a cool president! No more shame over the screw-ups, no more having to join in the eye-rolling, (like yeah, I know, we suck) because now we didn't suck. Back in November, a week or so post-election, Garrison Keillor wrote that "We all walk taller this fall." Well I certainly did. Maybe the inauguration was anti-climactic on this side of the world. But it would've been nice to get a few more of those high-fives.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I love this sign outside our neighborhood Freshness Burger.

Its the Year of Beef, baby.

Tokyo Tower

I wanted to go to the top of this thing during Christmas vacation. Monday Dec. 29 seemed like the perfect day. Terry had to go to work, the sky was blue, the boys and I had no prior engagements...Alas, when we arrived, the mile looked to be about a mile long. Needless to say we didn't get on it. We went grocery shopping instead. What fun! Like bulls in a china shop...Anyway...Later that day Terry told me that the tower was celebrating its 50th anniversary. And that all the Japanese schools were off that week too, for New Year's (the most important holiday of the year in Japan). Ah, yes, of course! And next year I will attempt to go to the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day! (what a dummy)

I did get a few nice photos from the ground though.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Hayao Miyazaki's animation studio has a very cool museum in Inokashira Park, in Mitaka, a suburb west of Tokyo. It's great for kids. There's a giant cat bus to play in, with piles of big black poof balls with eyes to throw around (modeled after those little creatures in My Neighbor Totoro, made of soot I think); a trippy zoetrope with 3D models of the Totoro characters, spinning around on a circular platform (a strobe LED makes it look like they're in motion -- there's Mei jumping rope!); loads of watercolor sketches and a few cels from Totoro and other Miyazaki movies; film reels you can manipulate yourself; a theater showing an animated short (in Japanese) about a lost dog (the film changes every few months I think); and a gallery showcasing other animators' work (right now it's the 1954 British animated feature version of Animal Farm, which is actually being re-released here, we're told, and will soon be showing in a couple theaters in Shibuya).

The robot from Castle in the Sky lives up on the roof. We paid him a visit last Saturday.
[Thanks, Stace, for telling us about this place all those many months ago. It just took us a while to get there!]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ernest takes our picture

Last weekend we went to Nikko, a lovely little town in the mountains two hours north of Tokyo, to do some sight-seeing, and stopped by for a caffeine re-up at this mobile coffee shop near the entrance to the Toshogu shrine, the main tourist attraction there. The proprietor took our picture and posted it on his website. Check it out! (When you go to, you have to click on "Diary" then scroll down a ways. We're under Sat.01.03.2009.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

the boys

mochi mystery solved...

Conor says "HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!"

What is this thing he's pretending to be, you ask?

Wikipedia explains:

"Kagami mochi
(鏡餅), literally mirror rice cake, is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. It usually consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai (a Japanese bitter orange) with an attached leaf on top. In addition, it may have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi. It sits on a stand called a sanpō (三宝) over a sheet called a shihōbeni (四方紅), which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following years. Sheets of paper called gohei (御幣) folded into lightning shapes similar to those seen on sumo wrestler's belts are also attached.

The kagami mochi first appeared in the Muromachi period (14th-16th century). The name kagami ("mirror") is said to have originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror, which also had a religious significance. The reason for it is not clear. Explanations include mochi being a food for sunny days,the 'spirit' of the rice plant being found in the mochi,and the mochi being a food which gives strength.

The two mochi discs are variously said to symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart,"yin" and "yang", or the moon and the sun. The "daidai", whose name means "generations",is said to symbolize the continuation of a family from generation to generation....

It is traditionally broken and eaten in a Shinto ritual called kagami biraki (mirror opening) on the second Saturday or Sunday of January. This is an important ritual in Japanese martial arts dojos.It was first adopted into Japanese martial arts when Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, adopted it in 1884, and since then the practice has spread to aikido, karate and jujutsu studios..."

Here's a shot of the real thing, which decorated our table on New Year's eve...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2009 is the Year of the Ox...

a.k.a. Year of the Brown Cow. says 2009 "symbolizes strength gathered through unity, harmony, obedience, courage and hard slog."


Friends brought over a traditional New Year's cake, which is essentially mochi (pounded rice) in the shape of the bottom two-thirds of a snowman. It looks pretty with its paper decorations and everything but when we cut off the casing and cut into it, it was a huge disappointment. The kids had a nibble, and Conor said he thought it needed chocolate syrup. My friend's daughter said it tasted like "a candle." We couldn't read the directions written on the packaging so perhaps it is supposed to be warmed up or topped with something... Must bring the packaging into school on Tuesday and ask one of the Japanese moms to translate...

UPDATE Jan. 12: I've asked several Japanese women what you're supposed to do with the mochi cakes and they said you're supposed to heat it in some way after you slice it, which makes sense, though I'm not sure that would be enough. The stuff is horribly bland, after all. The woman who runs the ryokan where we stayed in Nikko told me she likes to saute her mochi cake with soy sauce. My taiko teacher's assistant (she plays the bass note -- or is it 'base' note? -- while we students struggle with the other parts) recommended putting it in the oven topped with tomato sauce and cheese, like a pizza. Will have to give that a shot next year.