Saturday, May 29, 2010

girls' nite out

Finally, a red-light district moment.

To celebrate a friend's birthday the other night, a bunch of us went to 13 Street, a club in Kabukicho.

Three words: male pole dancer.

The 40-min show at this "Mens Dance Show Restaurant" featured 7 or 8 of these performers -- all well-groomed, trim and toned, and, we assumed, gay -- kicking it on stage like they were on Madonna's Blond Ambition tour (the choreography! the costume changes!)

Did I mention the pole dancer?

I've never been to a male strip club even in the States and had assumed the guys would be taking it off, but it wasn't that kind of place. (A little disappointed, mainly relieved.) We did see one nipple (thanks to a loosened kimono) and one bare butt (robe dropped to the floor, lights out, and, Scene!). Oh wait, three nipples if you count the pole dancer, who wasn't wearing a shirt. He was quite something. A real gymnast.

Our group sat in the front row, side by side on a red leather banquette, a foot or two from the stage, and before the show some of the dancers came over to chat us up while a waitress served us drinks and lovely plates of chicken, rice and salad.

Then the music went up, the lights went down and we Western women started clapping and cheering (as you do in these situations) until somebody noticed the other patrons were just sitting quietly sipping their drinks. Were we in bad form? Probably. Typical gaijin. But we carried on, and at the end, the guys feted our birthday girl on stage, so there you go.

Love microphone guy's sandals and leggings.

13 Street is at 1-12-9 Shinjuku, 4th Floor. Apparently "Love Wagon" is right upstairs...

Wonder what the talent is in this Pub...

Friday, May 28, 2010

the rough life of a Japanese royal

Oh, to be the mother of the rough third-grade boys who frightened poor Princess Aiko! (See below). I've heard that we have a few Japanese VIPs at our school; apparently they like the anonymity, as most expats, myself included, are oblivious to their fame and status.

Anyway, I just thought this was an interesting article, which I read in today's IHT (it appeared in the NYTs yesterday).

May 27, 2010

Imperial Adjustments

TOKYO — The drizzly weather didn’t dampen the excitement at the annual spring imperial party last month as the royal family strolled along Tokyo’s Akasaka Palace grounds. Mao Asada, the Olympic figure skating silver medalist, was so overwhelmed when Emperor Akihito spoke to her that she managed only to repeatedly reply “yes,” and “thank you very much.”

It was a typical reaction that shows the magnetic hold the emperor and empress have over the Japanese people.

Missing as usual from the festivities was Crown Princess Masako who suffers from a stress-related disorder that causes anxiety and distress and only occasionally attends official functions. On that day, however, she was caught up in another issue compounding her personal difficulties. Princess Masako was with her eight-year-old daughter at school, encouraging the young princess who is struggling to overcome absenteeism.

Princess Aiko, who is in the third grade at an exclusive, private school traditionally associated with the imperial family, became reluctant to attend class in early March after she was frightened by the rough behavior of some boys, according to palace officials. Since then, in a worrisome situation of the vulnerable leading the fragile, Princess Masako began accompanying her daughter to school every day, with the two of them returning home after just a few hours there.

As a woman from the same generation, I have sympathy and empathy for the 46-year-old crown princess. The Harvard-educated career diplomat lost her independence when she married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993. She then spent years trying to bear a male heir. Eight years into the marriage, she produced Princess Aiko, who as a female cannot ascend the throne.

All the while, Princess Masako has been under intense public scrutiny as to whether she meets the standards of the tradition-bound imperial family. The Japanese royals don’t have any real political power, the post-World War II Constitution having stripped the emperor of his controversial wartime leadership. Today, the job of imperial family members is to attend official functions, which they do nearly every day, and to partake in religious rituals inside the palace.

These days the Japanese are increasingly questioning whether, when the time comes, Crown Prince Naruhito will be able to carry out the duties of the throne — ceremonial as they are — with the continued absence of his wife.

It’s hard to know much detail of goings-on inside the moat that surrounds the downtown Tokyo imperial grounds. Palace officials restrict their weekly briefings to a select group of journalists from the mainstream Japanese media who in turn tend to acquiesce to imperial requests on what not to write. After officials announced the bare bones of Princess Aiko’s problems, they asked the captive press to refrain from reporting on the school.

Palace doctors did provide an update on Princess Masako’s condition in early February, saying they had been treating her for more than five years for “adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood.” They emphasized that the princess was recovering well, but with her rare appearances it doesn’t seem that way to the public. Without more frequent and specific updates on her treatment and progress, interest and sympathy for the princess is in danger of fading.

That would be a shame because Princess Masako is in a unique position to be a source of comfort and support to the Japanese, especially women, because she can cast light on their struggles through her own experiences with them. A plummet in career, infertility and school problems are common issues among women and mothers here. Psychological disorders, long stigmatized, are only recently being openly discussed.

The princess also has the charisma to appeal to a wide audience. I remember how giddy with excitement the women I spoke to along the streets of her wedding carriage procession were, charmed by her radiant smile and pretty face. Her rare public statements are frank and touching. “I was overcome with a feeling of ‘Thank you so much for coming into this world,’” she said after the birth of Princess Aiko.

Due to the stress she feels from being in the limelight, Princess Masako hasn’t spoken to the public since a 2002 press conference. But hopefully we will hear more of her heartfelt remarks in the future. Until then, Empress Michiko, 75, will continue holding down the fort as imperial consort.

One morning late last month, the main street by my house was suddenly empty of traffic, and small crowds formed by the crosswalks where the pedestrian lights remained red. Empress Michiko was passing through town. As the motorcade rolled by, the empress delighted onlookers with a full view of her kind gaze, the window of her black sedan rolled down all the way. Empress Michiko nodded and smiled to passersby, looking beautiful and elegant, but with the soft creases in her face revealing a weariness of age.

Kumiko Makihara is a writer and translator living in Tokyo.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Heiwa no Mori Koen obstacle course!

A paradise for active kids, this place. Absolutely brilliant: climbing frames, climbing ropes, ladders, zip lines, floating logs, and almost all of it under shade trees. One particularly challenging bit had us crawling through a rope tunnel that was practically a vertical loop-dee-loop.

This one tripped me up:
It was taking me so long to get through it that Gabrielle's 12-year-old daughter suggested I split my legs and leap rather than climb up and down. That, um, didn't work so well.

Whenever I had to scale a wall, I thought of that struggling navy cadet Casey Seeger (I just totally IMDB'ed that) in An Officer and a Gentleman. Where is Richard Gere to inspire me? I joked. None of the British mums knew what the heck I was talking about.

For those who want to go -- and I strongly recommend that you do -- I should say that we went during half term, on a Tuesday, and had the place to ourselves because Japanese schools were in session; I can imagine it being mobbed on weekends. Also, take note that there is a Heiwajima Park AND a "Heiwa no mori koen" marked on p. 74 of the bilingual Tokyo City Atlas I bring everywhere with me (and that I think every expat should have). These two parks are separated by a big road called Kannana dori (same name as the exit you take off the Shuto Expressway if you're driving there). The obstacle course is on the south side of the road, near the tennis courts, not far from the water (part of Tokyo Bay, or maybe a canal leading out to Tokyo Bay -- apparently there's a rocky beach worth exploring too). Click here to see a google map. There is a parking lot, but you can take the train too. The closest station is Heiwajima on the Keihin Kyuko line, 7 min. from Shinagawa, a major hub.

The kids (and you) should wear sturdy feet-hugging water shoes or sandals like Keens, something with good tread. Sneakers only get soggy; Crocs are terrible for climbing, or even running for that matter, and the course terrain is uneven, rocky, tree-rooty and muddy, though there are grassy bits too). Hide your food -- picnicking is against the rules and the maintenance man/rule enforcer does walk around checking the equipment (which is a good thing, I know). Bring lots of water or stock up at the entrance vending machine. Oh and don't forget Band-Aids and a change of clothes for each of you, including parents (we had some, ahem, adult mishaps on the raft that you "ride" across the pond, pulling yourself along via some low-hanging ropes. Let's just say Victoria was happy she didn't wear her white shorts.
Read more about Heiwa no mori koen and other Tokyo parks here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

relic from another time?

I had heard that Japan had beer vending machines but haven't really seen all that many. This one, outside a liquor store near Namiki bashi, on the Sakura-gaokacho side of Meiji dori (sort of hidden next to the northeast end of the bridge that takes you over the train tracks and into Daikanyama) seems to be out of order.
Maybe the other two are working. (Is that umeshu by the quart?)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What is Life?

Even though I can't read the aisle cards, or any labels on any of the products, and have to rely on my power of sight (what looks like sliced ham is sliced ham, what looks like chicken legs are chicken legs, etc.) and memories of past purchases, I love, love LIFE supermarket on Meiji-dori. It's between Shibuya and Ebisu in the Higashi area (walking with Shibuya station behind you, cross Namiki bashi (if you turned right you'd head into Daikanyama) and it's a bit farther on your left; the sign is a big golden four-leaf clover on a red background, which you can't miss).
I come here for the unbeatable (as far as I know) price on the boys' favorite cereal (a shameful "choco" version of Cheerios that I bought the first week we moved here because I was worried they were traumatized and wanted to cheer them up with something I never ever would've allowed them to have before -- and now it's breakfast 4 out of 7 mornings a week).

I also come for the wasabi flavored rice crackers. Still haven't been able to find the amazing yuzu version of same..
miso paste


Dylan makes a Fortune Cat

Behold Dylan's "Maneki neko," a.k.a. Beckoning cat, Lucky cat, or Fortune cat. It's the latest project to come out of his after-school Japanese Culture Club.

Spotted this one painted on the wall of a stairwell leading down to a restaurant near Center Gai in Shibuya. If I understand things correctly, when his right paw is up, it means "Good Luck;" left paw raised means "Welcome."

favorite beer poster ever.

One day I am going to ask this tiny noodle place on Meiji dori if I can have -- or buy! -- this poster that is taped up outside their front door. Trouble is, it's always closed when I walk by after morning drop off, on my way to Life Supermarket... If I ever remember to go by there in the evening, how much should I offer for it? Is 1,000 yen ($10) fair?

new hangout

Hiroshi, originally uploaded by STREAMER COFFEE.

Meet Hiroshi. He's friendlier than he looks in this photo. He's a barista at the new Streamer Coffee Company at 1-20-28 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. The place, conveniently located near school, has a nice, spare, airy feel to it. It ain't cheap: a large double-shot latte (including "extreme latte art," according to the menu) is 520 yen. Still, it's way better than any Starbucks'.

Plus, the place has free Wi-Fi. And power outlets!

This is something the other two free-Internet-with-purchase cafes I know in the area -- Wired, in the Q Front/Tsutaya building at Shibuya crossing and sister joint Wired Cafe 360, in the KDDI building on Meiji dori in Harajuku -- don't have. Not that I usually carry my computer around with me, but it's nice to know there's the option.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'Sweden' is now 'Silkream'

That tired old ice cream parlor that the boys loved -- the one called Sweden that was a few doors down from TOA Textile World (great fabric place), west of the JR train tracks, across the street and up the road from Tower Record in the Udagawacho area of Shibuya ku -- has been replaced with something better: a pretty new "dolci cafe" with a takeout window! Now we're talking. And the prices are reasonable (given some of the astonishing gelateria prices around town). We paid 380 yen for this decent sized soft-serve-yet-premium-quality vanilla cone.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Big dog. Little dog.

As I said in my last post I don't often see big dogs here in Tokyo. This big fluffy standard poodle made me (almost) want one.

I still find it amusing that people here dress their dogs and bring them into coffee shops and restaurants and treat them like human beings. These two were so quiet I almost didn't see them standing there behind my chair at Segafredo's in Hiroo. Very well-behaved. I guess they'd have to be, in order to be allowed in. I don't think Japanese would tolerate ill-behaved dogs in public places. Come to think of it I don't think I've seen an ill-behaved dog in the more than two years that we've lived here. They must be kept behind closed doors, their owners too ashamed to take them out. The standard's owner said he was very quiet even at home, never yipping for attention like his little sidekick.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Golden Week Monday Pt. 2

After a fantastic lunch at Ukai Toriyama, Clare, Emma and I walked up Mt. Takao. Well, part of the way. We took the chair lift halfway up (there's also a cable car) and probably saved ourselves an hour.
As we approached the lift station we realized that most people were finishing up for the day, which worked out great for us, as we only had to queue for about 15 min.

Usually I'm afraid of heights but the wooden slats and chain link fence that ran between the treetops and my dangling feet made me feel safe. (That's Emma and Clare in the seat in front of me.)
From where we got off, it was less than an hour's walk up to the summit. Along the way we saw this big tree. Those are Shinto prayer ropes around the trunk (shimenawa, used to mark spots of spiritual significance, like the shrine up ahead).

We still had quite a bit of company on the trail

Rest stop sustenance (not for us though, we were still stuffed from lunch)

more snacks (one day I will try these skewered mochi balls)

Tengu statue outside the Yakuo-in temple, Mt. Takao's "spiritual home and prayer place" near the summit dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine, Yakushi Nyorai. A Tengu, this website explains, is a "long-nosed demon-like being known to dwell on sacred mountains." Apparently they serve as messengers for various deities and buddhas, chastise evildoers and protect the good. They are often depicted holding a Japanese fan, or uchiwa, which they use to "sweep away misfortune." I read somewhere else that Tengu are gods of mischief, and patrons of the martial arts. Hmm...

I'd like to return to Takao-san on a day where the Buddhist monks are fire-walking or sitting beneath waterfalls reciting mantras and sutras as part of their ascetic training.

Carving on outer temple wall

Resting at the top

As we made our way back down we passed this fine young couple and their dog. In a sling.
Well, hello!

You don't see a lot of big dogs in Japan, or at least I haven't, but those I do see are treated like, well, dogs (not babies to be coddled like that little Chihuahua in a sling!)

day trip!

For us, Golden Week 2010 was all about eating out. On the Monday, May 3, we went for lunch at the very famous Ukai Toriyama in Hachioji, west of Tokyo and next to Mt. Takao, because friends said it was one of those things we just had to do at least once before we left Japan. And they were right! What a beautiful place. We sat in a private tatami room inside a thatched roof hut overlooking a Japanese garden, complete with koi-filled pond, stone lanterns and red Japanese maples, and indulged in a very satisfying multi-course meal.

This lady showed us to our room

And what a room it was..

View from our room, of another room across the pond
View from our room looking the other way, shot from the little balcony we could access through the sliding doors

First course: a tangle of dried smoked fish bits (bonito, better than it sounds) over a pickled green vegetable that's kind of a cross between celery and asparagus

Second course: sesame tofu (very good, if you like that sorta thing, which I do)

Next: grilled eggplant with red miso (I think this was my favorite of all -- forgot to get a closeup)

This guy brought the hot coals for the robatayaki (grilling meat over an open hearth)

The sand is raked just so

Before the bbq got underway, we were served a light soup of chicken meatball, leeks and leafy greens

Then came the carp sashimi (not, as you might think, slices of the same fancy koi swimming in the pond outside). Tasted a bit like snapper I guess. Chewier than I would've liked, but fresh, and the sesame and ponzu dipping sauces helped.
David was not convinced.

Time to grill! Our server brings baskets of small green peppers, leeks and chicken on sticks

The grill tops had gutters to catch the drippings. Brilliant!

Best condiment: chili-yuzu sauce, gently spicy and citrusy-sweet

But wait, there's more: grilled whole fish

The final course was also the least popular (I think I was the only one who had a few bites): a cold porridge of grated nagaimo, or mountain yam, over rice

Two gelatinous azuki (red bean) sweets arrived (part of the larger carp set menu, which we had ordered for the guys) but there were no takers. (Except for me.) It had been rolled in some powdery green stuff that I assumed was matcha, but the waitress shook her head no, though had difficulty explaining what it actually was. (Anybody?)

Terry with Clare
Emma, Clare's friend visiting from England, standing on the balcony outside our room

Our room from the other side of the pond (we went for a little stroll around the grounds after lunch)

So gorgeous we didn't want to leave...

Ukai Toriyama runs a free shuttle bus from Takaosanguchi station, the last stop on the Keio line (less than an hour from Shinjuku) and next door to where the Mt. Takao hiking trails begin and the cable car and chair lift launch. My advice: Take the train! Our friends decided to drive all of us, and what should've been a 30-40 min. drive turned into 3 hours (the risk of bank holiday traffic: one minor accident on the expressway and you're screwed) -- though remarkably, we made it to the restaurant on time for our midday reservation, and the delay meant that by the time we made it to the mountain it was no longer quite so mobbed. I'll post about our trail walk next...