Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gishi-sai festival

Every year on Dec. 14 there's a memorial event honoring the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin, masterless Samurai who on this day some 300 years ago performed ritual suicide after avenging the betrayal of their lord (who upon being betrayed committed seppuku, leaving them masterless). First there's the Gishi-Gyoretsu, a procession of volunteer Ronin-reps (bearing some very long swords) through the streets of Tokyo, along Showa dori and Sotobori dori and Hibiya dori, with a stop at Zojo-ji and then on to the Sengaku temple in Takanawa, Minato ward, burial site for the real ones.

Terry and I caught up with the group in Tsukiji, near the Chuo ward office, just as they were starting out around midday, and we followed them for a bit until Terry had to go back to the office. Some pics:

 dude in the cool helmet, leader of the pack, waiting to cross the street, spots me with my camera...

and poses!

I read online somewhere that "The Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers in Akoh" is one of the best loved tales in Japan, told and retold in movies and TV dramas and in Kabuki theater; the plays and novels that recount the legend usually go by the titles Chushingura ("The Loyal Retainers") and Akoh Roshi ("Akoh's Masterless Samurai").

Not for nothin', but Robert DeNiro learns all about the 47 Ronin from a French guy who paints miniature samurai figures (and gives him a safe place to recover from a bullet wound) in the 1997 John Frankenheimer film Ronin, which we just watched for the 5th or 6th time the other night (we were taking a break from Season 2 of The Walking Dead). If you've never seen it, rent it, there are some terrific car chases.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

silly purchase of the month: the 'Poodleg'

Available now at the Pansy shop on Aoyama dori. It's near the Crocs store, between the Children's Castle/U.N. University and Kotto dori. Because I know if you're in Tokyo you'll want to run out and buy a pair for yourself right now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

it's a theme

re: previous post, this "Let's..." business is everywhere. Big thanks to Katy Dix for finding these gems...and sending me these pics:

From my dentist's office:

gift tags purchased from the 100 yen store
"Let's get friendly forever and ever!"


Ah, Starbucks and Christmas. Christmas and Starbucks. Is there a better seasonal marketing campaign than the "Let's ...." series? I don't think so.

Let's take a look.

And now my two favorites (photos by Katy Dix, chief "Let's" spotter)

Less than 2% of the population of Japan is Christian but that doesn't stop this country from celebrating the season with Santa outfits, poinsettias, and fir trees with all the trimmings. Sometimes in pink and and silver... gotta give "Starba" (is this British shorthand or universal? help me here people) credit for going with traditional red.

Here are the boys at Shibuya station, East bus terminal. I think Dylan is drinking ice milk (me-roo-koo)...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

goodbye, good friend

One of the tough things about being an expat kid is that every few months or so, you're saying goodbye to one of your friends. Not surprising, really; the expat community is by nature transient, with families moving in and on with regular frequency, as jobs change, international assignments end, or, as is more often the case these days, companies shut down or make employees redundant. Lately, though, what seems to be spurring some families to go is a weariness - parents, primarily mothers, sick of worrying about their kids' health and safety in post-March 11 Japan. Specifically, nagging concerns about food, whether it's contaminated, how much can you safely eat if it is, etc.

That's not to say that this subject still dominates coffee morning conversation. It doesn't. (Seems bullying at school is the new hot topic.) I think people here have come to accept a certain amount of risk, and anyway, nothing serious (as far as I know) has been detected in Tokyo save for the occasional report of, say, radioactive Cesium found in Meiji-brand baby formula.  It's important to note that in this particular case the levels detected in the product were far below the government limit, though try telling the mother of an infant that a little Cesium is O.K.

Same with mothers of older kids. I don't want to give my kids even a little Cesium 134 or Cesium 137 or any other isotope that "may" increase their risk of cancer later in life. Key word "may" as the long term effects of low-level exposure are still not known, not in kids or adults. At a safety briefing at school a few weeks ago, we were told that it's still unclear whether young developing bodies, because they are young and still developing, are more vulnerable, or more resistant to harm.

So we've become vigilant about reading labels on the produce and meal and milk, avoiding anything that comes from Fukushima (if the store even carries it, which many have started to, as a show of support for the poor Fukushima farmers) and the areas around it. I try to buy items from Kyushu (down south) and Hokkaido (north). Of course, we're told that food can be re-routed and labels marked with only the most recent location rather than the true origin; that a little contamination is permitted under government regulations, so producers could be mixing a little bad in with the good, to keep the overall supply within acceptable range (though Meiji's actions in recalling 400,000 cans of tainted formula is encouraging); and, even in a country with strict standards and an above-average safety inspection system, that it's impossible to test all food in any comprehensive, effective, reliable way.

So we worry.  I can't imagine there's anybody who doesn't think about it whilst picking up a head of broccoli or lettuce. I know that many who once shopped at their local green grocer now almost exclusively shop at the international supermarkets and pay more for imported produce; some have stopped buying milk altogether. Some keep a list of the kanji for prefectures to avoid in their handbags.

And some leave.

Long-time expats here (non-Japanese friends who've been here well past your more typical 3 to 5 year stay, in some cases longer than a decade, their kids born and raised here) often say that for the children, it's always harder to be the one left behind. Dylan would probably agree. His good friend Edwin has just gone, and it's hit him pretty hard. In the last three years he'd been over to ours countless times, for play dates and sleepovers; the boys had done "Swim Friends" and tennis lessons and karate classes together. When Dylan took a few friends out for Korean barbecue to celebrate his 8th birthday, Edwin was there. He's a great kid, and we'll all miss him.

Best of luck to you, Ed!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

raising the bar

It's common now for Japanese companies to regularly measure employees' waistlines and demand they stay fit, else they be fined by the government. Some offices pump 'exercise music' over loudspeakers, as a way to encourage workers to periodically rise from their cubicles and move a little.

Let this mechanical guy be an inspiration to salarymen everywhere.

spotted at Hakuhinkan Toy Park, 8-8-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday in Ginza

Chuo-dori, near Harumi -dori, the heart of Tokyo's posh Ginza shopping district, around 4 p.m. on December 4

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tokyo Metro, reminding us how to behave

Drunk on the train? No sweat, just be sure to stay upright even as you pass out...

Actual English tagline: 'Even if you've had a few drinks, please don't lie down on the train seat.'

Saturday, December 3, 2011

December arrives, and brings winter with it

December 1st: The boys on Komazawa dori, waiting for me to hail a taxi to take us to school; it's a chilly wet Thursday morning, and we're running a little late...

Friday, December 2, 2011


The other night I finally had a chance to check out where they filmed the karaoke scenes in Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation. It's a Karaoke-Kan in Udagawacho, just off Center Gai and a few minutes walk from Shibuya station. Aside from the fact that a few of the rooms - like 601, where the movie was shot - offer amazing views of the street outside, the place is nothing special, really, one of a generic national chain of establishments where, like Shidax and Big Echo, you pay per hour and per person for a private room. I do like the direct telephone line to the bar, and when the waiters stoop on bended knee as not to block your view of the screen. But I need to ask: why are so many karaoke-box tunes accompanied by video footage of the Brooklyn Bridge?

Alas, our small group of four women, arriving at this Karaoke-Kan around 11:30pm on a rainy Friday night in November, could not book 601 (or 602, another room the filmmakers used), but were instead escorted to a windowless space down the hall, so we could have been anywhere. And the song selection fell short - no Adele! can you believe? - which surprised me, especially when just a couple weeks before I had spent half an hour in a karaoke room with the kids at EST, also in Shibuya, on the east side of Meiji dori across from Miyashita koen, and they had everything. EST also has ping pong, billiards, bowling and a videogame arcade - a post for another time. (And is it pronounced "est"? or "ee-ess-tee"? Anybody?)

As we were leaving to go home around 1 a.m., we saw that 601 was vacant and so stepped inside to snap a few.  I've been hearing Bill Murray singing Elvis Costello in my head ever since: "What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding..." 
Ya think Bill stood right here, in this same spot?!??

Karaoke-Kan, 30-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. (Located northwest of Shibuya station and the big scramble crossing, on the same road as the big Coach, Loft, HMV and Zara stores; if you are walking with Coach and Loft on your right, HMV and Zara on your left, the building will be ahead on the left hand side before the police office/koban, where the road bends to the north toward Tokyu Hands.)
Tel: 03-3462-0785
Open 11 am to 6 pm

Thursday, December 1, 2011

fun fact of the day

Among Japanese households, the most popular meal on Christmas day is... wait for it... fried chicken.

Buckets of KFC takeaway, in particular.
Image borrowed from Metropolis)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

trail walk!

A few weeks ago Terry and I took the boys to Kamakura to do the Daibutsu hiking course, a 3.5km trail that snakes southwestward beginning at the Jochiji temple near Kita-Kamakura station, and winds up and around mountains and through woods, its path gnarled by exposed tree roots; at the end of the road is the big Buddha at Kotoko-in. I'd done this trail walk before, in the spring of 2008 with a friend (and posted about it here) and then again last year with some other moms from school (though that time a few of us veered off course and ended up at the beach, ducking hawks, but never mind...) As for Terry and the boys, it was their first time. A couple of years ago the kids probably wouldn't have gotten through it without a lot of whining and feet-dragging, but they're 9 and 11 now, and so they managed, and seemed to really enjoy it, and it was really rather pleasant for all of us.

The course is not too arduous, but the terrain keeps things interesting. Lots of up and down.

It's good to walk with a big stick, I always say

one of the maps signposted along the way

At about the midpoint, we stopped for a rest in this little clearing not to far from Genjiyama-koen (a few minutes' detour, but worth it for the very impressive shogun statue, pictured below). We sat on tree stumps around a giant stone slab table, enjoying snacks and sunshine. Dylan wasn't quite sure about his rice cracker, which he selected from a plastic bin outside the little nearby shrine, leaving 100 yen in the dish beside it. It has some sort of white sugary coating on it.

Drinks all around! apple juice from the vending machine.

I purchased this stick 'o somethin' from a cart manned by two lovely old ladies who were pan-frying them in a big pot, because an old man told me to. "Healthy," he said, pointing at the, what, potatoes? mochi balls? He couldn't think what to call them, until then he did, and I googled it: konnyaku, and it is in fact a type of potato, but more glutenous. Apparently native to Indonesia, introduced in Japan in the 6th Century as a medicine. Slightly crunchy, in that root veg sort of way. Fairly bland, even sauteed in soy sauce. (The ladies had a big ole pot they were heating them in.) Apparently the stuff is high in fiber, rich in minerals, low in calories. Well, the old man was pleased that I gave it a try.

The mighty Miramoto Yoritomo, Shogun from 1192-1199, the start of the Kamakura period

Dylan takes the lead (see tiny figure way beyond the other two)

What's this?! We came across this seemingly brand-new Garden Cafe, situated just off-course, at the same moment we thought the boys were about to fake total collapse...

Quick cure: tall glasses of Coke, with big fat wedges of lemon. Coffee for me, beer in a big stein for Terry. Onward!

Final stretch

The reward at the end: the Daibutsu, cast in bronze in the mid-13th century, and originally housed inside a temple, which was washed away in the tsunami of 1498. I always enjoy seeing the big guy. (I've posted better photos of him than this... click here and scroll down.)

There are several clusters of Jizo statues on the grounds of the Hase-dera temple, not far down the road from the Daibutsu. Jizo, a bodhisattva (enlightened being) in Buddhism, is a protector of children, primarily those in limbo (unborn, miscarried, aborted etc. - a tad gruesome for such a merry looking fellow). These little hillside herds are totally worth checking out, and there's also a rest area with a view of the sea.

Some extra special bonsai were on display there that weekend.

Monday, November 14, 2011


photo by Kathleen Paulsson

Over the weekend we took the boys for a walk through the Institute for Nature Study's amazing piece of property in Shirokanedai. Once you enter the grounds you feel completely separated from the big city, even though the place is smack in the middle of it. It's enclosed by a high wall that makes it feel truly protected. (An expressway runs all along its western border, and the Teien art museum is at its south end. See below for directions.)

There are some very, very old trees here. The trails wind through and around forest, marsh and pond habitats, and there's lots of pretty flora, though all markers are in Japanese, which, sadly, I still can't read, even after all this time living here. In spring there are cherry blossoms. For more information, visit the website. English page is here.

Note that there are strict rules. Specifically: "Please do not disturb other visitors by singing, jogging, dancing, or playing catch." (This is not Yoyogi Park, people.) Also: Please do not release any alien animals, especially fishes, turtles, or cats, as alien species of plants and animals disturb the ecosystem. (Fair enough.) No alcohol, radios or musical instruments. And no picking flowers or leaves or taking seeds home. You can smoke (Japan's still not there yet), but only at the benches that have ashtrays (at least we have that).

Admission is cheap at twice the price: 300 yen for adults, under 18 free. Visitors are given pink ribbons to wear. Conor balked at first. ("Who! WHO will not wear dee ribbon?!")

The Institute for Nature Study (Shizen kyoiku en)
5-21-5 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0071
Tel: 03-3441-7176 Fax: 03-3441-7012 Email:

The only entrance to the park is on Meguro dori - heading south on Gaien Nish dori, cross Meiji-dori at Tengenji bashi, and bear left onto Platinum dori. At Meguro dori, turn right, and it's past a little park on your right. Here's a map:

NYTs update on conditions at Fukushima plant

Reading Martin Fackler's story in the New York Times about his visit Saturday to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, eight months after the March 11 catastrophe. Fun facts:  There's a field full of 4 story-high tanks holding some 90,000 tons of contaminated water that had been dumped onto the reactors in an attempt to cool them. And so far Tepco has stored 480,000 sets of used protective clothing, discarded after each use by workers.

Fackler writes: "...[M]any nuclear experts say serious challenges remain. The biggest is the fact that the company does not know the exact condition of the fuel within the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, whose cores appear to have melted through the inner containment vessels. 'Cold shutdown is an indication that the accident phase is over,' said Akira Tokuhiro, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Idaho Falls, 'but the next phase of cleaning up will take more than 20 years.'

"During the plant tour, the bus kept moving at the most contaminated areas near the base of the reactors to limit the time there and, thus, the radiation exposure. As it did, a radiation detector on the bus jumped to 300 microsieverts per hour — high enough to reach the annual recommended maximum dosage in just over three hours."

One worker tells Fackler that the mood at the plant is "totally different now." Radiation levels aren't so high outside the buildings, but still high within the reactor buildings but not so high outside, though there are hotspots. In the only building within the plant where protective clothing is not needed, "visiting journalists passed through a series of rooms where teams of workers systematically cut off the layers of protective clothing with scissors. The discarding is done in stages to limit contamination; booties come off in one room, the full body suit in another," Fackler writes.

Click to read the full article, Devastation at Japan Site, Seen Up Close

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

today at Roppongi Hillzoo

Only 46 days until Christmas!