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!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I like my tea...pungent?

Maybe the best worst product name yet belongs to this milk-tea beverage from Kirin, now available in convenient stores and vending machines

John, Paul, George and Ringo

The Parrots performing at Abbey Road in Roppongi

Nowhere Man! Yellow Submarine! Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds! Hard Day's Night! Help!

These guys (pictured above) played all of those songs and more in five sets over four and a half hours at Abbey Road, a nightclub in Roppongi near Midtown, and they were amazing, just spot-on. The guy doing John, with his frizzy mad-scientist hair and dark specs, was absolutely brilliant, knocking it outta the park with "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." A baby-faced George - offstage nickname, "Bambino" - smiled a lot, charming the pants off us girls. Paul looked like a regular Japanese salaryman, but his "Let It Be" gave me chills. Ringo wasn't Ringo, but who could be?

The space isn't anything to get excited about -- we spent the evening seated with our friends around a small wooden table inches away from the next, ordering drinks and food, and forbidden to dance. You could sway a little, and clap of course -- and hold our heads and weep like those crazy fans from the early days, if we wanted to -- but how unsatisfying, especially when you hear the opening bars of yet another favorite. You wanna jump up! That's what you'd do if you were at a concert. This is more like dinner theater, with pitchers and good nachos (albeit a dainty, delicately arranged plate of them). I recommend the fish and chips.

An unexpected plus: usually when we go out at night in Tokyo, even though I don't smoke, my hair ends up smelling like an ashtray, but at Abbey Road, there's no smoking allowed while the band is playing - maybe to protect their vocal cords from the evil second-hand fumes? Whatever the reason, it works for me. No ashtray hair.

I suspect that the Parrots know every Beatles track ever recorded -- they perform at Abbey Road nearly every night of the week - and they do take requests. But no shouting out - you need to fill out a form and hand it to the waitress. The band didn't play many of the songs we asked for though. Not like the band we saw a couple times awhile back at the Cavern Club. Those guys played every tune on our list. (Helter Skelter! Glass Onion!) And like the Parrots, those guys were solid performers, all Beatles. They were also true impersonators, making more of an effort to mimic the personal styles and stage mannerisms of the original Fab Four. They even donned authentic band uniforms from Sgt. Pepper's the night they covered that album from beginning to end. (Lovely Rita! For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!) But the Cavern Club seems to have closed, or changed its theme, leaving Abbey Road to carry on solo. Or so it would seem. If anybody knows of another Tokyo hotspot of Beatlemania, please, share. In any case, Abbey Road will do just fine.

Abbey Road
Roppongi Building Annex B1
4-11-5, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032

Tel 03 3402 0017
Cost is 2,100 per person, plus two-drink minimum and 15% service charge. The latest reservation you can make on Fridays and Saturdays is 7:30pm; we booked for 7pm on Saturday, and by the time the band came on at 7:30pm, the place was full. There were some empty tables during the last set, which ended shortly after midnight.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Omotesando Koffee

This fantastic spot is almost too good to share. It's a tiny space, inside a traditional Japanese house down a side street in Jingumae north of Omotesando dori, with a lovely little outdoor garden seating area. I had the cappuccino, and a bit of baked custard, the sole food item available (trust me, it's all you need). Many thanks to Katy Dix (above) for introducing me. KT had seen this writeup about it in the FT, which, I should point out, calls the shop a "pop-up" that will change locations in January, but the owner told us today that it was staying put for now.

The cube of carmelized sugar (yummmm)

The interior is charming with its chandelier of paper notes and scribblings

Directions by bike or on foot: Head west (more like west-northwest) along the north side of Omotesando dori away from the Aoyama dori intersection and turn right after the United Colours of Benetton. Go to the end and follow the road as it curves to the left. When you reach "Yellow Ruby" at the next corner, turn right and head straight down that road another 2 short blocks or so and Omotesando Koffee will be on your left hand side, directly across from a vacant lot that's thick with weeds as high as your neck.

Omotesando Koffee
Address: 4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku 150-0001
Tel: 03 5413 9422
Open 10 am to 7 pm

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec in Marunouchi!

Today was Culture Day in Japan, so Terry and I got our cult-cha on big time at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, currently showing drawings and lithographs by late 19th-century Parisien painter Toulouse-Lautrec. There are write ups about it in both Tokyo Art Beat and the Japan Times, if you want details. I'll just say I highly recommend it. The exhibition runs through Dec. 25. The museum is located near the JR Tokyo station, address 2-6-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005. (We took the Hibiya metro line from Ebisu to the Hibiya station, exit B7).

A copy of one of T-L's most famous portraits, that of cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, happens to grace a building facade on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, in Washington DC. The Toulouse-Lautrec bar that occupied that building is no longer there -- the space has apparently been vacant for some time -- but the mural remains. Even though my friends and I, I won't say how many years ago, favored Millie & Al's across the street (cheapest pitcher of beer in town, but how did we eat that awful pizza??), Toulouse-Lautrec will always make me think of college.

but I'm not embarrassed...

With apologies to any male readers, when a lady purchases anything categorized as a 'feminine hygiene' product here, store clerks typically wrap it in brown paper, or a separate opaque bag. Yesterday, Lawson's did me one better with a girlie polka-dot number. (My light bulbs, blank DVDs and rice crackers were placed inside a standard-issue white bag. Shut up, I forgot my eco-bags at home.) 

So why the fuss? Am I supposed to be ashamed of my pantyliners?

Silly and unnecessary and old-fashioned as it seems, I shouldn't be surprised. There are particular ways of doing things here. There are standards to uphold. It wouldn't hurt us women to cultivate a bit of mystery now and then. There may be oversharing on Facebook and YouTube, but goshdarnit our unmentionables will remain hidden from view!

It does make sense given Japan's reputation for above-and-beyond customer service. The country  ranked No. 1 on that score in a recent poll of 400 international travelers, reported in the Aug. 5, 2011, issue of the New York Times Magazine. Russia came in dead last out of 24 nations; also at the bottom of the heap were China and Mexico. U.S. took 7th place, England, 16th. They're not special-wrapping the maxipads over there, now, are they?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

such workaholics

We spent Day 3 of the boys' half-term holiday at KidZania, this insane place where children can pretend to be cooks, cops, barbers, surgeons, airline pilots, firefighters, manga artists, pizza chefs, photographers, even Coca-Cola bottlers. Grownups, mercifully, are not admitted into the various work/role-playing areas, which are all incredibly well-staffed. The moms did help the kids navigate the place a little, and did a fair amount of nudging when they seemed indecisive or otherwise at loose ends, but mainly we sat around talking and drinking coffee and occasionally taking pictures. The place is headache-inducing, with the cacophonous acoustics and dim lighting (as in most casinos, it's always dusk in Kidzania-land) but the boys absolutely loved it, and I can think of worse ways to occupy them for a day (like Tokyo Disney, with its endless lines - ugh).

Interestingly, KidZania started in Mexico City in 1999; the Tokyo franchise opened in 2006. There are KidZanias in Jakarta, Lisbon, Dubai and Seoul, and supposedly there will be KidZanias in the U.S. come 2013. Not sure if they all operate the same way, but the KidZania here is all about waiting in line, undergoing a thorough briefing of rules and procedures, donning uniforms (surgical caps are required under any headgear), etc. There's a lot of preparation before there's any action. And yet the kids don't seem to mind. In six hours, they managed to complete seven jobs.

Conor's dance card, nearly full:

Dylan, the cop
Conor, the cook

Conor, the barber
Lots of school groups were there that day