Thursday, February 23, 2012

When you can't shovel mud...

... or help rebuild a damaged house, because you're only in town for 36 hours and you have children with you, there are other ways to help in areas still struggling to recover from the effects of the worst tsunami in Japan's recorded history: you can shop, and you can eat. It's not much, but it's something.

Earlier this month I traveled to Tohoku with two friends and their daughters, and though there was value in our going, in a community outreach/relationship building sort of way, it was slightly embarrassing to watch volunteers head off in work boots to install floors and insulation while we were preparing to visit some ladies who make jewelry.

You have to play to your strengths, though. We weren't construction workers, we were consumers. We could spend our money in the local shops, support the local merchants, eat in local restaurants. Pump some cash into the local economy. So that's what we did, every chance we got.

Friday night we bought crackers and biscuits, soup mix and salad dressings from a miso shop run by the Takoisago family in Watanoha. They had lost many relatives, neighbors and friends in the tsunami, and were working to bring back their business. Best purchase there: a just-sweet-enough miso version of the Rice Krispie treat:

That night we ate at Chikuzen, which means "Virtuous Bamboo," also in Watanoha, and it was so good we went back on Saturday night too. It had the usual izakaya fare: katsu-don, tempura, yakitori and sashimi, all delicious. The restaurant was pretty full the first night, moderately busy the next.

Before heading up to Funakoshi to see the ladies on Saturday, we stopped in at Matsumura sports, one of the first stores to reopen in downtown Ishinomaki after March 11. They are a good source of T-shirts designed and sold expressly to raise funds for the cause. In fact, the 'It's Not Just Mud' house where we were staying had a hand-drawn map marking the store's location taped up in the breakfast room, next to some sample 'Never-Forget' themed tees hanging from the door frame. Of course we were gonna go buy some.

We found the shop well stocked with football and rugby jerseys, boots, and other gear, in addition to a full range of T-shirts. Covering the walls were photographs and notes of support and encouragement and thanks, presumably to/from neighbors and volunteers that helped clear the streets and get things going again. The ladies in the shop were super friendly and polite, digging through boxes to find our sizes and chatting with Julia who can banter a bit in Japanese.

At Homac, a big-box "home amenities" store much like The Home Depot, we picked up a dozen seat cushions to replace the thin floor coverings around INJM's dining room table.
And nobody was more excited than me to discover Eclair, a pretty French bakery surrounded by vacant lots and construction sites.

Here we loaded up on chocolate bread and almond croissants, some for Anna at INJM and some for our 5-hr return trip to Tokyo.


Read more about our trip, and It's Not Just Mud, one of many NPOs working in Ishinomaki, here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

the Funakoshi ladies

Last Saturday, Julia drove a few of us up to Funakoshi, a fishing village on the Tohoku coast, in Miyagi prefecture north of Onagawa, that was all but wiped out by the March 11 tsunami. A half dozen Or so local women have been meeting in the primary school building, on the third floor, where a wall clock is stuck at 3:23 pm and space heaters provide the only warmth, to make charms and necklaces out of bits of rubble- specifically Ogatsu stone, a beautiful slate, scavenged from among the village ruins. The pieces, hand painted and decorated with beads or braided yarn, are being sold to raise money for the rebuilding of the community. One of the ladies' sons also helps out. He painted the hawk on the necklace I chose for Dylan.

We spent a few hours there - the girls painting a few of the stones and, from what I could see, bringing some good cheer to the group. KT and I were on yarn duty - tying and plaiting the strands that were to hold the stone pendants. I never did quite get the knots to twist properly.

I was a much more successful shopper, purchasing quite a few of the finished pieces with the intention to sell them at triple the price to our friends in Tokyo and return all funds to the ladies. (I decided to sell most of them to myself - and to give them as gifts, etc.) Julia had been up to Funakoshi once before this, and she reupped her stash.

There's real revenue potential here, that's clear; lots of orders have come in, thanks to some publicity and support from the Ishinomaki NPO 'It's Not Just Mud' (see previous post). But the ladies haven't been aggressive about the pricing, and production averages around 20-30 pieces a day. So we're talking small scale. Still, what's going on in this place,  I think, is more about community preservation and morale. About sticking together, and being proactive. I should mention that all local children who attended the school where they meet have been relocated - on March 11, Funakoshi, pop. 350, only lost 9 of their residents.

I took this picture of Julia and her daughter Maegan from outside the school-turned-community center, which is behind me:

Me standing in front of the entrance to the school

Inside the school, peering out a third-story window, from where we sat with the ladies on tatami mats and ate lunch. Most of the buildings that had been destroyed by the tsunami have been torn down, lots cleared of debris. It's a start. (Apparently the plan is to rebuild the village on higher ground - behind the school there is a hill, and the structures there seem OK.)

 Ladies turning pieces of roof tile into art:

Quittin' time, around 4pm


To get to Funakoshi from Ishinomaki, where we were staying, we headed north then east, following the Kitakami river, then turned south to Ogatsu then back north, along twisting mountain roads.  I hope I get back there some day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

road trip to the Tohoku coast

Caught a ride up to Ishinomaki with friends Julia and KT and their 10- and 11-year-old daughters last weekend, to see how we might help out in some way with the ongoing recovery. The fine folks at 'It's Not Just Mud' put us up for two nights, in their house (base camp) in Watanoha, a suburb east of Ishinomaki city, in Miyagi prefecture. (INJM is a volunteer nonprofit organization founded by a 26-year-old Brit who quit his day job to assist the recovery effort full time - watch a short BBC News report about him here: )

When we arrived late Friday evening, Anna Swain, American volunteer extraordinaire (she's been living and working in Ishinomaki since May 2011) was there to welcome us and sort us out. She directed us to our sleeping quarters, a tatami room on the ground floor across the hall from another tatami room where INJM volunteers gathered for meals. In this communal dining room, there was a long low table with cushions around it, a sort of makeshift kotatsu - traditional Japanese setup where there's a heat source under the table, and a tablecloth down to the floor, covering your crisscrossed legs, only in the case here, INJM had a space heater and air hose pumping heat under the skirt. If you weren't around that table, you were freezing, unless of course you kept your puffy jacket, hat, gloves and long johns on...

Anna explained that none of the homes in the area - among the hardest hit by the March 11, 2011 Great Japan earthquake/tsunami - had heat. Japanese homes are typically poorly insulated (if they're insulated at all) and this winter had been particularly brutal.

The good news is, there is power, so electric blankets can make all the difference. Several weeks ago Anna posted an appeal on Facebook asking her 400+ friends to send some, and, amazingly, many have done so, ordering them from She waits until she has 20 or 30 or 50 in hand, then distributes them among residents of a particular neighborhood or temporary housing development in need. Nobody would accept one otherwise.

By the way, anyone can donate an electric blanket, and it's not too late - spring does not come early on the northeast coast, like it does in Tokyo. Here's how to do it:

Go to (click "view page in English" to make this easier) search for product "NA-013K" and that should bring up a single size electric blanket for 3,600 yen (about $45).

Buy and ship to:
It's Not Just Mud
c/o Anna Swain
Postal Code 986-2135
74-5 Sakaeda, Ishinomaki-shi
Miyagi-ken (Prefecture)
Tel: 0423667572 did not recognize me as an existing customer because my account is with But I was able to make the purchase on using my U.S. credit card and billing address without a problem. 

Do it!

Here's me with Anna (in the pink hat) outside the INJM house. We've all just signed the door and we're saying goodbye. Send her some blankets!
More about what we did that weekend in my next post...

Monday, February 6, 2012

'Spectacular ukiyo-e imagination!'

Last chance (!!) to see the Kuniyoshi exhibit at the Mori Arts Center Gallery, on the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. Show ends Feb. 12th.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (1797-1861) was one of the last great ukiyo-e masters. He's know for some delightfully strange woodblock prints, featuring cats in yukata, toads, samurai wrestling with fish, and my personal favorite (see poster above) entitled, "At first glance he looks very fierce, but he is really a nice person," first printed in 1845.

Click here for a sneak peek.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

I feel sorry for Jou-Jou

What's going on with this ramshackle house? Is a hoarder living there? Poor 'Jou-Jou Bar & Foods', such a great little hangout, right next door to an eyesore and fire hazard, though it seems to vanish after dark (at least I've never seem any lights on).

Jou-Jou is located at 5-1-32 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, just off Meiji-dori on the north side past the Eneos gas station. If you're heading east toward Tengenji-bashi, it's where you turn left for the Hiroo shopping street (Homework's, Smash Hits, etc.). The bartender is good with the cocktails - hand sculpts the ice to order with a pick and everything. Nice food too. Tiny place though.

a stroll down Meiji-dori in Hiroo...

reminds me that I should be working as a freelance copywriter.
Cocktails are for Kids! Please take a look at the wine list that I designed. Wine goes better with food, your body and takes you to beautiful places!

Bar Drunky, where all cocktails are 1,000 yen

You and the Night and the JAZZ

We use only Fresh Pork. We want to share our smile with you! 

bunny on the bus

One fine day in December I was riding a city bus bound for Shibuya, having just dropped the kids at school, and what do I see on the seat in front of me? A guy with a rabbit in his lap. (I love this town.)

Naturally, I asked the man if I could take some pictures. What else could I do, I was practically standing over him, shoulder to shoulder with the morning commuters, and it was at least another 10 minutes to the station. He said O.K.

Schoolboy looks on with awe

sad sort of rope-leash

Later at the bus station I spotted Bunny Man walking, holding a backpack just inches from the ground, the front flap unzipped to allow the rabbit, who was comfortably sitting inside, to see where they were going.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

hashi for the whole kazoku

Well it's official - we are leaving Japan at the end of June. Emotions are mixed, of course, but I'm generally happy with this plan, grateful to have had the time here, etc., etc., and fully intend to enjoy the remaining months. I'm also determined not to run around town buying "last chance" stuff. Like rolls of washi paper and grapefruit Frisk mints. We've collected enough mementos to last a lifetime.

But I have my weak moments, like on Friday afternoon, when I walked past Tokyu Hands on my way to run an errand in Udagawacho, in Shibuya, and, for the record, did *not* go inside (that place is dangerous - it sells everything you never knew you needed - like paper clips shaped like clothes hangers, and sumo wrestler kitchen magnets). But there was this nice man outside the north entrance, selling chopsticks, and engraving them too.

Long story short, now everybody in the family has a pair.

The hashi artiste told me he's only there occasionally, as he moves around to other locations (other Tokyu Hands department stores in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro) but he'll be selling, and engraving, outside the Shibya store through this weekend.

Watch him in action:

After engraving, he rubbed gold paint into the grooves.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

a family goes out for dessert...

...and mom gives in. (Sometimes you just have to let them get what they want.)

what is it with melon soda? looks like antifreeze!