Search This Blog

Sunday, February 28

Japanese Peculiarities #10

Apparently Kimono Peanut and I are not the only ones taking advantage of every warm and sunny day lately.  While out walking today, we came across many carts filled with... babies.  That's right, kids of all sizes, ranging probably in the age group of 1 to 5, peering out over the tops of these metal carts that they are being hauled around in. 

While I am no expert in what these babies-in-carts are doing, I am guessing that the local daycares take the kids out for their daily dose of Vitamin D this way.  And since pushing multiple strollers would be impossible (even those strollers that seat two kids side-by-side are utterly ridiculous to own here in Japan), they put them in these cart contraptions.  But here is what I don't get - why not just fence in an area and let them run free for a bit?  The answer there probably lies in the fact that there is such a small amount of spacing available for those kinds of daycare places to be squeezed into here in town.  Then I thought, maybe it is a kid delivery service!  But nah, they move way too slow.  If I was babysitting that many wee ones, you can bet your booty that I would be hustling faster than that to get rid of them and call it a day.  This brings me back to my only logical conclusion that it is a simple daily walk. 

I just find it completely strange because of the places I have seen them.  There has got to be better scenery to walk by than the busy car, bike, scooter and people filled streets. 

Whatever they are doing, babies in carts amuses me greatly.  These kids are checking out a gas station.  Woot!

Thursday, February 25

A Park and Play Kind of Day

The weather has finally set its sights on spring!  I can't tell you how happy this makes me.  I can't tell you how tired I am of being cold inside my own house.  I can't tell you how often I have thought that my heated toilet seat was the best seat in the house.  I can't tell you how much I dislike the cold in general.  But my homebody days are ending as the weather turns warmer.  Trees are starting to show their earliest spring blooms presenting all their shades of pink, yellow and white.  My God, I am happy.

In honor of the first very warm spring day, I threw a light jacket on Kimono Peanut, strapped him into the stroller and began the long walk to the park.  Not once on the walk did my nose get cold or did my fingers freeze.  Not once did KP sniffle in the cold breeze.  My God, I am happy.

We caroused the antique train that sits off to one side of the park.  We mounted each of the animals figures turned rides that spotted the landscape.  We clambered all over the antique fire truck.  We ran our fingers through the sand and mud beneath our feet and found ourselves camouflaged from the dirt and grit left behind in our clothes and skin.  It was just grand.  My God, we are happy.

The park was virtually empty save for an occasional runner passing through or a baseball player cutting across the playground to the field beyond.  Only after we had been there near an hour and thoroughly shrouded from our fun did we have our first real company.  There is a school nearby and for the first bright, sunny, warm day, they had brought all the kids out in their neon colored hats to soak up the sun.  When they saw us there, the teacher instantly called out to KP with friendly waves and smiles.  We watched the most orderly lines of kids, EVER, enter the park behind this woman and then line up quietly in front of her.  As they stood patiently and silently, she explained the rules of the day.  I caught some of it - things like playtime will be for one half hour, play nice with one another and play nice with the cute baby.  How sweet that she told these quiet little angels in front of her not to be impolite with my rough and tumble, thoroughly dirtied Peanut.  When she was done her speech, a loud 'go' caused shrieks and squeals and a fanning out of the kids in vividly bright hats, the likes of which you have probably never.  Then I knew why she said play nice.  They were wild!  But... in such a good and sweet way. 

The more bold of the group, apparently one of the older boys, came running directly to KP, helping him up when he fell down or wandered too far away.  They surrounded us and quipped away in their Japanese, of which I sadly didn't understand much of.  As we continued prattling around the park, all the kids took their turns waving and yelling out the only English word they were confident in using.  "Hello!  Hello"  KP gave them what they wanted with his enthusiastic waves and giggles, delighting each one in turn.

When it was time to start our walk home for lunch, the park exploded with goodbyes and waves.  It seems the spring spirit has caught us all.  My God, we are all so very happy.

Tuesday, February 23

This Mom Finally Does A Night On The Town

Since the Peanut came along, it isn't often that you will find me out of the house past 9:00 pm.  Lame, yes.  But I am a parent now and proud of taking on that responsibility.  Being a parent, I get less invitations to party than I used to.  I don't think is totally to do with being a parent though, and more to do with the fact that many of my closest friends here and the ones that liked to go out a lot have actually moved on from Japan and find themselves partying in other corners of the world these days.  Either way, I'm happy with my early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyle.  But don't get me wrong.  When the invitation does come in, I rarely say no.  This would be exactly how I found myself out and about in Tokyo on a weeknight.

One of our couple friends has actually been here for the entire stint of our time here.  They are some of the few that still regularly head out for dinners with us and they are smitten over KP, which makes it all the more wonderful when he begins his evening meltdown in a public place.  They just throw on the funny faces and help us keep him mellow until we can make our escape to the car and home beyond.  These friends threw out an invitation to go see a friend of theirs that I had been introduced to years before and was quite taken with back then.  Her name is Hanaeryka Akechi, a Japanese and Mexican woman with a magnificent voice that matches her inner and outer beauty in exquisite perfection.  Hana has often performed in places around Tokyo, but I have missed many shows due to our travel schedule or simply having other plans in place when the invite came in.  Fearing that this might be one of my last opportunities, I told KH that there would be no missing this performance.  While KH is just as big on a night out as I am, he is not so big on it when it comes on a weeknight.  Then there was also a small problem of finding a babysitter.  For those that know KH, he is a bit... err... particular... about who is allowed to stay alone with our wee one.  Rightfully so.  His job has left him seeing some of the worst of society, so I have never fought him on this point.  The two that he trusts the most were exactly the ones that had given us the invite.  All this still didn't add up to me missing that show.  In the end, Kimono Hubby made it easy enough and told me to enjoy myself and he would happily head to bed at his regular hour.

Which is how I found myself heading out only a few short minutes before the baby would be calling it a night.  I caught the train and met up with the others in one of the middle cars around the Kamakura stop.  After an hour and ten, we arrived at the Sanjengaya Station.  Our map that was to take us to the bar, Grapefruit Moon, was all in Japanese of course, but thankfully we had one in our crowd who can read it and speak it.  You have no idea how much this helps when you are meandering down narrow, no-named Japanese streets in the dark.  After only a ten minute walk, we were surprised to find ourselves in front of the place.

Down the stairs, through a pitch black corridor, we came to a door.  From the outside of the door, you could barely hear anything.  When we opened the door, it was shocking to hear how loud the current performer truly was.

After being greeted and paying our 1,500 yen cover charge, which included the cost of one drink, I grabbed my mango sour and found my way back to a table in the back with the others.  Although the smallness of places in Japan no longer surprises me, as this didn't either, I must say that the website made the place look much bigger than it ended up being.  Towards the far wall, the current two performers were belting out some J-Pop tune while playing the piano and a guitar.  Three rows of tightly packed in chairs faced them and the three tables at the very back of the room was where we found our vantage point.  

As the singers crooned on, I realized that not a single person in the room besides ourselves was either talking or moving around.  They weren't even smoking!  And everyone in any bar I have ever seen has a constant lit cigarette dangling from their fingers or lips.  It seems that while the singers were at it, we were to remain completely silent and still.  This became a problem to me when I had downed my first sour and now the ice kept clinking around the glass.  If I was allowed to speak, I would have told the damn ice to hush.  Awkward.  Seriously.  

What concert or singing performance have you ever gone to that, even if you didn't dance and sing along, you probably mouthed the words?  Or at the very least, you swayed along!  Nothing like that here! 

The performance came to an end and the room came alive with sound and movement.  It was like they sat there dying for this moment to come.  There was a rush to the bar.  Lighters flashing in every corner.  And people simply readjusting their butt positions as they had surely gone numb in their stillness.  Since our little entourage had kind of already been talking and moving and certainly had caused a disturbance upon our confusion at the entrance fee and drink menu, it didn't much make a difference to us.  For the next performances however, I reminded myself to be a little less American and a little more Japanese.

I was ready when the next woman took the stage.  She sat in front of a keyboard, singing low and soft romantic melodies that melded her Japanese life with her time in New York.  I liked her.  She sang in English.  Sometimes.  

Then a break.  The rush for the bar.  Bathroom visits this time.  General shifting on our bar stools to stop the pain that was inching its way up our backsides.  

The next performance was apparently quite a famous lady.  Our Japanese speaking friend translated what she was saying, informing us that one of the songs she was singing was the theme song to some popular Japanese show of which she wrote and performed.  Her name I did happen to catch thanks to the CD she was selling at the bar.  It was Megumi Mori.  I liked her too.  

Right before Megumi started her performance, Hana's husband popped his head in to the room.  We called him over to say our hellos and tell him how excited we were to see Hana sing.  He sat with us through this performance, but then headed off when it was Hana's turn to take some pictures of the event.  Hana took the stage just after Megumi and she was everything I was hoping to hear.  With her heritage, she is fluent in both Japanese, Spanish and English.  She sang in a little of all three, bringing an international flair to her songs that none of the other previous singers had done.  Perhaps I am biased as I am so in awe of Hana, but she was the best of the evening.  While she sang, her accompanist played the guitar and sang background vocals.  I never got the chance to tell him how great I thought it all was.  

It was only moments after Hana ended her songs that we head to run out to catch the very last train home.  That remains a complaint of mine about Japan.  Why must the trains stop at midnight?  I am just too darn old to stay out all night and catch the 5 am trains, but I also don't feel I will turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of 12.  What choice did I have though to say a quick few words to Hana and her husband and then say my goodbyes before rushing off after my friends.  

We all separated at our respective stations.  When I jumped off in Zushi, I was just after midnight.  I wasn't really tired, but I was hungry.  I had told KH that I would call him before heading home to give him the ETA, but since a light buzz had made me forget that step and I knew he had long ago headed to bed, I figured the night was still mine.  

My favorite fast food place is open 24 hours.  I still couldn't tell you the name of it for the life of me and have only referred to it as the 'circle place' for the last four years.  It's impossible to go there anymore with KP in tow as there is only a bar with stools for seating and no place to even squeeze a stroller in.  Here was my perfect chance.  I sauntered in with many others who had also just gotten off the train, made my way to the machine, put yen in, and placed my order.  I scarfed down some sort of rice bowl and miso, topped with hot black tea.  It still was only about 1am, and the food had yet to settle and make me tired.  What's a girl to do, but then follow the crowd to the next stop on the nightly trudge home?  

I made my way with the others to the 7-11 conbini down the street and walked right up to the magazines that lined the window.  Just like the males I stood there with, I picked up a Japanese soft porn magazine and started leafing through it.  It really is interesting the kinds of things that are so openly put into print here in the country and yet they pride themselves for being so reserved and conformed.  Feeling I was getting the eye from more than a few people, I replaced the magazine and instead got myself a pastry and a Meiji chocolate bar, paid and then headed for the door.  Nibbling on a strawberry chocolate bar, I arrived back at home just around 2am.  Boy, did I pay for that all that dilly-dallying when the Peanut woke only a few short hours later.  And here was the reminder why going out all night long ain't so grand after all.  What an irresponsible parent.

Thursday, February 11

Happy Trails to a Museum of Perfect Noodles

One of the things that has left the greatest, and strangest, impression on me is the level to which a Japanese person takes their craft or occupation. It's not a matter of simply learning a craft here, but more a matter of spending a lifetime perfecting it. And you can only perfect it when your sensei or the person highest up in your craft's or occupation's obscure organization tells you that you have perfected it.

I used to think this was only something people here did with art forms. Like Ikebana for instance. The women I know have been studying their specific form of flower arrangement since they were young adults, mostly before they married. Many of them started studying the same form of Ikebana that their mother studied since she was a young girl and learned from her mother and so on and so on. Many do not think they have perfected it enough to be a teacher themselves and continually look to their sensei, even though what they have created looks damn near like perfection to me. After forty plus years of studying, wouldn't it have to be perfection? Or maybe you should find another hobby. I can't see many Americans accepting being told that they have never reached a level of proficiency especially if they have dedicated a lifetime to get there. Bonzai. A men's art form. Boys study what their fathers showed them. They, too, can only be perfect when someone tells them they are and yet they spent a lifetime doing it, so they have got to be pretty darn close if not well past it. Calligraphy - another art form passed down and passed down and perfected throughout a lifetime of study. Of course, I surround myself with the arts as much as possible, so this is probably why I had the impression that it was something about the Japanese art world and not something much larger about the culture itself.

Sadly, I must fess up and tell you where this impression was marred, allowing me to see that it perhaps was the way of Japanese life and not simply how they learn their art. Brittany Murphy (God rest her young soul) was in this surely straight-to-DVD movie, Ramen Girl. I think that girl was just the cutest little thing, dating the whole way back to her days in Clueless, so I grabbed the movie from our local video store. It's really a bad movie. But, what I got from it was that this die hard way of latching onto something is more prevalent in Japanese life than I originally thought. For her, it was ramen that she worked to perfect. Her ramen sensei, the man she worked for, told her over and over that she wasn't getting it. He tried to tell her that it was something that comes from the heart and soul. This makes perfect sense when you are thinking about being a great artist. You want to evoke an emotion from the viewer of your art form. But for ramen? Isn't it simply noodles, broth and whatever else you found leftover in your fridge at the end of the week that you toss in? Apparently not.

Our lovely heroine is also facing another challenge in the movie - no Japanese person wants to believe that a foreigner can perfect what is inherently only a Japanese ability or craft. I mean, no foreigner ever arranged flowers or made noodle in a bowl and made it turn out right, right?

The movie continues and it's the usual Hollywood freaking dream world. Girl gets boy. Sensei now loves girl he hated. Girl masters ramen. Ramen master from obscure organization signs off and says how darn tootin' good the gaijin's ramen is. Girl brings Japanese mastery of noodle to New York and sets up a successful shop of something that is no longer Japanese, but every American assumes it is because it has 'Japan' in the title. Okay, maybe this last part is simply my observation of the world and not really how things are. Whatever you want to believe about yourself. My point to this story... where was it... oh, yeah! Ramen Brittany visits the Yokohama Raumen Museum!

I have always wanted to go to this museum and then frankly forgot it even existed until this inane little movie came to find its way into my DVD player. So we packed up the stroller with KP and KH and I hauled all our cookies to Yokohama to find it!

We had a flier, thanks to a kind friend. What the flier didn't have was directions once you got off the train. And let me tell you, Shin-Yokohama ain't no little train stop. Signs inside the train station pointed to the right exit, but as soon as you crossed the threshold, you were on your own. A pedestrian bridge over a major highway gave us two major options to start with, but no direction whatsoever. So I did what I usually avoid doing and stepped out in front of the first person and offered up a 'sumimasen?' He tried to keep walking around me like he didn't hear, but he eventually stopped. I held out my pretty flier and he pointed a walkway off of the bridge. Once we got to the street level, we were again at a loss. I spent the next half hour thrusting my flier into any passerbys face until we finally stood in front of the building. We put our money in the machine, paid our admission and headed down to the basement.

The museum is built into the ground and not up. Two floors down, you are on the ground floor and the room in front of you looks like an old-fashioned Japanese city, modeled from the very image of a section of Tokyo from the year of the Showa 33, or 1958 as we Americans liked to call it. Why 1958? Well, they museum people find the period to embrace lots of nostalgia AND more important, instant ramen was invented that year. It's funny, I would think that the Japanese would consider this the downfall of perfecting the ramen art form... noodles in styrofoam... and yet they instead laud it as a great accomplishment. Kind of a mixed single, no?

The founder of the museum, Yoji Iwaoka, has spent a lifetime pursuing his passion of ramen. (Yes, this is in the flier, and exactly what I was talking with this crazy lifetime pursuit stuff.) The museum was established in 1994 and touted as the first food amusement park to be created anywhere in the world. I really would go with it being more of an amusement park, with ramen restaurants to try out instead of rides, because the 'museum' part is really a small section on the upper floor. It is all in Japanese so we didn't get much out of it, but we did see a replica of the first bowl of ramen ever made. I'm sorry, but it really wasn't as impressive as it probably sounds. It was just an old green bowl, beautiful, but a bowl, behind a glass case. Cool. Moving on. I wasn't really there for the museum anyway. I was there for the ramen. Bring on all the perfection, my Japanese friends!

There are nine ramen restuarants in the museum. These restaurants are chosen from all the regions of Japan and are to represent the very best of the art of ramen. I'm not sure how many reading this have had true Japanese ramen, but it is one damn big bowl. Thankfully, so the visitors can try more than one place, they have invented half sizes. These were still huge, but this is what we went for with a goal of three in mind. We got to two and a few beers and had to already call it a day. We now understand why they sell month long passes because it would take that long to eat everything offered.

We totally guessed on which ones to try. The flier helps a little with some description of the base, seasoning and ingredients, but once you get to the machines that stand in front of each one, everything is in Japanese so it is a total crapshoot. At both places, I stuck my money in and just started pushing buttons. Apparently the first place we tried, Taihoraumen from the Kurume area, is one of the best according to a Japanese friend of ours who travels all over Japan in his off weekends trying ramen from every nook and cranny of the country. This place was both KH and KP's favorites as observed with them slurping down noodles with the best of them. I actually liked the second place better, Komurasaki from the southern town of Kumamoto.

With sloshing stomachs, we headed upstairs and purchased some instant ramen to take home with us. Heading back to the train wasn't half as difficult, but staying awake for the trip with a stomach that full was. We made it just before baby's bedtime, but we were already looking ahead to our next trip back. Yum. Noodles. And they were damn near perfect... or so their leader says.

Thursday, February 4

A Little New Years This and A Little New Years That

We went home! The Kimono family went stateside for its first Christmas in three years. We were even blessed with a white Christmas! Not that I really wanted one. It ended up to be the biggest thorn of all, causing all sorts of travel delays and cancellations for us. If we had to do it again, I would say drop the snow and it would have been perfect. Now the family time… that was indeed perfect. I tried to travel to everyone else for once instead of pulling the excuse that “we just traveled 6,755 miles to see you, so you could at least drive the last stinking five .” We hit various cities and saw various friends and family. One would think that all of that family and friend reconnection time would make me nostalgic to head home in a few months and yet it probably would surprise many to say it had the opposite effect. Please don’t get me wrong. I miss my family and friends so very much. I miss the convenience of life in the states. And yet, I also get the opportunity to see just how very blessed I am for every single moment I have spent out of the country, doing the very things I dream of. Perhaps my head is just too lost in the clouds of my present reality/unreality, but can’t imagine having to move back to the states and be a ‘normal’ person again. But this is a whole other story of which I do not even know the end to yet. On with today’s story.

We came home just in time for New Years. Not that we are big temple visitors or mocha eaters for the big day, but after almost a month of being gone, I missed my home. I missed my daily routines. I missed Japan. You have no idea how much that one little statement weighs on me. I missed it and yet I’m so tired of it. And then I don’t want to go home to the states. But I don’t want to stay here. And I am right back talking about what I don’t want to talk about, because I just don’t know where my head is at or where my heart belongs anymore. It is such a long, boring story of circles in my own head that I would certainly won’t waste my time and your time with them now. I hope I won’t anyway.

It didn’t take long for us to get back to life here. Once we were past the jetlag, it was back to life as normal. We had brought gifts for our neighbor that we delivered right before New Years. She in return treated us to another great day of excursion. It is amazing that I can go to any place I have been to here in Japan a hundred times before and yet still see something entirely new each and every time I go there. And that we did.


We went to Kamakura, only one town over from us and a few short minutes in the car. We squeezed the car into one of the ridiculously tiny spots, tucked our rearview mirrors in with the push of a button and headed down the same Komachi Dori shopping street I go to every time I want osembe crackers. Halfway down the street, we turned off, heading deeper into the residential district of the area. After several blocks, my neighbor with her handy map seemed at a loss to find the museum that we had been headed towards. Of course, I wouldn’t be of much help since I can’t read a lick of kanji. Then she surprised me and did what I would do… she stepped in front of the first person that was coming our way and forced the name of the museum and the map under their nose, forcing them to stop and take a look. It’s not that Japanese people aren’t helpful, but then stick to themselves. Even with a sumimasen, they don’t always pause for you. I think they assume they can act like they don’t hear you. And they probably don’t if they are lost in their own worlds as much as it seems they are. But for my neighbor to do this act just for some reason surprised me. She didn’t do it once either. No, she stopped person after person as she started navigating down narrow streets that really are more like walkways since the only motor vehicle that could get down them would be the ever present mopeds. After a few twists and turns and a few turn backs, she located what she was looking for – Kaburaki Kiyokata Memorial Art Museum.

The painter, Kaburaki Kiyokata, had chosen to life his final years in this quiet residential neighborhood of Yukinoshita tucked into historic Kamakura and, upon his death at the age of 93 in 1972, his grieving family donated his artworks, materials and even his home to the city Kiyokata loved. The memorial museum was opened in 1998 and is filled with his many paintings exposing the daily life of the graceful women of Japan. He had great sympathy for the common people of the town too and painted many works in honor of their lives. Just wandering Kiyokata’s grounds, garden and his home, one could get a great sense of what this master’s life was like.

My neighbor had chosen this museum, knowing that I have an insatiable love affair for art and culture. She knew my child did not. Or at least I haven’t managed to drill it into him yet. The museum was perfectly peaceful and quiet until my little Kimono Peanut took hold of the place. The exhibit was had gone especially to see was one that had Kiyokata’s painting hanging on the wall and underneath them, another artist had perfectly recreated his vision in fabric sewn onto Japanese badminton rackets. These gorgeous rackets were obviously not meant to be used for traditional purposes, but they did have shuttlecocks to view towards the end of the exhibit. This was of great help to me to make sure all the pieces fit together in my mind, because I thought I understood my neighbor correctly when she explained the badminton part, but they of course didn’t look like anything I have ever used for the sport. I was more than a little confused until the shuttlecocks spread true light. But paintings, badminton rackets and shuttlecocks are no fun for a 15-month-old when they are hidden behind a protective glass shield. KP let out a few wails, moving us along a bit faster. Man, are toddlers ever self-centered. We headed back out of the museum, turning a different way this time allowing us to meander through some different streets along our path back towards the car

We had parked at the front of the entrance to the Hachiman Shrine.  Again, one of those places I have been to countless times, but it just never gets old. We wandered onto the grounds and back towards the little pond off to the right of the path that leads up the shrine. There we found a little park where people could sit and feed the pigeons (if they were stupid enough) and I instead just fed the Peanut. While we relaxed in the sunshine, behind us the shrine’s ground’s workers were setting up some sort of woven grass structure that would be set fire to early the next morning. From what I understood, this was an important New Years ritual. If only it didn’t start at 7:00 am, I might have considered heading back there the next day.

The morning was getting late, but there still was some time to wander up closer to the shrine. I wasn’t about to hike the numerous stairs to the top with a 29 pound kid, so we contented ourselves to watch KP run around the legs of the many shrine visitors and snap a few pictures. With nap time looming and not wanting a public meltdown, we packed ourselves up to head home. Another perfect day spent in a place so familiar and yet will always be so foreign. I can’t thank my neighbor enough for all the consideration and kindness she shows myself and my family. For now, I will just go bake her yet another cake.