April 29, 2004
On Marketing Squash Malt and Some Poppy Pictures
For my next entry I promise more content. I've decided to spend the next few months slowly working through a few foundational books on Japanese culture and history. I love these subjects because they tell me so much about 'here and now' daily life that I would otherwise miss (or misunderstand). I'll try to work in things I may pick up in a way that's interesting, and I'd appreciate reading suggestions if you have some.
I'm heading to Odawara this Sunday for the "Houjiou Godai Matsuri" at Odawara Castle. This will be our third year in a row. Thousands of local residents dress in costumes of the Tokugawa era for a big show and parade (on Monday). You can see pictures from the past two years here, and I'll be updating that gallery with better photos soon if all goes well.
I took the pictures above by the side of our house. Beautiful poppies are blooming everywhere, like colorful weeds popping up where we least expected them. Well, there are plenty of weeds, too, and I think we need to pull them or something -- it's been a long time since I've had to think about such things.
April 24, 2004
Namaste! A Blog in Nepal Worth Reading
Today I want to recommend a look at 'Nepal Namaste!' and the current post about "The Danger of Getting Too Close." This blog is not about trekking in the mountains of Nepal, but it's the sensitive words and photographs of a guy who loves the people there. It's full of first hand accounts of living in the midst of ongoing warfare. I've read a number of great posts at this site, but the post I've linked to above is something you don't want to miss.
Happy reading! More later. Oh, and that's my daughter up there. :)
April 22, 2004
Tokyo Politics and a Green Party (er, Picnic)
The other pictures are from the river near my house in Higashikurme on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line. One shows the river looking like a natural spring (which it is) near the place where it originates. The other picture is from a wide spot (about 10 meters wide, that is) where families gather on weekends when the weather is right. They come to picnic, wade and have fun. Mostly the river is in very good shape and quite natural looking.
April 19, 2004
Children, a River, Green Grass and Sun in Japan
The signs of the city are all around, but if you concentrate on the right things, like the bubbling water, blooming flowers, river grass and laughing kids, you just feel the tensions of city life floating away. Just keep your mind off the omnipresent power lines, the old man stomping down the river grass to help kids catch minnows and the plastic, green landscaping mat that holds the delicate grass carpet beside the river in place (and digs slightly into your back as you you lay down to enjoy the sun).
Of course, photo moments are in abundance. I hope you enjoy these shots and understand why I truly like the place. I love to see families out having fun together, by the way, and especially fathers playing with their sons and daughters. Men in Japan work such long hours during the week that it's a wonder (and, unfortunately, a rarity for some) when they have time and energy to enjoy their wives and kids.
The kids in these pictures are trying to catch minnows and crawfish in their nets. The river bottom gets torn up a bit in the process as I said, but most of the netting goes on in this small section. Not far from this place in either direction I can park my bike and enjoy the untouched water complete with colorful Koi, ducks meandering in the grassy channels and occasional white ibises (I think that's what they are) stalking the same minnows that the kids are hunting. I don't have the nouns and adjectives to put it all together, so I'll post a picture or two another time.
April 17, 2004
Japanese Food, Mochi and a Movie
I shot some really nice pictures at the river near my house today. Someone asked for the river's name, so I'll make a post about that with the pictures soon. It's amazing the kind of nature you can find right inside of Tokyo. Too bad, but the opposite is also true.
In the meantime, one of the best things about being in Japan is the food. I know for some the opposite is true, and I admit to insatiable cravings for pizza and spagetti at times. Anyway, here are a few things I like to eat here:
Unagi - Sea eel. BBQ'ed. Yum, but kind of expensive to get the good ones that are "grown" in Japan. Cheap Unagi are imported from China, but you really can taste the difference, I guess.
Taro - "Fatty tuna" in English. A tuna fish is divided into many different cuts of meat, and Taro is the best (or the best I know of). This isn't something you BBQ; it's best to eat raw as sushi or sashimi. Mmm. Melts in your mouth.
Ramen - When I want a cheap, unhealthy meal full of flavor and cholesterol then I go for Ramen every time. Tokyo is full of "famous" ramen bars, and it's a joy to discover them one by one.
Salmon - People eat loads of Salmon here. It's generally cheap, and we sometimes have it for breakfast. But I found out recently that the orange oil that sometimes comes out of cheap Salmon is dye. Apparently farmed salmon are fed man made pellets, and the result is that the meat is not orange like the flesh of salmon that eat a natural diet. So they put some orange dye into the pellets. Clever, huh?
Mochi - Mochi is made by pounding the heck out of a special kind of rice. After enough pounding it becomes a sticky, gelatinous blob. This is formed into mouthful sized balls, and it's not bad. Plain mochi is like eating plain gum, but you can get mochi in many flavors, from green tea to sakura (cherry).
By the way, mochi is considered a choking risk for young children and old people. One of my favorite food movies is Tampopo. It's too complicated to summarize the plot right now, but there is a scene where a family drops "grandpa" off at his favorite restaurant with a warning: "Don't eat the mochi; you almost died last time." Of course, he orders noodles with mochi type dumplings inside. After voraciously slurping down all the noodles, he attacks a mochi with passion. Sluuuurp, glug. He grips his throat and falls to the floor unable to breathe. There's a big scene which ends when someone from the restaurant fetches a vacuum cleaner, sticks the narrowest attachment down his throat and sucks out the mochi.
Tampopo is actually one of the best and funniest food movies ever made. You should watch it sometime.
April 15, 2004
Connecting with Real People in Japan
What he said is a reality in Japanese culture. There is a tremendous reserve, expressed through images like "building walls," "wearing masks" or just "hiding inside." This aspect of Japanese culture (or at least what I've learned of it so far) seems to contradict a strong value that I have. But I know that Japanese people really value relationships, including "heart to heart" relationships based on honesty and trust. I've seen the evidence, heard from my wife, and I hope to learn this from experience.
It's taken two years of hard work and frustration, but now I know enough Japanese to talk about some of those important things. I'm a bit dangerous. That is, I could say something really offensive without knowing it, I'm sure. But people are gracious with me. I've been meeting every Saturday with a friend who I met in Starbucks. We speak for a 1/2 hour in English and 1/2 hour in Japanese. The best part is that I'm getting to know him as a friend and not just a language partner. I've also just started meeting with one of the young women who works at Starbucks for a language exchange. Her English is much more limited but we connected well in our first meeting.
This week after meeting with her (the worker at Starbucks), I rode my bicycle home (about 10 minutes away). As I was going down a narrow street I had to get way to the side to let some guy driving a low rider get by. This was a real low rider -- a Ford of some sort, I think. He bounced it a bit with his hydraulics just to impress the American (me). I ride a big mountain bike. As I moved to the side an older woman was walking toward me. She jumped back a bit when she saw the (big) bicycle with the (big) foreigner coming toward her. I slowed way down, and I saw her giving me a blank stare.
Normally, and especially in the past, I would have translated her expression to mean something like: "yuck...a big, dangerous foreigner, I hope he doesn't run me over." But I was in a good mood and ready to assume the best, so as I passed I quietly said, "Weird car, huh?" Her face broke instantly into a nice, familiar smile as she nodded and said, "Neeeh" (Yeah). I thought about that moment the rest of the way home. A few words in Japanese broke through a wall that I thought was ten feet thick. The walls may be more permeable than meets the eye. Imagine when I learn a few more words!
April 11, 2004
Japanese Children at School and PlayJapanese Children Gallery (click here).
Today my wife and I got away for a three hour break while a babysitter watched the kids. First, we went to an Italian restaurant that was pretty good. Then we rode our bikes to a spot on the river not too far from our house. On a beautiful spring day (like today) you can sit next to the water's edge and watch children wading, boys dipping nets in search of crabs, and fishermen with REALLY long poles proudly plucking three inch fish from the swirls (we call those minnows where I come from). We joined many families and groups of kids on the bank watching this scene. I regreted not having my camera. But sometimes it's better that way. My wife and I talked instead, and then I laid my head back on the grass and soaked it all in. Ahhh! I'll go back and take some pictures next weekend maybe.
By the way, about twenty years ago that river was basically flowing with sewage water. The town went through a massive renewal project about that time, so now the rivers (there are two that come together right by my house) are clean and quite beautiful. I'm always amazed that I can ride my bike, or take a walk, alongside such water within the city of Tokyo.
Nyuenshiki: Japanese Children Starting School
The Nyuenshiki included introductions, group photos and some classroom experiences for everyone to see what's coming. The top two pictures above are from the classroom time. I mentioned in an earlier post that all the moms had to sew bags for their kids. They also prepared straw baskets by carefully inserting fabric linings. You can see my daughter standing next to the bags and pointing to her's. The boy's bags were almost all blue (with two exceptions, one green and one yellow), and the girl's bags were all pink. In the last picture, some proud moms are lined up behind their kids for the group photo.
Click here to see my Nyuenshiki Gallery with more great pictures and a fuller description of the day. I don't want to repeat everything that I wrote there, so please take a look. I'll post more pictures of individual kids here in the next day or two.
April 09, 2004
Thanks and a Tribute to Some Japanese Teachers
Today I took over a hundred pictures at my daughter's Nyuenshiki. That's the ceremony for new children entering Japanese pre-schools (or yochiens). It took me a long time to work on the best photos in Photoshop, and there's no time to post them tonight. But they turned out great! Come back tomorrow and see.
I also wanted to say two things.
First, thanks to the folks at The Weblog Review for having very positive words to say about this site. That was encouraging. This is a new site, so if you like what you see, please send others here. I hate the feeling that I'm just writing to myself sometimes. Thanks.
Second, my Japanese tutor pointed out yesterday that about 20 teachers across Tokyo lost their teaching jobs this past month. Why? Because they refused to stand up and sing Japan's national anthem at various school entrance ceremonies. Apparently, about 200 teachers were reprimanded and actually had their salaries cut for doing the same thing last month at graduation ceremonies in Tokyo.
My wife says that the words of the national anthem are written in such ancient Japanese that most people really don't understand it. But singing the anthem is a patriotic act, and buried in there somewhere is basically a pledge of allegience to the emperor. I don't know what exactly the teacher's are protesting, but it's not surprising that some people would resist singing the anthem for one reason or another. What does surprise me is that they are losing their jobs for it.
It's not my place, as a foreigner, to get shocked or upset. I'm obviously not expected to sing the anthem. But it reminds me of something that I read. When the education system was being codified in Japan, there was a debate about the purpose of education. One side argued that the purpose of education was to strengthen the country by producing good citizens and productive workers. Others argued that education should about the pursuit of knowledge and truth. A side debate concerned whether everyone should have equal access to the same quality of education. In the end, Japan developed a system that was designed to produce model citizens and workers. Most would have limited educational opportunities, while a priveleged few would learn in elite educational institutions that would encourage creative, independent thinking and discovery. Entrance to the best universities was not based directly on wealth or connections but on a nationwide system of school entrance examinations. Many things have changed over time, but this way of thinking still guides the system today both in theory and in practice. It's never been a one sided debate. Many people, like these teachers recently and others before them, have paid the price by standing up (or in their case, sitting down) for change.
April 08, 2004
Japanese Cherry Blossom Photos & Nyuenshiki
Despite being sick with a fever, my wife has been busy for the past three nights preparing. Some time ago the school gave all the moms a highly detailed list of the items each child needs for the first day. The list included precise dimensions for a number of bags that the moms are supposed to sew themselves. The bags all must be exactly the same, but the choice of fabrics and the skill with which they are cut and sewn is up to each mom. My wife had to make a cup bag (for my daughter's plastic blue drinking cup), a shoe bag (for her indoor shoes), and one big bag for her papers and stuff. Tonight she's busy will all kinds of little detailed tasks on the list, like sewing nametags in certain places, labeling every little item, etc. She just finished writing my daughters name on every individual crayon in the box (about 20). This is a country where the concept of "detailed instructions" is sometimes carried to new heights.
Preparing for yochien is apparently an annual ritual across Japan. New yochien moms, most of whom haven't sewn a bit since some class in high school, work like mad trying to sew and prepare in a way that befits the love and pride they feel for their daughters and sons. Of course, they also want to "wow" the other moms. Some produce wonderful creations, while others pay to have the bags made by professionals. Others wish they had paid someone when it's all over. In our case, I think my wife remembered her high school lessons well. My daughter's bags are all "Disney princess" themed. Personally, I think it would be funny to get some fabric with a fake Luis Vuitton "LV" on it, but I'm sure some of the moms wouldn't be laughing.
If you enjoy the Japanese Cherry blossom photos above, you can see more in my Cherry blossom gallery (click here). I didn't take that many photos of blossoms this year. I'm having too much fun taking pictures of people recently, and you can expect more of those coming soon.
April 04, 2004
Hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing) in a Tokyo Park
These Hanami pictures capture some of the sights that we saw last weekend. We went to Shakujikoen, a fairly well known park along the Seibu-Ikebukuro line. The most famous parks are wall-to-wall people, and sometimes you can barely even walk between them. Although it's not exactly a "nature experience," a Hanami is a great people viewing experience. It's one of the few times that you see whole families out together. My only regret is that scenes like this aren't repeated more often.
I'll be posting cherry blossom pictures during the next few days. Then I have some exciting plans for this blog for the rest of the Spring, so please bookmark this sight and come back for more soon.
Please go to my Hanami gallery (click here) for descriptions of all the pictures above.
April 01, 2004
Japan and Singapore Thoughts and Pictures
At one point, I started to compare Singapore and Japan. In Singapore the buildings are new. It's colorful. You get a strong feeling of forward progress. It's a great city, uh, I mean country. Japan feels old and very slow to change by comparison. On the other hand, the entire economy of Singapore pours into a country that compares better size-wise with Tokyo, and it's efficiently managed by a government of technocrats. The bulk of Japan's economy is generated in several large urban areas, but the proceeds are used to maintain the whole country. On the one hand, I'm glad that Japan preserves so much of it's history, but Japanese wealth has been poured out with some remarkably unimpressive results, like lining the rivers of Japan and most of the coast with concrete and building unneeded highways to nowhere.
Before this turns negative, let me change course. On the three hour bus ride from Narita back home, I realized that I'd probably get bored of Singapore. I'd tire of the smallness. The intensity of change would wear me out. I'd stop eating out all the time. I'd go crazy waiting for Winter to come.
Ok, who am I fooling? I'd love to live in Singapore. Or in New Zealand, Colorado, Vancouver, China, Thailand... I'd like to live in a lot of places.
And I love living in Japan. My family is here. My friends are here. It's not a perfect place to live, but it's home. The more I learn the language and figure out what's going on, the better life here becomes.