Got Mikan?

What is the quintessential image of Japan at the New Year holiday?
It is of someone warming their legs in a kotatsu, sipping green tea, and eating a mikanwhile reading their New Year greeting cards.

Mikan are the tangerine-like citrus fruits that come into season right around now. They come in various sizes and types, but basically they are easy to peel--like a banana--and just sweet enough that you want to eat more than one at a sitting. Eating this harmless fruit used to be a hurdle that an intended bride was expected to leap over with grace.

Yes. The way a mikan was consumed was a potential deal breaker.

Pull off the skin in random patches? You lose.

Suck the fruit out of each section of membrane and leave the membranes in a disgusting pile on the plate? Tasty, but you'll get voted off the marriage market.

What you need to do is (Plan A) score the fruit in six sections down longitudinal lines, peel back the skin starting from the top--but leave each section connected at the bottom--and open it like a lotus flower. Section the fruit in half, quarters, then individual sections so that the fruit also spreads like lotus petals. Eat the sections slowly, one by one, leaving any pith or seeds or unwanted membranes discreetly in the middle. When you are done, fold over the orange skin and hide the mess in a neat little package.

That is accepted mikan etiquette.


If you want to be a star, look at the mikan as if it were a globe, score a single line around where the equator would be, loosen the top and bottom hemispheres with your thumb, then twist and separate two neat cup-shaped halves of the mikan skin. Pick out the fruit, eat it section by section, dropping the unwanted parts into one of the mikan cups. When you are done, put it back together, almost as good as new.


Happy Christmas Day

December 25, Thursday, and everyone is at work. Christmas is not an indigenous part of the Japanese culture--not even in the way pagan rites such as the decorated evergreen tree predate the religious holiday in western cultures.


We in Japan know how to cherry pick the good ideas from other cultures and adapt them to Japan. That is how we got the Christmas Cake.

Every father worth his salt brings home a specially-decorated cake on Christmas Eve.

The most basic type is a yellow sponge cake disc frosted with whipped cream and studded with fresh strawberries. You can get chocolate confections with reindeer prancing through dollops of creamy snow. You can get ice cream wrapped in merengue. You can get Yule logs that look so tree-ish you have to smell the bark to be sure it's chocolate. This year ours came from a French patisserie in Tokyo and was made of creamy pudding between layers of crisp pastry, surrounded in a deep layer of toasted almonds. Of course you can make your own, like my last year's coconut cake.


When cakes are being sold everywhere...
And look so luscious...
And the economy badly needs our support...

Merry Christmas!


Christmas vs New Year's (2)

Did I say daunting? Yes, I did, in reference to food. But even more daunting was the prospect of cards. The good thing was that New Year greeting cards are postcards. Simple. Basically yours for the price of the stamp.

The bad thing was that they are postcards. Blank. No design. No pre-printed message.

The wise people started writing theirs early, like in July.

The clever people came up with unique designs, often based on the upcoming year's totem animal. For instance, 2009 will be the Year of the Cow. They also balanced the formulaic greetings with interesting personal observations.

The talented people wrote theirs in hand-calligraphed sumi ink, or perhaps they carved fascinating/beautiful/humorous wooden blocks from which to print them.

My husband and I were none of the above, yet we were blessed with many friends that we wanted to greet.

Daunting, daunting, daunting.

Christmas vs New Year's

The quintessential year-end Japanese holiday is not Christmas but New Year's, and it tends to be solemn and quiet rather than joyous. I used to fear it, but now I've learned to embrace it. Perhaps because it's a lot easier to manage than it used to be.

The hardest thing about then vs now is that then, everything closed down for almost a week. Everything. From food stores to hospitals.

Imagine a whole week without stores. Sounds awful? Sounds good?

Preparing enough food for a whole week, with only the refrigeration of an unheated kitchen was daunting. But it was also do-able. And the result was a whole week without ever once running to a store.


The Emperor's Birthday

Thanks to the present Emperor's being born on December 23, we get a day off exactly when we need it. Right now. Today. In the midst of the rush to bring the year to a successful end.

The year-end gift-giving season in Japan is already over. If you have New Year holiday travel plans, they are already finalized. So it's not a day to run around on errands. It's a time out.

Happy Birthday! And thank you for the present.


No Visa Necessary for Some Travelers

This is from The Japan Times online edition, Dec. 20, 2008:

Butterfly migrates 1,600 km to China
KYOTO (Kyodo) A large butterfly found in mainland China was confirmed to have migrated 1,600 km from Japan, a Japanese researcher said Friday.

It is the first confirmed migration of a chestnut tiger butterfly, whose scientific name is Parantica sita, from Japan to China, said Hisashi Fujii, a lecturer at Kyoto Gakuen University.

In October 2006, a chestnut tiger marked with letters and figures on its wings was found in the city of Pingfu, Zhejiang Province, near Shanghai, Fujii said.

Later studies by a team of researchers from Japan and Taiwan confirmed it was the same marked butterfly as one released into the wild in August that year in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, along the Sea of Japan coast.

Found in many parts of East Asia, chestnut tiger butterflies are known for making long-distance migrations.

They migrate south from fall to winter, but it is still unknown where they spend winters.

Fujii, 49, leader of the Japan Butterfly Conservation Society, said he believes China provides the main wintering spots for chestnut tiger butterflies.


If the Shoe Fits...

We saw the flying shoe on the news, followed by a certain president's trademark look of bewilderment. I wonder what part of "widows and orphans" he didn't understand.

Once upon a time in South America, Richard Nixon, as US vice president, was spat on in Venezuela by an angry mob quite capable of killing him. "I Like Ike" Eisenhower, then president, reneged on a scheduled visit to Japan after his press officer's car was mobbed and attacked by citizens of usually mild-mannered Tokyo.

In both cases, there was no denying any understanding of the message nor was there any gratuitous mauling of the messengers.

Speaking of shoes, does anyone else remember the USSR's Khruschev at the UN? Instead of getting mad, or looking bewildered, the US at the time pulled up its socks and got its act together. Could that possibly happen again?

Let There be Light

Lights that we need, lights that we don't need--drawing the line between them is not so easy.

It gets dark in Tokyo starting around 4:30. There aren't many streetlights, but there are many kids in the neighborhood coming home from after school activities in the cold and gloomy dark. A little brightness would be a nice way to welcome them home.

I decided that my string of outdoor Christmas lights is necessary light.


Al Gore, is that you?

The other day I was babysitting, playing with the two-year-old child in the living room of a brand-new, state-of-the-art apartment. No one but us was at home.

All of a sudden, a voice came out of the air.

"You are using too much electricity!" it said quite sternly.

I almost leaped out of my socks I was so startled.

"You are using too much electricity!" it repeated.

Clever lady that I am, I realized it was a robotic recording somehow connected with the electricity meter and not Al Gore. Still, it was startling. And true. I turned off the unnecessary lights in the apartment.

Who, I wonder, will turn off the world's other electrical excesses?


Hurray for Longitude!

You may have noticed the shape of Japan as seen on a map or a globe. Long and narrow, it stretches north and south. In longitudinal terms, it runs from about 35 degrees N to a little more than 46 degrees N.

And that's a good thing. If it stretched east and west, the only "bonus" would be some extra time zones. By extending from the sub-tropics in Okinawa almost to the sub-arctic in Hokkaido, Japan gives its people the advantages of a wide variety of climate options that affect everything from way of life to agricultural products.

There is snow boarding and skiing on fresh powder this very minute near Mt. Yotei in Hokkaido. You can still swim in the ocean if you are in Okinawa. Here in Tokyo, we are admiring the autumn colors and the slight nip in the air.

If you are a farmer in Okinawa, you may be watching your sugar cane ripening before the harvest at the end of January. If you farm in Hokkaido, you are probably eating buttered and baked potatoes from October's harvest and looking around for things to do until the snow melts next spring.

It takes about 4 hours to fly the length of Japan and less than an hour to fly across it. What a lucky break, geographically speaking.

You Saw It In Summer...

And now you can see Mt. Yotei (Hokkaido) in winter.


The Nightingale and the Shoguns

This year's NHK historical drama was about Atsu-hime, the little girl from Kyushu who grew up to be the mainstay of the Tokugawa ruling family.

Tokugawa is the family name of the longest-lasting line of warlords (shogun) in Japanese history. The founder was Tokugawa Ieyasu. He succeeded Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was the successor to Oda Nobunaga. There were only those three who could claim control over Japan in its then entirety, though there are many others whose names live in Japanese history.

Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu were vastly different in style and temperament, and they are sometimes used as personality prototypes. One summation of their characters provides the theme of a children's song about nightingales.

The song asks the rhetorical question, "What will you do if the nightingale won't sing?"

In the song, Nobunaga answers, "I will kill it. Kill it I will."
Hideyoshi answers, "I'll make it sing. Make it sing, I will."
Ieyasu's reply goes, "Then I will wait. I will wait until it sings."

What do you do when you have a dream you want to bring into the world? Do you kill it off? Do you muscle it into reality? Do you wait for it to happen all by itself?


Sweet Potato Time

You can hear it. You can smell it in the air. It's getting cold, and that means the sweet potato truck is back.

The truck has a fire in its belly, so to speak. You can see the glow of burning wood through the side of the truck and smell the wood smoke mixed with the aroma of roasted sweet potato. The driver cruises through the neighborhood, chanting the vendor's trademark song: Yaki-imo! Ishi-yaki-imo!

Years ago, I had no idea what ishi-yaki-imo was. I knew ishi meant stones, and could see the hot stones lining the bed of the wooden pushcarts that were the forerunners of today's sweet potato trucks. I surmised that the peddler's cart belching wood smoke parked outside the train station from mid-November until spring was selling primitive hand warmers: charcoal-heated rocks.

One very cold evening on my way home from work, I lined up with the crowd surrounding the ishi-yaki-imo cart, plunked down a coin, and got a fold of old newspaper with something very hot wrapped inside. I held the package in both hands and walked home, enjoying the warmth of the stones insulated by the newspaper.

Once inside, I left my handwarmer on the counter and forgot about it. When my husband got home some time later, he saw the newspaper and instantly knew what it was.

"Oboy! Yaki-imo!"

I thought his enthusiasm was a little out of synch, since he had already finished the long, cold walk home and didn't need a handwarmer.

"Yep," I replied. "It was so cold I bought a yaki-imo. Do I have to return it now that I'm done with it?"

"Return it!" he said. "You're supposed to eat it!"

That's when I learned the melodious ishi-yaki-imo chant wasn't about the hot stones, it was about the sweet potatoes slowly roasting in a bed of rock heated over charcoal.


Let's Hear It for the Snow Bugs!

It is snowing in Niseko. Just a week ago, the prophetic snow bugs made their appearance.

Got your snow tires on?

Did You See It?

I hope you enjoyed the underwater photograph. These scenes won't be there for our enjoyment forever. The world has already lost 20% of its coral, according to experts, and the next 20% is teetering on the brink.

An underwater landscape such as this--without coral--looks as colorful as the bottom of a scaly, conrete tank. I've seen it's ghostly whiteness with my own eyes.

Coral does more than provide beautiful color and a cozy home for underwater creatures. It is the first line of defense against devastation by wild, out of control, typhoon-generated waves. From an inland hotel window I have seen the leftover waves--the ones that still rage after the typhoon has moved on--crashing against the reef, splashing higher than the tallest buildings on the island.

Without the coral, we might have to go about our daily lives dressed in life jackets and wetsuits, with snorkels pressed between our lips. Yuk.


Hear it for Yourself

One of the side effects of war is a cultural one. In Okinawa, consumed by fire at the end of WWII, people running for their lives very seldom took musical instruments with them. With the exception of sanshin, whose rock-hard wooden shafts were useful tools in climbing through snake-infested, overgrown jungle, the wooden instruments burned.

After the war ended and people resettled themselves, finding food took priority over making music. By the time they had a chance to remember the good old days, the good old boys who made the music had mostly died of old age. With no instruments, no makers of instruments, and no teachers of the songs, traditional music became only a memory.

Think of it like this: if pressed, your average American could probably sing a recognizable rendition of Yankee Doodle. But could he reproduce George Gershwin from memory? That's without a piano, by the way.

That was the problem. They remembered it existed, they remembered they liked it, but the surviving Okinawans couldn't reproduce it.

A few study groups were established to collect what remained and teach it. One such study group scoured the world for information about traditional court music, reputed to be healing to the soul.

For a sample, try this link. I recommend scrolling 'way far down until you get to the sample of uzugaku. Uzugaku is a beautiful result of the long history of exchange between Okinawa and China.



Hokkaido's Snow Bugs

This is not about people who love the snow. It's about harbingers of snow.
Every year around this time, as the days get shorter and the air gets nippy, Hokkaido natives can predict when the first snow will fall to within a week.

Today is Tuesday, and by the time next Tuesday rolls around, snow will fall.

That's the prediction, and it doesn't come from the weather bureau. It comes from snow bugs.

Snow bugs are tiny, white, almost weightless, and easily mistaken for dust motes. Today the snow bugs appeared in Niseko.

Expect snow within the week.


Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

Do you have an image of Japan in mind? A visual capsule summary of what Japan is all about?

There is an annual photo contest in which diplomats stationed in Japan submit pictures that, in their eyes, have a lot to say about life in this country. This year's contest theme was "interaction". To see the winner of the Prince Takamado Prize, try this link:


Prince Takamado was a cousin of the present Japanese emperor. He was a warm hearted, fun loving, and broad minded person who lived to serve and died much too soon. It is a delight to see that he is still bringing people together, encouraging them to look at his country through the lens of the heart.


Some Paths not Taken but that Might be Worth It

This was in Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss:

"When the last tree is cut,

When the last river is emptied,

When the last fish is caught,

Only then will Man realize that he can not eat money."

It was painted on a roadside sign in the country of Bhutan, a country ranking high on the bliss scale. Bhutan? It's the country north of India, near Nepal.

There are some very interesting reasons why Bhutan is high on Mr. Weiner's list of bliss-filled countries. Education is free to every citizen. So is health care. No one smokes. Dastardly crimes like murder almost never happen, and that heavy cloud of fear that lingers over people in more crime ridden countries is absent. And the army, as he puts it, makes booze, not war. They run the beer brewery and the rum distillery. Imagine, they bring in revenue instead of hogging the national budget. Maybe that is why education and health care can be free.

It's an interesting path to think about.

Here's another one, this time from Japan: green as a national policy. This is from a panel discussion among the editors of some of Japan's top newspapers.

"The Japanese economy will not grow unless environmental issues are overcome. Conversely, dealing with the environment can be seen as a business opportunity. "
Naoaki Okabe; Nikkei, Inc.

(read the whole thing at http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/mediatalk.html)

To tell the truth, the NY Times writer Thomas Friedman says essentially the same thing. Is anyone out there listening?


Autumn in the Park


Another Kind of Leaf Blower

It used to be a military base, and now it's one of the world's most beautiful parks, named for Japan's late Showa emperor. Last Saturday, TV news crews were there to film the acres of snow-white cosmos flowers. Of course there are also hillsides covered in traditional shades of pink cosmos, but this year's stars are creamy white.

Riding rented cycles, we passed hordes of happy park goers--the kind of families, couples, elderly strollers, frisbee tossers, dog walkers, bagpipe players...

OK, bagpipe players are not so typical, but there were three of them skirling their hearts out in a gazebo overlooking one of the lakes.

"We can't do this in our apartment," they said.

True enough.

The musician who was the greatest crowd pleaser, though, was a 70-something gentleman meandering among the cosmos, playing old favorites on one of the world's oldest musical instruments--a coin sized green leaf pressed against pursed lips.

He generated at least as many decibels as the bagpipe guys. Maybe more.

True enough. There are some things you just cannot do in your apartment. You need a crisp fall day, flowers and blue sky, lots of space, and a receptive audience.

Hurray for parks!


Hot? Cold? Never mind, it's Oct 1

Japan is a country that takes great delight in the changing of the seasons. It may be the only country in the world where the first day of spring and the first day of fall are national holidays.

October 1 is another important, seasonal day.

Rain or shine, hot or cold, October 1 is Koromo-gae no Hi. This is the day when all uniforms change from the summer version to the winter version, when short sleeves yield to long sleeves, when sandals suddenly disappear and boots are allowed out of the closet.

The weather itself has nothing to do with it. It's October 1. It's time to put on the winter wardrobe.


Sumo--The Times They Are A-changing

It's sumo season in Japan.

Sumo is the sport in which incredibly pudgy--but a muscled kind of pudgy--men try to trip each other up and shove each other out of the ring. First, they face each other and go through ritual motions, stomping and glaring, rather like tomcats hissing and spitting before they get down to brass tacks. They throw a handful of salt into the air to appease the spirits, and then they grapple.

Or try to. Getting one's arms around a very fat fellow is not an easy thing to accomplish.

A round ends when one wrestler steps outside the ring or takes a fall. The spectators show true grit by never flinching, even when 300 or more pounds of sumo wrestler fly out of the ring and land on someone's lap.

The fall sumo tournament just ended.

The giant silver trophy--so big one has to be of sumo wrestler's dimensions to even lift it--goes to the grand champion, or yokozuna. For this most Japanese of sports, the new yokozuna, is not Japanese. The wrestler, who fights under the name Hakuho, was born and raised in Mongolia.

Why not? Shouldn't sports, of all places, have a level playing field and welcome all comers?

There was a time not so long ago when the sumo world went into a hissy fit because the wrestler who earned the yokozuna title came from Hawaii. If Japan's Ichiro can be the cat's pajamas in American baseball, isn't it fitting to give other nationalities a chance to sit in the catbird's seat of Japanese sumo?


The Other Election

Japan has them, too. There was one today. Here, though, the elected representatives elect one of their own to be the prime minister. We the People have to live with their choice, but if the chosen one doesn't keep us happy, we don't have to keep him for four (or eight) long years. Nice!

My favorite US columnist, Thomas L. Friedman of the NY Times, has this to say about political leadership in the US:

"If I were to draw a picture of America today, it would be of the space shuttle taking off. There is all this thrust coming from below [private enterprise]. But the booster rocket — Washington — is cracked and leaking energy, and the pilots in the cockpit are fighting over the flight plan. So we can’t achieve escape velocity to enter the next orbit — the next great industrial revolution, which is going to be E.T., energy technology."

Let's hope E.T.--not the movie critter but Energy Technology--moves up many more notches on the world's scale of priorities.

What's for breakfast?

If you were born and raised in Japan, chances are you will have a traditional breakfast consisting of a small piece of grilled fish, rice, a wafer of nori, a few bites of salad, a slice of fruit, and a bowl of soup made from miso, fish stock, and chopped vegetables. If you opt for a modern, western style breakfast, count on an egg, a thin slice of ham or a taste of bacon sauteed with spinach, a piece of toast, salad, fruit, and soup. Plus milk or juice, yoghurt or cheese, coffee or tea.

Key point? Servings are small, and there are many ingredients covering most of the food pyramid. We are talking about 500 calories, depending on how big the rice bowl is and what dressing goes on the salad.

Except for the rice (which takes an hour and should be prepared in a cooker with an automatic timer), it takes about ten minutes to get it all on the table and another ten minutes to eat and clear away. Twenty minutes, plus a well stocked fridge, and you get kids who pay attention in school and adults who have no interest in donuts and lattes during the work day.


86% are women

September 16 was Respect for the Aged Day here in Japan. You have to be 65 or older in order to celebrate.

For most of us, 65 is retirement age. An item featured in the news on Respect for the Aged Day said that now there are some 36,000 persons living in Japan who have reached the ripe old age of 100. 100! If you retire at age 65 and manage to become a centennarian, that means you will get 35 more years to fill.

In Japan, some 86% of those who have lived to see their hundredth birthday are women. They are the generation for whom many activities allowed for men--such as smoking and heavy drinking--were socially unacceptable for women. Hmmm... Draw your own conclusion about healthy choices, please.


Hermit Crabs and the Human Hermit

I love to watch the thumbnail sized hermit crabs that scurry along the shoreline at Onna-son carrying their personal choice of seashell homes on their backs. They look like animated pastel sculptures enlivening Nature's sand-and-driftwood still life artwork. Nothing is cuter than these busy little bugs scampering about in their pink and white all-natural mobile homes.

Not so cute are the giant, fist-sized, blue hermit crabs of Iriomote Island. Iriomote is one of the islands in the southwestern fringe of the Okinawa chain, and it is home to many unusual species of plants and animals. For instance, there is the very photogenic Iriomote Wildcat.

The blue hermits are, frankly, a bit grotesque. They become even more unphotogenic when, instead of skulking around in borrowed shells, they have to resort to wearing battered plastic containers that have floated in on the tide from who knows where.

What are human beings thinking when they turn their garbage loose on unsuspecting nature? Do we think we are the only ones making this world our home? You'd think a creature smart enough to invent plastic would be capable of inventing an environmentally-friendly method of disposing of it.


Ya Gotta Yukata?

Pardon the slang, please, maybe it's the heat...

July and August are festival season. It's blazing hot, the drums are pounding, and you have to get up and dance. What do you wear to dance in a Japanese summer festival? A yukata, of course.

The yu in yukata is the symbol for hot water. It doesn't mean that dancing at a festival while wearing a yukata can land you in hot water. It means that the yukata was originally a kind of bathrobe, something to put on when you emerged from a hot springs bath.

Yukata are still used for that purpose--very light cotton, almost always in a blue and white pattern. If you stay at a hot springs resort, they are pretty much the uniform. You'll see guests wearing them to dinner in the main dining room.

However, there is another kind of yukata. To see one is to want one. While dark blue--the color of a lake when the sun is going down--is still the preferred background color, it isn't the only color. The dyed-in patterns range from subtle to neon, and the whole thing is tied up in an obi that spreads beneath your shoulder blades like the wings of a butterfly.

At least the young women's obi is. Men and older women tie a narrower obi around their waists like an ordinary sash.

As for the men, they have two choices. One is the kimono-like yukata. The other is a knee length pajama-like outfit called jinbei. The tops and bottoms match, like a suit, and if you ask them, the men will say they would like to ditch their modern suits and wear jinbei to work instead.

In the old days when farmers and craftsmen ruled the workplace, I suppose they did.


Silent Summer

The semi is not a pretty bug, and neither is the shell it leaves behind. After spending 7 years underground, this brown tank-like critter fights its way to the Earth's surface. It sheds its carapace and lives the wild and free life for 7 thrilling days. Its song--a shrill and prolonged miii-miii--is the sound of summer.
This is one of the lucky ones. It made its way to the Earth's surface in a gorgeous, wooded, suburban park.
Nine generations ago, the silent summers--the summers when semi don't sing--began.
When the bugs were put to bed beneath the Earth in 1938, they expected to wake up like every generation before them and emerge into a hot, drowsy city of wooden buildings with paper shutters and reed floors. There were supposed to be little boys in summer kimono running around trying to catch them in their cheesecloth and bamboo nets. Trees should have been waiting for them to cling to while they shed their shells and prepared to fly. It should have been summer, and their's should have been the clarion cry of summertime.
Instead, seven years later in their year--1945--Tokyo was aflame. Houses burned, people burned, and of course even the bugs buried underground burned. It took many generations before the sound of a semi in a summer of a year that was 1945 plus 7 was heard again.
Seven years of preparation and then...disaster.
If it's bad for a bug, how much worse for a child ready to take its first steps in life, only to find the world it was born into devoured by the flames of war.


Have some tea?

Sure, but what kind? Only the fresh vegetable section takes up more space than the tea aisles in Japanese supermarkets. This is a new phenomenon.

Until recently, "tea" meant Japanese green tea, with its many variations. Then black (fermented) tea--English, Indian, Sri Lankan tastes--joined the market. Chinese tea (partially fermented)--for instance the dieter's friends oolong and pu'er--have also earned their own shelves. The newest newcomers are Okinawa teas--sanpin, goya, hibiscus, ukon, and guava lead the pack.

Sanpin is basically for refreshment and is similar to Chinese jasmine tea.
Goya is made from bitter melon and is said to be good for digestion and for warding off diabetes and excess cholesterol. It is always--without exception--drunk unsweetened.
Hibiscus uses dried flowers and is known for its bright color, sour taste, and vitamin C and E--its gifts to beautiful skin.
Ukon comes from a root similar to the curry spice turmeric, has a pronounced yellow color, tastes almost unbearably bitter unless heavily diluted, and is claimed to be liver friendly for people who enjoy awamori and other alcoholic drinks.
Guava, made by drying fresh spring leaves from guava trees, is said to be a stomach soother and another good source of vitamin C.

Like most Japanese teas, the leaves or flowers are dried--sometimes roasted--but never fermented.


More Eisa in Shinjuku

To perform this role, you don't need to beat a drum or play a sanshin. However, you must be able to whistle very loudly through your teeth.

Performing Eisa on the main street of Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Eisa Time in Shinjuku

Eisa! Nothing is more exciting than this "ghost dancing" parade that takes place in midsummer. The eisa festivities are one of the many Japanese ways to keep family members and friends who have passed away alive in the heart. The drums, the music, and the dancing are a welcome back rite for the loved ones we have lost--and a vigorous "get out of here" warning to whatever evil spirits might be lurking.

Okinawa culture is riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, especially among people who were not born there but visited the island and fell in love with it. It is even popular among those who have never, ever been there.

Culture is said to be the crystallization of human wisdom, knowledge of the secret workings of the heart made visible. That may explain Okinawan culture's power of attraction.


Hokkaido Summit: The Right Message

I heard a complaint that, by serving delicious food, the Hokkaido Summit was sending the wrong message about the environment and the food crisis. I beg to differ. It was exactly the right message, and here it is, spelled out:

The Earth is bountiful when treated right.

Mother Nature's gifts--fruit and vegetables, grain, meat and fish, milk and butter--plus human ingenuity in preparing them for consumption are what was on display in Hokkaido.

Do the critics want the land to stop producing potatoes? Should people stop thinking of the endless variations in how to serve potatoes? I don't think so.

What is wrong is political ineptness that keeps food from getting to where it can be appreciated.

Mother Nature does not set the price of fuel. Governments do. Mother Nature does not create import and export rules. Legislatures do. The Earth was not created with distribution networks in place. People did that, too.

The food served in Hokkaido did not come out of a bottle or a can. It came from the land and sea and was prepared by human beings who care about what we eat. Take Hokkaido as a model.

If we take care of the land and sea and put the Earth's bounty into the hands of the people, everyone can eat as well as they did at the summit.


Faster than a Speeding Bullet Train

Here it comes, the fastest land transportation there is---Japan's linear motor car. No wheels, no engine, no exhaust. Electro-magnetic power makes the train float a few inches above the rails and also propels it forward.
If you can lay your hands on two magnets, you can use one to push the other across a table. That same principle--North pole opposing South pole or vice versa--when magnified to vastly superior heights of sophistication runs this train.
As the old joke goes, it takes three people to see it: one to yell, "Here it comes" while the second one yells, "Here it is" and the third person screams, "There it goes."


Day for Romance

The seventh day of the seventh month is the most romantic night of the year, at least in Japanese mythology. For one whole year, the weaver star and the cow-herder star have been waiting for their chance to meet each other on the same side of the Milky Way. July 7 is the night.

This is the festival called "Tanabata". It's the night when wishes are supposed to come true.

People celebrate by decorating a huge sprig of bamboo. Is sprig the right word for something that might be nine feet tall? Bamboo grows fast, but that's beside the point.

The bamboo branch/sprig/whatever is decorated with bright paper decorations--lace cutouts, interlocking rings, and tanzaku. Tanzaku are wishes, written out on strips of colored paper. Anything goes, from "I hope it doesn't rain on the fireworks" to "Let there be world peace."

Today I saw one: "I wish we could afford steak for supper."

The rest of the celebration consists of dressing up in light summer kimono and playing with sparklers and other fireworks that you can do at home.

It will be fun. If it doesn't rain. When the weather is bad, those two stars have to wait another full year for another chance to make their dreams come true.


Bugs and Bougainvillea

Here they are, the Ladies of the South Pacific, also known as Tree Nymph butterflies.

They are the largest butterfly native to Japan, found only where the temperature can be counted on not to drop below 15 degrees C. That means Okinawa.


A Fortune in Clamshells?

If I had a thousand dollars to spare, I would have bought it--a thousand dollar lunchbox. It sat on a black lacquer tray inside a glass case. I could hear it calling me, and if I ever win the lottery, it's coming back from Okinawa inside my suitcase.

That kind of box is called a jubako. Ju means layers, and hako (bako) means box. There are three tiny boxes in which fancy food can be arranged. They fit neatly one on top of the other and are covered by a perfectly fitted lid. The boxes are plain black lacquer; the real beauty is in the lid. It is made through a technique known as raden.

Smooth and shiny as glass, but warm to the touch, the lid is also black lacquer. However, it is inlaid with bits of shell that glow like pearls against velvet. The one that captured my heart used bits of abalone shell to depict blue and green flowers and vines. Others used white mother-of-pearl, and they were the kind of objects that, if you have to ask the price, you shouldn't be buying them.

I couldn't look at them without admiring the people who crafted them. What did they use? Wood from a fallen tree. Lacquer distilled from a plant similar to poison ivy. The shells their food came in. That, plus brain power, to figure out how to do the work. That, plus the artistic imagination to make the designs. That, plus a heart open to the potential for creating beauty and value.

Nature plus human beings--what a wonderful pairing it can be!


Rain, Rain

The rainy season front is moving up the Japanese archipelago. It's leaving Okinawa behind and Tokyo's turn for misty, muggy rain has come.

The rainy season has several traditional names: "uki"--literally rain time, "tsuyu", and the more poetic pronunciation "bai-u".

"Bai-u" means plum rain. The story goes that the green plums--about the size of a quail's egg--turn yellow and fall from the trees when the rainy season swings into high gear. Plop, plop! They fall in the night, echoing the sound of big, fat rainy season raindrops.

The timing is certainly right. Although I have never heard the plop of plums falling in the garden, the markets are filled with them when the rainy season is at its height.

First come the bright green ones, hard as stones. They have only one use: you put them in a jar, add rock sugar in a quantity equal to the weight of the plums (people argue about this), and fill the jar with a potent alcohol called white liquor. When the sugar dissolves and the alcohol takes on a golden glow--usually around August, at the earliest--your plum wine is ready to drink.

Next come the softer, yellower plums. These, too, have only one use: to be pickled in salt and eaten with rice. They make the beloved staple food "ume-boshi".

Making ume-boshi is several weeks' work. First you wash and dry the plums, one by one. Then you put them in a jar with salt equal to one-third the plums' weight (people argue about this). As the juice collects in the jar, you roll the jar around, swishing the juice up and down and around each and every plum. That's the easy part. The hard part is coloring them with the leaves and stems of the red shiso plant.

You deal with the shiso by grinding it in a bowl with a serrated surface, using your hands and a lot of salt. Ouch! It stings. When you've got a quart of the maroon-colored glop (sorry, that seems to be the only word that truly describes what you've made from the shiso) you pour it in with the plums. Occasionally, you roll the jar around, swishing the juice up and down and around each and every plum.

By the time the rainy season ends, you are ready for the finishing touch. You need three days in a row of blinding, hot, dry sunshine. You also need a big, outdoor space where you can spread the plums in a single layer to dry. Put them out in the morning, roll them around from time to time during the day, put them back in the juicy jar over night, and repeat the next day and the next.

When they are wrinkled and just dry enough, voila! You have made pickled plums.


Top Ten World Cities

Naha, Okinawa, didn't make the cut. It's not one of the world's ten best cities, but neither is New York or Tokyo.

That's OK.

It's still my favorite, and the reason has nothing to do with the usual criteria like standard of living, housing, transportation, business opportunities and all that. I like it because it has everything you need, plus--in spite of its sprawling size, it feels like a village.

People know each other. Circles of friendship overlap.

The other day, I attended a reception outside of Naha. It was for a marine archaeology research NPO. To my surprise, the guest seated to my right was a bamboo flute maker I'd been eager to meet. The man to my left was the developer of a healing garden I'm planning to write about. Both, it turned out, are friends of the butterfly park creator I met the next day for coffee.

I would like to suggest creative synergy as a criteria for choosing a great city.

Do people talk to each other? Do they inspire each other? In a great city, you can find the time. You can find the place. You can catch up with the people you want to talk with, live and in person, and share the joy of creativity taking wing.


Don't Call Them Herbs

One of the reasons Okinawa is justly famed for longevity has to do with the natural healing power of plants. In an extraordinarily beautiful location overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there is a large-ish garden dedicated to growing native healing plants. It's an added attraction to the popular Kurukuma Restaurant in Tsukishiro City, and I spent a refreshing hour strolling through the grounds in the rain the other day. (It's mid-rainy season now in Okinawa.)

When I called the plants grown there herbs, I was duly corrected. The right word is 'yaku-soh'." (literally, medicine-grasses) Herbs are mainly for adding taste and fragrance to food. Okinawan healing plants are linked to specific medical effects, such as lowering blood pressure. However, just like herbs, they are often added to whatever's cooking or made into tea.

Hibiscus tea for beautiful skin. Mulberry tea to cure a cold. Ukon tea for the liver. That sort of thing.

Surely Okinawa isn't the only place where natural healing plants grow. However, it may be one of the few places where the medicinal uses of leaves, flowers, stems and roots are common knowledge and hold a valued place in daily life.

The environment is so generous, if only we would respect it more and take better care of it. As my niece likes to say: "Save the Earth, it's the only planet with chocolate." Kidding aside, chocolate comes from cacao, and cacao is also a traditional healing plant.


Africa comes to Tokyo: The Hole in the Road

This is TICAD week--Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Coincidentally, I just read an essay by the late Polish newsman Ryszard Kapucinski on what he saw when he worked in Africa: thousands and thousands of capable people with absolutely nothing to do. No resources. No jobs. No homes. Refugees who lost everything except the very last treasure, life itself.

One day, he drove a few hundred miles to see a famed marketplace located outside a scruffy village. The miserable single-track road wound on forever, until it reached the village, where it had to squeeze between mud brick huts lining both sides of the road. He was almost in sight of the village, when traffic came to a halt. Carts, trucks, rickety buses, and cars stopped in the midday sun with no place to go. No way forward. No way to back up.

He got out of the car to see what was wrong.

Many, many cars ahead of him, he spied the problem. It was a gigantic hole. Smack in the middle of the road. Deep enough to swallow a car whole, and no way around it. The only way to move was forward, into the hole.

People gathered to watch. They had nothing else to do.

The first few cars could drive in and climb out again under their own power. Each car, however, made the hole a little deeper, a little more thrilling. To make a long story short, it reached the point where a car could plunge in, but there was no way its owner could drive it out.

That's when one of the male bystanders got a rope and offered to help. Before long, he had a thriving business. Several helpers, too.

Not to be left out, the women scrambled to put together some snacks, and sold them to the drivers waiting for their turn at the hole in the road. Kids carried water up and down the line of waiting cars. Vendors on their way to the official market stopped in their tracks and set up stalls near the head of the traffic jam where there was a little room at the side of the road.

By day's end, the scruffy nothing of a village had become a bustling profit center.

If people can make something out of nothing but a muddy hole in the road, imagine what they could do with real resources. Hopes are high for good results from the TICAD.


Name that Mountain

Did you guess Mt. Fuji? It's understandable because both mountains have similar silhouettes.
This one is Mt. Yotei, and it is in Hokkaido. It overlooks the town of Niseko.
Niseko has two claims to fame. One is the incomparable powder snow in winter that draws visitors to Niseko from around the world. The other claim to fame? Niseko is probably the only place in Japan where you are more likely to hear English being spoken than Japanese. Why? Because of the powder snow. Winter in Japan is summer vacation time for Australians.
Isn't it a marvel that our planet has complementary hemispheres?
G'day from Niseko, with love!


The One-Ton Bomb Next Door

We all know lots of reasons why war is hell. Here's another one: no one cleans up afterwards.

Yesterday 16,000 people--including all the patients in the local hospital--had to run for their lives down leafy, suburban streets. Why? While digging the foundation for someone's brand new house, construction workers came face to face with an unexploded WWII bomb. One unpredictable ton of war's leftovers.

Would it explode? No one knew. So 16,000 people were asked to leave their homes, their businesses, their oxygen and IVs.

Luckily, the professionals who came immediately were able to defuse it and carry it away to wherever it is you take one ton bombs.


If there is one bomb under the vacant lot next door, can you be sure there isn't another one just like it hiding under your house?


Tell Me It Isn't So

Baseball season is in full swing. (pun warning, too late) My favorite team (Yomiuri Giants) lost today's game. My former favorite (Seibu Lions) won. They weren't playing each other, so no problem.

The problem is (pun warning) a whole other ballgame.

Seibu played in Sendai City, in a shiny new stadium that seats more than 12,000. I couldn't believe it when the name of the stadium flashed across the TV screen. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. That could not possibly be the stadium name.

See, there's a trend now to name stadiums after business enterprises. For instance, the super trendy soccer stadium in Tokyo is called Ajinomoto Stadium. Ajinomoto is a company that makes cooking oil. It is possible to ignore that fact, because at least the word Ajinomoto sounds Japanese, even though its connection to the world of soccer is, er, slippery.

But back to the Seibu Lions playing up north in Sendai. I kept my eyes glued to the screen, waiting for the name of the new stadium to appear again, and when it did, my heart sank to new depths.

The romance is gone. I cannot wrap my mind around a playing field called Kleenex Stadium. I just can't.



Earthquakes are, for practical purposes, still unpredictable. The many lives lost in China yesterday are the sad proof.

Weather may be more predictable, but it doesn't do a lot of good. Look at what happened in New Orleans and again in Burma. (OK, the military bullies want us to call it Myanmar. Yessir! Myanmar, the country its leaders are allowing to die.)

One of my favorite philosophers always said that the most elementary type of competition is in military strength. From "My Dad can beat your Dad" to "My army can bomb yours back to the stone age".

More sophisticated is economic competition. Remember "We will bury you"? That, and quarterly reports for the stockholders, market share, and so on.

So what is the highest form of competition? Compassion, that's what. Who can do the greatest good for the greatest number? Who can be first on the scene after a natural disaster?

Compassion should be the field of dreams for the leader of the free world.


The 2000 km Swim

For me, a long swim is about five successive strokes. I cannot imagine swimming 1 kilometer, let alone two thousand kilometers. Fortunately, I will never have to. If I want to travel from Guam to Okinawa, I can take a plane.

A sea turtle, however, has no choice but to swim the distance.

Recently, a female green sea turtle was tracked by satellite. A transmitter was attached to one of her feet after she laid eggs on a beach in Guam. For five months, nothing was heard from the turtle. When the signal was picked up again, the turtle was grazing on seaweed near the Okinawan island of Kume. (You can see Kume Island from the airport at Naha.)

Five months is a long time between e-mails. It seems that the satellite can only pick up the signal when the turtle surfaces. Five months is also a long time to hold one's breath. It's amazing that there exists a creature who can live underwater and also on land.

In Okinawan mythology, the turtle is the link between worlds--the world of humans and the world of the gods. Among the relics discovered at the sunken pyramid of Yonaguni is a statue of a turtle. That stone turtle is itself a link between two worlds--our world, and the lost world of whoever carved the statue.

Who? Why? And where did they go?


One Week in May Studded with Golden Days

There are so many legal holidays in the first week of May that it is called Golden Week.

May 3, for instance, honors the Constitution. May 5 is Children's Day. So that May 4 doesn't suffer by comparison, it has been dubbed Green Day. Put together, they made a lovely and long weekend. This year, because Constitution Day fell on a Saturday, Tuesday (May 6) was thrown in as a make-up holiday.

It rained on Saturday, so instead of going out on Constitution Day, I did something radical. I sat down and read the Constitution. It took about 20 minutes, and I found some items that even the erstwhile "leader of the free world" doesn't have in its own Constitution.

Article 25. All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. (2) In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.

How cool is this? We all have health insurance and access to medical/dental care. There aren't any slums or inner cities for the unempowered in the western sense of the world.

Article 26. All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law. (2) All people shall be obligated to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary educations as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free.

This, too, is incredibly cool. Everyone can read and write!

Article 27. All people shall have the right and the obligation to work. (2) Standards for wages, hours, rest and other working conditions shall be fixed by law. (3) Children shall not be exploited.

To work is to be human. To give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay does a lot for an adult's pride. There is no welfare class. Lay-offs and unemployment are not unknown, and yet they are not on the same scale as in the US, and they are not endemic to certain demographics the way they are in the US.

The Constitution: to know it is to love it. Have you read yours lately?


Okinawa Gets an Earthquake as Predicted (sort of)

On Monday, tropical paradise Miyako Island was rattled by a level-4 earthquake. (4 is in the middle of the Japanese earthquake intensity scale--enough to topple things from shelves, but not enough for real damage)

This is newsworthy, not because there was an earthquake, but because an earthquake was predicted and then it happened.

Unfortunately, the warning came ten seconds after the preliminary shockwave, and the earthquake itself happened a few seconds before that. While the timing may have been off, the other parts of the system worked. That's encouraging.

The first computers were pretty unimpressive, too, but look at them now. Let's hope the science of earthquake prediction improves by the same leaps and bounds.



I can't believe they said that.

The US answer to Japan's protest over the violation of the trade agreement about beef imports is, "Why don't you just close your eyes and ignore the agreement, like we do?"

I'm quoting. Is this what my country's word is worth? Nothing more than a wink and a nudge?

I can't believe it. Can you?


Ayakaru: Sharing Good Fortune

Ayakaru--everyone does it, and Okinawa even has a word for it.

Do you feel like shaking hands or getting a hug when you come face to face with a winner? Having something of theirs to take home with you as a lucky talisman? On some level, we humans like to believe that top achievers have a special power, and if only we could get close enough, some of it might rub off on us.

That is what ayakaru is all about.

In one special Okinawa version, ayakaru is applied to old people. Living beyond the age of 90 and still being able to enjoy the daily round of activities is a very special way of winning in the game of life. People who have lived a very long time are treated like heroes at their birthday celebrations, with friends and strangers alike trying to get close to them through greetings or handshakes and sharing a drink poured by the elderly superhero at a celebratory party. There is a feeling that, through ayakaru, the secrets of healthy longevity can be shared.


Is this how to restore credibility abroad?

I don't think so.

This is from today's (4/24/2008) Japan Times:

"Banned spine parts turn up in U.S. beefA high-risk material for mad cow disease is found in a beef shipment from the United States in violation of a bilateral trade accord."

This is after "W" got on TV, literally bouncing in his seat, demanding that Japan buy US beef "or else". So a trade agreement was negotiated. For the aftermath of the agreement, see the news quoted above.

A leader is someone people follow. If he looks behind him and no one is there, he's not leading. He's just taking a walk.

Hmm... Take a walk... I know whose party I'm not voting for in the next election.

PS: US beef disappeard overnight from Japanese supermarkets. Even I wouldn't buy it if it were offered.


Baseball Rite of Spring: Okinawa Wins!

Twice a year, high school baseball rules TV. There are national tournaments in spring and summer. Theoretically, every high school with a good baseball team gets a chance to play. After a complicated series of play offs, the very best teams in the nation compete at Koshien Stadium.

It is the dream of every boy who has ever handled a baseball to play at Koshien Stadium. The lucky ones who make it traditionally scoop up a little bit of the dirt from the diamond to keep as an eternal souvenir. A uniform stained with the soil of Koshien is almost a sacred object.

Last Saturday, Okinawa's Shogaku high school made Koshien history. It was the first time in ten years that a high school pitcher threw a complete-game shutout.

Shogaku won 9-0. The 1998 shutout was pitched by Daisuke Matsuzaka, now of the Boston Red Sox. The pitcher this time was Nao Higashihama, and his coach was Koya Higa--the ace who pitched at Koshien in 1999, the last time Okinawa Shogaku won the national tournament.

I love it that boys have a place like Koshien in which to be heroes. I love it that the kids are the focal point and that the adults stay quietly, supportively, in the background.


It's Cherry Blossom Time!

Old trees
fresh blossoms
season of new beginnings

Happy Springtime to You All!


Okinawa Wins in Court

Do eggs really want to be made into omelettes?

No one knows, since eggs can't talk. However, it's reasonable to assume that people, given a free choice, would rather live to a happy old age than blow up themselves, their families, and their friends en masse with government-issue hand grenades.

Here is an excerpt from today's online Japan Times: "Court sides with Oe over mass suicides --The Osaka District Court rejects a damages suit filed against Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe and his publisher by two plaintiffs who had claimed Oe wrongly stated in his book that Japanese soldiers ordered civilians in Okinawa to commit mass suicide and murder-suicide in 1945."

History is usually written by the winners, but in this case, there are survivors with the gumption to stare official history in the face and declare, "You did this, now you have to own it."

Many of these courageous survivors are women in their 90's who lived the past half century alone, without the children they gave birth to, the husbands they planned to love forever, and the friends and family who would have been their companions in the journey to old age.

Let's have some truth in advertising. Let's call a spade a spade.

War is hell, and it's time to make omelettes out of the chicken leaders who try to convince us it's not.


Just for Fun: Old Fashioned Winters


As of March 20, winter is officially over. This year it snowed only twice in Tokyo, insignificant amounts both times. Didn’t winter used to be colder?

Here are some words that stand for ways to keep warm in the deep, freezing winters of yesteryear. See if you can guess what they are.

1. Pechika
(a) a kind of down vest (b) a stove

2. Utampo
(a) hot soup served in an earthenware pot (b) a kind of hot water bottle

3. Kotatsu
(a) double thick mittens (4) a quilt covered table with an electric heater attached

4. Chan-chan-ko
(a) a hot pot dish favored by sumo wrestlers (b) a coat worn indoors

5. Kairo
(a) a muffler wrapped around the head and neck (b) charcoal burning hand warmer

(See comments for answers, please.)



Can you sing? Takeda Shingen could.

Everyone should be able to sing at least one song. That's what my favorite teacher always says. He has entertaining friends in mind, but in the age of Takeda Shingen, your song was your autobiography.

Shingen's song is still sung today. It is called "Takeda Bu-shi", and both the tune and the words are memorable.

Yesterday I was in Yamanashi and climbed to the top of the ruins of one of Shingen's castles in the capital city, Kofu. Where I saw the bustle of building after building sprawling almost to the horizon, Shingen would have seen prospering fields and forests. The one thing we both would have seen was the ring of mountains circling the land, with Mount Fuji standing head and shoulders above them all.

The mountains of Yamanashi figure prominently in Shingen's song. They inspired him to be a leader who stands steadfast and sure between his people and every threat to their well being, as steady and reliable as a mountain.


Back to Okinawa

Sanshin Day--March 4, 2008. This is the day to celebrate sanshin music. The main venue in Naha is at the Kumoji Palette Plaza, where the world's largest sanshin is on display this one day only. It is so heavy, it takes three strong men to set it up. It is so long, it takes two people to play it.


Here is Takeda Shingen's statue in Kofu, Yamanashi.

The banner he carried into battle was inscribed with these words:

"Swift as the Wind, Silent as a Forest, Fierce as Fire and Immovable as a Mountain"

The words that inspired Shingen came from a Chinese literary work, Sun Tsu's The Art of War.


Takeda Shingen--a story

Did you remember that name?

If you travel to Yamanashi, you will find a certain product at every souvenir stand. It’s called Shingen mochi, and it’s delicious. It’s a sweet named after Yamanashi’s greatest hero, Takeda Shingen.

The family name is Takeda, and the hero’s personal name is Shingen. Let’s call him Shingen in this story, though he had many names throughout his lifetime. Shingen became head of the Takeda clan back in the 16th century. That was a time known as The Warring States Period in Japanese history, because at that time Japan was less a nation and more of a motley collection of feudal domains.

The most famous story about Shingen concerns him and his arch rival, Uesugi Kenshin. They fought each other a total of five times, once in hand-to-hand combat. Neither one could defeat the other. When Shingen died of illness in late middle age, the rival cried inconsolably. Life wasn’t fun any more without a worthy rival.

Remember the part about Yamanashi being a landlocked province? One of the problems Shingen had to solve was finding a source of salt, the major food preservative in the days before refrigeration was invented. A rather romantic legend has it that Shingen led a party in search of salt down the Fuji River to the sea, where he came to a salt-making village. It was his plan to capture the village and secure an eternal source of salt.

However, Shingen’s reputation as a poet traveled well ahead of him.

The villagers’ idea was that if Shingen could not be defeated in battle, they would have to get him another way. Each night, a villager with a flute would play his most beautiful music. Each night, Shingen would come out of his camp to listen to the music and compose poetry. When this became established routine, the flute player dropped his flute, picked up a bow and arrow, and mortally wounded Shingen.

I read this in a novel (Japanese Inn, by Oliver Statler). I have no idea of whether or not it is true. It could be true, and that is good enough for me.

I like the idea that the only thing in the whole world stronger than a samurai is music and poetry.


A Prefecture that isn't Okinawa

Yamanashi Prefecture—I can see its mountains when I look out my west-facing windows, and one of those mountains is the fabled Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji stands alone. In the background are the Japan Alps. On the flat places between the various mountains are vineyards the equal of anything Italy, California—even NJ—have to offer. Yamanashi is prize winning wine country and is as famous for incredibly luscious peaches as it is for grapes. In early spring, the peach blossoms are so thick it looks like the land has been covered with a hot pink carpet.

The one thing Yamanashi does not have is a beach. Although Japan is an island country, and if you have all day you can drive across it from sea to shining sea, Yamanashi is landlocked. And that is the key to its place in the nation building history of Japan.

More on that later. For now, remember this name—Takeda Shingen.


Just for Fun: Japanese Cultural Quiz

?????? Quiz Time ??????

Japan’s titular head of state is:
(a) a president
(b) a king
(c) an emperor

The head of state rules:
(a) with an iron fist
(b) with the help of an elected congress
(c) in an honorary capacity only

The next head of state will be:
(a) elected in November
(b) appointed by Congress
(c) none of the above

[Click on comments to find the answers.]


News Flash: Quiet Time for Uncle Sam's Kids

-------- Yes! -------

Looks like Uncle Sam really does want to know where his people are, so he's making them stay home. US military personnel and their families in Japan are all being given a time out to reflect on what it means to live in a country that doesn't belong to them, a country that believes in peace.

A curfew was put in place on Wednesday (2/20/2008).


Uncle Sam: Do you know where your soldiers are?

One of my Okinawa friends gave a party, and when she woke up the next morning, she noticed an extra pair of shoes in the entryway. [note: in Japan, everyone takes off their shoes when they enter the house and leaves them in the entryway until they leave] She figured one of the guests probably walked home wearing house slippers instead of shoes. It happens sometimes.

However, when she went into the living room, surprise! There was the guest, sound asleep on the couch. She set an extra place at the breakfast table, and they all shared a laugh with the guest who forgot to go home.

It’s a cute story that will surely be retold with a merry twinkle in the eye for years to come.

How about this version?

In another part of Okinawa, a family woke up to find a uniformed US Marine asleep on their sofa—big, smelly, and drunk as the proverbial skunk. What do you do when you, as pater familias, tip the scale at a little over a hundred pounds, and there is a 300-pound uninvited guest who doesn’t speak your language snoring in your family’s living room?

That is a problem no one should have to face in a country that is at peace. But it happened, just the other day.


A Reason to Love Japan: Naps!


It's true. The Japanese government promotes napping.

In an official report, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said people can improve their health (OK, and their work efficiency, too) with a 20-minute nap. Just remember to take the nap before 3 PM.


Is this any way to protect human rights?


You be the judge.

The last time US military men stationed in Okinawa--three of them--did this to a young girl (13 years old) with the help of liberal applications of duct tape, their commander scolded them for their stupidity in not "hiring professional services". Then he whisked them out of the country. They may be living in your neighborhood now.

This time, the old goat is claiming he should be let off because the girl (14) was rescued when he'd only gotten as far as forcing her down in his car and kissing her against her will.

Here is an excerpt from today's wire service story:

Hadnott (38), a Marine staff sergeant, is alleged to have offered to take the girl to her home on his motorbike on Sunday, but then took her to his house instead, another local police official told The Associated Press.
When the girl started crying, he said he would drive her home, but he is accused of then raping her in a car, the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
Hadnott told investigators he forced the girl down and kissed her, but that he did not rape her, the official said.

Tell me again, why was this miserable excuse for a human being let loose on peaceful people's streets in the first place? Something about safeguarding human rights?


Japanese Holidays: Hina Matsuri

Girls' Day, also known as the day of the doll festival, is on March 3. In Japanese, it's called Hina Matsuri, and the main event is setting up a collection of hina dolls.

The hina dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, and members of the court. What you see in this photo is an emperor doll (on your left, top row), empress doll (top row, right) and three ladies in waiting.

Decorations include lanterns with paper shades (bonbori, in Japanese) and peach blossoms. Due to the historic lunar calendar's becoming skewed over the ages, peach blossoms are not naturally in bloom by March 3, but that is why commercial florists were invented, right?

The dolls can be set up any time after the New Year holidays are over, but they must be packed away as soon as the doll festival is finished. Superstition has it that to leave them out after March 3 is to doom your daughter to a life of spinsterhood.


Another Holiday--Feb 3

The first months of the year are loaded with holidays. Some are serious, and some are just for fun.

February 3 is one of the fun ones. It's technical name is "setsu-bun", and it is the calendar date for the first day of spring according to the ancient lunar calendar. Just because it snowed this year is no reason not to believe spring will eventually arrive.

The way to celebrate is, um, different from what you might expect. First, you put on your devil mask. Then you arm yourself with handfuls of dried beans. And then you throw the beans.

You are supposed to shout "Devils out!" and throw the beans outside. Then you screech, "Good fortune come in!" as you throw the beans around inside the house. Of course, kids are doing most of the throwing, and that is why you need the devil mask to protect your face from flying beans.

The celebration ends when you scoot around picking up the beans from inside the house. The rule says you have to eat the same number of beans as your age.

I, for one, don't plan on playing this game when my teeth are 101 years old. Those dried beans are pretty crunchy.

Another fun one comes on March 3. March 3 is Girls' Day, the day of the doll festival or "Hina Matsuri". More on that (plus a photo!) next time.


Just for Fun: Japanese or Chinese Food?


Japanese Cuisine Trivia

Have you ever tasted gyoza? (a dumpling, sometimes called pot sticker in English)
How about ramen? (home-made, instant, or cup noodle type)
Cha-han? (fried rice)
Fortune cookies?

Except for the fortune cookies, all of these are super popular in Tokyo and probably in Japanese restaurants overseas. Can you guess which ones are really Chinese, and which ones are truly Japanese?

Scroll down...



and the answer is

... only sushi is a Japanese original.

Fortune cookies are ALMOST a Japanese original. Surprise!

According to The Japan Times, the first fortune cookies as we know them were produced by a Japanese restaurant in America and sold as a Chinese food.



Just for Fun: Japanese Language Lesson


Just as there are some counter-intuitive expressions in English, such as a driveway being where you park and a parkway being a place to drive, some Japanese expressions don't make sense from their literal meanings alone.

How sharp are your linguistic instincts?
Can you guess what any of the following Japanese words and phrases are used to express?

(pronunciation hints: the vowels sound like Spanish vowels, every consonant is pronounced, and there are no strongly accented syllables)

1. ohayo
2. kudasai
3. hajimemashite
4. moshi-moshi
5. domo

(literal meanings: ohayo = honorably early; kudasai = please lower it down; hajimemashite = starting; moshi = says; domo = very much)

Click on comments to find the answers.



Milestones beyond Coming of Age Day

Other Big Birthdays

Coming of Age Day is the first big rite of passage in Japan, but 20 isn’t the last important birthday. Unlike in western countries where there is nothing to look forward to after sweet sixteen, getting the driver’s license, and being legally entitled to vote and drink, the older you get the more you have to celebrate.

A much-celebrated milestone is reaching age 60.

The importance of becoming 60 is not about retiring from the job. It has to do with the traditional calendar’s 12 year cycle. Each year has its iconic animal. For instance, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. Each year also has a ruling element. This year’s element is water. There are 12 animals and five elements. That means it takes 60 years to make a complete round (kan-reki) of every animal paired with every element. In other words, by the age of 60 you have seen it all and have the right to step back from the world.

The next auspicious birthday is the 77th one. This one is called ki-ju. The ki in ki-ju implies joy and luck. Age 88—known as bei-ju—is also special. Eight is a very lucky number, and a pair of eights is incredibly lucky. The luck is implied from the expansive way the character for eight is written--kind of like a narrow pathway widening into a broad boulevard of prosperous living.

Reaching the age of 97 is a major celebratory event in Okinawa. If you reach that age, you are starting a new 12-year cycle, and new beginnings are joyful events. A person with 97 years of health and good fortune is worth spending time with, so the 97th birthday becomes a kind of public celebration. Anyone and everyone entertains the hope that, by offering congratulations, the senior citizen’s good vibrations will spill over into one’s own life.

In Japan—and especially in Okinawa—getting older is not something to apologize for or shrink from. It is synonymous with getting better.


Okinawa Cuisine

What’s to eat in Okinawa?

My personal favorite is called yasai yakisoba, or vegetable and noodle stir fry.
The thick, curly noodles are boiled before they go into the wok with cabbage, bean sprouts, carrot slivers, and a green vegetable that comes from the sea (notice I don’t call it seaweed). There are also bits of sliced pork to give it flavor, and speaking of flavor, a soy-based sauce also goes into the wok.

Probably the most famous noodle dish is called soki soba. The soba part is (did you guess?) noodles again, this time slender brownish ones that get boiled before they go into the soup. Soki refers to a bone-in pork rib. It’s served as a hot soup.

For a snack—and don’t eat these more than once a week if you want to keep your slim, trim figure—there is a lump of fried dough called saataa-andaki. Well, that’s a little like calling toast a paste made of grass seed that has been baked and burned. It’s shaped like a beignet, but not sticky-sweet. It tastes like a donut, but it’s not a circle and it doesn’t have a hole through the middle. Try it, you’ll like it.

The signature Okinawa dish is goya champuru. Goya looks like an oversized cucumber with warts. I know, as descriptions go, that sounds unkind. To make matters worse, the goya is cursed with an extremely bitter taste. However, good cooks know how to scrape out the pith and use liberal doses of salt to kill off the worst of the bitter taste. The goya is sliced into half moon shapes and tossed into the wok with eggs, tofu, and maybe some carrot slivers and a few bean sprouts. Liberally seasoned, it comes out of the wok transformed into something not only incredibly healthy but also tasty.

Lots of vegetables, lots of soup, skimpy doses of oil and fat, and every taste from sweet to bitter in moderation—a minimum of 18 different foods per day is typical Okinawa cuisine. PS Don’t forget the fruit.


Bingata kimono

Here are some bingata kimono designs.

The hats are used in traditional Okinawa-style dances.

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day is a national holiday in Japan. It used to be on January 15, but the holiday gods recently decreed that it should fall on a Monday. Everyone loves a long weekend.

The holiday celebrates the start of social responsibility. Every young adult who turns 20 during the year is treated to a ceremony held at a public hall where speeches about the seriousness of voting (and also about being legally entitled to drink alcohol) and entertainment ensue.

It’s especially exciting for young women, because it is one of the few occasions on which they can dress up in a formal kimono, the kind with sleeves that dangle practically to their ankles. Gorgeous! The young men usually opt for suits, but there are always a few who rent kimono and hakama (like enormous pleated pants worn over the bottom half of the kimono) and show off.

Mainland kimonos are heavy, multi-layered, and held together with a stiff obi wrapped around the waist and tied in butterfly wings about shoulder height in back. Obi are beautiful, but not conducive to either eating or breathing. Okinawa, perhaps because of the climate, favors another style of kimono.

The most traditional of the Okinawa kimonos are made from banana leaf fiber (basho-fu) and are dyed in brilliant designs in a style known as bingata. The fiber is hand woven, and the designs are hand painted. Cords hold it in place, so there is no need for the stifling obi.

Whether celebrated in silk kimono, bingata kimono, hakama or dressy western-style suits, it is an important day that becomes a cherished memory. Congratulations to all of today’s celebrants!


On the Light Side: Fidgeting 101


Everyone knows how to twiddle their thumbs, but what about the other fingers? Can you twiddle your pinkies? How about your ring fingers? This kind of fidgeting is considered therapeutic exercise in Japan, as each finger is believed to have a relationship with the well-being of a specific internal organ. If you can twiddle each set of fingers successfully, you are in great shape. At least, that’s how the theory goes.

Another therapeutic fidget for the fingers goes like this. First use your right thumb and right forefinger to squeeze the tip of your left thumb. You squeeze from the sides at the base of the nail for five seconds. Do the fingers of your left hand one by one, then use your left thumb and forefinger to squeeze the fingertips of your right hand one by one. This exercise is believed to stimulate the immune system.

A favorite fidget in Okinawa that the elderly especially believe keeps their digestion on track is as follows. It starts with placing the thumb of the right hand on your left palm and resting your right forefinger on the back of your left hand. Then you slide your right forefinger down to the place where the base of the left thumb and forefinger come together. Are you with me so far? This is one of the “shiatsu” pressure points. To stimulate this pressure point, push against it with a moderate amount of force. (not enough to bruise, OK?)

There are no guarantees here, but who knows? It can’t hurt, and it might actually be a productive way to fidget away those idle minutes.



Okinawa Time

It’s January 1st, and we’re off for another trip around the sun. Do you hear anyone whining, “Are we there yet?” Is anyone fretting about finding a place to park and clean rest rooms along the way? There is no one demanding, “Hurry or we’ll miss the good part.” And no one is howling, “Slow down or we’ll all be killed!” We’re all along for the ride, and we leave the pace of travel up to the universe.

Okinawa time works like that. An event is set in motion and then left to unfold itself step by step, in its own good time.

Few events in Okinawa start, as the rest of the world is fond of saying, “on time”. It’s not about indifference to people’s busy schedules; it’s about sensitivity to life’s rhythms. No one expects every baby to take his or her first unaided step at precisely age one year, two weeks, three days, and six hours. Why insist that a wedding, graduation, store opening, or whatever begin at exactly 10 AM?

Time is thought of as just one of many natural cycles that occur without regard to human convenience: the rising and falling of tides, the crop cycle, the migrations of fish, the coming and going of a typhoon. A human lifetime does not unfold according to the clock, and—in Okinawan logic—neither do the events that make up our days.