Sunday, November 30, 2008


I just finished reading an article in the New York Times asking for readers' opinions about how lavish the inaugural cermony and parties ought to be. Glancing through the 250 responses, it seems like the majority of people favor a subdued affair in these sober times.

Of course, my mind wandered to the age-0ld question, WWJD? Not, What Would Jesus Do...that's obvious. But What Would the Japanese Do?

They would do absolutely nothing, that's what.

The Japanese political system is a cousin of ours (we helped set it up after WWII) but with some very odd genes from the other side of the family. The Congress (or Diet) is bi-cameral and elected by popular vote just like in the United States. However,there is a slight difference in protocol: the Congress chooses the Prime Minister. The Japanese do not popularly elect a president, which I personally consider to be liberating and bewildering at the same time; Liberating because this society skips two years of tedious, I-Want-to-Put-My-Head-In-An-Oven campaigning. Bewildering because you never know who is steering this mighty ship.

Since living in Japan the last 3 years, we have witnessed three different Prime Ministers. One morning you wake up and flip on the Japanese news and there is a swarm of reporters around the capitol building. Hmmm. Perhaps a momentous law has been passed?

No. No. That's not it. The leader of the second largest economy in the world has just decided to quit because of his "nerves". This has happened twice. Two different guys with "nerve" issues have folded in under a year of leading this great nation. The third man, Mr. Aso, seems sturdy enough but I won't be surprised if he decides, "to hell with it", and runs away to Bermuda.

Obviously, one never knows the real, devious inner-workings of politics. It seems logical that these poor men might have been sacrificial lambs for their political parties, but still...

Can you imagine the President of the United States calling a press conference to state, "Nevermind. This office is entirely too stressful. I quit."

When this happens here, the Japanese seem irritated but kind of shrug their shoulders like What can you do?

Well, might I suggest two plus years of dirty, expensive campaigning that drives the common folk to drink, followed by plenty of over-the-top, lavish parties celebrating the winner and all the rich folk to whom he is now indebted?

If that won't steady those frightful nerves, I don't know what will.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Have a Wabi-sabi Thanksgiving!


This sounds like a new dance craze ("Come on everybody and do the wabi-sabi!"). Or perhaps an annoying Star Wars character that you want to kill two minutes into the movie. Or baby talk for the word wasabi ("Does widdle Jimmy want a widdle bit of wabi-sabi on his sushi-wushi?").

It's none of the above. In reality, wabi-sabi happens to be THE over-arching aesthetic and religious principle in Japan. You might be slightly disappointed it's not something more cutesy...but let me explain.

Before our chankopalooza last weekend (see previous post), our friends led Tim and I on a two-hour hike up a mountain and back down to a local temple. Hiranosan warned us that the hike would be "dangerous". We thought he was kidding. Perhaps he had chosen the wrong word?

No such luck.

Overcast and drizzly, I about broke my neck a dozen times sliding on the thick carpet of wet leaves covering the trail. As we descended the treacherous side of the mountain, we wandered upon a more discernible, stone path. On the left side of it was a craggy rock face covered in moss. Trees in autumn garb, with their branches arching over the path, lined the other side.

Hiranosan stopped and gazed at the scene around him. He announced that the quiet scene of rock, trees and moss leading up to a sacred place was "the center of the Japanese heart", otherwise known as wabi-sabi.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), wabi-sabi has no direct translation. The best I can come up with is "harmony in nature, perfect in its imperfection, transitory yet timeless". Someone smarter than myself described it more simply: "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Interesting. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect.

Generally, we westerners tend to think that everything good must last...that the mission is accomplished...that perfection is attainable with the "right" ingredients and superior methodology. Both mental constructs (Eastern and Western thought) have their pros and cons and work for and against the cultures to which they belong. I could go on about that forever.

But I have a challenge for you today--this most wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving.

In addition to being thankful for your beautiful families, the roof over your head and the plentiful food on your table, consider being thankful that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.

Although unsettling, getting older is an amazing process. It's astounding what new views you can see through the bare branches, after the beautiful leaves have fallen to the ground.

Although that rock face was carved out a millenia ago, it's not "finished". The emerald moss covering it will degrade the surface over time. The change might be imperceptible to us, but another thousand years from now, the path will look much different to those who follow us. They will be in awe of it, nonetheless.

Although manicured, symmetrical gardens are gorgeous, the tangled chaos of nature is ever so much more. Striving to be/do better is desirable but not if we forget that we are imperfect beings in our original design. Imperfections remind us that we are limited and not always in control. This makes us human. And to quote Martha Stewart, the grand poohbah of perfection: "It's a good thing."

On the subject of good things, I hope you all enjoy plenty of traditional turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie this holiday...with a little bit of wabi-sabi on the side. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Foot in Japan?

I had a fascinating conversation in my seniors' class this week. Our book's chapter had been discussing tabloids and some of the spectacular stories found therein. I told my students that American culture generally has two types of tabloid "reporting": gossip and fantastical.

They regarded me with a somewhat quizzical look. I explained that by "fantastical", I meant stories about aliens, women giving birth to aliens and redneck Big Foot sightings. (And redneck women giving birth to little Big Foots. And those sightings.)

Redneck? Big Foot? Their eyes seemed to wander the classroom, trying to connect with their fellow confused countrymen. I tested the waters: What? You all aren't familiar with the big scary ape guy who runs around the world's ancient forests leaving no trace except huge footprints? None of your people have recorded a grainy, out-of-focus picture of said creature?

Nope. Nothing. No recognition.

Gosh. What's the point in living without this belief system? One of my greatest childhood thrills came from watching a 1970's Big Foot "Special" that showed a re-enactment of Big Foot breaking through a log cabin's picture window and kidnapping some blond chick innocently snoozing on a couch. I couldn't sleep in my suburban second-story bedroom for weeks. I was certain that Sasquatch was going to come flying through the 2x2 window any second. (After all, I was blond and innocent. It was only a matter of time.)

Upon further discussion, I discovered that the Japanese don't really have hairy, scary beasts in their forests. They do have magical creatures, and although difficult to find, they are neither destructive nor frightening. Instead, they have long Pinocchio noses and bring good fortune from the gods.

I've decided that Japan is not a hospitable habitat for Big Foot. There's really no purpose for such a creature in this culture. If a chance encounter with him doesn't supply a dose of good luck, what's the point of having a humongous being roaming the woods, rudely taking up much needed space? It's not enough to have a mystery here--there has to be a compelling reason for the mystery to exist.

However, I suspect the largest obstacle to Big Foot's existence in Japan is more basic. This culture just has an appalling lack of rednecks and innocent blonds.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Guess It's Hereditary

Here are two pictures I found of Lily after a night "camping" (see previous post) in the Japanese ryokans. Being so young, she didn't even have the pleasure of experiencing The Noodle Effect.
Can't you just feel her pain?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Let's Try Chanko Nabe!

Chanko nabe...sounds substantial, doesn't it? For me, it evokes images of chubby thighs and blubbery bottoms, basically all things....chunky.

It's indeed a protein rich stew (uh huh, it's chunky) eaten twice daily by Sumo wrestlers to "build strength". Although the chicken dashi, or broth, is light, everything but the kitchen sink is added to this dish--shellfish, fish, chicken, several types of mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves (?!?, but delicious), Japanese radishes, and a few other mystery root vegetables.

Last weekend, our retired Japanese friends invited us over to partake of this cultural favorite. Their invitation cheerily demanded: "Let's try chanko nabe!"

Yes, let's!

(Contrary to popular opinion, we do fix our own food. Often. Okay, sometimes.)

We arrived at their house to find a gas hot plate on the table. The dashi is cooked beforehand and then heated to boiling in a giant crock pot at the table. We tossed the veggies and fish in to simmer while enjoying assorted rice crackers, homemade pickles and cold beer.

Japanese cooking, at least when guests are involved, is communal. I have learned so much about food preparation here because it usually happens right before my eyes--it's like dinner AND a movie. What a spectacular experience for the disfunctionally illiterate!

At first I thought, it's just lean protein and vegetables. Calorie-wise, this meal is quite light. Four servings later, I got religion... but apparently I was still not devout enough. Once the chunky bits are all consumed, rice is added to the leftover broth with eggs, green onions and soy sauce. I felt adequately Sumo-Sized after eating my first-ever Japanese Risotto. The scale confirmed my fear the next day.

Sumo wrestlers eat 4-5 bowls of rice with these meals, hence their legendary girth. After each meal, they immediately go to sleep so they can become "stronger". Some of the younger wrestlers find it a challenge to eat so much and then rest. (Truly, chanko nabe is an X-game in the sport of eating. Thanksgiving? Ppppffft. Totally for amateurs.)

I feel for these poor guys. After tossing and turning all night, I couldn't even think about food until the following afternoon.

Tim slept like a baby and ate his normal breakfast. I think he missed his calling.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


"Engrish", in case you don't know, is/are the charming English mistranslations by Asians, usually in the attempt to sell something. Check out the link on the side of my blog, One of my favorite entries is a Thai menu offering "crap/crap in red sauce/steamed crap". The intent was to serve carp. Two little letters...transversed. Doh!

One of our favorite "engrish" sayings has become part of our family repetoire. The first week we arrived in Okinawa, we discovered the 100 yen stores (dollar stores). Most of the products are Made in China so the lost in translation moments are hilariously relentless. I actually guffawed when I saw a small pad of paper displaying a cute cartoon character with overly large hands extended out towards the viewer. It said, "You can't contain the tastiness in two hands."

Well, of course you can't. That seems like a no-brainer but I am glad it was pointed out to me, nonetheless.

Our family picked up this catchy little phrase, but we constantly change out the "tastiness" to fit our mood. In our house, you can't contain the cuteness/cheesiness/dorkiness/lameness/etc. in two hands, either.

The other day, Tim was attempting to explain the periodic table to two nonplussed girls. Those of you who know my husband also know that he has an astounding ability to recollect millions of facts about practically any subject. To stop the conversation from spiralling out of control (he can go on for awhile), Claire declared him a total dork. He exclaimed that, in fact, there was no possible way to contain "his coolness in two hands".

Lily retorted, "Of course not, Daddy. I've always been able to contain it in one."

Ouch. That smarts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Love Not Camping

What a fabulous weekend. Tim and I left the girls at a friend's house (the O'Connors rock!) and headed out for the New Sanno in Tokyo. The New Sanno is the Armed Services hotel for Japan. Anyone in the military, retired or active duty, and their families and friends are eligible to stay at this 4 star hotel for about $60 a night. The bar serves up a fair drink, the restaurants are top-notch and the rooms are comfortable and modern. I dream of being an adult Eloise and living permanently at the New Sanno.

Since most Japanese hotels charge per person (the cheap ones are about $100 a person in Tokyo), a family of four could go broke trying to see Nippon without this amazing perk. We have paid upwards of $350 for the "Ryokan (small traditional inn) experience". We "experienced" the hidden thrill of sleeping on 2 inch thick cotton futons on rock hard tatami mats in a 4x4 room with peeling wallpaper. On account of the hot mineral baths and free-flowing sake (aka, The Noodle Effect), you actually sleep really well for the first hour. Then the cartilege in your joints starts to break down.

To add insult to injury (literally), breakfast consists of some sort of cold, bony fish, rice and vegetables.

I complained to my Japanese class about bunking on the floor and they laughed at me. Not with me. At me. Apparently, we Americans are "too soft". Hmmmph. They also informed me that the really amazing Hyatt-type Ryokans have gourmet meals and super plush robes and better sake. Unbenownst to us (because we are illiterate and poor), we were frequenting the Best-Western style Ryokans. Oops. Mistakes were made.

Nonetheless, super swanky or not, the cold hard fact remains that you have to sleep on the floor. I will try most things in a foreign environment once. We have tried the Ryokans twice.

So the moral to this story is: Never pay $350 to camp. And never, never pay $350 twice to camp.

Friday, November 7, 2008

All Hallow's Eve--Redux

Tim and I have hosted some of my Japanese friends a couple times in the past few weeks--first for a birthday meal at Chilis (three of us had birthdays in October) and again for Halloween.

Chilis provided many American cultural "firsts" for them: chips and salsa (perplexed by dipping the chips, but loved the salsa), flour tortillas (tried to put the cinnamon apples in them), guacamole (what's that green stuff?), eating ribs with one's hands (attempted to eat barbeque with a knife and fork), and American-sized portions (about 4 times the amount of food than in Japanese restaurants).

Their favorite food seemed to be the ribs, mashed potatoes and fajitas. The mashed potatoes were such a hit that I might package up a few portions for Christmas presents.

They looked a bit overwhelmed at the end of the meal but I had arranged for the embarrassing hand-clapping Chilis birthday song, accompanied by two enormous pieces of cheesecake. As the faux-enthusiastic merriment started in the back of the restaurant, my tablemates looked unaffected. As the waiters got closer and closer, they seemed slightly alarmed but still unaware that all the pomp was coming for them.

I learned that the Restaurant Birthday Clapping Behavioral Test for Introverted/Extroverted Tendencies is cross-cultural. Once the waiters arrived at the table with the cake, my short, excitable friend jumped up to join in the clapping with a huge cheshire grin. His more zen friend was smiling, but it was definitely tinged with an OMG, where's the nearest exit? look.

Upon leaving, they declared that they would like to return to Chilis "every three months".


But we weren't done with them that week--they returned for Halloween several days later. Intensely curious about this "American festival", they arrived more excited than the kids. We served chili and cornbread which they looked at suspiciously (there is absolutely no equivalent in Japanese cuisine), then devoured entirely.

Once the girls got dressed up in their "goth" outfits, my Japanese friends were totally stoked. We hit the streets where, like paparazzi, they took millions of pictures of tots in various costumes, sometimes befuddling their parents by detaining and posing the little witches and ninjas for a more professional shot.

After two blocks, they tired of the festival fun. We returned home for pumpkin pie and candy sorting/swapping. This ritual delighted them more than the costumes. Towards the end, they were pouncing on the reject candy in the middle.

No doubt about it, Japanese retired folk are quick learners.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Me, Too?

I saw this little guy in the museum I blogged about in the previous post. He looks so serene and contemplative with his tiny froggy hands posed just so and his eyes gazing into the unknown.

Keiko informed me that the writing above him translates as, I am always naked.

Double meaning or straight-up buddhist comedy? You decide.

This Moment

Yesterday, my friend Keiko guided me on a hike to some of the smaller shrines and temples in Kamakura, the ancient village turned artist community near where we live. We started at her house outside of town and meandered through the hills, stopping to visit various shrines and temples along the way. There may be no greater pleasure on earth than hiking through the woods on a perfectly crisp Fall day. When no one else is present, emerging from the dark wooded paths and tunnels, glimpsing the outline of a temple, it feels like you have happened upon a long lost treasure, hidden from modern day knowledge.

After hiking, we stopped in a small museum/tea shop. (Keiko was born and raised in Kamakura and is a resident expert of All Things Off The Beaten Path. I would have never found this place by myself. ) The museum only displayed a few pieces of antique pottery and calligraphy but one scroll caught my eye--a few simple brushstrokes illustrating a buddhist monk and some sublimely constructed kanji above it. Keiko stopped and told me its message: I am thankful for this moment.

Buddhists strive to live in the present. There is no guaranteed future and the past is...well, past.

What better time to ruminate about the moment than on this historic election night? Our past is definitely past and we cannot magically undo what has been done. Our future remains wildly unsure--will this articulate, passionate and inexperienced man lead us to better or, God forbid, worse times?

I don't know. But I do know something for certain about the present moment. I am thankful for free elections with record voter turnouts. I am thankful for governmental change with no violence or military intervention. I am thankful for the candidate we didn't elect, who was so utterly gracious and humble in defeat. And I am thankful that we dared elect a person who could only be brought to power in the United States of America. (I love Japan but there is no way in hell they would ever elect a man whose father was Chinese, mother was Japanese, who grew up in Korea and was born poor to boot. )

You don't get ahead by working harder in most countries in the world. You get ahead by being born ahead in the first place. Although I admire the beauty and wisdom of ancient cultures, their traditions have the tendency to create intricate, perfectly formed knots. Being a young nation, and free of the cultural restraints that sometimes hold back other nations of the world, we Americans are free to hope for a better life, whatever that means to each individual. With some hard work and determination, we are free to change what we deem changeable. Our knots are not so perfectly formed. Yet.

So today, I feel as if I have left the dark woods and am standing in front of all the great monuments of my own society...recently obscured by the mistakes of our past and the worries for our future. Today, our unique structures stand in plain view for all to see:

Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. The Audacity to Hope.

I am thankful for this moment.