Friday, April 16, 2010

Beyond Writing - Education

Fahrat took my hand coolly when we met and gave me her mysterious smile. She adjusted her yellow head scarf after we shook hands as she was saying it was a pleasure to meet me. She wore a tunic of blue over plain pants that might pass as blue-jeans. Whatever was hiding under the tunic and headscarf, however, was no match for the brilliance of her smile, which belied her age, making her look as young and guileless as a child. In general, she had quiet demeanor, except when talking about her schooling and journey through and beyond secondary education, when she became positively chatty. Her parents wanted better for her, she explained. She is interested in art and history, but is passionate about her required community service project where she teaches young children in the slums of Chitagong. She currently attends Asian University for Women (AUW) located in her home country of Bangladesh, but which caters to underprivileged women from across South and East Asia, women who otherwise would not get post-secondary education.

Fahrat’s fellow AUW student, and fellow Bangladeshi, Pearly, had a wide mouth and dark, glossy hair, which she kept uncovered. Her eyes were frank and curious. Young, only nineteen, and interested in fashion and art, she captivated the young girls she met, who saw her as exotic. She had a harder time convincing her parents to allow her to go to an International University, but she did it, and she is in the Access Academy, the pre-freshman placement at AUW that readies the girls for university level curricula.

These two young women were in Tokyo this week for a fundraiser for their school. The Japan Support Committee for AUW had 300 people at the Yamano Beauty School for a screening of the PBS documentary “Time for School.” Producer Tamara Rosenberg attended and spoke at the event as well. The documentary itself was truly beautiful. The point of it is that it follows seven children in various countries over the twelve years of their schooling – they should be graduating in 2015, the year at which the United Nations and its member countries have pledged to have free basic schooling available to every child. They covered girls from Romania, India and Afghanistan and boys from Benin, Brazil, Japan and Kenya – showing the different school system and the obstacles the children have to overcome. The differences in issues and challenges were startling. One girl walks two hours each way to and from school. One boy deals with drug wars all around him. One girl easily gets to school, but her life is a pressure cooker. The grace and acceptance of these children startles even the most unflappable listener. These kids are determined to get an education, no matter the cost.

And that’s the connection to Fahrat and Pearly. They noted in their speeches last evening, that when you educate a man, you educate a man, but when you educate a woman, you educate a family and a village. These women, even if they don’t go directly back to their home villages, will go out in the world and find a way to give back to their communities. They will have the skills to do things like build a medical clinic, or have an AIDS prevention program. They will be able to direct funds to invest in their country. Both girls note that while some girls want to go directly back to their homes to either teach children or make a direct connection to the communities in which they grew up, all of the girls to a man want to somehow stay connected to their homes and improve the experiences of those younger than they.

This morning, the morning after the big night, my seven-year-old daughter Sydney came into my bathroom as I was getting ready for the day. She watched me carefully apply some mascara and I spritzed her with my perfume when I spritzed myself. Then I knelt down in front of her. I told her about meeting Fahrat and Pearly. I told her that she is lucky and that she has the power to make a difference in the world. Girls’ education is of critical importance in the developing world, but it is also incumbent upon women in my position to make our daughters feel empowered, like they can make a difference in the lives of others. Beyond the financial, my children are born of privilege because they have access to some of the best educational systems in the world. It is not something, I told my young daughter, that she should take for granted. Some girls don’t have what she has. Sydney looked at me seriously and promised that she would value her opportunities. I don’t know if she really understood me, but I am positive that this is not the last time we will be having this conversation.

Thank you, Fahrat and Pearly. You have been inspirational to me and my family.

To Thailand and Beyond!

Recently, Marc and I decided to take the kids to Thailand. We spent a day in Bangkok sightseeing around the city and then four days in Phuket relaxing around the pool and the beach. We went on elephant rides, ate great food and met up with wonderful friends. (Some on purpose and some by accident!) You can see my blog posting on the contradictions of Bangkok as a city on my professional blog: Aimee Weinstein, Tokyo Writer. But here are a few photos from the trip that I thought you might enjoy.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Food and Art (food as art?)

The cover of Metropolis Magazine ( this week has a picture of chef Daniel Martin on it - the chef at L'Espadon, a trendy little brasserie in the Kamiyacho section of Tokyo. The magazine article talks about Ta new trend in Tokyo eating establishments: the pairing of food and art. The artists partner with the restaurant owners or chefs and the arrangement is mutually beneficial: the artist's work is showcased and the restaurateur has instant decor. Both people presumably have a following of fans, so they cross-pollinate the markets with their partnership.

The phenomenon fascinates me, but what really intrigues me is that Marc and I ate at L'Espadon a few weeks ago with good friends. And we loved it! We are hoping that now that the chef and restaurant have been showcased by such a widely circulated magazine that the quality and price of the meal stays the same because we have always planned to eat there again soon.

L'Espadon is tucked away off the main road in a basement location. (In Tokyo, for the best restaurants, one must often look either high up or low down - street level can be so mediocre!) The atmosphere on the chilly winter night was warm and inviting, and the decor was in dark woods and red velvets, creating a feeling of coziness.

The food, though,was what really made us stand up and take notice. We ordered a course menu, which consisted of nine small and somewhat light courses:

  • A plate of mini appetizers including: one prune wrapped in ham and grilled, a rectangle of grilled foie gras, a tartlet of clam chowder and a slice of salami.
  • Two fried oysters
  • Fish carpaccio
  • Foie Gras creme brulee in a small ramekin with a side of salad
  • Grilled Suzuki Fish
  • A small cut of venison
  • A bowl of strawberries in a balsamic vinegar and sugar sauce
  • Coffee-Armagnac ice cream with a fig biscuit/wafer
  • Mint tea
This did not include the bottle of wonderful Bordeaux wine that we shared. It was a wonderful experience and we cannot wait to go back. Just now we hope we can get a reservation if the chef is suddenly so popular. But that is what happens: trends start. At least we're in at the cutting edge of this one. Eating in Tokyo is always such a pleasurable adventure.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two Weeks in New Zealand

Having just returned to Tokyo from two spectacular weeks in New Zealand, I realized that I have learned a lot of interesting facts and figures. Not to be boring, but in comparison, the two countries are about the same size with Japan being slightly larger. Bother are island countries, with Japan being more of an archipelago. However, their populations could be more different. Japan's population is 127 million, while New Zealand's is around 4.3 million. This is crucial fact from which to start a description of our visit because for most of our vacation, we felt like we had stepped out of the city, down a rabbit hole, and emerged into one of nature's most glorious natural paradises still known to man. Made up of two major islands, Auckland is on the north island and is the largest city in NZ, (though Wellington, at the southern part of the North island, is the capital) while Christchurch is the major city of the south island.

We chose New Zealand because it is the home of the Quin family, close friends who we met in Japan. Since being in Tokyo, they have since moved back to New Zealand and they opened their hearts and their homes to us. Their kids are at or near our kids' ages and it was the perfect way to spend the holiday.

We arrived in Auckland on Christmas Day and went directly to the Quin's beach house - commonly called a "Bach" in New Zealand - in Mangawhai - ninety minutes north of Auckland. It is summer there now, and we took full advantage of the sun and surf. Let's be clear though: it's not like we Americans think of summer. The air temps ranged from 65 to 80 and the water temps did not rise above 60-ish. Note the wet suits in the photos - it's impossible to swim otherwise.

After four relaxing days, we drove to Auckland to poke around a little. We went to the sky tower, the Auckland museum and to the harbor for dinner. It's a small city, but quite a beautiful one. It's surrounded by water, and not surprisingly called the "city of sails" for the myriad of sailboats docked there.

From Auckland, we flew to Christchurch where the Quins actually live. We spent one night there, before going north to a natural spring, Hamner for the day and then further north to Kaikoura for one night. We got on a whale watch boat the morning of the 31st of December. The day before had been stormy and the entire month had been chilly - following one of the coldest winters on record. You can see that there is still snow on the tops of the mountains. The issue was that they never should have let us out on the ocean - and in fact, the next few trips were cancelled. Ours was at 7:30am! Out of the 40 or so people on that boat, 3/4 or so threw up. Marc was one of the ones who did not throw up but all the rest of our combined family did. To add insult to injury, we didn't see any whales either. But all was not lost: we viewed it as an experience. For the rest of the trip, we referred to it as the YAK boat - and laughed. We were not laughing that day, but afterward we sure did!

We spent New Year's eve pretty quietly at the Quin's house. After a relaxing day on the 1st, we drove to Hokatika, another beach town on the West side of the South Island and had dinner. We drove another bit south and then spent the night by the Fox Glacier.

Climbing the Glacier the next day was an incredible life experience. All nine of us (Weinsteins and Quins) climbed over two hours up to the glacier, donned the necessary Crampons, and spent 45 minutes traversing the glacier before reversing the process. Five hours of hiking and not a peep of complaint from any child.

We had to climb through a lush rain forest to get there and on the way, we were able to drink from a natural spring. The weather, after some serious rain the night before and that morning, was clear and beautiful. We didn't even wear our big coats on the ice. The ice was slippery, but with the crampons on we stuck in pretty well. We felt like we were on top of the world.

We drove five hours south to Queenstown from Fox Glacier. One of the most beautiful places I've seen so far, Queenstown is where much of the principal photography for several movies such as "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Chronicles of Narnia" were shot. We took a whole tour based on the "Lord of the Rings" scenery. We were able to see several of the spots where the Hobbits lived or hid or something of that nature. We went off-roading into a little area literally called Paradise. The colors stunned us - the greens of the forests were like blankets of emeralds. The lakes and rivers were ice blue set against the indigo of the sky, which fascinated us.

We had a great fish dinner that night - the kids love seafood! Queenstown itself is a picturesque little place with a beautiful town square. We were able to browse around a few shops and walk up and down the streets. New Zealanders love the outdoors and outdoor sports. There were options for canoeing, bungee jumping, rafting, golfing, hiking, biking and any other outdoor sport one could think of. One could go camping or trekking in a myriad of areas. We didn't get to Milford Sound, purportedly one of the most beautiful places of the island nation where there is a popular trek on a path to take, but one has to be at least 10 years old. We'll go back again when Sydney is old enough.

In the morning we went jet-boating. Fifteen people in a boat traveling 80 km per hour. We were on a river in a canyon and the driver of the boat did 360 degree turns at that high speed. Because of the rain and snow-melt, the river was very high with rapids and everything. The kids squealed in delight!!

We had one last day in Christchurch where we went punting on the river Avon through the Botanical Gardens. Relaxing and beautiful.

We spent the night in Auckland again before flying out early to Hong Kong, spending a night with friends and my cousin there and then on again to Tokyo. It was a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy the photos and I hope you get there sometime.

Happy and Healthy 2010 to everyone. May the adventures continue!!

PS: Thank you to August for help with demographics...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Trip to the Dentist, Japanese Style

Since we're not going Stateside this December, we won't make our twice-a-year dental cleanings at Dr. Kahan's office. We're pretty diligent about our oral health, so we decided to find a dentist here in Tokyo.

We found Dr. Suzuki, whose office is right up the street from where we live. A friend recommended him, noting that not only is he a great dentist, but he speaks perfect English, as does most of his staff.

There are a few things that are particular to dentists in Japan it seems. First of all, we took off our shoes at the door and wore the slippers that were provided. And second, we waited only seconds before the hygienist was ready for us. (Though that is common in the U.S. - I wait at doctors' offices, but almost never at the dentist's - hurrah for Dr. K!)

The best part about the experience was that they gave the children brushing lessons. First the hygienist took a cotton ball dipped in red dye and painted the kids' teeth. The dye is designed to stick only to tartar and showed them where they were missing spots with their toothbrushes - which of course was all over their teeth, especially at the gumline. Then they gave each child a toothbrush and literally taught them to brush so that they had to brush away all of the red dye. Only when it was all gone and the toothbrush cleaned did the hygienist proceed with cleaning their teeth.

As for Marc and me, the cleaning was pretty normal with a few noted exceptions. They measured our gumlines pretty precisely to make sure we didn't have bone loss or gum disease - each tooth was given a score not to exceed 4 or they'd have to treat the gums. They also put a towel around our heads as they worked on our mouths lest the light shine in our eyes to brightly.

It was an excellent experience overall and we'd go back again. In fact we have to go back on Thursday in order to consult with the orthodontist for Bailey. Yes, the office has an orthodontist that comes into the office weekly to see the dentist's orthodontia patients.

Enjoy the attached pictures. Be sure to note the bare feet or slippers as you look - and yes, Bailey's and Sydney's teeth were THAT red! Better oversight of brushing will now ensue.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Food Entry - Matsutake Mushrooms

Please see my photo of a Matsutake (Ma-Tsu-TAH-kay) mushroom here. It's a delicacy of a mushroom, and is harvested only in September and October in Japan. Every year Marc and I go to our favorite tempura restaurant, Mikawa, in Roppongi Hills to experience the Matsutake. It 's a large mushroom, not chewy and somewhat sweet. Tempura is one of those foods that is relative here - it's not fried nearly like it is in the U.S. It's light, sometimes with very little batter, and fried ever-so-gently with low heat. Most often we get the course menu at Mikawa - the dishes just keep coming until they're done serving us. It's called Omakase (oh-mah-kah-say) - chef's suggestions. They always start us off with shrimp, then give us the shrimp heads. (It's surprisingly delicious - popcorn-y) We get squid, fish, the special (sometimes the Matsutake, sometimes some other delicacy) and then yasai - veggies. We finish with Kakiage (kah-ki-AH-gay), which is several items - fish and veggies tempura-ed together in a ball then served either in soup (as Marc likes it) or over rice (as I like it) with soup on the side. They always serve pickles and beans in sweet jelly for dessert. It is the perfect meal graciously served by the chef as we sit at the counter. This is the branch restaurant of their main one but it is staffed by some of the loveliest and tradititional women we have met in Tokyo. They are always telling us of some event or another that is in Tokyo when we're there. We are greeted like family when we arrive - and they keep the sake flowing. One time we complimented the sake server and cups that they gave us, and they always remember it and give us the same cups when we arrive. (The restaurant, like most traditional ones, serve with an eclectic mix of table-ware - nothing truly matching.) A visit to Mikawa and the Matsutake celebreates the autumn for us.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Autumn in Tokyo

This has got to be my favorite season. In Tokyo, unlike in other places, it's not about leaves changing and the nip in the air or anything like that. It's about the heat and humidity releasing itself and the sunshine spilling all over the city. Buildings sparkle, streets shine and people BREATHE. Every breath taken in is a pleasure. The skies are cloudless and the temps are perfect. Often there's a breeze. Here are two sunny photos of neighborhoods near my house.