Sunday, December 23, 2007

A tribute to Grammy

Since early December I have been back in the U.S. with my Grandmother, who has been quite ill. I know this is a place to talk about Tokyo, but Grammy is - and will always be - one of the biggest influences in my life. She has made me what I am and who I am. She died on December 16th. Here is my speech from her memorial service.

December 19, 2007

I could stand before you today and regale you with stories of trips we took, adventures we had and have you rolling in the aisles with laughter. But I have to say, most of you are here today because you know Shirley Blumin and you know a lot of the stories. Talking to Grammy in her final days of life, what Grammy wanted us to do is concentrate on the future at today’s memorial service so in that vein, I want to give you a speech titled, “The Top Ten Lessons I Learned from the Grammy School of Thought.” These are the things that Grammy taught my cousins and me, and I dedicate them to Bailey and Sydney.

10. Accept yourself but never stop trying to improve yourself.
Grammy loved me and loved me, but she also pushed me and pushed me. She called me in mid-2003, and said, “Aimee, honey, I have cancer, NOW GET GOING AND FINISH THAT DISSERTATION!” And when I graduated about 18 months ago with my doctorate, she was with me. I gave a toast later, to my grandmother, my biggest supporter – who when the going got tough, she never gave me any sympathy, just said, “of course it’s hard! Now get your ass back in the chair and write!” When I feel unmotivated, I simply have to channel my inner Grammy.

9. Education Education Education – it’s not IF you’re going to college – it’s WHERE you’re going to college.
She truly believed that that a university education is the only path to success. But she defined success very broadly – sure, financial success is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all either. Education gives you options about how to spend the rest of your life, introduces you to ideas and people that you would not have encountered otherwise, and gives you the ability and confidence to see the world from a position of strength.

8. Stand up for what you believe in.
I don’t even have to explain this one. Grammy always championed the underdog – and no one ever had to ask what she thought about a situation. She gave her opinion freely and threw her considerable support behind what she thought was right.

7. Find your life’s work and pursue it with passion.
After her first heart attack, Grammy lived with my family for a year when I was just five years old. Her condition forced her to take early retirement from being the assistant superintendent of schools in Trumbull, Connecticut. But this didn’t stop her. From there, she had a ranch with race-horses, had a mobile home park, a car-transport business and then on to building Tot’s Learning Center. Each of these varied careers she dove into with equal zeal. She worked hard daily.

6. Just as you work passionately, so should you play – HAVE FUN! And the corollary to that lesson: laugh at yourself!
I can see the smiles on your faces as I say this. Grammy loved the dog tracks, to eat good food, to go to the casinos, go to the movies, eat good food (oops, said that already…) and a gazillion other pleasurable pursuits. When she told the stories of her escapades, she told them with the same passion with which she lived them. And often in her stories, she herself was the butt of the joke – like the time the cruise never cruised and she lectured her grandchildren on bringing the right clothes on the airplane because we were not buying anything, but we ended up buying shoes for her because she brought one blue shoe and one black – both of them lefts. She told that self-deprecating part of the story with the same glee as she told of the rest of the adventure.

5. Give back to your community.
Grammy always had a project going on. Some of you, including her grandchildren, WERE her projects! But in all seriousness, Grammy taught me about not just giving money to a cause, but about getting involved with people and places and causes. She didn’t care what it was – she wanted me to choose my beliefs, but as long as I support them diligently.

4. Support your synagogue – teach your faith and customs to your children.
This is an interesting one. I’m not really sure what God and faith had to do with it – I’m not sure how truly religious she was or what her exact beliefs were. However, she believed strongly in the communal and familial aspects of Judaism and was zealous about her practice and this synagogue, especially about the education of the children.

3. Have a wide group of diverse friends and love and accept them unconditionally
This also I don’t need to explain to you. Grammy loved people – interesting people of all shapes, sizes, ages, beliefs, colors, etc. She would give her friends the shirt off her back and accepted people for who they are and what they could bring to her life. My Uncle Jeff reminds me of how she liked to have her “inner 100 and then the outer 200.” Grammy loved people.

2. Attend family events – the most important thing in life is to BELONG. In this family we belong to each other and with each other.
You know, Grammy has been saying this to me my whole life. And I’ve been repeating it to others as a mantra of sorts for the past 30 years. But I’ve never believed it or realized it until recently. In the last days of her life, I spent a lot of hours with Grammy. Taking care of her might have been difficult, but it was truly a gift to me. With her hospice care has come social workers, chaplains and other people designed to help the family of the patient cope with the impending death. It took me until now to truly understand the meaning of belonging and the depth of the bonds of our family. Grammy’s children and grandchildren are spread across the globe, literally. But we communicate regularly with her and with each other. She emails and calls and loves to get emails and calls. I know I can call my aunts and uncles with problems or challenges just as easily as I can call my parents. My cousins and I are family, but we’re also friends – friends with a long history. Explaining this to social workers and chaplains and the like has brought it home to me because they stressed the uniqueness of our situation in an increasingly disparate world: We’re tied together inexorably and the main thing that means is that I’m never alone. That’s what Grammy wanted for us and to impress upon us. We’re never alone. We belong to this family.

Before I give you the top lesson that I learned, I want to acknowledge my mother-in-law, Dottie Weinstein, who is here today. She’s a particular devotee to the Shirley Blumin School of Thought and she and Grammy had several discussions about this particular lesson. As Grammy and Dottie both say, THE TIME IS NOW. That’s the top lesson. THE TIME IS NOW.

Grammy did not wait to take her 85th birthday cruise or to see the tulips in Holland. If something was important to her then she did it – she didn’t wait and wonder if the time was right – she just did it. She lived her life on her terms and she showed me she loved me in so many ways every time she saw me. She made me understand that every day that I share on earth with my Mom and Dad – with my brother Alan, with my sister/cousin Jenn and of course my wonderful husband and children – is a gift not to be put off. Take opportunities as they arise – go for the gusto and experience whatever life has to offer. To me, that was her biggest and most important lesson.

These are the things that Grammy has given to me – taught me. And being faithful to my promise to her, these are the things that I will teach to Bailey and Sydney because they, along with Shaun, Isabel, Zachary, Ella and the babies yet to come in our family – are her future and her legacy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Speed Stacks

It has been long in coming, but here it is: my report on speed stacking!  I have to say, the whole thing was unbelievable.  It was a relatively small event: only 60 or so stackers.  There was a huge range of ages - from five to sixty-five, but most were kids under 20 or so.  The room was pretty large - on the ground floor of the Tokyo Tower (read: copy of Eiffel Tower...) with about 20 tables set up on the side for practice.  The sound was deafening - plastic on plastic on tables for about 40 people.

The head of speed stack Japan, John Fox, welcomed everyone.  There was continuous translations between English and Japanese for all speakers.  He also explained all the rules.  And the list of rules in enormous!  There are different fouls depending if the cups fall and how they fall.  If the stacker fails to touch the timer with both hands, it's a timer foul.  There are different types of fumbles depending on if a cup falls on another cup or on the official mat.  A cup falling over is a different fumble from a cup being knocked by an elbow.  The list goes on and on...  You think baseball is complex? Ha!
There are three official ways to stack - 3/3/3, 3/6/3 and the cycle.  The first involves three pyramids of three cups each - stack 'em up and stack 'em down.  The second involves the same thing except with 6 in the middle, and the cycle is the hardest and the most interesting.  There is a precise sequence to the way the cups have to go up, down, touch on the sides, and then go up and down a final time.  The stackers lined up to go before judges who gave them two practice runs before timing them three times, and keeping the lowest time as the official time. It was long.
Bailey did excellently.  He is not a pro, but he handles himself like one.  The neat part about the judging is that most of them use it as a teachable moment.  If the child makes a mistake, the judges actually pointed out where the child went wrong and how to fix it for next time.  Bailey listened intently and his teacher from school (who was present in an official capacity - judging and emcee-ing) was pleased with his performance.

While the judges tally times before final rounds, for entertainment, the stackers do relays.  They break the stackers into six teams and pick a cycle.  Then the first person in the line starts the clock.  When he finishes his stack, he runs back to the line and tags the next person, who runs to the table, does his cycle, then finishes, and runs to the line to tag the next person.  The timer stays on the whole time until the last guy in line shuts it off.  The team with the lowest combined time wins.  Bailey's team didn't even win one race! That's okay - they were happy and having a ball!!!

Bailey got into the finals for the 3/3/3 but didn't make it past the first round.  Overall he was pleased with his performance for his first speed-stack tournament.  Marc brought Bailey over there at 12:30pm, and I left with him at 4:30.  It wasn' t done yet either.  There were still exhibition stacks by world record holders to happen at 5:30.  I just didn't want to wait around any longer.  Long day.

It really was interesting overall.  I swear it looks a bit like a magic trick when done that quickly.  The stackers need incredible eye-hand coordination and for the faster, older kids, it appears that they have no hands because they're moving in a blur.  Looking forward to next time.

Now, compare that to last Friday when Bailey ran 3 kilometers at a cross-country meet for International Schools where he came in fifth among all third graders.  It was much more physically demanding, but there was less coordination involved.  Any way you put it, Bailey is an incredible athlete.

Oh, don't forget the little miss: today was her last hula class.  She knows a few Hawaiian words and dances beautifully.  Photos for that attached too. 
Hope you are well!!  Love from us all to you for the holiday season.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Restaurants in Tokyo

Once again we were out to dinner with Jason and Sora and I did not have my journal! Jason told me that he was going to get me a chain and hang it around my neck. Or next time, they would call me and make sure that I brought it before going out to eat!

Anyway, we were sitting at The Oak Door, a fantastic steak restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and the two couples at the table to my right had just finished dinner and left. The wait-staff whisked over and cleared the table. All of a sudden the maitre d came over holding what appeared to be a silver water pitcher or a watering can – the spout looked large. He started squeezing the handle while holding it upright and water sprayed all over the white tablecloth. Then, behind him a server with a cordless iron quickly and efficiently pressed the cloth while still on the table. A slight bit of steam rose from the flat surface, further mesmerizing me. The bus-staff re-set the table and in minutes, the next group of four was seated.

I laughed until the tears were streaming down my face. Jason Sora and Marc were laughing too, but it might have been at me. It really was amusing. You know it IS impossible for me to eat unless I have a perfectly pressed white tablecloth!

Info and pictures from the crazy speed stacks to come…

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Speed Stacking

Did you know that today, November 8th, is National Speed Stacking Day? That's right folks! On this day, people across the globe will stack cups for 30 minutes, making the Guinness Book of World Records for the most amount of people stacking cups on one day. You might ask why I know this. Well, I'll tell you.

Speed Stacking is Bailey Weinstein's newest sport adventure. Yes, he literally stacks cups in a particular sequence and competes to see who gets the best time. So he will be part of the world record for 2007 for people who were stacking cups today. In addition, Speed Stacks Japan is putting on an exhibition tournament this Sunday, so Bailey will compete for a world record in his age group. I will be sure to take photos.

Fascinating life we lead, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


November 7, 2007

Okay, it’s a week after Halloween and I’m sufficiently over the trauma enough to write about it. Yes, it was traumatic for the parents – fun for kids and traumatic for parents.
First of all, the last time we went trick-or-treating with the kids in Tokyo was October 2004. At that time, Sydney was 2 and Bailey was 5. It was the first time that the “gai-jin” (foreigner) area of Tokyo was celebrating Halloween and it was lovely. There was a route-map put out by a few people in the Moto-Azabu area and it listed about 15 homes that would be receptive to children ringing their doorbells. It was a wonderful afternoon/evening.
This time was quite different. Apparently, Halloween has caught on in Tokyo – especially in this area. For all of October, there were pumpkin and candy displays in all of the shops – even the convenience stores. There were pumpkins for sale at the flower shops. There were even Halloween items for sale in various places – costumes, etc.
We were invited to a party at our friends the McHugh’s house. Ann and Shaun are Americans and they have three kids – their daughter is 10, their son is 7 and their little daughter is 2. They intended to have a light dinner for the kids before trick-or-treating. When I showed up with Bailey after his speed stacking class (yes, they stack plastic cups for sport…more on that another time…) there were already a few people there. Minnie arrived with Sydney a few minutes later. Ahem, I mean that Minnie arrived with TINKERBELL a few minutes later. Bailey quickly changed into his Obi Won Kenobi costume and was quickly joined by a Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker and a Darth Vader or two thrown in for good measure. Can you see the boys’ theme? Well, it turns out that there were 35 kids at Saint Ann’s house, along with about 20 adults. Next year, if she does it again, I am buying her a halo.
We all ate and laughed for about 90 minutes. Ann had pizza, a fantastic chicken salad, fruit, veggies – simple and kid-friendly stuff that was still yummy for adults. There were, of course, proper drinks (read: wine and beer) for the adults. One of the reasons Ann takes it upon herself to do this is that her apartment is right in the center of Moto-Azabu, where the expats live and the kids want to trick-or-treat. So we knew that when we went out, we’d be able to get to the proper houses right away.
Then we took to the streets. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. There were throngs of people. No, that doesn’t adequately describe it. There were hundreds of people. There were Japanese people, European people, American people and I’m sure some Africans for good measure. There were children of all ages and a myriad of accompanying adults. The frightening thing is that since all of the kids were in costume, there really wasn’t a definitive method of necessarily telling who was who and we couldn’t tell kids apart in some cases. Some Japanese people were out with little babies dressed in wee costumes that looked mighty uncomfortable to me. But the majority of the throng was still white people looking to have a little bit of home in their away-from-home lives. In addition, we were out on city streets for heavens sake, and there were cars with which to contend, few as they were. There were a number of times where other mothers joined me in screaming at the top of my lungs “Car!! Move to the side of the street!!”
We all tried to stay together with our friends, but it really proved to be impossible as we snaked through the streets, searching for lights that were on outside of houses, indicating friendliness to trick-or-treaters. At every house we had to push the kids forward into the fray so they could muscle their way to the door and get some candy. I still have no clue if they ever uttered the words “trick or treat’ or if they ever said thank you. There was no way that Marc and I were going to get into the middle of the mix of munchkins. Thank goodness for Minnie – she was so excited to be out there with the kids that she kept a tight rein on Sydney and we could easily follow Bailey because he often checked back with us. Marc’s and my roles were to follow. It was utter chaos until we had had enough. As we neared our neighborhood, we told the kids that it was time to go inside. They hit a few houses right near ours, said goodbye to whichever few friends were near them and we scurried into the safety and relative quiet of our own home.
I had put a bowl of candy out on our front step in apology for not being home, but since our house is up a hill and not precisely on the route, only half of it was gone. I knew some people who ran out of candy after the 200th guest. My friend and landlady, Yumi, told me that they bussed in children from outlying areas because they knew that our little section of the city has all of the expats and would have the candy ready for them. This is very very different from our last experience of Tokyo Halloween. And it’s extremely different from my lovely neighborhood party and relatively sedate trick-or-treating.
So now we’re done with it for a year and I will be more mentally prepared next time. We still have a big bowl full of candy, much to my diet’s chagrin, but the kids are good at not over-doing it all at once.
I know that in the States you will now start the run-up to Thanksgiving and then the countdown ‘til Christmas. I will be thinking of you as you do it. It’s quite interesting to be away at this time of year.

Wishing you calm and peace-
Aimee (writing with a glass of wine on the desk beside her…)

Monday, November 5, 2007

November 5, 2007

A few weeks ago, the kids had holiday from school so Marc and I decided to take them to Osaka for the weekend. Osaka is not generally a tourist hotbed, but there were several things we wanted to see, and Marc is there so often for business that I felt like I wanted to see it for myself.
The distance to Osaka from Tokyo is more than the distance between New York and Washington DC, but by Shinkansen, bullet train, is less than two and a half hours. I am telling you: Shinkansen is the way to travel. First of all, there are no airport lines to deal with – no immigration, security, or anything. We arrived at the train station at 8:20 for an 8:45 train. The seats are huge, there is a ton of legroom, and if we wanted to get up and walk around, we just did it. The cart comes through the aisle every hour or so which means that there is often food or drink to buy if we needed it. The funny thing is that the conductor and woman (it’s always a woman…) pushing the food cart do not leave the train car without turning around to bow to the passengers.
Osaka is quite a different city from Tokyo. First of all it’s more industrialized; it’s a business city in a way that Tokyo is not. Sections of Tokyo are devoted to business interests, but most of Osaka is based on it being a port city and mercantile center. According to my Lonely Planet Guide published in 2005, Osaka has a bigger individual GDP than all but eight countries of the world. It was razed to the ground during WWII and then built back up quickly so its architecture is eclectic and uninspiring. The people there are less refined – and the women especially are not as elegant and well-dressed. For some strange reason (Marc insists it’s to separate itself from Tokyo) escalators work backwards from in Tokyo. In Tokyo we stand left and walk right. In Osaka, it’s the opposite.
We arrived on Saturday morning and left our bags at our hotel. We stayed at a pretty nice place called the New Hankyu. Hotels in Japan have rules about how many people can stay in a room – so we didn’t have many choices because we were four people in a room. They don’t really do roll-away beds – we had one hotel room with four single beds crammed into it. Not ideal, but we really didn’t care.
We had three goals in going to Osaka: first, we wanted to see the huge aquarium that is supposed to be one of the largest in Asia. Second, we wanted to go to Universal Studios Japan, and third, we wanted to go to see the Osaka castle built in the sixteenth century.
The aquarium, which we did on Saturday, was stunning. It was built around a huge tank that housed a humungous whale shark and the largest manta ray that we had ever seen. They tried to recreate natural environments for things like sea lions and penguins. But really the attraction was the way that the tank in the middle of the building was able to display sea life from eight different levels of the ocean as we started from the top and then wended our way down through the displays. The variety of sea life that we saw was simply astonishing – from the huge ray to the jellyfish that was no larger than my thumb. The kids really enjoyed it and spent quite a long time watching the dolphins play around in their tank.
Saturday night we went out for Okanamiyaki for dinner. Billed as a Japanese pizza, this is anything but. It starts with a pancake – yep, a regular pancake. Then on top of that, they place various sauces, vegetables, meats and other unidentifiable items. We ordered in a fairly indiscriminate fashion and just tasted. One of them had shrimp and squid on it. The cool thing was that the middle of the table was a type of bar-b-que and so the waiter brought the various types of okanamiyaki and they sizzled away in the middle of the table while we ate parts of them. The kids ate it really well. Bailey has become quite adept with the chopsticks, and Sydney is no longer really struggling, though sometimes she asks for a fork.
After dinner we went to the 8th floor of a nearby building to a “sweets museum” which had various shops all dedicated to dessert. Of course we ended up eating ice cream. We’re willing to taste food adventurously, but for dessert we are more reticent. How odd is that???
Sunday we did something totally crazy: we went to Universal Studios Japan. Yep, it’s just like the American version. One major difference: it’s all in Japanese. The weather was perfect – sunny, sparkling and seventy. We bought one of those express passes that allowed us to get into the front of most lines and we rode whatever we wanted. We went on the Spiderman ride, Shrek Adventure, the Back to the Future ride, and then saw the Blues Brothers in Concert. They even drove up to the stage in their trademark black car. Here’s the catch on it all though: besides the Blues brothers show, everything was in Japanese. So on rides like E.T. or Spiderman, the point is to listen to the story and the ride will take the guest on an adventure with the movie character. Well, it didn’t quite work like that for us. We could barely understand anything that was happening through the line or during the greeting parts. We simply followed the crowd to get on the line and then rode. At the end of the day, a ride is a ride, right? Well, the kids thought so. It was a typical amusement park day: we played all day, the kids were wiped out, and we all went to bed early.
Both Sunday and Monday mornings we went to the breakfast buffet in the hotel. That was an experience. Think of every food you can imagine and it was there. They had the Western style eggs, bacon and cereal. They had rice and fish and seaweed. They had kimchi. They had Chinese dumplings. They had yogurt and fruit. They had a small salad bar. There was a spot to make Udon noodles in soup. Of course there was coffee and tea, but they had an array of juices as well. We were stuffed!! It’s funny because Bailey and I are breakfast people. Sydney and Marc ate dumplings and rice.
Monday we went to see the Osaka castle. It was simply breathtaking. It was commissioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who unified Japan and he wanted it to be the seat of his power. It took 100,000 workers three years to build the supposedly impregnable castle out of granite and it was finished in 1583. However, it was destroyed by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, 1615 when he wanted to unseat Hideyoshi and take over the ruling of Japan. It took the Shogun 10 years to rebuild it. It was destroyed by another clan of Shogun in 1868 rather than let it fall to the forces of the Meiji Restoration when the Shogun’s rule officially ended. It is not refurbished inside to look like it once did, as so many things are on the island of Kansai – especially in Kyoto. But there is an impressive museum chronicling the history of the castle and showing various artifacts of the times. The observation deck on the eighth floor has spectacular and crisp views of the entire city. It was fascinating.
For lunch we went to the longest shopping street in Japan. It is not anything touristy –it’s regular shops that people need in everyday life: a drugstore, a market, small restaurants, a few boutique clothing stores. We really didn’t buy anything, but just ate a late lunch. We hunted around for a little bit to find the best spot we could for a bowl of Udon noodles. Apparently, just to distinguish Osaka further from Tokyo, in Osaka one is supposed to eat Udon, while in Tokyo one enjoys Soba.
We sort of “fell” into this little noodle shop which had Udon in the window. It was delicious! They taught us to grind up the sesame seeds with the mortar and pestle and then put it in the cold dipping sauce for the hot noodles. Simply yummy. I think if you asked the kids, that was their favorite meal. (Besides the wacky, huge breakfast, and the American-style burgers at Universal.) One funny note: they asked Marc to check the English on their English menu that they were preparing to print for the first time. Marc deferred to me, the writing professor. I made one tiny correction and assured them that their menu was very understandable.
After the huge breakfast and late lunch, we ate snacks on the train home – not any real dinner. We felt over-food-ed.
We had playdates and other little visits for the rest of the week until Friday, which was our magic day: our shipment from the U.S. arrived. Between the movers working tirelessly both Friday and Saturday and Minnie’s magic, we were pretty well arranged by Sunday night. Our furniture looks beautiful in the house – it’s not too big – and we are now very ready for guests.
The kids were ready to start school again on Monday and I was ready to begin our normal life again. What was interesting was that I didn’t realize how unsettled I still felt until we got our things here and into the rooms and I suddenly relaxed. Our bed. My coffeemaker. The kids’ toys. It was warm and familiar, and we were thankful. We lost a few glasses, but that was it – the movers on both ends did a spectacular job.
I will try to write more often and in little bits from now on. I hope you are well and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Much love,

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Note from Bailey!

At camp I had fun. The fun things that I did were hiking, museum and tennis. One time my class went on hike around a volcano. The volcano erupted 3 years ago. We went on another hike and found volcano rocks. We also saw a lake. There was museum on the volcano. The museum was a volcano museum. I spent 3 days at camp. At camp I slept on futons. For breakfast I Had rice, seaweed and cereal. One time we went to big park. At big park there was a zip line. Also there was a big slide. The bus ride was 2 hours. At camp there was a tennis court. Before we left each group made up a play. My play was “Uno.” Some kids were cards and some were decks. There were 8 people in my group. I can’t wait till next year.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Quick note of the day

I have a bank account. For those of you who have been aware of my banking issues, this is a big deal. And, now that we have proper visas and proper alien registration cards, I only had one teeny-tiny problem at the bank: bad handwriting. Yep. Bad handwriting. They made me re-do the entire form because my handwriting was bad and it was hard to read my name. Do your own interpretation on the societal impact. Can you see me grinning???

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Notes from the Day - Japanese style

2007 October 2

Some observations from the day, in new blog-snippet format!

I had to go back to the Minato Ward office today to pick up my alien registration card. I walked out of the train station and followed a woman with a backpack. As I walked toward the ward office, she remained in front of me. I took a shortcut to the front door of the office through the parking area. She did not – the walked the full L-shape up the sidewalk and the path directly to the front door. I couldn’t help thinking, “uh, that’s so Japanese!” They follow the rules!!

Speaking of rules, I had a complete 5-year-old temper tantrum last week in the bank. Marc and I had applied for our alien registration cards before we received our official long-term visas. The card takes a month to get and in the interim, we got a “green sheet” (so labeled because the paper on which it is printer is green…) that listed our names, addresses, and alien registration numbers, along with our length of stay. In order to get a bank account, a foreigner needs to have a long-term visa and an alien registration card, but the green sheet will usually suffice in lieu of the actual card. Well, my alien registration card end-date did not match my long-term visa. Citibank said that it was against the rules for them to open a bank account for me. I railed, I shouted, and I cried. I yelled that I wasn’t looking to take their money; I wanted to GIVE them money. The bankers continued to look at me and quietly shake their heads no. I should know better by now. If the rules say that the dates have to match, then the dates have to match. I was still crying when I left the bank. I had just come from another frustrating errand trying to get a new violin bow for Bailey and then it started to rain on me. Of course I didn’t have an umbrella. Sigh. Luckily, as my father taught me, there is no problem that cannot be solved, or at least allayed by Haagen Daaz Chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream, which we can get here in single-serve cups…

One of the treats of the weekend was meeting a terrific new friend. Michelle is a Kiwi (i.e. from New Zealand) and she has one son in each of my kids’ classes. She has an older daughter in the upper elementary class as well. Her husband runs the Japan office of the dairy of New Zealand. She is fun and silly and likes to drink wine. She is a banker, working for the Bank of Australia/New Zealand, but I’ll try not to hold that against her. She and the kids and I (and her visiting mum) ate pizza and let the kids play for hours. Quite a fantastic time, really. I am looking forward to many such visits together.

Today I had a haircut, my first since being here. I forgot how amazingly wonderful it is. Luckily, Takano-san, my stylist from our first foray here, is still at the same salon, so I got to go back to her. First of all, they use a lap-blanket whenever you’re seated so that your legs shouldn’t get cold. When they wash your hair (which they do AFTER the cut) they do a fantastic head massage, followed by a hot towel on your hairline and another under your neck. And there’s no tipping. I got a fifteen-minute hair-wash for free. And the haircut is the same price as in the U.S. – perhaps less if you include the tip. The whole thing is so experiential – from being greeted by every person in the shop, to being walked to the door and having Takano-san bow as I leave.

Tomorrow will be an early morning for us – Bailey is leaving for camp. Let’s face it: this is not camp like with tents and stuff. They’re staying at a traditional Japanese inn about two hours north of the city – so they’ll have tatami mats and futons on which to sleep. They’ll also have that fabulous Japanese bath (ofura – manmade, not onsen – natural spring) in which to bathe/shower as well as fantastic food. If it wasn’t for the 60 kids on the trip I’d want to go with him! But anyway, I’m hoping I can get him to write a bit for you next week.

Write soon – miss you!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

One Night with Jason and Sora

By now I should know better than to go out on the town with Jason and Sora Kwan and not have my camera and journal. In just one night we had several adventures worth describing.

To start, I must mention that it rained all day on Saturday. Bailey played with Kalani and Jason played with Marc, but Sora and I were with our younger kids all day. It worked out fine and I actually enjoyed spending the day with Sydney, but by the time 6:45pm rolled around, I was ready to go out.

Our first adventure happened on our ride to the restaurant. We were headed into the Marounochi area of town - it's the only area of Tokyo with both big, tall buildings, and wide, opulent streets. It is a true business center. We were on the side of the Imperial Palace Garden when we noticed all manner of police presence in front of us. All of a sudden we realized that there was a matsuri (festival) in progress!

At Sora's request, we opened the windows and could hear the tinkling of that distinctly Japanese sound of mikoshi (portable shrines) music. There were about 30 men and women around this huge float-like vehicle. All of them were dressed in traditional garb - yukata - and shouting in unison as they pushed the mikoshi forward. There was no motor on the float, and it was taller and broader than anything you'd see in the Rosebowl Parade! There were several people on it protecting and adorning the shrine, and there was a little building right on the float, in which there was a ladder leading up to the top of it. There were electric lights on it because, remember, it was 7pm or so, and completely pitch black. The second shrine we saw was completely covered in red Chinese lanterns with women on it. The festival, Sora was able to read, was the town festival of an area north of Tokyo - they bring the portable shrines to Tokyo from the main temple up north to parade with them. We are not sure why.

The police had us stopped for the time it took for nearly 3 shrines to pass, but we didn't mind. We were in prime viewing position. At one point Marc stuck his cellphone out the window and took a photo and we know enough Japanese to know that a few of the shrine-pushers thought it was hysterical that a "gai-jin" (foreigner) would take a picture of it. It was a truly amazing sight to see these huge floats pushed by the throng of men all out of respect and devotion to the gods.

For dinner, we had tapas. Of course we had to have sangria - two pitchers for three of us - Marc prefers beer to sangria, and Jason was driving. Okay, two pitchers of Sangria for Sora and me, with Jason drinking off the top. The restaurant was called Muy, and gave us a small, private room overlooking the street. The food was tremendous. We had mussels in garlic and wine, served on the half-shell with bread for sopping up the sauce. We had chicken in garlic. We had shrimp in garlic with more sop-up-bread. It was delectable - and presented so beautifully. We also had one order of paella to share. This the waiter divided up into four bowls for us. Sora and I got a whole shrimp on top of our bowls. The head and tentacles were right there still on it. "Look honey," I said mockingly, "just like in the U.S.!" Can you imagine an American restaurant serving shrimp tentacles on top of the bowl?

Public note to my friend James in England, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law Don and Doria, friends Scott and Cathy Grzybek, and my in-laws, Dottie and Paul: just like at the tempura restaurant: get past the way it looks and get it in your mouth - you'll be glad you did! Remember that??? For those of you who don't know what we mean, come visit and we'll show you! Now there's a challenge for you.

Whenever Jason, Sora, Marc and I are together, there is the obligatory talk about American vs. Asian culture. If you remember, Jason is Singaporean-Chinese and Sora is Korean, but has spent much of her life in Japan, so speaks in fluent Japanese as well as English. Both of them speak English the way I do - partially because of their upbringing, but also partially because they are American-educated - at Boston University. This time the talk was of American obesity rates. I'm not sure if you saw it, but in August there was an American study saying that obesity is not just genetic, but also based on people's communities - their friends. We have discovered that to be true. Here, both Marc and I feel tremendous pressure to be thin. Everyone is so thin that being the fat person of the group feels terrible. So we eat less because of the food itself and the portions, but also because we really do not want to gain weight! We all agreed that the first thing we notice upon entering the U.S. is the size of the people - in height and weight. The Kwan family has trouble finishing one dessert with dinner and our family might be able to eat three of them!

Speaking dessert, we ordered three small ones, shared them, and left some over. One was rice pudding, one was creme brulee, and the other was a baked apple. I'm still wondering: are those Spanish, Japanese or what???

As we were leaving, since Jason had driven, we got the parking ticket validated and brought it down to the machine. Like any other parking garage I've seen, Jason put the parking ticket in first, followed by the validation tickets. We were 200 yen short, so Marc threw in the money. The machine then said, "arigato gozaiemas" - thank you very much, and spit the ticket back out. What struck me as funny was the screen as it talked: it was a cartoon character - a woman, in full-on bow. Her hands were drawn folded in front of her and we could only see the top of her head. She was bowing properly from the waist. I guess they really wanted to thank us! Sora commented that she's seen better ones - animated ones where the woman on the screen goes up and down, action bowing as she thanks the user. We all laughed.

So then we proceded to hop into the car and drive out of the garage. As we pulled up to the bar separating us from the street, I expected Jason to stop, put down his window, and put the paid ticket into the machine before the bar rose. Instead, we pulled up toward the bar and it automatically rose. I wondered aloud how that happened. Sora explained that with every ticket initially issued, the machine takes a photo of the car. Then the machine is able to tell that we paid. The machine is able to match the photo from entry with the fact that the ticket was paid and put up the bar automatically as we approached the it. Unbelievable.

One more story for you: Sora said that she was thinking of me last week and regretted not having her camera with her at the time. Apparently she was outside of a convenience store that had just been gutted and re-done. Inside she noticed workers preparing to put the merchandise back onto the shelves. (Since she can understand Japanese, she often knows what people are doing when I don't.) There must have been fifteen workers standing together in this pristine, new convenience store that was getting ready to re-open. She said that all of them were standing around in their stocking feet in the new store. Even though the floors would be tromped on by thousands of people daily in only a few weeks, they wanted to preserve the sanitary environment as long as possible. BUT what was funnier to Sora was the fact that just outside the store on the sidewalk was a thin, blue tarpulein. On it were fifteen pairs of shoes perfectly and pristinely lined up so that each of the workers could easily step right back into them and walk out. Neatness over everything. Again, unbelievable.

So this time I do not have photos to post for you, but I will in the future. Let me know how you like the blog format. And I promise to start carrying my camera more often. And I double promise not to go out with Sora and Jason without a full-on readiness pack of camera and journal! How lucky we are to have such lovely friends.

Today, Sunday, it is raining raining raining. It was 86 and sunny on Friday - 67 and rainy both Saturday and Sunday. Crazy. But it does put into balance the fact that we LIVE here. We're not tourists and it's okay to spend a rainy Sunday indoors - we're not wasting time.

Cheers to everyone; please write to me with all of your news. Send email with personal stuff because any comments left here are in the public domain!

Running in Tokyo

Recently I’ve been taking a run in the morning. I know that technically walking around this huge city should be enough exercise, but it’s not organized, my heart-rate isn?t up enough even though my legs are worked out, and my brain is focused on the destination, not on the exercise. Through the grace of Sandy, my fabulous neighbor in Virginia, and her cohorts, Genie and Jennifer, I’ve become quite the promoter of exercise as a mind-clearing event. About three times a week the four of us would walk/run for about 3 miles at 6am. We’ve been doing it together for over two years - through the heat, the cold and everything in between. We draw the line at hard rain and snow, though - we want to be healthy, but safe.

So now I’m on my own here in Tokyo and I want to continue these wonderful traditions because not only does my body feel better with the running, so does my brain. About two weeks ago I devised a route that took me about 50 minutes to complete and ran it a few times at 6am. This past Thursday, since I didn’t have to get up for the kids school or work - it was Rosh Hashanah (separate message on that) I decided to run at 6:45am.

Before we go any further, I am a morning person. I am at my best in the morning and I always have been. Ask my dad about my adventures as a teenager - he never had to worry about me coming in after midnight - I couldn’t stay awake that long! I’m up early and I go to bed semi-early. It’s been my habit since childhood.

What I discovered is that I love being out at 6am, and if I start at 6:45, the city is already a different place.

First of all, by 6:45, there are significantly more people on the road than there are at 6am. There’s an increase in both pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic. I had to run around people on the sidewalk and stop for oncoming cars at traffic lights. At 6, I can run through most intersections, regardless of the signal light, since there aren’t any cars. Most people commute into the center of Tokyo from the suburbs -Tokyo is urban sprawl like Los Angeles - and the day starts at all varying times. But my house is near, if not in the center of Tokyo, so people are commuting TO here. That is why the hour makes a big difference.

One of my favorite spots on the morning run has always (even last time we were in Japan) been the walking bridge over Tengenjibashi, near Hiroo. It’s a big square OVER the city streets accessible to pedestrians only by steps at each of the four corners of the crossing. These days I can run up the steps and around the entire bridge. It must be funny to see me though - I run up and down the same set of steps when most people use the bridge to cross the street and go across one way. I go all the way around. From the bridge I can see all four directions. At 6:15 or so, I see the last bit of pink waning in the sky from the sunrise, which is not visible at 7. The street in one direction has cars driving toward the intersection lazily, slowly, at 6:15, while the traffic races to the light at 7. People spill out from every which way at 7, whereas it’s so quiet at 6:15 - quiet enough to hear the wind ripple through the few misplaced trees nearby, even though I-m above them.

When I start my run at 6am, I see mama-sans outside of their little shops sweeping the sidewalk preparing for the day. Some are even watering the sidewalk to clean it more fully. Each shopkeeper is responsible for the stretch of sidewalk in front of his or her shop. By 6:45, most are done for the morning, so there is not even a lingering ”Ohio Gozaiemas” (Good morning) to resonate as I run. I must say, a major problem of running on my route is the two fantastic bakeries that I pass. The smells wafting from them border on insane as the bakers inside prepare for the morning rush of people who stop in for a sweet bread and a coffee before work. Starting my run at 6am means that I see the windows with the shades drawn tightly and can only imagine the soft, chewy treats inside. If I start at 6:45, I can actually see the treats in the window and the bakery preparing to open for the day. It is an excellent thing that I wasn’t carrying any money with me!

Just as a note, I pass many bars on my route, along with shops, office buildings and two hotels. My favorite bar is called the Hang-o bar. Yep, the slogan on the sign is something like “Hang-O bar - be ready for a hang over!” My second favorite is a bar called Tangent. The sign outside says “open from sunset to sunrise.” I have yet to go into these establishments, but one day perhaps I might!

The main difference between 6am and 6:45 is that at 6, the city is just waking up, putting on its best “bib and tucker” and preparing for its day. And that’s what I’m doing: taking time for me to clear my head and mentally prepare for the challenges that are sure to greet me during the day. At 6:45 and later, the city has already woken up and I feel that I’ve missed something in the preparations and perhaps in my own readying for the day ahead. I do love this city. There are a thousand challenges to it -the main one right now being the ungodly and unending heat - but I love it. My commitment to 6am runs proves it.