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.