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,