We went to this bakery called Kinmugi1 over the weekend. Next door to the bakery was a store that sold baby stuff. The shop windows were full of these weird baby dolls. They were strapped into car seats, lounging in cribs and modeling incredibly expensive baby clothes.
It's not just that the dolls are white -- many, perhaps most, Japanese advertisements feature white people -- but that they have these freaky, bright blue-green eyes. My cameraphone doesn't really do them justice, but think Chucky shiling for Babies R' Us.
1 Literally, "golden grain", though I thought "amber waves of grain" was funnier.
I went to Germany for a year as a teenager. I lived with a German family (Hi Sharad, Nikhil and the Hochschilds!) and attended a German gymnasium.
Since I was immersed, more or less unprepared, into a German-speaking environment, it was sink or swim. One of my recurring experiences was the language ah ha -- when a random sentence or phrase would suddenly click and I'd "get it".
In Japan, I've not had as many of these moments. I think it's a function of working in English all day long and being older -- I'm well beyond the critical age for learning another language.
Even so, I had one of these moments in Japanese recently. I was talking to Yukari about her job -- covering Japanese telecommunications -- when it suddenly hit me that DoCoMo, the name of the largest cell phone provider in Japan, meant "everywhere" in Japanese. What a brilliant name for a cell phone company! And what a smart guy I was for figuring this out!
When I breathlessly explained this discovery to Yukari, though, she was less than impressed. She pointed out that she includes this detail as a matter of course in her NTT DoCoMo stories. She then crushed my ego further by pointing out that if Verizon had a cell phone service called "Verizon Everywhere", everyone in the US would be aware of the derivation.
Luckily, my ego is not easily bruised. I still think I'm pretty clever for figuring this out.
After Yukari and I arrived in Kanazawa a few weekends ago, we dropped our luggage off at the hotel (Hotel Nikko Kanazawa: the largest hotel on the West coast of Japan. Yay, random trivia) and then started searching for Yukari's father, who the front desk staff claimed had already arrived and was "at the train station somewhere".
Repeated calls to my father-in-law's cell phone went unanswered, so we decided to head over to the train station ourselves and see if we could find him. The fastest way to get from the hotel to the station was through an underground tunnel. We went down into this tunnel, which was under construction, and started walking towards the station, when suddenly this incredible thumping noise started.
At first, I figured someone had just fired up a jackhammer in the marble-lined chamber that the tunnel opened into. But, when we got further into the room, I saw a bunch of women (and one guy) dressed in black, playing taiko drums.
I was more than a little surprised. It was the equivalent of walking into Chicago's Union Station and finding a bunch of bagpipers. Unfortunately, the area where the taiko players were performing was fenced off due to construction, so it wasn't possible to get very close. When Yukari saw that I was going to ask one of the construction workers what was going on, she beat a hasty retreat.
So, I can't tell you why they were drumming away, exactly, but I do know it had something to do with "space", "new" and "opening" (the only words I was able to understand).
The whole place looked almost finished, so I've decided they were dedicating the space. Or rehearsing for the upcoming dedication. Or something™.
I already missed the Hiroo fire drill. Imagine my further disappointment when I spotted the poster below, advertising a trip to The Disaster Education Center, that I had already missed!
Judging from the pictures, I could have learned how to set my kitchen on fire, hide under a table from attacking monsters, avoid the perils of pink rooms and row a boat!
Last August, I promised that if Aqua: Water Store and Bar Concept was still in business in 2005, I'd go buy their most expensive bottle of water.
Good to my word, I stopped in last week and picked up a bottle of Ame. It was, by far, the most expensive bottle they had, by absolute and per-unit price (504 Yen for 330 milliliters).
Unfortunately, I was had. It wasn't water at all, but soda. It was loaded with fruit juice and various herb extracts. It tasted, more than anything else, like apfelschorle (a mixture of sparkling water and apple juice).
Ironically, the product itself is only pseudo-Asian. Ame is produced by Britvic Soft Drinks, a British concern, that claims the name derives from the Japanese word for "gentle rain". As far as I know ame (雨) just means plain old rain, but I'm guessing that gentle rain tested better in some focus group.
I'm still astonished that Aqua is still in business. The place is open very irregularly and when it is open, it is almost always empty. When I've expressed my astonishment to folks here in Japan, more than one person has suggested that it's probably just the hobby of someone who has more money than common sense. I guess someone really likes water.
Bento boxes are pretty well-known, even in the States. In Japan, they are a lunch staple. You can buy these compartmentalized lunches, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, on the street. Many folks also pack their own.
While surfing around, trying to find the Japanese name of the fish cake that Yukari mocked me with, I stumbled across today's bento box (今日のお弁当). It's a moblog. The author has been taking a picture and writing a short description of every bento box that she (I assume) has prepared.
The catch? She's been doing this since 2000. Over 5 years of lunches, captured in perpetuity. Since cameraphones have been available in Japan for years, I suspect there's probably tons of this kind of stuff floating around.
But, even before the cameraphone, some folks were doing this old skool. Check out this series of family portraits.
February 17th's Lunch
So, as I've talked about before, in Japan, the women give the men gifts on Valentine's Day. Typically chocolate.
Last year, I demanded that Yukari get me a gift. Yukari, thoroughly amused with herself, presented me with a heart-shaped rice cracker. Hardeehar.
This year, Yukari was determined to top herself. Unfortunately for me, she succeeded. On the 14th, I received a white, heart-shaped fish paste cake (kamaboko), with "St. V" iced onto the top with pink-colored fish paste. The cake apparently also contains bits of cheese. She bought this at the market in Kanazawa.
I'm not touching this thing with a ten-foot pole, but if you take a look and want it, let me know:
Hiroo station, our subway stop, is like a bicycle breeding ground. People ride their bikes to the station to go to work, shop or go to the Arisugawa park.
The problem is, bikes aren't officially allowed near the station. There are plenty of scary signs, which I, and the Japanese, routinely ignore.
But, you can't park your bike illegally without consequences. Every so often, the bike police come along with very stern, pre-printed notes, which they staple to the handlebars of all the illegally parked bikes. As far as I can tell, people return to their bikes and rip off the tickets, feel momentarily guilty and then go on their merry way. The next day, the same bikes are parked there again.
In some way, it's an ideal situation. The bike police have done their job and the offenders have felt (momentarily) guilty. Nothing changes, but everyone is mostly happy. If that's not a metaphor for modern Japan, I don't know what is.
A week or so ago, Yukari and I were accosted by a fellow gaijin in Roppongi. We stopped, thinking she might need directions or something.
As it turns out, she was a reporter for The Japan Times, the big English daily here in Japan, doing vox pops1 for the following week's edition. You could choose from two questions: one about whether or not foreigners should be allowed to hold governmental office, the other about NHK's2 recent credibility problems.
Yukari begged off, "I'm a reporter for Reuters, so I probably shouldn't answer," while encouraging me to say something.
There was one small problem, though. I didn't know anything about either question. Fortunately, that's never stopped me from opining before, so I didn't let it get in my way.
After giving my highly informed opinion on NHK, Yukari and I continued on our way home. Once we'd gotten out of earshot, I asked her what news item had triggered the NHK question. She hemmed and hawed and finally admitted that she had no clue either, so I didn't feel so bad for not being informed. As it turns out, it had something to do with NHK rewriting World War II history. Specifically, the Japanese army's use of Korean comfort women.
Anyway, here's the story -- scroll down for my quote and dopey-looking picture.
1 A vox pop is reporter-speak for a man-on-the-street interview. Voice of the people, baby!
2 NHK is Japan's national TV broadcaster.
I can't believe I forgot to mention this, but my book A Douglas! A Douglas!
is now available in paperback. I don't remember writing or self-publishing this novel, but here's what you should know:
A Douglas! A Douglas! is a romantic, action packed and emotionally inspiring novel based on the true story of Sir James Douglas, a gallant and fearless Scottish knight of medieval times, who devoted his entire life to the freedom and liberty of his nation. His father was the first noble to take up arms alongside William Wallace, and, like Wallace, was imprisoned, and died in the tower of London. The young Douglas had his estates confiscated by Edward I of England, his destiny was pre-determined, he had no choice. He took up arms with King Robert the Bruce. He fought alongside Bruce and became his first lieutenant, and most devoted friend and follower.
I'm also apparently in my late 40s, living in Scotland and enamored with my west highland terrier.