Dinner at a real, live, nutso Japanese restaurant and then at a real, live Japanese home

November 20, 2011 at 12:21 am (Uncategorized)

Ever see one of those movies where folks go into a Japanese restaurant and they’re yelled at by the cooks, the waitstaff, the other customers? I always thought such scenes were gross exaggerations. Guess what? Not only are they not gross exaggerations, but they are tame compared to what we experienced two nights ago. And, apparently, the hole-in-the-wall in which we ate and drank copious amounts of chilled sake (I have developed a taste for it) truly is the way it is.

The Japanese have worked long, hard weeks and kept quiet through all that time (if my experience of near-silence on the subway is any measure) and need an outlet for yelling, rowdily eating, drinking and un-sphinctering. There wasn’t so much obsequiousness going on last night. Rather, we — Ozawa-san, Dave’s Japanese minder and fellow Intel employee based in Tokyo; Chetan, Dave’s colleague who traveled with him from PDX; and us two — were seated — loudly — at a communal table within elbowing distance of diners on either side of us. Both of whom drank copiously and smoked even-more-than-copiously. It’s been a while since I was a college student in France and could easily ignore all that smoke. This time, not so much. The sake helped, however.

First, this hole-in-the-wall actually was a hole-in-the-ground. We had to go down a flight of stairs from street level to reach it. (And its bathroom was yet again another flight down. It had a bidet!)

Ozawa-san was a hoot to watch; he knew when and how (loudly) to attract one of three very high-pitched-talking waitresses who must have screeched “hai!” in my ear 95 times during our evening, following each time we requested so much as an additional chop stick. The place was simply throbbing with energy and blown-off steam. It felt like it was in constant motion — like a small boat on a rippling sea — and that sensation had nothing to do with the sake or second-hand smoke. Rather, the suited-up folks still were in their suits and straddling their brief cases but, boy, were they having a blast together. They also got increasingly red. Dave conjectures Asians metabolize alcohol different from us whiteys, as they truly were flushed all over but sure didn’t care about their beet complexions. Kanpai! (Cheers!)

Also patronizing the place were, as Ozawa-san kindly described, “Radies of the night.” Chetan hadn’t heard that expression, so Dave equally kindly — and even more loudly — satisfied his linguistic curiosity by yelling, “You know, prostitutes!” These women had very big hair, kinda stereotypical geisha style, and very slinky and scanty dresses. I’m not sure how they made it up and down the flights of stairs in their spike-heeled boots. But they managed just fine. Must have been all that support they got from their red-faced clients.

It is not monsoon season, but, yesterday, you could have fooled us. Dave and I started out our morning by walking across from the Imperial Hotel to Hibiya Park, filled with those puffy green trees and winding stone paths. There seemed to be a farmers’ market of sorts going on, with many booths roasting such wonders as sweet potatoes by the thousands. It started to mist. The Japanese already had busted out there umbrellas. Dave and I scoffed. We’re Oregonians! What’s a bit of mist? Then it started to rain a little more steadily. Oh well, we’re fine. And then, it started to come down in sheets. The wind picked up. Dave’s hair started dripping rain water down onto me. We did an about face and returned to the fancy hotel, which offers its customers really big umbrellas, as yet another thanks for our patronage.

Umbrellas in hand, we headed to T0kyo Tower which is referred to in Japanese as the “Sky Tree.” It’s purposefully a few stories higher than the Eiffel Tower but run in a much more efficient manner than that man-made edifice in Paris. Of course it is. There, we were crammed — and I mean crammed — into a small elevator with about 20 other tourists (very few of whom were Westerners) until it stopped on the first platform. Had I mentioned the monsoon-like conditions? That means clouds. Which means an obstructed view. Still, from our height, we could see the 360-degree view of Tokyo which, unlike the sliver that is Manhattan, has short and tall buildings radiating out until FOREVER. We saw the spot where Mt. Fuji is supposed to be. But, of course, with the cloud cover, we didn’t see that storied peak. Turns out Dave never has seen it and it’s become a joke between him and his Japanese colleagues that it actually doesn’t exist. Our Tokyo Tower adventure did nothing to help Dave’s colleagues’ case.

Last night, we got the highlight experience of our trip. Ozawa-san and his wife, Myuko, invited Chetan, Dave and I into their home for dinner. They live in the suburbs of Tokyo, so we took a train 30 minutes from our hotel to their area, where Ozawa-san met us and led us through some winding streets and small alleys to their small home. There, we of course had to take off our shoes. But, unlike in American homes, they had placed three pairs of slippers out for our use; we all — hosts included — scooted around their home in borrowed slippers from there on out.

We were treated to such a special meal. Sashimi — slices of raw fish and shellfish, including snapper, shrimp, mackerel and tuna; that fabulous sticky rice; slices of nori/seaweed in which to wrap these little Japanese sandwich fixings; freshly made tofu from the couple’s favorite stand, near their home; and bitter greens, all covered with a thin layer of a sesame-flavored dressing. Sake? Yes please. For dessert, Ozawa-san had made it his job to purchase special Japanese sweets. He presented a box of individually wrapped, painstakingly decorated bean-paste treats, each resembling either a fruit (such as a lemon; Dave got that one) or an “autumn leaf”; I got that one. Bean paste has a smooth texture that feels satisfyingly thick in the mouth and has a subtle sweetness that is unexpected from a food that has the word “bean” associated with it. I ate mine and finished off Dave’s, too. It not being chocolate, Dave only politely ate a trifle of his and happily gave it to me to finish (or, rather, devour).

Ozawa-san then disappeared and came back with a try full of implements for what he called a “modified tea ceremony.” He presented us with a small canister of matcha — finely ground green tea — piled up pyramid-like, he explained, to recall Mt. Fuji. He then had each of us choose which of his five bowls in which he’d prepare our frothy matcha. I chose his powder-blue one.

With a bamboo implement, he scooped about three bits of the matcha into the bowl, closed the tin of tea and then laid down the implement. Then, while donning an oven mitt from Canada (this couple has traveled all over), Ozawa-san took hold the handle of a scalding-to-the-touch tea kettle and poured its steaming contents, in a circular motion, over the tea. Then, with a bamboo utensil that had been fashioned into a whisk-like object, he whipped the matcha and boiling water into a forest-green froth. Satisfied that it was frothy enough, he placed the bowl in front of me for me to pick up and, while supporting its warmth in my left hand, turn it a full rotation with my right. Then I drank from the steaming bowl.

Ever seen a matcha moustache? Though it probably was rude, I licked it from my lips. It’s bitter, but its froth helps it to ease down without a bitter or unpleasant finish. It felt like a warm, bubbly ride down my throat. Kind of like what wading in a luxuriously warm bubble bath might feel like to the interior of the mouth, were that part of the body ever to be treated to a spa day.

Myuko, earlier in the evening, had asked me what I’d seen in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and, from among those sights, which I’d enjoyed the most. I’d told her that I loved the Asakusa shopping district and the impressively huge Shinto shrine I’d visited in Western Tokyo, outside the Yoyogi district with Rabbi de Gesu. While deep into my bean-paste sweet and matcha tea, however, I turned to Myuko and told her that this evening was hands-down my favorite experience from my entire week in Japan.

What a finish to this topsy-turvey, fascinating week.

It’s now Sunday morning, and we have our hotel room packed up. I’m wearing the Imperial Hotel-issued slippers and eating rice with my fingers while sipping tea made possible by my favorite appliance. I’m very ready to go home. I’m very anxious to smother Hayley and Alyssa with kisses. And the pets, too. I’m so glad they all speak English.

Thanks for following this trip; I hope it contributed to a cure for your insomnia.

Sayonara!

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Walkabout and more observations

November 18, 2011 at 4:40 am (Uncategorized)

First, observations:
1. No Japanese wear sunglasses; the only folks wearing them are Westerners.
2. While the Japanese are fastidious about cleanliness, it’s terribly ironic that they have public toilets equipped with toilet-seat wipes (signs by them indicate they’re NOT to be used for your hands) and streaming bidets…but no soap with which to wash your hands after using the high-tech commode.
3. Dave had warned me about matching track suits. He’s right: They’re everywhere, donned by those not wearing business suits. (And, to be fair, those in the coordinating track suits are jogging and running. Still, it’s funny. Not only am I clearly not Japanese, but I wear random stuff while jogging. It’s no wonder I get stared at. Today, I even got a wink. Playing it cool, I ignored it. But I felt loved.)
4. Did I mention the surgical masks?
5. I’ve seen a lot of nose-picking. It must be ok to do in public. Maybe that’s why the jumbo-size hand sanitizer containers are everywhere. (Though no soap in the bathrooms. Odd.)
6. Why after I bow and I think the previous polite exchange is over do I get bowed at again? Then I bow. And then they bow back. I finally remain upright and scoot along, just to end their (read: my) embarrassment.

Second, my morning:
It began like this: After a very nice jog around the perimeter of the Imperiar Parace (for those who don’t speak Japanese, that’s “Imperial Palace”), I returned to our hotel room and saw off a very handsome, suited-up Dave on his final day of meetings. After getting ready and checking two of my 13 maps for the 100th time as to the locale of the Diet (= Japanese White House) and Museum of Contemporary Art, I set off. But not without my first awkward moment of the day. While I’d made a clean break for the elevators on our 14th floor and then out the front doors of the main lobby when I left to jog at 6:30 a.m., I didn’t get so lucky three hours later. Instead, THREE obsequious employees greeted me outside the 14th-floor elevator. The woman in a kimono beat me to the ‘down’ button. And two other suit-clad men smiled and bowed. I said, “Ohayo gozaimas” (“good morning”) and bowed, too. Then, we waited. The elevator was taking its time. Each time one of the employees caught my eye, he/she smiled that smile again and bowed again. So, I felt obligated to bow back. Where is that f-ing elevator! I felt trapped, like a deer in the cross hairs. Please, not a third bow! I haven’t had my black tea yet! Mercifully, the elevator arrived — signaled by a lovely, yet annoying three-toned chime — and I jumped into the elevator. The kimono-clad woman then positioned herself in front of the elevator and bowed as the door closed, separating us indefinitely. I nearly ran out of the hotel; I’d reached my bowing quota for the day.

Then I walked through Central Tokyo’s Chiyoda-ku area, where its impressive and very block-cement government buildings, ministries, administrations and offices are housed. There were many police-like-looking men, all wearing white gloves, surgical masks (well, most of them did, anyway) and traditional-looking police officer caps. I was taller than all of them. But who do you think looked more intimidating? I found (on the first try!) the Diet, a relatively unimpressive granite-clad building whose central portion soars into the sky. Kinda phallic, if you ask me. I took some pictures. It doesn’t hold a candle to the White House and its manicured front lawn.

Then, I circled back to the grounds of the Imperiar Parace and found the Contemporary Art museum. A sign posted on the front gate looked like this: )\(*)(^*%&^%&%$%11-22-12*&**^&*%%&$1-29-12. My keen reading of Japanese told me I’d arrived four days too early to be granted entrance to this museum. So sad. A beefy Japanese man soon approached me and, brilliantly divining I spoke English, chose to use my trapped presence for an English-language practice session. Truly, he was really cute, and felt very sad for me, too, that I couldn’t access his museum; he’s a docent there and needed to study the materials for the exhibit’s opening, which will be 11/22. I learned, too, that he’d been to the States 13 times and really loved NYC and its plays, as well as San Francisco, New Orleans and Orlando. He’d been to Barcelona, too. He also taught me ‘You’re welcome’ in Japanese and insisted he write it down for me. And he gave me a very Western good-bye: A handshake and a wave. I told you he was cute.

By happenstance, I then came across the National Museum of Modern Art. It, by contrast, was open, and it was relatively full of people, considering it was 10:04 a.m. Lots of school kids getting docent-led tours of the art. And other patrons, too. The standing exhibit was a look at Japanese art (mainly paintings, but some sculptures and photographs) from the 1920s through the 1970s and 80s. Mounted placards discussed how Japanese art changed with the World Wars and prosperity of the 60s through the 80s. The Japanese art was craftily juxtaposed against Western pieces that influenced the Eastern artists. There was a Matisse, a Braque, a Klee, a Kandinsky and some Stieglitz photos (of Georgia O’Keefe, no less!). Those pieces I’d never seen before; the placards by the paintings had frighteningly little in English, so I’m uncertain but want to believe that the Western pieces I saw indeed are the originals.

I’d seen a patron take pictures of some of the art. I figured if it was verboten, that individual instantly would have been pounced upon. So I asked if I, too, could take pictures. The kind guard (all of whom were young women) said, “Just minute,” left and soon returned with a sticker and half-sheet in English. The half-sheet indicated that there were rules to follow if the art moved you to photograph any of it. One rule of which was the necessity of wearing the sticker that looked like a Manga illustration of a camera. I felt like a member of the press with that sticker on. And I enjoyed the first and likely only time I’ll ever get to photo art while in a museum.

Things here really can be topsy-turvey.

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The kindness of strangers. Even those in surgical masks.

November 17, 2011 at 6:53 am (Uncategorized)

I feel like I’ve been in Japan a month! I’m sure the Tokyo Imperial Hotel employees feel the same way about my presence. Oy, THAT geijin (foreigner) again? Here she comes, with her 13 different maps in hand and that odd smile that says, “I’m going to try a phrase on you!” I wonder what dumb request she has now.

Such as, last night’s (Wednesday): I asked a hotel employee where I could find takeout food. I’ve been waaaaaaaay too afraid to eat inside a ‘restaurant’ (the holes-in-the-walls here cannot be called restaurants. Rather, I’d call them holes-in-the-walls, especially because not enough of them have pictures on their menus indicating what their food offerings actually are).

I was directed to — and found!!! On the first try!!!! — an alley with holes-in-the-walls upon holes-in-the-walls of different types of cuisine. Turkish, Japanese (shock), French (too much of that here; it’s odd), Korean, Chinese, the Golden Arches (sigh) [I even saw a Denny’s today] and Greek. I settled into a nice Japanese-looking place with lots of pretty pictures on its menu and ordered (actually, I pointed and smiled) a salad and things resembling California rolls. The kind maitre’d was able to mutilate the ingredients’ words in English enough so that I knew was I was ordering. A lot of vedjutawls. “I’m sorry, what?” “Vedjutawls.” Pause, as I worked this out in my head. “Oh! Vegetables! Perfect, domo arigato!” Then he looked at me, “Pohk ok?” So I thoughtfully responded, “No pohk. Onry vedjutawals.” He was very happy with me. I even got a slice of Korean gum with my meal that he happily bagged up. That’s right: Korean gum. On my way out of this spanking-clean hole-in-the-wall I took a closer look at the English words on the outside of the joint that I previously had been too skittish to notice. The hole-in-the-wall described itself as “Modern Korean.” I guess that’s why my salad was a tad on the spicy side. But it indeed was full of vedjatawals.

I’m going to back up a bit. Back to Kyoto. I spent Tuesday there. I chose not to go on a tour, as I wanted to be on my own schedule and just wander around, get lost, find my way again and just see LIFE there. As a result, I got very lost, spent time in exactly one temple (though I’d tried to find three of them) and walked so much my hip joints began hurting (waaa!).

I wandered down alleys, took pictures of incredibly narrow dwellings the Japanese probably call “homes,” ogled every single passerby and simply hugely enjoyed myself.

I noticed some things: Book/magazine stores are incredibly popular and well-trod. I’m not sure how much purchasing of items is going on in those shops, but they are full, at all times of day. Not many books in English (curse them!) but all sorts of calendars, day planners, magazines, books for adults and children (lots of pink and orange bindings!) and sundry paper products. Many of the customers were the ubiquitous “Japanese businessman.” Which made me wonder if those blue/black-suit clad individuals with phones attached to their ears and “man purses” and/or briefcases attached to their wrists actually work a whole bunch. I saw millions of them walking around, everywhere, but very few actually duck into buildings in which they’d ostensibly work. And during lunch, they seemed to be enjoying their fair share of beer(s) in holes-in-the-walls.

As I went along my walkabout, I was surprised at the lack of beauty around me. Yes, the hills in which Kyoto is nestled is verdant; its trees look like green cotton balls from a distance; and the valleys are gradual, not sharp like the canyons of Southern California. Yet, its streets were filled with unimpressive buildings and businesses. Still, I’m glad I went, and the (Buddhist) temple at which I spent time was breathtakingly huge, beautiful and simply so different from anything I’d ever seen before. That, in and of itself, was what I was looking for and made the trip from Osaka to Kyoto totally worth it.

That, and the kindness of strangers.

At about 4:30 p.m., I realized it was starting to get dark, and I had no idea where I was. Studying my map, I realized I’d overshot my destination and had arrived at a literal dead end. I’d walked to that spot from Kyoto’s train station and hadn’t planned to walk back. I’d been paying attention to which buses went to the station. Good thing, ‘cuz by the time I decided I really should get back to the station and then to Osaka, where I was to meet Dave and his colleagues for dinner, I desperately wanted to sit down.

I returned to a kiosk I’d passed to wait for the #4 bus. I came upon a large group of school children (their uniforms are to die for and I have pictures of them. Once I figure out how to upload them, you’ll see them, too), some of whom were accompanied by adults. I asked one such adult — with many flailing arm signals — if the #4 bus indeed was the one I should be on and if it stopped here. While I’d already, by that point, experienced Japanese who spoke A. No English; and B. Despite their efforts were totally unable to help me, imagine my shock when the woman I’d asked responded to me in heavily accented but perfect English. Not only that, but she watched out for me during the entire bus ride back to the station. At one point, when I stood to exit, she gently told me I was about to get off at the wrong stop. Then, when her stop arrived, she exited the bus and then stood under my window. She waited until the bus started to accelerate, made eye contact with me and signaled on with three raised fingers how many more stops I’d have to wait until the right one. I was exhausted, very hungry (I’d not eaten since 8 a.m.) and just d-u-n. Her thoughtfulness was what got me back to the station and, eventually Osaka Station and, then, the Imperial Hotel. I arrived at that final destination at 6:45 p.m. Yes, the distances are kinda far. But probably could have returned by 6, if not even earlier; I lost track of how many times I went around in circles in the train stations and up on the surface before I found the landmarks I’d noted on my way out of town and could set myself on the proper path back to the luxury hotel. (Speaking of luxury… Ok, Ok, I’ve finally used the bidet. They’re kinda a good invention. Though odd.)

Yesterday, was the day Dave and I — and his colleagues — left Osaka for Tokyo. The bullet train was very fun to ride, but it also was a solo experience for me. Dave and his colleagues were on the same train but had to transfer before hitting Tokyo, so their assigned seats were in a different car from mine. My assigned seat was — of course — the middle one. I was squeezed between a very beefy “businessman” and a very slight woman, both clearly looking the part to work in the Big City. I made like it was totally normal to be the only white person with non-black hair, wearing a color other than navy or black to be on that car. I totally didn’t get stared at. Especially not by the beefy guy on my right, doing so subtly out of the corner of his eye while he was not diddling his smart phone. Clearly, I didn’t care, as, shortly into the trip, I drifted off to sleep. Later, I awoke, with my head lovingly resting on the shoulders of the slight lady. Dear lord was I embarrassed! Thank God I hadn’t drooled! She very astutely had noticed my “Japan” travel guide and ‘International Herald Tribune’ (both written in English!) and said coolly, with very little accent, “Sightseeing?” I countered with, “I’m so sorry. I’m really jet lagged.” She smiled kindly and returned to her blackberry, where she was reading lengthy emails…in English. I smiled at her again. She smiled back. I was so relieved when she got off the train well before my Tokyo stop.

Tokyo indeed is humungous, like New York in its size. Unlike in Kyoto, people jay walk here and cars try beating pedestrians in the game of chicken. Also unlike New York, IT’S SO DAMN QUIET HERE!!!! I was on a subway this morning, so packed that it not only was standing room only, but we all had to hold our breath between spots to save room. But you could hear a pin drop. And, it was so packed, that at one stop that wasn’t mine, I was nearly shoved off the subway car by the exiting passengers. Because I’m very tall — in these parts — I felt comfortable pushing my way back into the car. Because God knows that if I’d gotten off the car at the wrong station, I’d likely never, ever make it to my destination. And today, that destination was the Japanese Sword Museum, in the Yoyogi (yes, it’s called that) area of Tokyo, where I was to meet Rabbi Antonio de Gesu. Let me explain.

At Portland State, I work with Prof. Loren Spielman, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, where he earned his Ph.D. There, students also can choose to become ordained rabbis. Rabbi de Gesu is just such a person, and, prior to my departure for Japan, Loren told me to get in touch with his friend from his graduate-school days.

I’d emailed the rabbi but hadn’t heard back until first arriving in Tokyo. As a result, I figured I’d not see him. Oh well.

Yesterday, after I miraculously found my way, on foot, from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Hotel (I was still afraid to take public transportation and refused to pay for a taxi), I checked in, made myself copious amounts of green tea (did I mention I have a new favorite appliance?) and studied my newly acquired Tokyo maps (from the check-in process, where I was handed 13 of them). My eye caught — of course — the Jewish Community Center of Japan. That would be my afternoon’s destination! I’d stupidly not thought to get in touch with Chabad before leaving Portland but always love seeking out the Jewish community(ies) wherever I go. It’s always an interesting experience and one few tourists take; also, often Jewish stuff in random places is often hard to find. As was this place.

I finally ventured to take the subway there, as I could see from all of my maps that it was not within walking distance. The Jewish Community of Japan is in Tokyo’s expat area; once I got there, I saw there were many embassies (the Czech Republic, among them) and noted all the geijin all over the place. At last! I could ask for and receive directions in English! And I did, and I eventually found the community center, which doubles as the Rabbi’s residence, the synagogue, classroom and social hall for the community’s Jews.

A fastidious Israeli saw me approach the building and, as I’d expected, was very curious about who I was and whether or not I had an appointment to be there. He quickly informed me that other than taking a picture of the Jewish Community Center of Japan sign that’s in English, Japanese and Hebrew, there would be no further pictures allowed. I told him I was used to that drill. Frankly, I was amazed there was a flesh-and-blood person at this locale and not just a video camera mounted somewhere near the mezzuzah. Which is usually the case. At least, it sure is anywhere in Europe I’ve attempted to tour shuls.

“The Rabbi is not in,” Aryeh informed me, “but you can look at the synagogue before you leave.” So, I went into the synagogue, a beautiful and brightly lit largely wooden structure that, Aryeh told me, serves about 110 people and had just hosted a photography exhibit by two local Israelis and two Japanese who were photographing similar scenes and comparing and contrasting them with their own ethnicity’s analysis of them.

Then, from behind me, I hear Aryeh and another burst into a Hebrew conversation. I turn around, and Aryeh says, “Here is the rabbi, Rabbi de Gesu.” I couldn’t believe it and, yet, it was such a typical Jewish traveler’s random moment. Here was the individual Loren had told me to connect with and, yet, who I didn’t think I’d ever meet, given I was to spend exactly four days — probably in my entire life — in Tokyo, and this rabbi hadn’t returned my email in a timely fashion (timely, that is, for my limited time in his adopted city).

We hugged like we’d always known each other, and he invited me into his apartment for tea. We then made a plan to meet today. He’s Sicilian and speaks Hebrew, Aramaic, English, Italian (duh!), French, Dutch (I might be forgetting one or two) … and Japanese! And he cleared his morning schedule so we could spend some time together. I recommended going to the Japanese Sword Museum, and he thought going there would be a hoot, as he’d not visited it in his two years living here. We made a plan to meet in his part of town this morning.

We met at 9 (I found the spot, on the first try!!!) and he then found our way from the station to the museum and then to a trendy spot nearby where people-watching was fantastic (pink-haired Japanese women, anyone?) and I didn’t have to struggle with one word!!! We also visited Japan’s largest shrine (Shinto), and it consists of who-knows-how-many miles of slender, tall trees that bow into one another on either side of the wide paths, creating natural canopies. Rabbi de Gesu said he often frequents this spot when needing privacy and space for serious contemplation. In the interest of protecting his badly needed privacy, I’ll not reveal when in particular he seeks out that expansive holy site.

It’s 3:30 p.m. now, and I’m going to attempt to hit a shopping district that also has nearby it a five-story pagoda, all before dinner. I’ve now spent two hours in this room, eating a lunch of rice balls, a salad I’d purchased from a store called Family Market (read: wanna-be 7-eleven) and two chocolate squares (I need the fortification) and drinking way too much tea. I think I’m ready to head out again. Thank God the Japanese have multitudinous public toilets, all of which include bidets. I don’t , however, use those in public.

Oh yeah — and about those surgical masks I noted in the title of this endless post. So many Japanese wear them! It’s truly hilarious and yet shouldn’t be laughed at, as they take them so seriously. I’ve talked to people wearing them; I’ve witnessed people conversing with one another, from behind the masks; I’ve watched people purchase and then don them. I’m not sure if these folks will never catch another germ again, but when I saw one guy cough impressively into his mask, it had to make me wonder if it’s just as bad (if not worse) to re-inhale all those germs he just ejaculated out.

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Good morning, Osaka

November 15, 2011 at 12:08 am (Uncategorized)

In our hotel room here — on the 19th floor — in the Imperial Hotel, the toilet seats are heated (thank God one can disable that feature); classical music was playing as we entered our room (that can be disabled, too); the curtains open and close with the touch of a button (why use your hands?); and there is an instant-hot-water appliance that resembles a small rice cooker (which is what I originally thought it was until I saw the huge choice of teas and no rice to be found anywhere. Yes, I looked.).

This hotel is unreal, but, once outside the room, it’s also hard to navigate, at least for a Westerner. Employees seems to be EVERYWHERE, standing at attention, in their spiffy uniforms (hats and other headgear included), waiting to read your facial expression and thus divine your need. I’m using my peripheral vision a lot, for fear I’ll not be ready for an obsequious hotel employee quickly approaching me from either side, recognizing the “I’m lost” look and hurriedly asking how they can help (pronounced “hayrp”) me.

I’m working on my “thank you,” “please,” “black tea”/”green tea” and “excuse me” phrases. I appreciate the very kind smiles they give me back, at my poor, poor attempts. It’s the effort that goes a long way.

At breakfast this morning with a very dapper (suit and tie and all!) Dave and two of his colleagues, I decided I indeed was meant to have been born Japanese. I didn’t take a picture of my plate for fear of offending anyone, but here’s what I ate this morning: Slices of sweet potato cooked some way that made each slice have a potato-chip-like firmness to it, but a lacquered look and feel in the mouth. I had grilled slices of fish (salmon and an unidentified white one). I enjoyed two rice balls, each with salmon in their center (and I even used chop sticks for those). A Japanese omlette is beautifully, perfectly cooked egg (or five), rolled into a cylinder and cut into symmetrical 1/2″ slices. I had a number of wedges of that yumminess. As well as fresh fruit, pickled things and dried fruit. I even tried the shredded Daikon radish. Not so good. I went back for seconds of everything else. Best buffet ever.

Last spring, Dave had told me upon his return from his then-recent business trip here that all indoor locations were particularly uncomfortable. The country is in an energy-conserving mode, as a result of the fallout (literal and figurative) from the earthquake that resulted from last year’s tsunami. Even I am uncomfortably hot here. So that might help give you an idea of just how humid-feeling the air is.

Today, I’m going to go to Kyoto, solo. At breakfast, I overhead French from a nearby table. So, of course, I politely left those folks alone. NOT. I jumped up and went over to their table, asking them if they were tourists. Perhaps I could join them, given I speak no Japanese. “Mais non, dommage.” They were an ‘equipage’ (group/team) of stewards, stewardesses and pilots with Air France. I wished them ‘bonne route’ and then myself good luck, as I get ready to set off today with a Japanese phrase book, $100 in yen (I should be able to afford a train ticket and gum with that), water and a book. My cell phone doesn’t work here. Oh, and I have a piece of paper with the Imperial Hotel’s name in Japanese on it and the number at which Dave can be reached at his business meeting. I’m sure I’ll get back before sundown. It’s 9 a.m. now; I have hours and hours to screw things up. Soyanara!

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Departure day for Japan: SFO, next stop…PDX?

November 14, 2011 at 8:20 am (Uncategorized)

Today, after the anticipation and my (half-ass) preparation for our trip to Japan, I almost flew directly from SFO back to PDX, rather than over the Pacific Ocean.
We arrived at the airport in San Francisco (thank you, Pat, for the ride there, despite your massive hangover after UO’s win over Stanford and your revelry prior to, during and after that Duck victory) to learn I didn’t have a seat. I’m sorry, what?
Still, the lovely lady at the ticket counter checked our bags and wished us (read: me) luck. We went through customs (a cluster!) and then out to our gate, where we pled our sad (for me) case to the kind lady there. She was very reassuring, noting the flight was oversold (of course!) and that ELEVEN passengers would need to voluntarily vacate their seats for the flight to get off the ground in the first place. Timidly, but with conviction, I asked, “Sometimes, do people purchase tickets and NOT get on their flights?” Thoughtfully, she responded, “Sometimes.”
I withdrew to a seat to wait.
Moments later, however, we learned of another flight to Tokyo, getting us there three hours later than would “our” originally scheduled flight. Volunteering your seat on that original flight was worth $400 per person in United travel vouchers. “Wanna give up our seats?” Dave asked. We did. We switched flights (thus guaranteeing me a seat) and happily slipped our combined $800 travel vouchers (good for a year) into my purse. It’s a good thing I won’t be driving in Japan: No risk someone will steal my purse from the car.
***
Often, I wish I were a fly on the wall during Dave’s business trips. Now, I’m not a fly, but a fellow cow: We’re sitting on our international flight to Tokyo’s Narita airport, in cattle class. In fact, I may not be able to type much while in my compact space. I’m in the middle seat between Dave and a too-chatty woman, Liu, from Taiwan. Watching Dave unfold and refold himself into his window seat in cattle class seat is quite the sight to behold. It takes him about five minutes to extricate himself and another five to reposition himself after, say, a trip to the loo. I try keeping myself from complaining about feeling cramped; I can’t imagine how he feels. (Or works on his computer. Pianists don’t hold their wrists so erect – or elbows tucked so closely into the body — while tickling the ivories.)
About Liu, my new Taiwanese friend: She can nearly properly enunciate about five words in English, but has a huge written vocabulary. But no matter the communication barrier: she still managed to proselytize.
She started by telling me I have a beautiful face (how thoughtful!) and that she hoped I’d one day visit her town (how generous!). (Much of this back-and-forth was accomplished by via writing notes to one another.) She then produced a map of the world, from the back of an in-flight magazine. She showed me where she lives in relation to Oregon and then said a word that resembled “Jesus.” Nah, that can’t be what I heard. Her finger then slid across the map in the glossy magazine and stopped in present-day Israel. Yup, “Jesus” is what I heard.
She then wrote on our notepaper “God your path” and, on a separate line, “love.” Here we go, I thought. I wasn’t sure how to politely indicate I was done with this line of conversation. Hell, we’d been sharing snacks and she’d even written down the name of the gluten-free multi-seed crackers of mine she’d really enjoyed. “Buy next time Coscto,” she’d said. Especially once you break (gluten-free) bread with someone, you can’t be rude.
I thought perhaps I should reveal I’m Jewish. Of course, that could go the opposite way I desired: She could try convincing me of the way, the truth and the light, according to her. Or, she could change subjects. I chose to believe she’d go with the latter.
So, on our shared paper, I drew a Star of David. She then said, “You German?” That was interesting. “No,” I said, and wrote, “I am Jewish.” She quickly opened her Taiwanese-English translating device and tapped J-E-W-I-S-H into it. In a moment, the translated word came up. “Oh!” she exclaimed, followed by a big nod. And thus ended the God-oriented line of chatter!
Liu and I have since moved on to helping each other adjust the volume on our headsets; successfully gesturing when one of us needs to use the toilet; sharing more snacks; and having me write down the occasional shitty-movie title playing on this flight. “Larry Crowne,” anyone? “Monte Carlo”? As Dave said, at least now we can tell the girls we’ve seen a Selena Gomez movie. (For those not up on shitty movies, the Gomez movie is the latter.) As Dave further said, “Now you know why I see all those shitty movies.” I always wondered how he’d managed to see every B-flick out there.
Indeed, I think I’m going to have a lot of fly-on-the-wall moments over the next week. Buzz.

P.S. We’re here, in Tokyo, Japan, awaiting our flight from Narita Airport to Osaka, where we’ll be for the first two days. It’s good to be on the ground…and sleep-deprived.

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“It looks like a choreographed dance”

November 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm (Uncategorized)

That’s what Dave observed, about mid-way through our flight last night from PDX to SFO. Read: It was truly the worst, scariest flight I’ve ever been on. “It looks like a choreographed dance” was indeed what it looked like from our vantage point from the very back of the prop plane that jarred us all over the place during the roughly two hours we were in the air. (Including the half hour or more our plane circled SFO, seemingly endlessly awaiting clearance to land, due to an unexplained-to-the-passengers hours-long “ground stop” of air traffic.) Those scenes in movies where folks on a jostling airplane all bop up and down at the same time? I’d thought those scenes always were too contrived. Nope. Everyone’s head was thrust up, down, to both sides as the captain made his way through turbulent skies during THE ENTIRE trip. And I’ve been on some sketchy flights. Once, at the tender age of 21, I took a flight from Prague, then-Czechoslovaki, to Paris. I do believe I was on a Soviet-issued plane with very few seat belts and even fewer seats; it was my moment experiencing communism at work. The other nausea-inducing flight I once took was from Phoenix, Arizona to Albuquerque; the portion over the Rockies was, indeed, rocky. But our flight last night really was a clammy-palms-I-might-not-make-it kinda jaunt. The guy not-whispering expletives behind us didn’t help. Nor did the desperate flight attendants — hellbent on doing their jobs — who, from a seat-belted position at the very back of the plane — passed beverages up the rows via the kindness of passengers and their incredibly unsteady passing skills. Dave had ordered a beer; only some of its foam ended up on the aisle. I’d ordered a mineral water, shakily passed to me by the lovely young woman behind me. It’s a wonder, while daring to sip from it, I didn’t cut my lip on the can’s tab.

Safely arrived, we (nearly) kissed the tarmac and then went off to a lovely Italian dinner in San Mateo with my B-I-L Pat and cousins Neal and Lisa. The wine was a very welcome beverage at that point in the evening. By the way, the restaurant is called Acqua Pazza which, the menu says, means “Crazy Water.” I wonder what “Crazy Flight” is, in Italian?

Today is “the big” Stanford vs UO game. Dave and I took a couple of hours this morning to walk around Stanford’s incredibly well-groomed and expansive campus. The weather cooperated; the sun was struggling to come out and so all looked bright. It’s simply a beautiful place; it’s inspiring watching all the students studying away. Thank God I’ll never have to study for a test again.

It’s pretty funny, witnessing how SERIOUSLY folks take football (and other sports, for that matter). All I could see was a sea of red (for the Tree) and a sea of green and yellow (quack!). I’m sure the game itself and all its pre- and post-game revelry will be a hoot. Thank God I’ll be nowhere near it. I’ll be dining with Max, wearing neutral colors and not losing my voice, also while not drinking Bud Light which, clearly, was the tailgate beverage of choice for today’s game. Oy.

Lastly, it’s always odd for me to spend any time in California. Everything smells of the eucalyptus trees that had been transplanted from Australia to this state who-knows-how-many-years-ago. They’re abundant on the campus of UC-Santa Barbara, where I went to college, as well as up here, in NoCal. Their stench, while a welcome scent for many, for me only brings back memories of my hardest times at college. I tend not to be a terribly olfactory person, but the odor of eucalyptus (whether from the trees themselves or from some scented soap at Trader Joe’s) reminds me of the times I’d starved myself during my first two undergraduate years. Perhaps the scent of everything, back then, was more acute, given my brain was struggling to get me to recognize the contractions my stomach was busy making, to induce me to put something in it. Likely for the same reason, I also can pick out the scent of dorm-food-cafeterias from miles away. So, when I left campus earlier today and ensconced myself in Pat’s car to head back to Neal and Lisa’s, it was a welcome break from the ubiquitous trees that bring me back to a very hard time in my life.

But not to worry now. I just had a terrific bit of dark chocolate.

Lastly, the girls are doing great; we talked to Hayley this morning, and she’s very happy because Grandma helped her find her long-lost DS. Thank you, Grandma!

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“Your plan really sucks”

November 11, 2011 at 11:07 pm (Uncategorized)

Dave and I are at PDX; our flight to SFO is delayed (which, I’m learning, would be pronounced “derayed” by the Japanese), giving me the chance to troll for more change (I’ve found $.60 already) and watch everyone around me fidget endlessly with their smart phones.
***
A few more repercussions since the car break in: There indeed were more things in my enticing backpack that I’ll never see again. My one and only lipstick, lip liner and favorite headband = all gone. Sorry, Mom, I guess my lips will be pale and unadorned for a while. Regarding the serious stuff snagged by the gonifs, Dave and I have completed nearly everything that needed to be taken care of to get our car and checking account back on track. With one lingering exception. I get paid via direct deposit, which had been linked, of course, to my checking account. The current pay period ends while we’re in Japan, and while I’ve requested a hard-copy check this time around, I’ve been informed that that exception may not be able to be made. Uh — I’m sorry, what? Actually, I’m pretty optimistic that such an exception will be made. Guess I’ll be sending some emails from Japan to human resources to rectify this situation. Then again, maybe I’ll just donate my impressively huge wages back to the University. I’m big on charitable donations anyway.
***
Last night, it became evident the girls were getting increasingly anxious about our pending departure. Alyssa recommended we all play a family game, “to spend a little more time together before you leave.” “Life” was the selected game. What a lovely idea! In theory. In practice, however, we all ended up penniless and insane. Penniless in the game of “Life”; “insane” after muddling our way through “Alyssa’s Rules for the Game of ‘Life.'” Fortunately, Hayley and Alyssa were tired enough — and fatigued from having lost so much money in such a short period of time — that they went to bed with little effort.

This morning, however, things were different. Their anxiety had escalated, especially that of Hayley. It was all she could do to let go of my waist and stop up her tears the few times she couldn’t help but let them drip over the edge of her lower lids. Poor poopsie.

While I didn’t want to belabor our imminent departure (at 1 p.m. today) — and I’d read enough to know you’re not supposed to tell your children how much you’ll miss them but, rather, to focus on the good time they’ll have — I didn’t deny it was going to happen. So I tried therefore focusing on the positive: The fun they’d have with their grandparents; the fact our trip is only nine days long; and that, by the way, it’s special that Mommy and Daddy got to plan to have some time away, together. Still clinging to my waist, Hayley told my navel, “Your plan really sucks.” I believe she said it twice. “Sucks” is not a word we allow in our house. The girls, of course, are well aware of that. Once that dainty phrase left Hayley’s barely 8-year-old lips, a pregnant pause followed its utterance. I nearly burst out laughing instead of scolding her. (She was, of course, waiting for my wrath.) When I didn’t scold her, Hayley took the chance to say it again. What fun she was having!
***
Flight still delayed. I have more change to find.

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Carrie was right

November 10, 2011 at 5:35 am (Uncategorized)

Before one of my college roommates, Carrie, left for her semester abroad in St. Petersburg, (then)-Soviet Union, she had her tiny red Jetta packed to the gills with all the belongings she’d take with her. If memory serves, a day or two before she left to experience a slice of life behind the Iron Curtain (it was still hanging then), some thug broke into her car and made off with every last bag (and Carrie is a clothes horse; she had many bags). Carrie then spent the next day or two frantically replacing all her stolen belongings before jetting off to the USSR. Nearly 20 years later, Carrie and our other college roommie, Max, picked me up from the San Francisco airport, as we three were to spend a weekend together in the Bay Area. I’d brought two bags with me, one of those compact, rolling suitcases and a shoulder bag. Off we drove to our destination: A cute little bistro for lunch in the equally cute East Bay town of Rockridge, bordering Berkeley. We parked and I made to get out of her car (something smaller and sportier than her Jetta of old. It had very little storage space for things like small suitcases). Carrie cut her eyes at me and said, “Were you planning on taking your (rolling) bag with you?” “No,” I said, in that snotty “of course not” tone. To which she quickly countered: “Well, you can’t leave it where you have it, visible from outside the car.” I rolled my eyes; I simply could not believe that she was still paranoid about people stealing goods from her car. Nearly two decades had passed, after all; time to get over it, Carrie.

***

So, last night, Alyssa and I went to Jimmy Mak’s, a dark, cozy Greek restaurant in Portland’s tony Pearl District. Each night the eaterie serves up lovely food and live music; we were there to listen to Alyssa’s piano teacher, Naomi LaViolette, sing and play for her second time on stage. Alyssa and I had a very special date; Alyssa enjoyed a burger (which made me chuckle, as only moments before ordering she decided she really isn’t a vegetarian after all, despite her recent insistence she is), and I had a tangy spinach salad studded with candied pecans along with a cup of smooth lentil soup, and we shared an impressively full basket of slightly browned and crunchy french fries. (I had a glass of Spanish wine to match her lemonade. After all, it was 6:30, after a long day.)

For one hour, Naomi and her back-up band of a guitarist, bassist and drummer regaled a small crowd with her original lyrics and their terrific tunes. By then, at 7:30, we were done with dinner, and it was time to head home. I wanted her to get adequate sleep, as the fourth graders all week are taking assessment tests. Alyssa and I walked the one dark block to our car; we held hands and shivered against the cold (but, fortunately, not the rain). Arriving at 9th and Everett, I at first walked right past my car. Besides, since when did I own a Honda Odyssey minivan missing half its front-passenger window, whose other half was hanging by a collective thread of shattered, tempered glass? The street and sidewalk, too, were covered in the shrapnel-like stuff. The scene resembled one of those “The Making Of”-type videos of what the ground looks  like from the  movie director’s point of view after the “bank robber” has thrown himself through the building’s floor-to-ceiling window.

Wait! That is my car! Its window is in 1 million pieces and, wait!, my BACKPACK is missing from the passenger’s seat! Let me take a quick assessment of what was in that backpack today. Hmmmm, my University-issued computer; my office key; my business cards; AND MY CHECK BOOK, complete with our home address and phone number. “Fuck!” Oh my. Did I just say that? In front of my 10-year-old? “Wow, Mom, I’ve never heard you say that! I mean, I’ve heard that word before, but I’ve never heard you say that! Oh! And you’re calling 9-1-1! I’ve always wanted to call 9-1-1. Ooh, this is exciting. I hope the police come and drive us home. This really sucks (chuckle), and I’m so pissed (giggle)!!!” Alyssa was having a ball. I was trying to control my breathing and vocabulary.

Long story short (too late!): Cops don’t come to the scene of such crimes. We drove home without a passenger-side window; Alyssa, wearing my coat, was bundled up in the back seat, and we had to talk loudly to be heard over the rush of the 35-degree wind on the Sunset Highway. (Did I mention it wasn’t raining? Here’s to small favors.) An officer did call last night, to hear my story and grant me a case number, so that, today, I could file all my claims with the University, the bank and our car insurance.

Both Hayley and Alyssa dealt with their anxiety over and confusion about what had happened to us in different ways; Alyssa acted kinda hyper, and Hayley got withdrawn and physically scared looking. Not one of us three girls slept real well last night. Today, though, things were better, and I got nearly every detail taken care of regarding the theft, including informing the girls’ teachers of their upset from the night before. Their teachers beautifully handled the girls today in school; I’m really grateful to the Ms. Schilling and Ms. Shotts for the emotional coddling they received.

Upon waking this morning, I could tell that overnight my mind had been churning through memories of what else had been in the depths of my backpack. At 5:30 this morning, while riding the stationery bike and reading this morning’s Oregonian, it hit me: My favorite and most meaningful tea mug also was in my backpack. It was handmade by a Central Oregon artist. It had a square base and said “SISTERS” on it; above the word were quilt motifs, as Sisters, Ore., where I bought it, is “famous” for its annual quilt show. Two years ago, when in Black Butte Ranch for a family vacation, I’d bought two such SISTERS mugs; one was for me, and the other was for my dear sister, Abby. We both cherished those mugs; a lot of meaning was contained in the mugs that held hot coffee for her and scalding black tea for me.

And now mine is gone.

I feel incredibly grateful that the theft itself was the most dastardly thing that happened. Alyssa and I could have been the targets, not just my car. We were — and are — totally intact and just fine. Violated, but fine. I feel violated that my car was broken into and that monetarily valuable objects were stolen.  But the loss of the mug makes me feel empty.

Carrie was right: Never, ever leave your stuff visible from outside your car. Not now, not 20 years from now. It could result in the loss of an irreplaceable object and the type of empty feeling inside no long-gone slick laptop could ever evoke.

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Parlez-usted ivrit?

November 10, 2011 at 1:23 am (Uncategorized)

I am going to Japan. I speak pretty decent French; I can get by in Spanish; I’m learning Hebrew. Nowhere in that list is the word “Japanese.” Being able to say only “yes,” “hello,” “good-bye” and “thank you” frankly doesn’t cut it. (Nor does having not a clue about when and how deeply to bow when sharing with the Japanese the four words in their rich language I know.) But I’m confident I’ll get by. To help in that effort, I’m going to revive our Francofamille blog from summer 2009 (!!!) and (over)share about my upcoming experience in the Eastern Hemisphere, a part of the globe I’ve hoped one day to visit, but that I’d never been confident I would get to. And now, after Dave’s been traveling on business for Intel since Hayley was 2 and Alyssa was 4 (they’re 8 and 10 now, respectively), he invited me to tag along this time.

During our week there, from Nov. 14 through Nov. 18, he’ll be in meetings; I’ll get to tour. In and around Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Did I mention I don’t speak any Japanese? This trip essentially is my slightly-in-advance 40th birthday gift, which I think is amazing and terrific and incredibly generous of Dave. (For the record, I’ll go to and return from Japan before I’m 40. Ha!) And it was I who agreed to tour solo while there. But, still… Will I, indeed, get around? I’m confident I will. The better rhetorical question to ask, then, is, “Will I get to where I hope to go and then back to where I need to be?” The blog will tell.

In the lead-up to our departure (first to San Francisco, so Dave and my brother-in-law, Pat, can attend the Stanford-UO game — “Jenn, do you want me to get a ticket to it for you?” “You’re high, right?”) I’ve been preparing what is now a three-page (teetering on its fourth) document for Dave’s folks and for mine. They have incredibly kindly (and somewhat riskily) offered to stay in our home with the girls while we’re away. When Dave and I traveled to Europe five years ago (ostensibly for my 35th…and, today, still no gray hair!), our folks readily agreed to stay with the girls. Back then, we had one cat. My dad and Dave’s mom weren’t thrilled about this pet. And she only required daily feeding and watering and litter-box-scooping. Fast forward five years and we now live on an urban farm. Cocoa — half-Siamese, half-tabby — Sunshine — a LARGE tabby — and Jacky Fudge — a 7-mos. old Labradoodle who is better than toddlers at drooling — now live with us. In perfect harmony. When we’re away for the day and the dog’s in her crate.

Our folks — especially the intrepid Diane and Stuart — aren’t particularly thrilled about our beloved and numerous four-legged friends. To ease their transition (Diane & Clif take the first five days at home; my folks take the final five days), my voluminous document includes not only the girls’ schedules, but best practices with our pets. And the vet’s phone number. In the runup to our departure this Friday, I kept thinking our parents were being rather sanguine about joining our petting zoo. Until I got a somewhat tremulous and timid voice mail from my mom. “Jenn, is there any way you could retrain the puppy so she’ll sleep in her crate at night? Downstairs? [Our room is upstairs and she’s been very happily snoozing in multitudinous locations on our floor.] Your dad and in-laws are worried that if they have to get up in the middle of the night to p** that they’ll trip on the dog and fall down…” We’ve been doing our damndest to retrain our puppy. I’m just CERTAIN all our hard work will pay off, between Nov. 11 and Nov. 20, the day we return to U.S. soil. (I should probably ensure there are additional caffeinated products around our house, should our poor folks end up a little fatigued — possibly, from lack of sleep — as their time in our home drags on. My sister always informs me I simply don’t have enough — or the right kind — of coffee in our home. Good thing I’m off to the land of tea. At least I’ll be properly caffeinated.)

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