Ask Me About My Bracelets – Alex and Ani

alexandaniIn recent months I’ve been walking around with a little jingle jangle on my wrist.  These bangle bracelets are not just for glamor, though; these bracelets have meaning.

The bracelets themselves are from a company called Alex and Ani.  Popular in the U.S., the company mission embraces values such as mindfulness, positive energy, sustainability and corporate consciousness. They pride themselves on supporting local business and manufacturing in the United States.  Every piece of their jewelry is accompanied by an explanation of its meaning and phrases of empowerment.  It is a great business model to support.

My first bracelet was a birthday gift.  My darling friend Bonnie’s daughter bought it for me.  Bonnie’s birthday is just a few weeks after mine, and Julia (age 15) bought the best friend bracelets for us.  (Bonnie is the friend who managed my cancer care from start to finish, you might remember) I treasure the meaning of the charm, the sentiment behind gift, and most of all, the friendship it represents.

My second bracelet I bought myself in November, just a few weeks after Dr. Siegel pronounced me cured of lymphoma.  It says “Live a Happy Life” on it.  The card it came with says that the bracelet embodies the spirit of courage, appreciation and choice. The full content says,  “Choose kindness, love, and joy.  Live life to the absolute fullest and open your mind up to spontaneous ideas.  Live fearlessly, be optimistic, and become blissfully aware of life’s gifts. Adorn yourself with the Live A Happy Life Charm to acknowledge the blessings in your existence and to be an inspiration to all.”

I don’t know about inspiration, but I do know that I strive to live every day acknowledging my blessings, for they are myriad. The jingle that I wear reminds me all the time that I am loved and even in times of challenge, I am strong and lucky.

So please, next time you see me, ask me about my bracelets; I’m proud to show them to you.

The Treasures of Monzen Nakacho – Fukagawa Fudo-do

monzen 4We took advantage of a sunny day to visit Monzen Nakacho and the Fukagawa Fudo-do (Fukagawa Fudo Temple).  Situated conveniently on the Oedo line, the town itself is a cute, shop-filled place that’s easily navigable by walking.  We visited on the 15th of the month, so we got to see the flea market at Fukugawa Hachiman Shrine, and then ate at a scrumptious soba at a tiny restaurant between the shrine and the huge temple.  The Temple itself is simply humongous, set back majestically from the main road.  What makes this Temple special though, is the sutras read by the colorfully dressed priests in a fury of monzen 1taiko drums and fire.  After a spectacle of color and chanting outside on the stone walkway, visitors, as long as they are respectful and willing to take off their shoes, are invited inside into the main room of the temple where the high priest chants and blesses people as the fire rages behind him and the drums crescendo and lull in rhythmic succession. After the ceremony, we got to walk through the shrine.  We saw the thousands of tiny Buddhas set behind glass and rubbed the ball-like stones beneath them for luck.  Upstairs is a rendition of the shrine trek of the island of Shukoku, where it is said that worshiping is like making the trek itself. The beauty and majesty of the contrasting red and black and crystal monzen 3accents add to the atmosphere of shimmering excitement when combined with the incomparable fire and drumming.  It might be one of my favorite things I’ve done in Tokyo in all the years I’ve lived here.  I’d highly recommend a trip out there.  Enjoy the photos and video.

Teens and Parents and Communicaton

tin cansSome days are better than others with a teen and a tween in my home.  Last week I fought with Bailey about money, and with Sydney about her hair.  That doesn’t even scratch the surface of a few contentious evenings regarding schoolwork, reading, and Facebook chatting.  I don’t want to make it sound more difficult than it is, but it is definitely different.  I keep wondering at this phenomenon.  Different how? Different from when? It turns out that in my six months of absence due to successful cancer treatment, my kids changed as much as I did.

In the past two months since being reunited with them, I’ve had to get used to a high school freshman who is more likely to think about dates and ski trips than the video games over which he used to obsess.  (It’s not that he never plays anymore; he just doesn’t obsess.)  I now have a middle school daughter who gave up her colorful backpack in favor of a trendy Vera Bradley bag to be just like everyone else. I’ve had to get to know these kids all over again.  It turns out that Sydney loves a TV show called “Dance Moms” and has switched from playing the violin to playing the guitar because it’s an instrument she can sing with.  Bailey was on the freshman debate team this year and has discovered a passion for argument. He has buddies across ages and genders with whom he talks daily.

The boundaries are new; the thought processes are different. For the first few weeks, I was arguing with Bailey all the time until someone said to me, “Aimee, you have an entire lifetime to be on his case, but you only have three more years to build your relationship with him because once he’s out of the house, the building part is done.”  The words resonated: I have to think about I want Bailey to interact with me not just now, but in the future. How on earth was I going to achieve that balance between strengthening our relationship and being an authoritative parent?

Being a reader, I sought out writing to and for parents – often mothers – with teenagers.  A lot of it focuses on encouraging the mothers, validating their frustration and acknowledging what a tough time it is for the entire household.  But in general, having read parenting books, articles and blogs for all of my child’s life, I note that so many of the articles I found on the topic minister to desperation.  Sharing becomes more difficult because instead of cute little problems, our kids have bigger problems, ones that could potentially affect the rest of their lives.  That little saying about little kids and little problems turns out to be true!

My favorite piece, posted by my friend Carrie, is “Dear Lonely Mom of Older Kids.”  It’s a blog post that reminds parents that they’re not alone – and that parenting middle school and high school kids can be a lonely business.  Fewer people are willing to talk about the trials and tribulations of having older kids and the bigger problems it can cause in the family.  The piece is reassuring, comforting Moms and telling them that everything will turn out all right – eventually – and Moms will discover an inner strength they never knew they had in the process.

To that end, I also enjoyed the piece given to me by my friend Jacqueline from New York Magazine cleverly titled “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager.”  People never talk about how tough it is on the entire family when the cuddly kid turns into a sullen teen.  The piece is long but worth the read, covering topics such as parent conflict (with the teen and with each other) and resolution, sibling effect, and the most interesting part, about how and why the suffering ebbs but changes once a kid leaves for college.

These days my friends and I discuss our kids in light of behavior expectations, technology interruptions and distractions, and getting into college.  But we’re still talking.  One friend’s kid can’t pass math; one friend’s kid got on to the baseball team while another kid didn’t.  There are ups and downs and the only way to survive them is to derive support from those who have gone through it before or are going through it with you.  It doesn’t matter if your kid isn’t getting a 4.0, playing an instrument and five sports.  Parents need other parents who won’t judge or compare. We need to do that for each other.

And then there’s the communication with the kids themselves.  I have learned to listen more and talk less.  I have learned to ask questions before making demands.  I have learned to shoot off a quick text instead of calling if I want a response.  I shouldn’t say “I have learned” but rather, “I AM learning.” It all happens in fits and starts and some days are more successful than others. My children and I had to spend some serious time apart from each other and so we’re all interested in spending time together now.  That instinct might fade, but it might not. So far the kids are still communicating with me. What a gift.

Everyone grows and changes over time and it seems that the trick is to allow kids to do it safely and securely while hanging on to your own sanity – even if by a thread.  I have no magic solutions or ideas, but simply gratitude for the kids I have raised so far and the loving friends who laugh with me as we go through it all together.

Chef Hiroshi Nagashima Shares the Decorative Art of Japanese Food Carving

decoration food 5I had the fortune to attend a cooking lesson of sorts from internationally acclaimed chef Hiroshi Nagashima, the head chef at Shisui in Tsukiji.  If you’ve ever wondered about how the Japanese learn to decorate their plates of food so beautifully, look no further.  Nagashima sensei showed our group how to push a carving knife delicately into a carrot slice on an angle to create a flower and to cut a notch out of a slice of daikon to make a butterfly’s wings.  He made frogs out of cucumbers and a beautiful basket out of a huge slice of daikon that he patiently cut around until it was translucent and then rolled back up to form the inside of the basket.  His hands patiently formed each creation, slowly and gently rounding the cucumber to form the back of the frog.  His knives were sharpened to a fine point and edge and he wielded them expertly in ways that I couldn’t begin to replicate.  Included in the cost of the lesson was a bento lunch for each participant – photo of the gorgeous and delicious creations below.

Nagashima sensei hard at work

Nagashima sensei hard at work

Nagashima-sensei's book in English

Nagashima-sensei’s book in English

Just a few of his beautiful creations

Just a few of his beautiful creations

The bento lunch he brought for each person

The bento lunch he brought for each person

Our group of intrepid carvers!

Our group of intrepid carvers!

Aquavit – A Scandanavian Dining Experience in Tokyo

aquavit11

Our waiter, searing the beef with alcohol, right by the table, before serving.

Aquavit, a fixture in the New York restaurant scene since the late 80′s, opened in Stockholm and Tokyo in 2008.  The restaurant spoils diners with its fusion of traditional Scandinavian fare with Japanese-style presentation and flair.  The restaurant itself, located in Kita Aoyama, is a showplace of Scandinavian furniture and decor, which creates an ambiance of warmth throughout the dining experience.  The wait staff was skilled in white-glove service, and was omnipresent without being overbearing.  The dinner was a bit pricey, but considering what we ate and the way it was presented, we felt it was well worth the expenditure.

We ordered the tasting menu, listed here with a few of the photos:

CHEF’S NORDIC TASTING

Smoked Cod Roe and Cereal Bread
鱈 子 の ス モ ー クとシリア ル ブ レ ッド
aquavit1
Amuse of Puree
beet, sweet potato, carrot, amaretto mascarpone
4種のピューレ ~ビーツ、安納芋、人参、アマレットマスカルポーネ~
Parsnip Puff and Goat cheese
竹炭のシュークリームと山羊のホイップバター
aquavit4Herring and Bleak Roe
cucumber and elder flower granite
鰊 のマリネ 胡 瓜とエルダーフラワーのグラニテと供 に
王様が愛した白鱒の卵 ロイロムを添えて
From Garden
季節の野菜料理
aquavit2foie Gras and Chestnut Dacquoise
フランス 産 フォアグラと栗 のダックワ ーズ
Monk Fish and Crayfish
leek, sea urchin, stout beer
鮟鱇のムニエルとクレイフィッシュ 黒ビールのアメリケーヌソース
西洋葱と焼き雲丹添え
aquavit8Broccoli, Herbs, and Fresh Cheese Sorbet
ブ ロッコリー のピューレとハ ーブ の 菜 園  フレッシュチ ーズ のソル ベ 添 え
Hokkaido Venison
berries and smoked beet
北海道産蝦夷鹿の低温ロースト
スモークビーツと赤いベリーのジビエソース
OR
または
aquavit12Beef
Fillet
shallot and red wine sauce
熟成牛フィレ肉のポアレ マルシャンドヴァンソース
Fingering Apple
林檎の木のアヴァンデセール

aquavit15We ended up with a dessert sampler that included a little bit of all of several types of berries and sorbets, accompanied by a bit of strawberry nougat.
We paired the entire thing with a rich Oregon Pinot Noir, which added a deep finish to each of the dishes.  If you are in need of a beautiful restaurant that takes its food seriously, then consider Aquavit as your top choice for dining.

Obento – How Very Japanese!

obento2My daughter, Sydney, has lived all but three of her eleven years in Tokyo and considers herself very Japanese. Almost daily this is reflected in the lunch she brings to school from home. Many obento1days our wonderful nanny, Minnie, makes Sydney’s lunch, but over the years, the two of them have learned to create beautiful obento lunches together.  Here is yesterday’s example: It’s little sausages over rice, with each sausage cut to look like an octopus.  Proper Japanese mums would put seaweed “eyes” on each one, but I’m not that detailed.  The top box is full of finely sliced cucumbers. And it all fits together like a little puzzle in the little Japanese box. Tabemasho! Let’s eat!

 

An Incomporable Dining Experience

An oasis in the city

An oasis in the city

Tofu-ya Ukai, housed on what used to be a sake brewery, sits on a huge parcel of beautifully landscaped  land right in the center of Tokyo below the specter of the Tokyo Tower.  Rather than one dining room, the restaurant has 50 private tatami rooms, all done zashiki style – meaning spare and beautiful, with exposed beams, tatami floors and genuine beauty all around.  Though diners must sit on the floor, removing their shoes first, there is a foot-well so no one has to fold their legs unnecessarily.  All of the servers and hosts are clad in kimono and skilled in the art of fine service.  The food is done kaiseki style, consisting of multiple courses mostly comprised of fish and tofu.

Today was an exceptional day to go to Tofu-ya Ukai because Tokyo had the largest snowstorm of the past 40 years just this past weekend and the juxtaposition of the lingering

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our private tatami room.

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our own tatami room.

snow with the persistent blossoms painted an extraordinary picture of Mother Nature’s joy – or sense of humor, depending on your view of the situation.

We had a menu of eight courses – only in Japan can eight courses be small enough to just be a taste of everything yet big enough for diners to feel full and not overstuffed.  Each course seemed to linger and depend on the one coming up in that the quality and complexity of the courses created a crescendo of taste

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

and texture.  The fried tofu had a satisfying crunch, while still being smooth.  The sashimi and other prepared fish exploded in a bloom of freshness.  Everything was presented with grace and beauty, from the pouring of the sake, to the dishing out of the soy milk with two perfect pieces of tofu floating in it.  The mixture of seasonal: tastes, sweet and savory, salty and fruity, all combined to make an exquisite dining experience.

The pictures barely do it justice – the food or the surroundings.

After lunch, Marlene, Tomoko and I took a short walk through the Japanese gardens where we

The Course Menu we selected.

The Course Menu we selected.

saw the small out-building where chefs were hard at work frying tofu, as well as plants, rocks and lanterns that traditionally make up a Japanese garden.

It was a beautiful day.

The food:

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The surroundings:

ukai 14 ukai 15 ukai 16 ukai 17 ukai 18 ukai 19