You Can Get WHAT in a Vending Machine in Japan??

vendingVending machines are an art form in Japan. Most machines are pretty normal by Western standards, which means they sell drinks.  Some sell both hot and cold drinks and you can tell because the little line below the picture of the drink is red if the can/bottle will come out hot, and blue if it will come out cold – an excellent system.  I’ve seen several vending machines that sell beer and sake – no ID required.  This is part and parcel of Japanese society: underage people (I’m generalizing here) don’t buy the alcoholic drinks because it’s against the rules.

There have been rumors about vending machines selling items of young girls’ clothing – both used and unused.  I haven’t seen that for myself so I can neither confirm nor deny such rumor.

Most vending machines take a Passmo or Suica card – the same cards used in the subway system.  The cards are pre-loaded with money, so many machines have a swipe spot on them like the subway turnstiles do, so you can use your already-filled card to buy a drink if you’re without change.

I had one visiting friend who found the machines so fascinating that he was constantly trying new things – all from vending machines – for the entire time he was visiting.  Another friend who lives in Tokyo posted something the other day that showed a vending machine for toys, just in case a parent needs a bribe in a pinch.  I’m sure that’s not the real reason behind the existence of the toy-vending-machine, but geez, it seems like a great idea if a parent needs an emergency bribe.  And trust me, those of us who are parents know the value of an emergency bribe, as long as its used judiciously.

My husband found this particular vending machine in the ski lodge in Naeba, a ski resort town just into Nagano prefecture, where he and my son were skiing last weekend.  It serves hot food to a needy skier who may want just a quick bite instead of waiting for a full-on lunch and potentially missing a minute of swoosh-time.  I’m sure people who are about to hop on a bus back to Tokyo after a day on the slopes (read: 3 hours on a bus…) also avail themselves of the machine’s contents. Most of the things in it are grilled and ready to pop out.

Row 1 (L-R): Fried Potato; Fried Potato; Takoyaki (Tako-yaki is grilled octopus)
Row 2: Yaki Onigiri; Yaki Onigiri (yaki-onigiri is a grilled rice ball); Takoyaki
Row 3: Hot Dog; Hot Dog; Yakisoba (yakisoba is grilled noodles)

My favorite part of this machine is that it’s advertising that it is open 24 hours, and it’s “casual” food – as if I’d expect formal food to pop out of a vending machine.  In addition, it says hot menu, but also frozen foods.  I suppose that’s as opposed to freshly cooked.  The food was probably made and frozen, then heated up again for purposes of vending.  I wonder how often the food is checked for freshness and/or changed.  However, knowing Japan and the Japanese people as I do, my guess is that the machine is managed daily.

Convenience food taken to a whole new level – that’s Japan for you.

Celebrating a Holiday in Japan

matsuri picMonday was a Japanese holiday – Foundation Day, where the Japanese celebrate the monarchy and ascension of Emperor Jimmu, but according to my dear friend Ms. Miki Hathaway, it’s also the day General MacArthur approved the draft of the modern constitution in 1946.  Lots to celebrate, and the Japanese don’t shy away from celebration.

One of my favorite Japanese ways to celebrate is with the Mikoshi, or portable shrines, which they carry through the streets while dressed in traditional garb. This video was taken in Omotesando, widely regarded as the Champs Elysee of Tokyo with it’s wide, tree-lined street and excellent shopping.  The shrines paraded one after the other, making their slow bouncing progress, for more than an hour. Here is a brief video of the parade of Mikoshi.  Enjoy the Japanese way of celebrating a special holiday!

Subtitles and the Nuance of Language

languagesSome of my best conversations happen in Starbucks over a skim latte.  This week my friend and I were chatting about movies.  She’s Korean, this close friend of mine, but she came to Japan as an expat with her family when she was a teenager, and between that and college at Boston University, the result is that she is perfectly trilingual between Korean, Japanese and English.  She has a lot of Chinese ability too, but she plays it down as a fourth language.  My interest in words and language often mesh with her ability to see language from a different perspective than I do and this day was no different.

Recently my friend had seen “Les Miserables” in the theater.  I had never thought about it before, but being trilingual has a distinct effect on her movie-going experience.  She’s fluent in English so she saw the film in English, but the Japanese subtitles that were inevitably present captured more of her attention than she would have liked.  Then she was thinking of her Mother in Seoul, who would have also seen the film in English, but with Korean subtitles.  In the Korean language, there is no “Z” sound.  This had an interesting effect on one particular scene in the movie.  The innkeeper and his wife are looking to get as much money out of Valjean as they can when he comes to take Cosette from them, but the innkeeper can’t even remember the girl’s name and bumbles around saying Colette, Courgette, and other things, and finally the wife reminds him of “Cosette.”  My friend was wondering how the Korean translator would have expressed “Cojette” since there is no Z sound in Korean and it would have made no difference in writing between Cosette and Cojette when the innkeeper calls the girl “Cojette”.  She speculates that perhaps that particular joke is lost on Korean viewers since they can’t properly see or read the name Cosette as it is meant to be heard or read anyway.  What she is pointing out is that a lot of nuance and puns are lost in translation and that language plays a role in the formation and context in which we see a film.

My friend thinks that the problems are actually bigger when a foreign film is translated into English, particularly from Korean or Japanese.  Japanese has a lot of sensitive feminine speech, the nuance of which can’t be translated into English at all because it has to do more with the way the speaker feels when using those particular words.  If the character didn’t feel a certain way, she wouldn’t use those particular phrases.  Another example my friend gives is when a child is speaking to a grandparent on-screen.  There are certain ways of addressing grandparents that a Japanese child would use that have no direct translation into English.  One example is the word “you” – a child would never ask directly if “you wanted something” when speaking to a respected elder.  “You” can be a very harsh, direct word that a child would not use. But there is no other way to translate that into English – English doesn’t have a nuanced way of speaking relationally the way more formal languages such as Japanese do.  The translators do the best they can when writing the subtitles to capture the real meanings of the ideas and thoughts presented, but they have limited structures of language in which to work.  It’s not so much words exactly as it is deferential structures of speaking.

My friend looks at the subtitles of a film with the curiosity of someone interested in language.  She admits that sometimes when a touching or thoughtful scene is on the screen, she looks down on purpose to see how it’s translated, no matter in which language she is seeing the film.  She also admits that sometimes she misses a moment of the action if she’s examining subtitles, particularly if it’s non-verbal on-screen.  She laughingly says it’s the price she pays for learning and interest.

I am now resolved to see more films with my friend, and of course, to have more lattes together.

Another New Year Celebration in Japan

shishimai2The Japanese really know how to celebrate a new year.  In addition to the traditions of going to the shrine, eating soba, and pounding rice, there’s Shishi-Mai, or the Lion Dance.  The Lion dances around to the beat of drums and the tune of flutes. As it dances, people can put money in its mouth for good luck.  Because most Shishi-mae troupes originate from a shrine, all money goes to support the shrine.  The Japanese lion consists of a wooden, lacquered head called a “shishi-gashira” (Lion Head), and a characteristic body of green dyed cloth with white designs.  One family at my daughter’s school sponsored a shishi-mai demonstration at the International School the children attend.  It was quite a treat to watch.shishimai1shishimai5

Omochitsuki – Behind the Scenes

2013-01-18 01.25.28In past years my family has participated in rice pounding – omochitsuki – at our kids’ school.  It’s a tradition at the first of the year for the Japanese to take special mallets and pound the cooked rice so that it becomes a glutinous mass and can be formed into yummy balls that people roll through such treats as soy sauce and seaweed, azuki bean paste or sesame powder, and then eat.  In prior years, my job has been to watch the kids and adults pounding and shout “Yoisho!” along with them – meaning something akin to a Jewish “Oy!” My husband was always the adult pounding representative from our family – I had never even taken up the mallet! This year, however, was quite different.

I am the co-head of the Cross Cultural Committee at my daughter’s school, and as such, I’m nominally in charge of the day.  I’m just a figure-head though; the six other committee members, beyond just cultural knowledge (most are Japanese), all have institutional memory since they’ve been doing it for years already.

The preparation really began the day before with all of the rental equipment arriving and the washing and soaking of all the rice.  Every last grain has to be cleaned and soaked overnight.  The rental equipment included some stove-like items that boil the water to steam the rice the old-fashioned way.  NO electric rice making in this operation!

The old-fashioned rice steaming contraption!

The old-fashioned rice steaming contraption!

We had volunteers throughout the day.  We needed them.  While two people are pounding in the ceramic bowl, someone needs to be standing by to “flip” the rice so it gets pounded evenly.  And then there were at least ten people every hour of the day who made the mochi balls and rolled them through various toppings.  It was so great of people to be so ready to help out.

By the time the first students came to take their turn at pounding at 8:45, we were ready with rice – it had been ready at 8:30 and a few fathers had been pounding it down so it was fairly flat.  The other volunteers took about half of it to make the mochi to give to the kids immediately after pounding.  It was a smooth procedure – but only because the committee members and volunteers made it look that way.

What a wonderful day it was.

Next year I’ll have so much experience that I’ll be able to do it with my eyes closed.  It was a privilege to be involved.

Snow in Tokyo?!

An apartment building caretaker attempts to hose away the last of the offending snow.

An apartment building caretaker attempts to hose away the last of the offending snow.

While it snows an average of once or twice a winter in Tokyo, with snowfall maxing out at five cm. on average, the city is largely unprepared for the impact of the precipitation and the aftermath of the storm can be quite amusing.  Trains stop, though subways do not, and traffic grinds to a halt.  Highways and airports close for the duration.

Last week we had about three cm. fall in a pretty short amount of time.  It was a wet, freezing, mix of precipitation that made walking, the most common and popular mode of transportation in the city, nearly impossible.

My son, who attends the American school in Japan (ASIJ) got out of school at 1pm and got on his bus.  He arrived near our house, but not at his usual bus stop (the bus couldn’t attempt the hill) at 5:30pm.  He was on a bus for over four hours because of traffic.  Luckily the bus drivers and high-school-aged monitors stop the bus at intervals for bathroom breaks and snack breaks.  The whole afternoon and evening were just a mess.

The next day was when things got funny.  On my way to teach the following morning I watched as the Japanese employed a myriad of methods for snow removal.  I did see a few people with regular shovels, but not many.  Some people were trying to break ice with a dustpan then throw the offending mass of wet and snow into a bucket for later disposal.  Some people used the sharp end of a mop to break up the ice and then sweep it away.  These poor people were literally bent over their instruments of removal furiously cutting up and tossing masses into drifts on the side of their homes so as not to offend or inconvenience neighbors.

The funniest thing to me, though, as a born and bred New Englander, were the hoses.  Somehow people in Japan think that by putting water on the ice and snow, they can wash it away. Of course this presupposes sun exposure so the concrete can dry during the day and not re-freeze overnight, which is often the case.  The snow itself melts all day, but the water re-freezes into black ice that people don’t see and trip over regularly.  It’s terrible to see the women in heels who think that the snow is gone but don’t think about the ice.  Not good at all.

But the snow and ice rarely last more than 72 hours because the weather really is generally too warm to preserve it, so the treachery is over quickly, thank goodness.

Next time it snows in  your neck of the woods, think HOSE.  Or not.

From “A Hopeful Sign” – Every Meal in Japan is an Experience

My latest post on the e-zine “A Hopeful Sign” is about eating in Japan.  As most of you know, I truly love food and eating, and it is a big part of the Japanese culture. You can get to the post properly HERE.

In case you can’t see the link, here is a teaser of the post, but to see the full meat of it, please click on the link above.

Like many humans, I spend a lot of time not only eating, but thinking about food.  In Japan, food is not just sustenance or yummy, but a different type of art form.  From the casual to the decadent, food has a prominent place in the Japanese culture far beyond the sushi that many people associate with the country. That being said, let’s begin with sushi:

The above photo is from my favorite sushi restaurant in Japan, Fukuzushi.  Labeled by Frommer’s as possibly the best in Tokyo, it has been in business for four generations and is currently owned and run by the great-granddaughter of the founder.  Every piece of fish is hand-chosen by specially trained sushi chefs at the Tsukiji Fish market the morning before it is served.

This is a photo of master sushi chef Toyo Agarie at Fukuzushi.  He told us that he studied and worked as an apprentice for many years to become a proper sushi chef.  Once he mentioned that he worked in the restaurant for more than a year before ever touching a piece of fish.  Look carefully at the photo; Toyo-san is holding a knife in his right hand that he swings expertly toward the piece of cucumber in his hand in order to slice it beautifully to be put on the plate next to the fish.  He swings the sharp knife so fast that it’s barely visible in the photo. It’s an ancient skill and art that he practices.

A Hopeful Sign is an excellent site, full of uplifting messages and stunning photos.  Please go to the LINK and enjoy!

What Is That Tune at 5PM in Tokyo?

In ancient times when Japan was comprised of various farming communities, the shrines and temples rang bells at 5pm to let the workers know that the day had ended.  The tradition continues today.  When you ask any Japanese person why bells ring throughout Tokyo at 5pm, he or she will answer, “because it’s 5pm.”  My children know and love the familiar tones that have shaped their childhoods.  During warm spring afternoons in the park, they would look up from their play and know that it was time to go home.  There was never any whining or begging for more time; it was 5pm and time to go home for bath and dinner.  The bells are a marker of time, a gentle close to a day, and a reminder of days of old.

Here’s a clip to help you envision it:

Enjoy the sweet tones.

Multicultural Parties for Kids

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Right after the war, in 1945, a Jewish man named Ernie Solomon started an orphanage in Japan.  He had escaped Eastern Europe and came through Japan, living most of the rest of his life in Tokyo.  He saw a need for care for children who had lost their parents during the war, and he made it happen.  He and his family have supported the Wakabaryo orphanage ever since its inception.  A man with strong Jewish roots, Ernie always arranged for the Jewish Community of Japan to have a joint holiday party with the orphans and the children of the JCJ.  Ernie passed away two years ago, but the tradition continues.  This year, I had the opportunity to go to the orphanage with my children and it was a joyous holiday experience for everyone.

Everyone at Wakabaryo was truly excited to see the group of five adults (including the rabbi) and the ten kids who arrived around 6pm.  Like everywhere traditionally Japanese, we were instructed to first remove our shoes then go upstairs to the party room.  In the room stood about 30 young people and ten or so staff waiting to welcome us.  The tables were laden with cakes and other sweets and not one of the children, from the youngest (age 1 or so) to the teenagers touched any of it.  There were a few speeches welcoming us, and then a rousing rendition of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer in Japanese.  They asked each of our kids to introduce themselves, which they did in proper Japanese.  But for four of the Jewish kids, ours were not Japanese speakers, but they all take Japanese lessons, so they were able to tell everyone their names and ages in Japanese.  Then we got to eat the sweets.  Our kids really tried hard to interact with the Japanese kids.  Once again, I learned the lesson that silliness among children has no language barriers.

After eating, we cleared the tables and moved them out of the room so everyone could sit down and play the dreidel game.  It was 2012-12-06 07.09.10great fun to teach these kids about the game and its meaning – all in Japanese.  There were shrieks of laughter and even some boo-ing as the kids enjoyed the game together. Mr. Solomon’s widow gave each child a small gift and the children presented our JCJ kids with a small gift as well.  After a group picture, it was time for us to leave.

Those Japanese youngsters were so appreciative that they formed a line down the stairs and out the door to see us off properly.  There were shouts of “sayonara!” and even “see you!” from a few of the kids.  It was hard to leave.

The experience awed my own children.  It inspired feelings of gratitude and appreciation for all of their many gifts, including the large family that loves them so well.  But it also reminded them, as it did for me, that children are children, and games and celebrations transcend language and culture.  Add in holidays and special sweets, and there’s a recipe for instant friendship.  I hope this is the first of many visits.

Minato City Sports Center

table tennisLike any good city section, Minato Ward in Tokyo has its own Sports Center.  I’ve written about the municipal gym before, but not the sports center, which is not for all of Tokyo, but special for residents of the Minato Ward of Tokyo (A ward is similar to a borough of New York).  I believe other people can get in, but if you show your resident card, you get a big discount.  The place is humongous, with a big pool on the top floor (complete with glass ceiling) and several gyms, one of which has a running track above it.  There are studios for martial arts, and then there’s one, huge, long room dedicated to ping pong. Most Asians call it table tennis, and it is taken very seriously here in Tokyo.  It’s a sport people can play at any age pretty much, and on any given day, hordes of middle-aged to older Japanese fill the room.  With expert precision they push the ball back and forth over the net with a steady clip-clip and observers can see the precise side-t0-side movement of the players’ knees that the game requires.  The level of competition exceeds any expectation of a friendly game and the regular players can beat any taker any time.  I had a young friend who offered to play one of the women in the room once and received a good trouncing for his efforts.  These women spend a LOT of time at the table tennis table.  They are remarkably agile for the age I presume them to be.  But why not?  They’re together, they’re out and about, and they have a great hobby.

The Japanese people value sports and health, dedicating days at schools to sport as well as an entire national holiday.  And nothing says health and fitness like table tennis.