Setting Up Yoroi Kabuto for Kodomo No Hi

kabuto4Kodomo No Hi, Children’s Day, in Japan is May 5th.  Beyond the Koinobori flags that many homes display, some people set up Yoroi Kabuto, ancient Japanese armor.  The o-yoroi is an example of the suit worn by ancient feudal Samurai warriors.  It’s extremely heavy!  It has chest and arm covers, as well as an iron mask and the crowning kabuto. It was fine in the 10th century when warfare consisted mostly of archery, but by the 15th century when infantry tactics became more popular, the cumbersome armor fell out of favor.  Nishimachi International School has its own set, and in preparation for the day, the women of the cultural committee set it up.  It took

Here's the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Here’s the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Putting it together took 6 women half an hour!

six of us just half an hour to get it put together, but it was comprised of many little parts and had to be done just right.  After May 5th, the whole thing will get taken down and stored for another year. So enjoy the  displays while they last!

A close-up of the Kabuto

Where Can You Find The Fake Food in the Window?

kappabashi7Any restaurant in Tokyo might owe its existence, at least its accoutrements, to Kappabashi.  Kappabashi is an area of Tokyo between Ueno and Asakusa that is dedicated completely to the restaurant business, comprising hundreds of stores selling everything from knives to pots to dishware and flatware, and everything in between.  There are even stores that sell restaurant decorations, cold cases, and tables and chairs as well as signs. While the stores sell mostly to restaurants, they’re happy to have any regular person as a customer, too.

However, a big part of the charm of Kappabashi is finally solving the mystery of the plastic food that so many Japanese restaurants proudly display in their windows.  Kappabashi has shop after shop of fake food for sale – plastic versions of main dishes, side dishes and desserts, ranging from pasta, to soba, to meats to crepes.  It’s a wonderland of plastic food!



Those cases above are full of sandwiches – all fake.  Restauranteurs can buy the entire sandwich or its component parts to show customers what is available at their establishment.





This one above is one of my favorites – look at all of that marbleized and FAKE beef.  I don’t like my beef like that in real life and I definitely don’t like it in plastic.  However, if I owned a teppanyaki or shabu shabu restaurant in Japan, I would want to show my customers how wonderful my beef is – and this is how the Japanese love their beef.  Also, check out that sushi. Every possible shape, fish and form is available in plastic, so the sushi shops can display the very best outside in their windows.





This one above is so interesting – fruits and desserts – all plastic.  What I didn’t count on is the high price.  One of those parfaits was 5,000 JPY – upwards of $50!  The restaurant owners have to be careful and creative when choosing what t0 display.

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!


This particular shop had everything – and I mean everything – one might need in a kitchen to cook with. Stainless steel pots, copper pots, bamboo steamers, spatulas, and whisks, just to name a few items.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

You have to imagine block after block of these stores.  Some were fancy and some were casual.  Some were expensive and some were less so. (Nothing is cheap in Tokyo) We walked down one side of the street and back up the other side.  It was something else.  If you have any cooking inclination at all,  I’d highly recommend a trip to Kappabashi.



Where Do You Take Your Visitors to Japan?

The Daibutsu Buddha set against the hillside backdrop

The Daibutsu Buddha set against the hillside backdrop

When I have guests from out of the country visiting us here in Tokyo, my favorite place to take them is Kamakura.  Often, since I’ve done a lot of the common sites before, I send visitors to certain places to see themselves, but when it comes to Kamakura, I want to show them everything I can.  Today was no exception. We have good family friends in town, and I took them to see the sights.

Kamakura is a small, seaside town whose claim to fame is that of an ancient kamakura3capital of Japan with the shogun government of Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192.  He wanted to establish a capital as far from Kyoto as he could, and found Kamakura ideal because it’s surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on another . The Kyoto shogunate sent warriors to crush the Kamakura rulers in 1333 and power returned to Kyoto.

There are 65 temples and 19 shrines to be seen in Kamakura, but by this time I have my favorites in the Hachimingu Shrine, the Daibutsu Buddha and the Hase Kannon Temple.  In between there Kamakura2are delightful shops to explore, landscapes to admire and sweet treats to eat.

We had wonderful weather which made for a glorious day.  Just an hour outside of central Tokyo, don’t miss this beautiful testament to Japan’s rich history.

Dr. Roger Spott respectfully washes his hands before entering the shrine

Dr. Roger Spott respectfully washes his hands before entering the shrine

What Is a Sushi Mensch?

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Shushi Bar Yasuda in Minami Aoyama, in Tokyo.  Friends of ours were able to get the reservation only because we booked early, and we felt lucky to be able to get in. Chef and owner Naomichi Yasuda, had come straight from his New York establishment last year to return to the country of his birth and astound customers with his attention and taste.

Yasuda-san opened Sushi Yasuda in New York City’s Midtown in 1999 with two partners.  The press on their website  is unbelievable, with the top ratings from The New York Times, Zagat, and Martha Stewart.  Food and Wine and even The Wall Street Journal paint glowing reviews of the quality of the food, the service, the atmosphere and even the owners of the place.

We managed to get reservations at Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo on a Saturday night, which was impressive because the place is small, typically Japanese, with a bar of eight seats and two tables, which seat only 6 more.

I have had fresh and wonderful sushi in Japan in the past ten years, but each

Yasuda-san himself!

Yasuda-san himself!

singular flavor and mouth sensation at this place made me feel like we were having a creative meal of exquisite taste.

Our course included several different fish, prepared in mostly nigiri style, over rice:

  • Steelhead salmon
  • Cherry trout from Aomori prefecture
  • Amberjack
  • Shima aji
  • Buri Yellowtail
  • Maguro (Tuna)
  • Hotate (Scallop)
  • Ayu trout (only in Japan)

Each piece has its own bit of wasabi, if it’s supposed to have wasabi.  Otherwise it is meant to be left to the taste the chef commands. We were allowed a tiny bit of soy sauce, but only the slightest bit so it wouldn’t interrupt the taste of the fish.

The piece de resistance, however, was the uni, or sea urchin.  I don’t normally prefer it.  I find that it often tastes “fishy” and the slimy sort of texture turns me off.  But the course had been so wonderful up to that point that I couldn’t say no to trying the uni.

yasuda uni

The uni was delectable!

I couldn’t believe it – for the first time, I loved uni.  Yasuda-san served it with a dab of Sardinian crystal salt and just a hint of citrus.  The taste sort of exploded into a sweet goodness in my mouth.

Yasuda-san is expecting a visit this spring from Anthony Bourdain of the TV show “No Reservations” – they are foodie buddies.  Bourdain will probably feature the new Tokyo shop on the show.

A consummate New Yorker, even though he’s thoroughly Japanese, Yasuda-san greeted us with a cheery “hello” in English, and then chatted away to us as he prepared our dishes.  Having had many Jewish customers in New York, he referred to himself as the “Sushi Mensch” – Mensch being the Yiddish word for Man, but with the cultural connotation of a good man, one who is upstanding and follows through on his obligations.  Indeed, Yasuda-san is a Mensch of the first order.

Sushi Bar Yasuda is a wonderful, experiential dining event.  I can’t wait to go back.

Education – A Privilege

AUW logo with white backgroundYesterday the Japan Support Group for the Asian University for Women (AUW) held a film screening to benefit the university.  The film, a PBS documentary, “Peace Unveiled” which is part of the series “Women, War and Peace” showed how women are fighting to have a voice in the politics against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  It is the exemplary work of filmmaker Abigail Disney and it reaffirms the commitment of American Public Broadcasting to bring the issues to the community.

The stars of the day, however, were the two young women, second-year-students at AUW, who flew from Chitagong, Bangladesh to be with us.  They, along with the vice-Chancellor of the university, Dr. Fahima Aziz, talked about the school, the opportunities it offers and truly gave the audience a taste of the bravery it takes to commit to an education outside of one’s home country when gender issues are rife in the area of the world from which they hail.  One of the girls is from Afghanistan, and she talked about the opportunity to learn as well as the very political and strong act of writing. Writing one’s story, she said, is as important as getting into politics. She, who essentially fled the Taliban and grew up in a refugee camp, has discovered her voice.   The other young woman is from Nepal.  She talked about learning not only the lessons her wonderful, international teachers teach her, but also about finding herself and being a role model for the girls of her home village.

Dr. Aziz, committed fully to the needs of these young women, spoke passionately about the students, their abilities and their hard work. From her I heard how every day is something new and different – these girls  appreciate everything they see and have and do. She talked about the girls’ internships, learning experiences, and leadership. They all have such very bright futures.

The entire afternoon was an inspiration.

My children were in the audience, and later, we were able to talk about how lucky they are to have the opportunity to go to such wonderful schools in Tokyo now, and the presumed university educations in their future.  Education is something to appreciate, not take for granted.

Thank you AUW, Dr. Aziz, Raihana and Rasani for being an inspiration to us all.

Japanese Efficiency – At The Salon!!

The incredible Aiko-san, massaging my right hand while I clumsily take a bad picture with my left. She is more beautiful in person.

The incredible Aiko-san, massaging my right hand while I clumsily take a bad picture with my left. She is more beautiful in person.

In my limited salon experience, when you get your hair cut, you get your hair cut.  When you get a massage,  you get a massage.  At my mom’s salon in Florida,  hair coloring is separate from cutting, even! (But we wouldn’t know about that – we’re natural blondes, right Mom?)

This separation of services is not the case in Japan, I have come to find out.  Today as I (ahem) had my hair  cut and colored, my favorite stylist, Takano-san (at May’s Garden Spa in Roppongi Hills – go there – it’s amazing) told me they were having a special on hand and forearm massages and if I wanted to do it, the esthetician  would come right over.  The price was right and I was curious, so why not?  I am hooked.  It was unbelievable.

While I was waiting with the color on, Aiko-san massaged my right hand and arm, starting with a hot towel, going through the massage with cream, and finishing with a “pack-u” – or what I would call a “mask” for my hand. Right as she got the mask on, however, it was time for me to get a shampoo to rinse out the color.  As we all know, hair coloring waits for no man – or woman – or hand massage. But that didn’t faze Aiko-san.  She just rolled her little cart over to the sink where I was getting rinsed, and she started on my left hand.

Yes, that’s right. I got that fabulous head massage and shampoo combination about which I constantly rave, AND the hand and forearm massage  at the SAME TIME.

At one point the shampoo man was massaging my temples and Aiko-san was massaging my left palm.  Bliss.  Purse bliss.

Just as the hot towel went on my forehead and then under the back of my neck as usual, Aiko-san finished applying the mask to my left hand.  So I had to get up (shakily) and walk back to the haircut chair with my hands raised. As soon as I was seated and Takano-san was ready to cut my hair, Aiko-san was right there removing the hand mask and then applying moisturizer before finishing it off.

I understand this was a special treat and not something I can have regularly.  I am very privileged to do these things, lest you think I take it for granted.  But I do think it’s simply brilliant to have salon services put together so nicely.  It saves time for the customer and I’m sure it makes the salon work more efficiently.  What a day.  I’m just going to appreciate it for what it is: Japanese work flow at its best.

The World Baseball Classic – Japanese Style!

Before the game, they played the Japanese National Anthem as well as the one from the Netherlands.

Before the game, they played the Japanese National Anthem as well as the one from the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is in full swing!  Sometimes described as the “World Cup of Baseball” the WBC is a double-elimination tournament played by the major league teams of countries around the world.  It was played in 2006 and 2009, and then, due to dropping baseball from the Olympics, the organizers determined that it would be played every four years, hence the 2013 tournament.

Japan was the winner of both the 2006 and 2009 classics, and is doing well in its bracket this year as well.  However, they did struggle a little against the Netherlands, and they still have a number of semifinal matches to go in San Francisco next week and the week after.  Their arch-rival, Cuba, was surprisingly defeated by the Netherlands in a win-or-go-home match over last weekend.

The Japan National Team played its games at the Tokyo Dome, and we had the opportunity to attend a game.  I have written extensively about baseball in the past, so you don’t really need to see photos again of the cute beer girls circulating through the stands or hear how the Japanese cheer in unison, not individually.  However, there are a few items of interest that are different.  Some of them are because it’s the Tokyo Dome and not Jingu Stadium, where normally see the Yakult Swallows play and some things are different because it’s the WBC, not a regular season game.

As we entered the Dome, there was staff on hand giving each person a sandwich bag. Every single person through the door had to put their cell phone into the baggie and have it out as they walked in past security or submitted to a white-glove bag check.  Why a plastic bag?  I’m not sure.  It seemed to be necessary for the phones to be seen as we went in, but I’m unclear on why.

Twice during the game there was an important announcement:  “ATTENTION PLEASE: IN CASE OF AN EARTHQUAKE PLEASE DO NOT PANIC AND RUN. THE TOKYO DOME IS BUILT TO WITHSTAND EARTHQUAKES AND YOU WILL BE SAFE.”  Somehow it didn’t make me feel all that safe – it put the idea of an earthquake while in a crowded place into my head where it wasn’t a thought before.  I am 100% certain that if there had been a quake, the Japanese people would have waited and sat still. The foreigners would have run for the door.

Unlike at the regular season Japanese ball games, there was  an American-style 7th inning stretch, complete with the song “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” sung by the announcer. He was a good sport, if not a great vocalist.  It was nostalgic.  Not too many Japanese knew the words to sing, however, and they weren’t displayed on the big screen, so it was up to the foreigners to belt it out as loudly as possible!

Here’s a photo of the fantastic scotches, bourbons, sakes and other upscale drinks available at a regular food stand.  In the US, the good stuff is reserved for the club level!

baseball scotch

And here’s a photo of stadium food being eaten by businessmen in black suits with chopsticks. Uniformity is crucial.  Not everyone looked like that, of course, but businessmen are identifiable.  Stadium food with chopsticks never fails to crack me up.  They have chicken nuggets and fries, and I’m sure I could probably find a  hotdog-like item if I worked at it, but in general Japanese stadium food is eaten with chopsticks.

baseball chopsticks

And last but not least, there’s the cleanup.  Someone on our row spilled some beer and magically a Tokyo Dome staff member appeared with paper towels and a trash bag, not leaving until everything was clean and dry.  When it was clear that the family behind us left for good after the 5th inning, another staff member appeared with a big bag and picked up their trash, wiping down the seats carefully as well.  Can you see that happening at Camden Yards or Fenway Park?

baseball cleanup

All in all it was a great night out at the ballgame!  We will be watching in the next few weeks to see who wins the title.  This game was not an elimination game, but rather a game to see who would get a number one and who would get a number two seed in the semifinal matches in the U.S. next week.  But I’m sure that the fans in San Francisco, no matter which game they’re watching, won’t have an experience precisely like mine.


Japanese Efficiency – In a Parking Lot

parking lot bike manLast week my husband and I went apartment hunting. Our house is being sold and our landlord will not be renewing our lease in June. So we have intermittently been going out with a realtor to see what’s available.

The realtor always drives us to places and makes both of us sit in the back seat, chauffeur-style. It’s formal and not altogether comfortable, but neither my husband nor I have the temerity to mess with custom in this case.  At one high rise building in Nishi Azabu, we went down under the building into the parking lot and the realtor asked the attendant where to park precisely, since he was showing one of the available apartments. Instead of telling us, the guy hopped on a nearby bicycle, and let us down two floors and across the third to find the realtor space.  From the point of view of the rear of the car, it was hysterical to see this little man, probably in his late fifties or early sixties, bearing down, speeding down the ramps and zipping around the corners, ahead of parking lot bike man 2the car.

Parking-bike-man pointed out the spot, bowed deeply as the realtor started turning the car to fit into the space, and then in a flash, he was off again, back up the ramp to his station by the parking entrance.

He was so zippy that the photos are terrible, but they’re the best I could do.  This is Japanese kindness and efficiency all rolled into one neat package – on wheels.

The Second Anniversary of The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

charmworks1It seems like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 was a long time ago, and chronologically, I guess it was.  Here in Japan, however, the events of the day are still in the front of our minds, brought to the fore with just the slightest whiff of reminder.  Many people across the country are still affected by the events of the day, and many people are still working hard to repair and rebuild those affected areas, as they will be doing for a long time to come, still.

One such young woman who is working on rebuilding is Sohpia Slater.  I had the privilege of interviewing her recently and she speaks with the wisdom and foresight of someone well beyond her years.  Sophia is sixteen and a junior at the American School in Japan.  She started the charity “Charmworks” that you can find here.  Twice a month, she and various people around Tokyo get together to paint charms made from the roof tiles salvaged from a fishing village in the Tohoku region called Funakoshi.

You can read more about my talk with the delightful Ms. Slater on the site A Hopeful Sign.  All money she receives from charmworks2the sale of the charms goes back to the people of Funakoshi so they can rebuild their industry and lives.

As a note, in addition to starting Charmworks and being a good student, Ms. Slater is a rather insightful young lady.  She has a lot of good ideas about the notion of recovery as it encompasses both physical and emotional healing, and how the two go hand in hand.  You can read more about that in her blog posting in the Huffington Post.

The young Ms. Slater’s work is one example of the dedicated men and women across Japan who are working to rebuild the once beautiful seaside towns in the Tohoku region.  Please consider buying a charm from her, or continuing to support Japan in some way.  We live in a 24-hour news cycle these days, and one crisis tends to give way to the next.  But people continue to suffer long after the reporters are gone and the initial sensation is over.  We should always remember.


Hina Matsuri – The Take-Down

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

Every February, many families and public places across Japan erect elaborate displays of the Emperor’s court in honor of Hina Matsuri, or Girls’ Day – celebrated on March 3rd.  These displays, which originated in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD) in Japan’s history, are often multi-tiered and intricate representations of the entire court, from the traditional 5 musicians, to the

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

tiny little representations of the royal table complete with festival treats such as Hina Arare (sweet little rice crackers) or chirashizushi (mixed fish over rice).

Members of the royal court

Members of the royal court

Though the displays can be enjoyed across the country for most of the month of February, it is imperative that they all be taken down by March 4th, or the superstition says that the girls of the house will marry late, or won’t marry well, or something of that nature.  Taking all of the intricate little pieces down and putting them away in the proper boxes for storage for a year is quite a feat.  Every little hat has to be wrapped; each doll perfectly preserved, and every bit of teensy tableware stored.  It’s quite an undertaking.  Just when you think you have everything wrapped, then all the small boxes have to be put neatly in bigger boxes for storage – don’t forget that space is at a major premium in Japan, so everything has to be as compact as possible.

Here are a few photos of the disassembling of the Hina Matsuri display yesterday at the Nishimachi International School.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

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The puzzle of fitting little boxes into one big one!

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The whole stand has to come down and be put away.

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets wrapped with the utmost care!

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets put away carefully!

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The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

Ready for storage until February 2014!

Ready for storage until February 2014!