Coming to Tokyo: Students from The Asian University for Women

AUW logo with clear backgroundBeyond being the first regional liberal arts institution in Southern Asia, the Asian University for Women is a place where women from across the region can go to learn, share ideas, and get a superior education so they can follow their own dreams, whether they lead out into the world, or back to their villages.  The school, located in Chittagong, Bangladesh, has programs in art, history, literature and any other program they would find at any top-notch university across the globe.  The former first lady of Great Britain, Cherie Blair, is the Chancellor of the University and the current first lady of Japan, Akie Abe, has recently signed on as a Patron of the school.

Why am I telling you this?  I mention it because on March 20th, people in Tokyo will have the singular experience to meet two girls who attend this amazing school.

The AUW Japan Support Group will screen the film “Peace Unveiled” part of the American PBS Series “Women, War and Peace.”  The segment is about the process of peace in Afghanistan and how women played, and continue to play a key role in the making of a modern day nation.  In addition to the film, the two girls, who will travel all the way to Tokyo from Bangladesh to tell their stories, will speak, along with the Vice-Chancellor of the school, Ms. Fahima Aziz.  One of the girls is originally from Afghanistan and is prepared to speak about the actual situation on the ground.

Here is a Facebook listing of the event:

This is not the first time the Japan Support Committee has held an event here in Tokyo – we did one in 2010 where I had the privilege of spending time with the two young women from Bangladesh.  Here’s the story on my last meeting with AUW students and the joy it brought:

If you live in Tokyo, please consider attending the event.  It’s a national holiday in Japan, and so we’re having the screening in the late afternoon to accommodate holiday revelry and the need to go to work the following day.  For more information you can reply here, or email Katsuki Sakai, at

I can promise you that seeing the film and hearing these girls speak in person will be an experience you will never forget.

Tokyo in the Morning – on A Hopeful Sign

If you haven’t seen it already, please go to the website of A Hopeful Sign and check out not only my latest post, but also the posts of other wonderful writers who believe in strong, positive messages.

My latest piece is about sunrise – morning – in Tokyo and the beauty therein.  Here’s the text, but please do go to the website to see with the pictures and in context of the site.

Tokyo at Sunrise

Some people might think I’m crazy, but my favorite time to hit the streets to exercise is 5:30am.  I have always been a morning person, (ask my friends whom I would drive crazy when we were teens – I was 20 before I was willing to see the midnight screening of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” due to my early morning habits) but here in Tokyo, the mornings take on a whole new beauty.

Tokyo, like a woman readying herself for a night out, changes its tenor as the sun goes down.  It goes from a mild-mannered city of black-suited, white-shirted businessmen with practiced business acumen, to a place of alcohol-driven, late-night revelry.  The change-over is particularly vivid as the sun comes up again, which in February, is right around the time I’m outside taking my morning constitutional run/walk.  Unlike New York City, the trains stop for five hours or so right around midnight, and because of that, there are many bars and restaurants are open until 5am, so at 5:30 am, so at that time, the businessmen who missed the last trains home to the suburbs are spilling out of the bars and into the streets to go home for a shower and a nap before heading back into the city to do it all over again.  While I don’t live in an area that is particularly famous for its night-life, I do live near an area like that, and it’s always interesting to see swaying men and heel-tottering women in rumpled clothing and half-closed eyes making for the subway stations.

Beyond that, however, in my residential area, the 5:30 hour is a time when the mama-sans and papa-sans are up, bustling about and getting things ready for the day.  Often, especially the morning after some sort of storm, I see earnest men and women out on stoops or even on patches of sidewalks with little brooms and dustpans, sweeping up the debris of the night to start fresh with the sunrise. Every person takes responsibility for their little patch of heaven in the city – for keeping it clean and tidy, and fit for the entry of the Emperor, just in case. I see a few kids, some as young as 9 or 10, coming out of apartment buildings headed to schools outside the city that specialize in certain areas of interest and therefore require long commutes. The children, whatever the age, have a common look of eternal weariness along with dogged determination, a mix common to Japanese faces.

Tokyo Tower Photo credit: Robert Scott Laddish

The Tokyo Tower, something that used to be the tallest structure in Japan until last May when the Sky Tree opened, is often in my view and I can see the last remnants of its overnight lights as the sun makes its steady ascent over the horizon.  The streetlights flicker and die slowly in my city, so that darkness never fully encompasses the scenery.  The quality of the dusk or the moment before the sun makes it searing entry on the landscape are always bathed in a quality of ease, of buoyant expectation, as if something new is bound to happen with the change of light.

I suppose these things could happen in any city, at any time.  But I’m not in any city at any time – I’m in Tokyo at sunrise and I enjoy all the gifts the bustling metropolis has to give me.  I get back to my house before 6:30am, which is when the true waking of the city starts; when I’m more certain that the people I see are beginning their day rather than ending it, and I too, shower and dress and get ready for the adventures ahead.  The freshness of the city is my reward for meeting the dawn as it arrives and it starts my day with the joy of gratitude.

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!

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.

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.

National Azabu Renovations

Normally if a supermarket renovates its interior, I wouldn’t take enough notice of it to write a whole blog post about it, but this is different.  National Azabu is a fixture in the expat community of Tokyo and in 2011, it closed, razed to the ground, and rebuilt.  It just opened in August 2012.  So why, less than 3 months later, is it closing for a couple of days for renovation?  The answer is to respond to client demand.  The people who shop there have been complaining that the new layout is confusing and not intuitive.  It’s difficult getting through the aisles.  So people complained and the “powers that be” are responding.

But there’s more.  The supermarket is closing in part for two days to re-vamp the whole thing, and they’re so concerned about it that they’re offering a special sale to make it up to customers.  In addition, the postcard I got in the mail announcing the disruption in service has a little man on it who I am positive is looking down at the ground saying “gomen nassai” – apologizing.

This is yet another thing I love about Japan.  Customer service second to none.

Thanksgiving At My Home Away From Home

To an expat, the idea of “home” is very confusing.  It could be where you live currently, where you’re from, or even the last place you lived before moving to where you are now.  It just depends on the connections you’ve made or the roots you’ve set down. However, on a day like Thanksgiving, home is tied up in the memories of complex feelings and ideas as well as place.

For Americans, Thanksgiving is the truest of cultural holidays and memories are tied up in all sorts of ways.  For some people it’s their grandmother’s kitchen or the groaning table laden with food.  For others its the insistence about watching a football game that a favorite Uncle had after dinner.  Most people have some sort of memories about food, though – it’s a really common thread.  Whether it’s Mom’s turkey or the pecan vs. pumpkin pie debate, food plays a huge role in the event.

Yesterday I was over at White Smoke, which is a Texas barbeque place right in my Tokyo neighborhood. (As an aside, the food there is unbelievable – they smoke all of their meats with a Texas dry rub and the flavors are unreal.  My son, who is off from school, and I went for lunch.)  I got to chatting with the owner and he was telling me that they will have two seatings for Thanksgiving people with upwards of eighty people expected in the restaurant.  In a place where restaurants come and go with nerve-wracking frequency, I was glad to hear they were doing so well!  But I had to laugh when he told me proudly that he was making the “corn bread dressing” he had grown up with.  First off all, I’m from New England.  We call it stuffing, not dressing.  And corn-bread? Ew!  I like plain bread stuffing swimming in onions.  In fact, my sister-in-law taught me to make it with sauteed sausage in it.  Corn bread is fine to eat as its own side dish, but as  a base for stuffing?  Not for me, thanks.  But that’s his memory – his childhood Thanksgiving food memory is tied up in cornbread dressing, so of course that’s he is going to make it as an adult.

My childhood memories involve the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  My mom had it on ALL day in the kitchen as we ate breakfast and as she cooked the meal.  My aunt and uncle and cousins would arrive before noon because they would get a jump on traffic from New York to Connecticut by leaving at the crack of dawn and having breakfast on the road. Every now and then we’d pause in our bustling around to say, “Look! There’s Underdog” (always my favorite balloon) or “Wow, listen to that awesome marching band.”

Having made a number of meals this autumn for the Jewish holidays and having thrown two bar mitzvahs in the past three months, I have abdicated my hosting responsibilities.  We are going over to the Tokyo American Club with our friends.  These are not just any friends, I must note, though.  These are the friends with whom we have a standing Sunday night dinner date. These are the friends who I would call in any emergency.  These are the friends where the parents are close and the kids are all equally as close.  And most importantly, these are the friends for whom I am grateful daily for their place in our lives.  They are as close as we’re going to get to having family in a foreign country.

So while I am missing the Macy’s parade this morning, and I sent flowers to my dearest Auntie, who has my grandmother at her house, and I have already spoken with my mother and father, I am having my own Thanksgiving in Japan, halfway around the world from where I grew up.  I am thankful for the ability to create Thanksgiving memories for my children, and I am doubly thankful for the memories of my own holidays of my childhood.  I’m going to make it a great day.