Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Charming Season

Four more of these flea market spools and this might actually look less like a triangle and more like a tree. Mike suggested wrapping ribbon around the spools. The washi paper was my idea two hours and three spools later.
Although I am not known for farsightedness, the cranberry and gold ribbons complement our living room "decor" so now I can display my cell phone charms year round.
If I am feeling especially ambitious, I might even change the washi paper every now and then to reflect the passing seasons. (That "if" is meant to be taken as much, much bigger than your run-of-the-mill big if.)
Next I'm going to try to poke a needle through an inch of rubber 20 times to make ornaments for an Anpanman tree. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 27, 2009

On Fine Motor Skills and the Lack Thereof

Mimi and I knew we were in big trouble at the JAW session this week. Our assignment? Turn eight little squares of paper and a short length of yarn into a wreath and then do it all over again two more times.

Jane had completed her first wreath by the time Hiroko-san finished explaining how to crease the first of the eight sheets of paper. Why do the over-achievers always gravitate to my table at crafting events? And how do they manage to attach the yarn loop with just one perfectly aligned staple when my yarn demands at least three bangs?

Taking a page from Henry Ford's book, Mimi quickly opted to execute fold #1 and fold #2 and then hand each square to me. I stumbled through the next six folds (eight times per wreath). Then Mimi handed the folded papers back to me for final assembly. The stapling job ought to have fallen to Mimi but I didn't dare break my concentration to suggest this lest I forget the excruciating intricacies of fold #5. I am pretty sure Mimi knew this.

Decorating the wreaths was the final step. Those bits of sparkle requiring glue did not merit a second glance. A simple "Primitive Christmas" look was more in keeping with my abilities if not my taste.

If I can track down the Martha Stewart clone who made these wreaths, we'll invite her to join our assembly line next year.

This is Mimi posing with a lot of wreaths she did not make.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Honey, I Shrunk the Chrysanthemums

I thought Reiko and I had seen every possible variation on the chrysanthemum theme when we went to Sankeien Garden last month but somehow we missed the bonsai version.

Imagine the patience and fine motor skills required to compose these little vignettes depicting what I assume to be famous views (I recognized a couple of the diorama subjects).

These are positively the last chrysanthemum pictures, at least for 2009. The shows have ended and I'm off in search of the next item on my horticultural calendar, maple trees.

This is Hakone, with Mt. Fuji in the background.

Monday, November 23, 2009

More Cookie Flavors

Reiko presented me with a box of tiramisu-flavored mushroom-shaped cookies while we were exploring Sankeien Garden last month. I'm hoarding them until Kate arrives in mid-December.

Reiko also told me about a new shop in Mikasa Arcade on Blue Street that sells all types of Japanese treats. Mike, Matt, and I poked our heads in the door on our way home from Coco Curry the other night and immediately spotted a display of mushroom-shaped cookies in yet another flavor: caramel. Very tasty.

These cookies might be our only holiday treats this year since the Commissary ran out of Hershey's unsweetened cocoa a couple of weeks ago. According to my favorite cashier, the next shipment might not arrive until after the holidays. Unsweetened cocoa is an essential ingredient in my fudge so I am even crankier than usual although I must confess it's a bit of a relief to decline all those requests to contribute baked goods for various holiday parties. If I was nicer, I guess I could donate a few boxes of caramel-flavored mushroom-shaped cookies. But then what would I send you for Christmas?

You Should See Him Butter Toast

The USS Blue Ridge returned to Yokosuka Thursday afternoon, a day ahead of schedule.

The curio cabinet is no longer listing in a corner of the living room, half on and half off the rug. The metal glider that's been sprawled on its back between the gingko trees since the last typhoon is now safely ensconced on the patio. The printer is back to fulfilling its purpose in life, the aroma of fresh coffee wafts up the staircase to tickle me awake at the crack of dawn, and -- here's the best part -- both parents attended the quarterly conferences with Matt's teachers and the one with the better hearing assured the other on the way out the door that a teacher really did say, "Matt is one of those rare students who uses his time wisely and completes his homework during study hall."

He also managed to hang a few pictures before he left for Korea this morning. Maybe now you understand why I did not presume to hang any pictures in his absence . . .

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mashiko Revisited

I am a bit wound up tonight after a whirlwind trip to Mashiko, the pottery town where I met my first tanuki three years ago.

Distracted as I was by the tanuki in the fall of 2006, I failed to realize Mashiko translates to "crucify her." That's what half my busmates were muttering when I reached our rendezvous place ten minutes after the appointed time. When I made my final purchase of the day 15 minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart Mashiko, how was I supposed to know the clerks would insist on creating a custom packing crate for each pot?

"Psst! Mimi! Are they going to give me some sort of prize for bringing the most guests?"

"Well, Tanuki-girl, that was the original plan but they revoked your prize at five minutes past the hour."

"But I showed them those kilns that have belonged to the same family for seven generations!"

"That is true, Tanuki-girl."

"And they were all ecstatic when I pushed them into the indigo dyeing workshop and they got to watch that craftsman tending a dozen bubbling vats."

"Yes, Tanuki-girl, that was truly memorable. The grass growing on the thatched roof was an especially nice touch."

"At least YOU are still speaking to me. Do you want to take pictures of ourselves in the bathroom mirror at the next truck stop?"
"Sure thing. And be sure to post them on Facebook. I just love it when you do that."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bringing Home the Gyoza

Part of my first paycheck was squandered on a dozen gyoza (you Yanks call them potstickers; Matt and I call them dinner).

That impulse purchase became a family tradition a week later when I picked up 18 of those succulent dumplings and two sushi rolls on my way home from (chuckle) "work". I upped my order because Matt's friend John has been hanging out at our house to help break in the video game Matt talked me into buying. He called it a tool for "re-bonding" with the Ancient Mariner when the USS Blue Ridge eventually returns to Yokosuka. "Eventually" is OPSEC code for "a couple more days."

My Taiwanese friend, the Moon Cake whipper-upper and general glutton for punishment in culinary matters, calls gyoza by their original Chinese name, jiaozi, and insists they must be boiled thrice. I prefer mine fried to a crisp on one side then steamed before smothering them in soy sauce. (Dr. T is encouraging me to transition to low sodium soy sauce. My taste buds shrivel at the prospect.)

Thinking to save myself roughly $10 a week by making gyoza in my own kitchen, I stumbled upon a Chinese recipe calling for "strong flour." Say what? There was really no need to read any further but my eyes drifted down a line and spotted "knead until dough is the softness of an earlobe."


Friday, November 13, 2009

JAW Celebrates Shichi-go-san

Shichi-go-san (7-5-3) was the theme of today's Japanese & American Wives (JAW) gathering at Tadodai House. Our Japanese friends treated us to a fabulous program covering traditions associated with Shichi-go-san, various types of kimono and how they are worn, and a demonstration of the formal hairstyle Japanese women wear at ceremonial functions.

(This post carries a whiff of 'doctoral dissertation' so you might want to pause here long enough to grab a beer, brew a pot of coffee, or heat up a flagon of sake. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Throughout Japan on November 15 - or the nearest Sunday - boys ages 3 and 5 and girls ages 3 and 7 are dressed in kimono and taken to Shinto shrines by their elders to express thanks and pray for their future. This is a milestone for Japanese children and commemorated with studio portraits, perhaps a little like a First Communion for 7-year old Roman Catholics.

Our hosts had decorated the vast living room with photographs of themselves and their children decked out in their Shichi-go-san finery. Some of the outfits seen in the pictures were displayed on nearby walls.

Hisayo's daughter (now a young adult) wore this kimono and matching jacket when she was three years old.

A 7-year old girl wore this outfit.

This is what a 5-year old boy wears. (I bought a pair of those pants at a recycle sale two years ago and am still working up the nerve to wear them in public. Maybe I need to come up with a new contest . . .).

Having taught us everything they know about Shichi-go-san, our hosts herded us outdoors for a group picture coordinated by a Japanese Navy photographer. As we exited Tadodai House at the conclusion of the program two hours later, we were each handed a copy of the photograph he took. (The turnaround time for pictures taken by official U.S. government photographers, back in 2003 at least, was about five months. In case you were wondering.)

Chigusa, who is a professional hairdresser like her mother before her, showed us how those "Geisha hairstyles" are created. Sally served as Chigusa's model. I thought it would be fun to see how Sally looked with a Sumo wrestler hairdo. Chigusa was having none of that nonsense.

One Japanese friend performed a dance that was simply amazing. Her single prop, a fan, was transformed right before our eyes into a river, a writing desk, a moon, and a badminton racquet I swear was so realistic I thought I heard a thwack followed by the swoosh of a birdie sailing over a net.

I've read about these story-telling dancers in books and, frankly, thought I'd have a problem maintaining a straight face. Instead, I was totally mesmerized. This could be a fun thing to learn. The pantomime part is right up my alley. The fan, alas, is not.

When fans were distributed to the Americans and we were encouraged to imitate our teacher's smooth moves, tosses, and one-handed catches, my fan invariably ended up on the floor. (This might not come as much of a surprise to anyone who knew me during my five-minute career as a baton-twirler.)

Fans are not just for telling stories and creating a personal breeze. You can also use fans to play a game similar to horseshoes.

Then it was off to the tatami room in the Japanese part of the house. We talked about the differences between the various types of kimono on display and then watched the Japanese ladies tie Sally and another young American into traditional attire. Kimono dressing involves a lot of cord-tugging, like that scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett is getting laced into a corset.

Some of the kimono have names I hope to be able to use in everyday conversation.

A Mother-of-the-Bride kimono.

An "I'm Single and Available" kimono.

A bride's kimono.

Then we ate lunch, then we came home, then I realized my tote bag (and car keys) were in the back seat of a van that had just exited the parking lot. This gave me the opportunity to use the name of one variety of kimono in an expletive form.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yokohama Quilt Week: A Feast for the Eyes

Were you expecting chrysanthemum pictures? You're going to have to wait a couple of days. Is that a collective moan of disappoinment I hear? I didn't think so.

The (indoor) quilt show in Yokohama seemed a better bet than the (outdoor) flower show in Tokyo on this cold and rainy day. Weather permitting, I'll get to Shinjuku Gyoen on Saturday.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of quilts we saw today. Cameras were prohibited in some areas so I can't show you the Russian quilts or the top award winners or - my personal favorites - the "President Barack" series. You will just have to rely on your imaginations.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You Say Hockey, I Say Hakkei

This is what greets me when I come bounding out of the Kanazawa-hakkei station enroute to Dr. T's office. I am aiming for the Seaside Line near that tall cream-colored building in the background. The red awning on the left shelters customers who always seem to be standing at least two deep to buy yakitori (meat on a stick). I am working up the nerve to get in that line.

Here's a better shot of the 8K-Aoki bakery. Wait just a minute, is that a restaurant on the second floor? Be still my heart.

This is a bicycle corral at the foot of the steps ascending to the Seaside Line. As you can see, baskets are standard equipment on most bikes here. I have never run across a bicycle store in all my wanderings. That's odd.

The bicycle parking facilities at the hospital are a bit more upscale. This might be the staff lot between the hospital (left) and medical school (right) since there are more motorcycles than bicycles parked here. Not a Mercedes or Lexus in sight, though, so I might be wrong.

And here is the lot in front of the hospital. That walkway runs from the hospital lobby to the train station entrance. Yes, the hospital lobby is on the second floor, making access most convenient for mass transit users.
If I understood Reiko correctly, hakkei means eight views. She was comparing Kanazawa-hakkei with neighboring Kanazawa-bunko at the time. I thought I heard her say that these two areas of Kanazawa were so famously competitive that Kanazawa-bunko translates to "Kanazawa rivalry." "Isn't that sort of sad," I opined, "to be saddled with a name like that." "What are you talking about?" asked Reiko (and not for the first time). "Rivalry," I replied. "It doesn't seem fair that one town gets to be called 'eight famous views' and the other gets stuck with 'rivalry.'"
Reiko sighed. "Books. Many books. Li-bra-ry. Home of famous library."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ble Dore: Bread Heaven

Longtime readers will remember Ble Dore, the bakery/restaurant near Hayama featuring fresh-from-the-oven bread and rolls in the world's most charming format: all a person can eat in 90 minutes.

Jen F had never been to Ble Dore. Jen O and I remedied that unconscionable situation today. We gorged on cinnamon bread, croissants, rolls topped with pumpkin seeds, rolls stuffed with cheese, raisin bread, rolls filled with two different kinds of curry, and flaky apple pastries. We ate so much bread I was too full to buy anything in the bakery on our way out the door. Imagine that.
Merely listing what we ate - and I omitted the soup and salads - has me feeling a bit nauseous 12 hours later.

The Jens posed for the benefit of their Stateside friends who've been clamoring for a glimpse of how fashionable junior officer spouses are wearing their hair this season. Tres chic, n'est-ce pas?

Ancient Mariner in Vietnam

The USS Blue Ridge is docked at Da Nang. Between the history, the scenery, the prices, the Hanoi vodka, and the lemongrass ice cream, this final port visit is the highlight of the deployment for Mike. Yesterday he rode his bike to China Beach where so many US soldiers went for R & R forty years ago. A lady even invited him back to her house! (He says he politely declined.)
Between mowing the lawn and taking the SAT, Matt's weekend was less relaxing than his father's. He even managed to connect the TV in anticipation of "rebonding" with Dear Old Dad over video games. Mom hopes they both realize there's a seriously long Honey Do list to be accomplished before they hunker down with those controllers and choose NFL teams.
Registering to take the SAT when you live overseas is about as complicated and time-consuming as the test itself. We're glad it's behind us.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Driving After Dark

Night falls here like a guy whose parachute failed to open.

If you happen to be cruising Yokosuka neighborhoods when the sun races over the horizon, the rubbing noises coming from the direction of your car trunk might start to sound an awful lot like lug nuts caught in the act of stripping. And that, of course, could easily distract you from noticing you are entering a one-way street from the wrong direction or heading down a narrow winding lane that dead ends abruptly at the edge of a precipice affording what is probably a breath-taking view of Tokyo Bay, a view you are unable to appreciate because you are too concerned with steering your car in reverse back up to the intersection 100 yards behind and above you without scraping against the houses or bumping into the chains the homeowners have strung across their tiny carport entrances to dash any hope of executing a Y turn you might have been harboring.

There are people who complain about how much it costs to live in Japan. I'm going to invite them to ride along with me the next time it's my turn to deliver a meal to a family with a new baby. I do believe I might have invented the cheapest thrill in Asia. People who refuse to leave the house without their cellphone have no idea how exciting life can be.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Gates at Komabano Park

The Left Gate

The Right Gate
Komabano Park is near the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo's Komaba neighborhood. According to a plaque just outside the park, Komaba "used to be a vast field called Komabano and was used as grazing land since ancient times to Medieval Period. In the Edo Era, the area was used for the hawking ground. In the Meiji Period, the first military review was held here."
(We believe "hawking ground" refers to an area where a specific type of bird flies around in a sporting fashion rather than a communal spittoon.)
Aren't the park gates remarkable? They have me reconsidering my lifelong preference for picket fences. I like how they are similar yet different. How do they look when they are closed? I would feel so honored to to open these gates every morning and close them every evening (at least for a week, and maybe longer).

Another plaque near the park sketched out a trail to follow. Life doesn't get much better than this. Oh, wait a minute, life DOES get better than this because I've just spotted another plaque that mentions the Shoto-Komaba Gallery Walk is one of 23 historical walks in Tokyo.

Guess who has a new mission?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Arts of the People

Matt and I went to the football banquet at the Officers' Club last night. He picked up another varsity pin and we feasted on fried chicken, baked beans, and corn on the cob. I am so proud of Matt for sticking it out this season.

Today the Explorers went up to Tokyo to investigate the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, the Nihon Mingeikan, which was featuring a special exhibit in honor of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Soetsu Yanagi, the museum's founder. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the museum so you will just have to come see it for yourself.

Yanagi designed the building himself. It is lovely and surprisingly modern for a museum that opened in 1936. The woodwork and use of natural light reminded me of of the American Arts and Crafts Movement that reached its zenith around the same time interest in Mingei was gaining momentum in Japan.

Across the street from the main museum building is a nagayamon (long gate house, left) built in the 19th century in Tochigi Prefecture. This house is attached to Yanagi's family residence; they are only open on the second and third Wednesday and Saturday of every month so we will have to make another trip when the next exhibit is in place.

Since we cannot fit the furniture we currently own into our Norfolk house, I am doing my best to avert my gaze whenever a chest or table whispers my name. Yard art, however, is an entirely different story. And a couple of the display cases featured book bindings Yanagi collected. Picture me in my twilight years, carefully pasting linen covers on all my favorite books. I'll do this outside in good weather so I can admire my yard art.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Locked Door Mystery

All those hours spent solving adventure computer games came in handy today.

I arrived at Yokohama City Hospital thirty minutes early for my first solo conversation lesson with Dr. T, expecting to loiter in the hospital lobby, reading my book and polishing my lesson plan which consisted of three questions scribbled on an index card.

The lobby was dark and devoid of humanity. The automatic doors were locked. The only thing I could decipher on the enormous sign blocking my path was a big red arrow pointing to . . . a window. Uh-oh. What would Nancy Drew do?

I retraced my steps to the train station turnstiles and spotted an exterior staircase which landed me on the ground between the hospital and the medical school building. I wanted to be in the latter. My eyes found the second floor walkway connecting the two buildings and I imagined the two pharmaceutical sentries sneaking furtive glances at me out the windows. I nonchalantly strolled over to the door under the medical school end of the walkway and ran into a metal rod suspended between two orange cones. Hmm. Moving in a clockwise direction, I worked my way around the building and eventually found an unlocked door right next to the elevator I needed to take to Dr. T's office. Case solved.

It's amazing how quickly two hours can evaporate when you're talking about your family. Today we covered Mike's life from ninth grade through last weekend, Katie's education and gift for composing haiku, my hopes for James, Matt's conversation with Laura Bush, and the final two years of my father's-in-law life. (I agonized over that apostrophe.)

When I asked Dr. T about his childhood, he whipped out a map of Japan. We pondered that map at some length and, since I was still in Nancy Drew mode, it took me just a few minutes to deduce that it was upside down. I suspect Dr. T did that on purpose to trick me. If so, we're going to get along famously which is a good thing because I have dozens more family members to discuss with him.

And that bakery where I turn left when I exit the Kanazawa-Hakkei station? Definitely the most extensive selection I have seen yet.

On a Roll

They installed new toilet paper dispensers in base housing the year we were gone. The new ones are so simple a two-year old can replace a roll.

"Hey, Mom! I'm out of toilet paper!"

Swing the dust cover up.

Grasp the cardboard tube and pull up.

The little plastic arms are pretty nifty.

Insert the new roll from the bottom.

"Gosh, that was easy."

"Don't forget to put the dust cover back down. There's nothing I hate more than dusty toilet paper."


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