Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghost Tours and Typhoons

It's typhoon season in this hemisphere but overcast skies and a few drops of rain did not dampen the spirits of three dozen ladies who turned out for the JAW Ghost Tour last Tuesday.

Christina the Vampire marched us back and forth across the back end of the Navy base, pausing at Gridley Tunnel, behind the elementary school, and next to the sea wall to share true tales of ghost sightings. This was after we introduced our Japanese friends to Halloween carnival games like bobbing for apples, making caramel corn hands, and groping "human organs" swimming in cold noodles.

Yuuko the Good Witch
The Japanese ladies seem to favor black in their costumes as much as in their normal garb. Most of them came as witches, vampires, and cats although Hisayo was a Hershey's kiss in a silver lame number she whipped up in a spare moment.

The American costumes were a bit more eclectic. We had an escaped convict, a sumo wrestler again, a princess, Minnie Mouse, Raggedy Ann, and a somewhat wrinkled Peko-chan.

The bustier Americans favor the wench look this year. Between the Shonan party and this one, I counted at least four slutty barmaids.  That flagon hanging from Elena's belt was a nice touch.

You will probably see more than one picture of Elena this year as we seem to be running in the same circles - JAW, Ikebana, and YOSC (the Yokosuka Officer Spouse Club).  The same is true for Mimi and Weather Explorer.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

You can see I wasn't exaggerating about either the Japanese penchant for black or the exceptional turnout.

At left, Peko-chan is conferring with Weather Explorer on the likelihood of a typhoon arriving just when the Ancient Mariner's flight is scheduled to land at Narita Airport.  Everyone else on base watches the Weather Channel but Peko-chan does not know how to turn on the television that takes up an entire wall of her family room.  Sigh.

Advised to batten down her hatches, Peko moved a few potted plants to a sheltered area and hoisted a couple of lawn chairs to the screened porch. Then she muttered a few curses in the direction of CDR P for gifting a gas grill and fire pit to the Ancient Mariner (heavy household items are frequently passed from one sailor to another in foreign ports because no one wants to fork over personal funds for exceeding the government's tonnage limits when moving back to the United States).

Peko could not budge that fire pit or gas grill an inch and the cats ignored her pleas for help (they learned that from Matt surely).  Not that she had anyplace to store them in any event.  She decided to leave them to the elements. 

The typhoon was not any stronger than Peko apparently.  The firepit and gas grill were still in place after the storm passed.  Weight limit or not, these items survived a typhoon and deserve to rust along with us wherever retirement takes us. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chabana: A Personal Meditation

We had an excellent turnout for the Ikebana program at Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura last week. Engaku-ji is one of the temples I visited during hydrangea season this past June so I managed to shepherd my charges from the Navy base to the meeting site without inflicting one of my usual route digressions on them. The fact that the temple entrance is about 30 yards from the train platform helped.

The topic was Chabana, a special flower arrangement used for Japanese tea ceremonies. Many Japanese women these days take classes to learn the traditional procedures for making and serving tea, much as they study kimono dressing and flower arranging. More than 80 of our instructor's students accompanied her to Engaku-ji so we were packed in like sardines. Half of the Americans managed to nab a coveted stool but the others had to settle for one of the thin cushions in the front of the room. I know what it feels like to sit on one of those cushions for 90 minutes so I stood in the back.

The Engaku-ji priest welcomed us. He's a warm, sprightly man who embraced Zen Buddhism late in life. He said we can try the temple's meditation programs whenever we like without converting to Buddhism. This is semi-intriguing. First, I need to find out whether those cushions are part of the deal.

That lotus flower arrangement on the altar behind the priest was pleasing to my eyes. An arrangement using white lotus on the opposite end of the altar mirrored this one. "Absolutely lovely" was my conclusion just as the Chabana instructor began telling the audience everything that was wrong with those arrangements. That's when I tuned her out and engaged in my own personal form of meditation.

My technique has been honed over the course of nearly sixty years of sitting through first sermons and then, after Vatican II, homilies delivered by Catholic priests with a wide range of oratorical skills. You are welcome to try this even if you are not Catholic and are not the least bit interested in converting.

The ability to improvise is crucial. Zen temples lack chandeliers so counting light bulbs, which serves me well in the Navy base chapel, will not occupy your mind for long here. Fortunately I was standing in the back of the room near an open sliding door and was able to admire the view, count a few drops of rain falling, and then make google-eyes at several dozen school children across the hedge until someone felt chilly and slid all the doors closed. So then I was forced to count all the American women who immediately lifted their programs and started fanning themselves. Several seconds were spent assessing the possibility that Asian body temperatures really are two degrees cooler on average than Caucasian's. Or is that just a cultural myth?

When all else fails, try to estimate the diameter of someone's waist, or count the rows of knitting in someone's shawl, or make up stories about the animals prancing across ladies' backs.

Before I succeeded in imagining the silver leopards crawling stealthily across that green savannah to pounce on the little purple cats, the program ended and it was time for lunch. Lucky cats.

Needless to say, this was not the most interesting Ikebana program I've attended -- too much lecturing and too little demonstrating -- but it's the people and not the program that keep me coming back.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recycled Kimono Sale

This is the view from the thirteenth row of the line to enter the recycled kimono sale last week.

The rope barring entry was removed at 10:00 am on the dot.  The first 25 rows stampeded into the sale and proceeded to shove obis, kimono, and scraps of kimono fabric into clear plastic trash bags. 

I had no intention of buying anything.  I was there simply because 19 other American women needed someone to guide them from the west exit of Yokohama station to the Kenmin Community Center where the semi-annual sale is held.

Fifteen minutes later, but it felt like two hours, I exited the sale with a bag full of fabric scraps, ornate cords, and obis.  I shelled out 6,600 yen for my treasures which equated to roughly $75 that day but, the way the exchange rate is going, could be $1,000 tomorrow.  I spent yen I earned gabbing with Dr. T rather than yen for which I exchanged dollars at an ATM machine, so I am pretty sure I made a sound financial investment.  This assumes, of course, I think of a practical use for all the colorful obis and Japanese fabric overflowing the shelves in my closet.

Those 19 other ladies were happy campers when we headed back to Yokosuka.  I was quite delirious too but it had nothing to do with the contents of my bag.  This outing marked the first time I managed to pull off a particularly Japanese feat:  joining two groups of people coming from different directions in the same train car with fifteen seconds to spare.  Some ladies who live in Zushi followed my directions perfectly and hopped on the last train car when the train paused for one minute in Kanazawa-hakkei.  Glug, glug.  That's the sound of me drowning in self-satisfaction.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Crossing Paths with a Black Cat

Two consecutive days tied to the Navy base for the C7FOSA and Shonan parties had me feeling as caged in as the Sykes monkey in the Lincoln Park Zoo, the one that's the spitting image of my brother Tom, so a trio of Knit Wits in search of a navigator to the Yamato Shrine Sale didn't have to ask me twice.

This shrine sale is a leave-the-base-by-6:15am-and-be-home-by-noon Saturday morning adventure. It suits my schedule nicely since it dovetails with the Ancient Mariner's Saturday morning Seventh Fleet meeting schedule.

Olga was in search of antique Kokeshi dolls but Cari, Debbie, and I weren't looking for anything in particular. The planets and stars must have been in perfect alignment on the third Saturday in October because every third or fourth stall was offering a trinket that whispered, "Buy me, buy me." Fortunately for our bank accounts, Driver Debbie reined us in ten minutes after we arrived at the shrine sale by buying a chest of drawers that consumed 85 percent of her car's trunk space. One of us pointed out that we could stow a slew of cut-rate obis and Kokeshi dolls in those drawers if the chest was rotated to face outward but Driver Debbie ignored us.

What's a shopper to do? Hmmm. Those eight skeins of yarn are hand-dyed in a color that matches my oldest boy's eyes on a sunny day. Maybe I can squish them under the chest. Maybe I can knit a sweater before Christmas. Maybe I am correct on the first count and delusional on the second.

Then I saw the Obento carrier inscribed with Japanese characters. It's the same size as the one I use to deliver meals to families with new babies. Someone who lives in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk might want to take this off my hands eventually. If not, who cares? Everyone needs four Obento carriers, right? I decided to buy it even if it meant holding it on my lap all the way back to Yokosuka.

"Oh, we aren't going straight back to the base," announced Cari. "We're going to detour to China Pete's."

China Pete's is a wonderful shop near Machida, a Tokyo suburb, that supplies ceramics of every sort to the Navy Exchange. The Navy Exchange, of course, marks everything up exorbitantly so buying directly from China Pete's is a cheap thrill in more ways than one.

"Gosh, these Japanese teacups would make nice little soup bowls. I could use about twenty of them but they come in sets of five with a matching teapot and I don't drink tea." "Use the teapots as prizes in your next four blog contests." "Good idea! But how will I get them back to the base? The car is already stuffed to the brim with shrine sale finds." "Use Black Cat. It's like Federal Express and will bring the boxes to your house."

So that's what I did. For my next trick I think I'll try shipping luggage to my destination via Black Cat like the savvy Japanese train riders do.

If I Wanted to Wear a Costume, I'd Audition for a Play

There's only one thing I like about Halloween and that's doling out candy to little princesses, Power Rangers, and wizards. Everything else -- scraping goop out of pumpkins, the color orange, and adult costume parties -- stimulates my gag reflex.

But here I am, living in a foreign country, doing my best to be an ambassador of good will for my native land. And the Japanese ladies think it's fun to wear costumes and carve pumpkins in October so that's that.

In an uncharacteristic display of good sportsmanship, this year I went the extra mile and ordered a costume on-line. The costume did not arrive in time for the Shonan party last week so some circa 1962 ingenuity was in order.

Witches, witches, and more witches

Pippi Longstocking arrived in Japan a few months ago. Our oldest sons were best friends in second grade at Star of the Sea School in Virginia Beach in 1993. It's been fun reconnecting with her at Shonan, book club, and Ikebana events.

Yoriko and Reiko attack their pumpkins

Medieval Wench Susan chats with Sumo Mimi. Inside the sumo costume is a little battery-operated fan. The menopausal women were orange with envy.
We dubbed this trio the Aladdins. The Genie is a former softball and basketball standout at Wayne State University. She'll put on the costume again to entertain Japanese children at the Yokosuka Community Center. Tia is Jasmine and you'll be seeing a lot more pictures of Tia because she's vice president of Ikebana this year. Cory the Sheik is the mother of two of Matt's friends; our paths first crossed in 1992, shortly before we both met Pippi Longstocking.
A witch poses with Trinity/Neo

This is Ingenuity, a Japanese cell phone charm. At least I finally got some use out of the Shinto priest's skirt that's been hanging in my closet for the past two years.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Gyoza, Part 2

Three infants and about twenty women squeezed into my kitchen for Kanako's cooking demonstration while a pair of toddlers horsed around in the family room.  Add a couple dozen more toddlers to the mix and a quintet of rather tall men and I would have started swooning with Christmas Past nostalgia.

Kanako chopped cabbage and Chinese chives while I photographed the pickled cucumbers and special Dashi soy sauce.  (Note the reflection in the extremely clean aluminum counter and splashboard.) 

Kanako grated ginger root and garlic while I admired the plastic grater contraption she found at the 100 Yen Store (and which is now happily ensconced in its new home, my utensil drawer). 

Kanako added warm water to the Chinese soup stock pellets and added it to the vegetables while I tried on my new Anpanman apron, a gift from Sunshine.  Then Kanako taught me how to wring the excess liquid from the vegetable mixture before adding the ground pork.

The filling mixture should chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before assembling the gyoza but in the interest of time we just stuck it in the freezer for few minutes and called it a half hour.  With the exception of the photographer, rambunctious toddlers, and babes, everyone took turns filling and sealing the gyoza shells.  You want to flatten that lump of filling before you fold the shell, according to the more discerning participants.

Sunshine pleats a gyoza shell under Kanako's supervision

We coated a frying pan with sesame oil to brown one side of the gyoza then added liquid and covered the pan to let the little yumsters steam for a minute or two.  We removed the cover and watched the excess liquid evaporate.  Then we grabbed a spatula to transfer the gyoza to a serving platter.  But the gyoza did not want to leave the pan.  Six women tried and failed to coax those dumplings out of that pan.  The seventh woman, let's call her Paulette Bunyan, succeeded in filling the platter with gyoza scraps.

We coated a second $150 Williams-Sonoma frying pan with sesame oil and achieved the same dismal result.

Kanako hopped in her car and toodled across the base to fetch a pair of trusty Teflon-coated pans from her kitchen cabinet.  The third and fourth batches were sublime.

Two days later the Ancient Mariner greased up that Williams-Sonoma frying pan and cooked up the final batch of 25 gyoza Kanako had kindly tucked into our refrigerator.  Something tells me there's going to be a Teflon-coated pan under the Christmas tree this year. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Making Gyoza, Part 1

The Seventh Fleet Officer Spouse Association (C7FOSA)* operates differently than Oakleaf, the medical spouse club. For one thing, the C7F ladies hold general business meetings every month from September through May or June. A hostess sign-up sheet is circulated at the welcome coffee in September. Anyone can host a meeting but if you live in senior quarters like I do volunteering your house for a meeting is pretty much mandatory. Or should be. (At least in my mind which, as you've probably noticed, is sharper and fairer than the average world leader's.)

At the welcome coffee this year my mantra was "Let's get this puppy out of the way" so I signed up to host the October meeting. Tapping into my years of executive experience, that memorable era when I was a paragon of efficiency and earned an Olympic gold medal for delegation, I turned to Kanako and asked, "Do you know how to make gyoza?" She assured me she was making it blindfolded and with one hand tied behind her back by the age of five. "Would you like to co-host the October meeting with me? I will clean my house and you will demonstrate how to make gyoza." Kanako thought this was a good plan.**

Kanako took care of the shopping list and I handled the announcement. "We Suppoza You Love Gyoza" was the best I could come up with in the limited time - 30 seconds - available. Let's see you do better.

Shopping for the ingredients was a highpoint for me. Actually, Kanako tried to go shopping without me but I wheedled and whined and promised to push Momo's stroller until Kanako relented. We found everything we needed to make gyoza in the basement and first floor shops at Saikaiya, the department store two blocks outside the Navy base gate. Kanako says Saikaiya offers the best meat and the freshest vegetables in Yokosuka which is why the prices are a little higher.

The pastry shells were in the meat case. There were three different kinds of shells in the meat case but the pictures on the packages made it easy to tell which ones to buy. We bought Chinese chives (they are the spitting image of any other chives you've ever seen), a head of cabbage, and a knob of ginger root. Then we bought ground pork which is sold by the gram. The butcher put 300 grams of ground pork into a plastic bag and tucked a little bag of ice into the plastic bag to keep our ground pork fresh between the store and home. That ice was a nice touch.

In the specialty grocery shop upstairs (which I did not even know existed so all that wheedling and whining was worth the energy expended), we found Chinese soup stock on a shelf next to Korean (magenta label)and some other kind of soup stock (blue label).

"Our" recipe calls for just one tablespoon of soup stock but Kanako says I can use the rest to make egg drop soup. In my dreams, perhaps. (Chinese soup stock tastes like chicken bouillon in case you want to try making gyoza at home.)

The recipe does not call for sausage, but Kanako pointed out the best sausages in Japan simply for my edification. They come from Kamakura.

We can try them together the next time you visit me.

She also recommended a yoghurt drink "good for clearing the intestines." I might have wrinkled my nose, maybe I outright grimaced, but apparently something in my face prompted Kanako to buy a four-pack. She ripped the bottles out of the plastic the second we exited the store. She handed Momo the first bottle after plunging a tiny straw through the foil lid. She handed me the second bottle. I watched Momo suck down the contents of her little bottle in 15 seconds and gesture for another round before stabbing my straw through the foil. Not bad. Kind of sweet, not as thick as a milkshake, acceptable aftertaste.

I haven't noticed any appreciable difference in my intestines but I'll be sure to keep you posted.

* Memorize this acronym - the 7 is a good clue - because I don't intend to spell it out for you again
** Note, if you please, that Kanako was offered the better part of the deal since lending my kitchen to another woman, and a pristine Japanese lady at that, compelled me to sanitize the counters, cabinets, appliances and floor. We're talking de-greasing the stove fan cover, for Buddha's sake!

The Anpanman Museum: It Takes a Quartet

The last time I posted was the day I took Seth to the Anpanman Museum in Yokohama.  Since then I've spent approximately 22 hours at home:  six sawing logs, three reading, and thirteen watching seasons three and four of The Sopranos with the Ancient Mariner.  He's off to Arizona and California now and I'm back to blogging because . . . sad but true . . . I don't know how to turn on the TV.  DVDs were not yet invented when I passed the remote control to a fourth-grader who is now 24 years old.

So uncork a bottle of wine and get comfortable because you are pretty much stuck with me until AM returns in time to pass out Halloween treats eight days hence.

Seth had a blast at the Anpanman Museum and so did the four grownup ladies -- make that three grownups and me -- who used him as their excuse for wandering around the happiest acre in this part of Japan.  Momo and Tomoki were supposed to come with us but Tomoki came down with a fever, poor boy, so I suppose I'll have to take them another time.

Lucky me.

You might remember Seth.  He wandered off last April when we were viewing cherry blossoms at Mt. Minobuso.  He has two older brothers, Ethan and Matthew, and is somewhat eagerly awaiting the arrival of an older or slightly younger sister as his parents have completed about 90 percent of the Japanese adoption process.  This is about 80 percent further along in the process than most people get.  We have our fingers crossed and are praying for a particularly Merry Christmas this year.

You won't remember Tiffany or Christy because this was the first time either of them has tripped down my rabbit hole.  Tiffany is a Seventh Fleet spouse, meaning her husband works with mine, and Christy is her neighbor.  Christy's husband is an obstetrician at the hospital so I will be hooking her up with the Oakleaf crowd at the earliest opportunity.

This is not a flattering shot -- the last one of those was snapped with a Brownie camera circa 1978 -- but it will clue you in on why I'm such a toddler magnet these days.  All those hours, okay years, of playing "Let's Pretend" in Mari Beth's attic are standing me in good stead now.  Seth is working the ice cream stand on the second floor of the museum and I am his satisfied customer.  That lavender strap around my neck is supporting a 10-gallon container of caramel corn.  I hogged most of the caramel corn but graciously handed over the container to my little friend at the conclusion of our adventure.  Of course, you say?  Not hardly.  That Baikanman container would have been the perfect foil to the Anpanman container I picked up last year. 

Gosh, I wonder when Tomoki will be feeling well enough to go to Yokohama with me.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hydrangeas in Kamakura

For reasons that seem ludicrously trivial in retrospect, I never made it to Kamakura while the hydrangeas were in bloom our first two Junes in Japan.

Fortune smiled on me this year.  The hydrangea brackets were just starting to blush when we took James, Emily, and Kate to Hase-dera early in the month.  Two weeks later Meagan My-Knitting-Mentor and I spent a glorious day touring the grounds of Engaku-ji and Meigetsu-in, two temples in Kita (north) Kamakura, with Hiroko, Hisayo, and Kayoko.

Engaku-ji, built in 1282, has expanded over the centuries and now encompasses a whopping 60,000 square meters or nearly 15 acres.  (I did the math for you.  You are most welcome.)

Along the left side of the grounds is the Butsunichi-an, a subordinate temple built as a mausoleum for Hojo Tokimune, the 6th Shogun of the Kamakura era.

We paid 100 yen each to enter the garden of Ensoku-den, one of three hermitages on the Butsunichi-an property.  This garden is famous for two magnolia trees donated in 1931 by a Chinese author, Lu Hsun, when he was a medical student in Japan.  What I will remember about that garden, though, is sipping tea out of beautiful pottery bowls with my friends.

To get from Engaku-ji to Meigetsu-in, we strolled down a shady residential lane with throngs of Japanese couples and families.  Peeking at the houses and faces along the way was as rewarding as feasting my eyes on a seemingly infinite variety of hydrangeas.

Meigetsu-in was inaugurated in 1160 so it predates Engaku-ji by more than a century.  I'm not sure what 'inaugurated' means but that's the word used by the authors of An English Guide to Kamakura's Temples & Shrines.  (These are the same authors that tell us Engaku-ji was named for a 'canon' found in a stone arch; I spread this rumor far and wide before it dawned on me they meant to write 'Kannon' instead.)

We had tea at Meigetsu-in as well, this time in paper cups rather than pottery bowls.  The setting more than atoned for the scant amenities.  We sat on a tatami mat, waiting patiently until it was our turn to step through that round window and perch on a low ledge overlooking a meadow.

To get myself situated on that ledge, I momentarily put my foot on a boulder.  There was an interesting bamboo sculpture balanced on the boulder.  I silently commended myself for neither breaking it nor knocking it off the rock.

"That bamboo thingamajig is nice," I remarked to Hiroko. 

With one of the sweetest smiles in all of Japan, she retorted, "It means 'DO NOT STEP ON THIS ROCK'."


My Knitting Mentor was so appalled by my cultural faux pas that she subsequently fled the country.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nationalism Disturbs Me: Baklava for Thought

Camels are in vogue here. In the past couple of months, I've spotted silhouettes of desert caravans on aprons, shirts, shawls, and towels. They are not as ubiquitous as Mickey. Yet.

I'm not sure what this means. You'll have to ask Hillary.

The first Ikebana program this year featured a talk by the wife of Palestine's ambassador to Japan (far left).  She's a strikingly beautiful woman with college-age children.  I'm not holding that against her.

She brought us baklava - which Greece might be surprised to hear is Palestine's national dessert - and hauled six dresses from her closet for a fashion show starring pre-selected audience members.  (No, not me.  I'm enjoying the sanctuary of the Ikebana board of directors this year.  Better to do the selecting than be a potential selectee, if you get my less-than-altruistic drift.)

It's official!  I am no longer the most eccentric Caucasian woman in Japan.
The dresses were colorful and decorated with intricate embroidery and cross-stitching.  Were you expecting a burqa?  Me, too.  Don't you just love the tinkling sound of stereotypes shattering?

Yuuko and Hiroko are also serving on the Ikebana International Kamakura Chapter board this year.

By my calculations the ambassador's wife has spent less than 15 of her 40-something years in Palestine. From the age of four she was raised and educated in Egypt and she spent the first five years of her marriage in the United States. The ambassador himself resided in Dallas, Texas for 18 years, six years longer than yours truly, until returning to Palestine in 1993 when the peace treaty was signed with Israel.

Do their children consider themselves Palestinians or Native Texans?  My personal experience of wrenching a trio of Native Texans from their birthplace at a young age tells me it probably depends on which kid you ask.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Samurais, Ninjas, and . . . Apaches?

I don't hear all that well.  That's another reason I neglected this blog for so long.

The local social season was winding down last spring when one of the Japanese and American Wives (JAW) Club organizers called me.  Had I not been in the kitchen, whipping up yet another tasty gourmet meal, I would not have heard the telephone ring.

"Will you be JAW Cochise for next year?"
"Hmmm.  I think I'd make a better Pocohantas or that pretty squaw who played opposite the Kevin Costner character in Dances with Wolves but Cochise would not be much of a stretch since my big brother forced me to watch 1,813 Western movies between 1958 and 1968."
. . . (either a long silence on the other end of the line or a witty remark I simply did not catch).
"Oooooookay.  So I'll call Weather Explorer and ask her to be the other Cochise."  Click.

"There's only one Cochise," I fretted to the Ancient Mariner when he wandered into the kitchen minutes later.  "Weather Explorer will have to be Geronimo."

And that is how this year's JAW English Conversation Group co-chief positions came to be filled by two renegade Apaches.
Some JAW members pose with their young hostage in the courtyard of the New Sanno Hotel in late July.
We deal with logistics.  Most of our work was of the advance variety:  hammering out a party calendar with our Japanese counterparts, filling the 30 American slots, and organizing our tribe into six party planning committees.  Geronimo handled most of that while Cochise conducted scientific experiments to determine how long it takes to brew coffee in the official JAW urn (45 minutes if the urn is plugged into a functioning electrical outlet). 

There are only a couple of things left to worry about between now and the final party next May.  Transporting people to and from the various events is one of those things; we've become inordinately fond of people who own 7-passenger vans and aren't afraid to drive in Japan.  Our other worry - you can help us with this one - is figuring out an end-of-year gift to present to the Japanese members come May.  Aprons and tote bags embroidered with the JAW initials have gone over well in the past.

"Our job is almost finished, Cochise.  Once we steal a couple of gift ideas from your readers, we can hop on our Appaloosas and ride off into the sunset."
"Let's be sure to fill our saddlebags with some of that candy the Japanese members passed around at the Tadodai House welcome coffee.  Quick!  We need to edge on over to that bowl on the piano before one of our curious young warriors unwraps what looks to be run-of-the-mill hard candy and figures out there's a perfectly round ball of chocolate under that thin fruit-flavored candy shell.  We must sacrifice ourselves to prevent a JAW version of a buffalo stampede."
"I agree.  But Apaches don't have saddlebags.  They ride bareback."
"Then how about we string a bunch of candy balls together and smuggle them out of here around your neck?"
"Sounds good to me, Kimosabe!"

Classy Vending Machine

We can also blame my recent hiatus on vending machines.  One offering "Happy Family Life" caught my eye when I was exploring an alley in Kanazawa-hakkei.

You can bet I'll let you know the minute I track down the "middle class" and "low class" machines.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Driving in the Fast Lane

My dog ate my blog? No one I know would believe that excuse.

How about this one? I was so busy talking to Weather Explorer and my back seat passengers -- two newcomers we'll call Daffy and Sunshine - on the way home from a shrine sale that I didn't realize I had entered one of those Electronic Toll Card (ETC) lanes until I stuck my toll ticket and a fistful of yen out the window and nobody was there. Not just no cashier but no cashier booth. Uh-oh.
Since I don't own one of those magic cards that signal "Open, Sesame" to the gates, I could not go forward. Due to (a) the half dozen cars lined up (patiently) behind me and (b) the nefarious tire shredders, I could not back up.

What happens when one commits a traffic faux pas in a foreign country?  In my case, a spry octagenarian toll road worker responded to my quasi-bilingual SOS ("Sumimasen!  Help me, please, I mean kudasai!  I made a mistake.  I am so sorry, I mean gomen nasaiSumimasen?  Is anyone there?  I do not know what to do!  I hope you can hear me over the laughter thundering from those rude ladies in my car.  I do not know who they are!  If they are American, I am French, n'est-ce pas?")

The spry octagenarian toll road worker, let's call him Mighty Mouse, emerged from a tunnel beside my car.  He waved his arms and all the cars lined up behind mine - poof! - disappeared.  Then Mighty Mouse shut a gate behind the car.  I am reasonably certain that the sign on the traffic side of the gate read:  Use a Different Lane as This One is Temporarily Blocked by a Stupid Gaijin.
I'll be Windexing my rear window as soon as I post this.
Relieving me of my toll ticket and yen, Might Mouse disappeared into that tunnel and returned moments later to present my change, bow politely, and open the gate.

Am I missing anything?  A minor detail perhaps but I'm pretty sure the monologue that was tripping off my tongue as we were approaching that bank of toll booths went something like this:

"Daffy and Sunshine, I don't like to brag (!) but you probably could not have chosen a better driver for your first big adventure in Japan.  Why, just yesterday I renewed my license to drive in Japan by acing a 50-question written test.  I have now managed to pass that test twice as many times as any other American you will meet in Japan because they all remember to renew their license before the expiration date."


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