Thursday, June 30, 2011

Miss Piggy Wants to Steal All These Quilts

Big Bird treated us to coffee and a show-and-tell before our quilting bee this week. She's made 25 quilts so far with two more in the works. At right, she's holding the first quilt she constructed.

Some of her quilts have been featured in quilting magazines; we're trying to talk her into submitting some of the others to the juries that choose quilts for exhibit at the Tokyo and Yokohama quilt shows.

"Water Lilies"

For the "Water Lilies" quilt she used fabric with a turtle pattern for the small blocks circling each lily pad.

"Asian Blocks"

The quilt above features large blocks of fabric with Asian themes like chrysanthemums, carp, and kabuki actors.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I plan to share some more pictures of her work when I get home from the Machida shrine sale tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Americans and Japanese Unite for Charity Quilting Bee

Big Bird invited some of her friends to make a quilt for a family victimized by the March 11 tsunami. Big Bird has a lot of experience when it comes to organizing charity quilting bees. When she and her husband were stationed in Okinawa a few years ago, Big Bird and her friends (left) made twenty-two quilts that were sent to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda for distribution to the wounded warriors there.

Today eight ladies - four Japanese quilters, two American quilters, Weather Explorer, and Bossy - cut fabric scraps into strips and sewed them onto squares of muslin.  Big Bird says we'll need about 120 of those squares to make our quilt.  We didn't meet that goal today since one of the seamstresses spent more time threading her sewing machine and winding bobbins than actually sewing, but we're well on our way. 

Big Bird zipped through a complete square at intervals so quick and regular Henry Ford must have been smiling in his grave. Ouizer is also a snappy seamstress when she isn't breaking out in song, invariably a peppy pop tune from the 1960s. A seasoned Catholic nun would never in a million years put Ouizer and Bossy within twenty feet of each other.

Weather Explorer, manning the ironing board, got quite a workout returning mis-sewn squares to Bossy who spent half the day picking out stitches while helping Ouizer remember the lyrics to "Build Me Up, Buttercup" and the other half of the day plotting embezzlement.  She wanted to smuggle half the donated fabric home in her tote bag.

Hiroki (not pictured) was the photographer for this group shot.  Standing:  Bossy, Weather, Reiko.  Seated: Hisayo, Big Bird, Ouizer, and Miki.  That perky blue ascot around Bossy's neck is a nifty tubular towel filled with ice.  She found it at the 100 Yen store and it did the trick in making her feel cool on a scorchingly hot day.  She needs to get more of these.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hakkeijima and Sweaty

The camera sat on the kitchen counter all weekend, charging away. She thought it was charging, that is, but nothing happened when she pressed the on button just inside the entrance to Hakkeijima today. The same thing happened the last time she visited a garden with Ishii-san. Push, push, push. Nothing, nothing, nothing. But that was the old camera and today she is carrying the new camera.

Desperate times call for desperate measures so Peevish "borrowed" an image from the Hakkeijima website to illustrate this post. Unfortunately, the only image that halfway illustrates the extent of the hydrangea garden on the island is a map. The hydrangea garden, laced with shady paths, is that dark green area on the right side of the map. If this was a topographical map, you'd see that the hydrangea garden is built around a hill and that those paths take go ever upward to a plateau at the top where a lovely rose garden is ringed with benches.

From the top of the hill most visitors get a panoramic view of the eight scenic views (hakkei) of the island (jima).  One of today's visitors, however, was too busy searching her tote bag for a towel, mopping her forehead and neck with the towel she finally found, and then wringing out the towel before returning it to her bag to gaze placidly at the famous scenic views.

There is an amusement park on the island and an aquarium.  Ishii-san remembers the time she took her parents to the aquarium.  Her mother loved the dolphins.

The doctor says Ishii-san's mother should be completely healed in two more months.  Until then she must wear a stiff corset and is prohibited from carrying anything, including groceries.  So far she has fallen once and snuck off to the grocery store on her own once.  What a pistol.  Maybe Ishii-san should offer to reward her for following the doctor's orders with another visit to the aquarium.

There is an ice cream shop on the island.  This is when a functioning camera would have come in most handy.  The Ancient Mariner might not believe that there is such a thing as an okonomiyaji ice cream cone embellished with tiny shrimp.

Time to solve the camera problem.  There's a quilting bee on tomorrow's docket.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Thing About Book Clubs

Mimi hosted book club tonight in her semi-empty house. Her furniture is enroute to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina so we draped ourselves on the familiar loaner couch and chairs that have graced all of our homes here at one time or another during the coming and going phases, helped her clear out her liquor cabinet, and talked about Half Broke Horses, Jeanette Walls' biographical novel about her grandmother Lily who grew up on ranches in Texas and New Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century.

The book reminded me of Sandra Day O'Connor's autobiography, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American West, which I read aloud to my father-in-law a few years ago.  Stuart also grew up on a cattle ranch in the American West and pronounced O'Connor's book "authentic".  He would surely say the same about Half Broke Horses. It is incredible to imagine that less than one hundred years ago a 14-year old girl was riding a horse across two states to take a teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse.  These days we're afraid to let our 14-year old daughters walk half a mile to school on their own.  What happened?

You see a bush; I see a weed
 Book clubs force me to read books I would never in a million years pull off a shelf if left to my own choices. With the notable exceptions of Three Cups of Tea and Eat, Love, Pray, I have never resented the time spent on a book club assignment because reading books chosen by other people forces me to see life from new perspectives. New perspectives appeal to me.  That might be why I've enjoyed living in Japan for four of the past five years.

Tomorrow I'm going to see Ishii-san, her mother's health permitting, and admire some flowers while catching up on my friend's life since her mother was released from the hospital a week ago, five weeks after back surgery.  Her mother is 83 and her father is 90.  I wish my parents had lived to be that old, and I remember the joys, sorrows, trials, and tribulations of caring for my father-in-law when he was in his nineties.  How will our perspectives be the same?  How will they differ?  Is there some sort of universal help I can offer?

I'm sure the answers lie within the pages of a book.  Unfortunately, I haven't read that one yet. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fashion Trends: Tunics, Taupe, and the Ubiquitous Umbrella

The Charities Committee held its second and final meeting tonight. Our chairman is stunned. "Last year we had to meet four times!" That's because last year the Queen of Compromise couldn't squeeze any of those meetings into her busy schedule. Yup, that's right. The Queen of Compromise. I scarcely recognized myself tonight.

About halfway through the meeting I remembered that I had a family readiness group website to create by 9:00 tomorrow morning. I'll work on that while you catch up on the latest fashions seen on the back lanes of Kamakura.

It was not raining.  This is why they look younger than us.

No umbrella?  Then wear a hat.

"Feminine" is in this spring. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hasedera: Hydrangeas, and Crowds, and Caves, Oh My!

Three or four iris clumps near the gate leading to Kamakura's Hasedera Temple drew quite a crowd  Tuesday afternoon. You'll just have to imagine the irises since my camera was more interested in this enthusiastic photographer than flowers by that point in our garden marathon. Would he lean too far and fall into the pond? No. Almost, but not quite.

A thought crosses my mind.  Do Japanese tourists sneak pictures of me the way I sneak pictures of them?  Maybe I'll start combing my hair and slapping some mascara on my eyelashes before I leave the house.

Hasedera was by far the most crowded hydrangea mecca Weather Explorer and I visited this week.  We did not get in the long line waiting to climb up the hydrangea-bedecked hillside but took pictures of the people taking pictures of the people strolling through the flowers. 

Then, because this was Weather's first visit to Hasedera (and my jaw dropped when I heard that since it's still my favorite temple in Japan and I've been remiss in assuming she's been there), I dragged her through the cave of Buddhist saints.  Which was something of an Act of Contrition on my part, since that cave gives me the heebie-jeebies.  You have to bend at the waist to get from the first chamber to the second and the thought of earthquakes and being buried for eternity in that cave never fails to cross my mind when I make that bow.  Especially now when we are still feeling aftershocks almost every day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Little Surge of Craftiness

Besides hydrangeas and books, I'm counting on the Knitwits and my new quilting pals to get me through this summer deployment.

Brittany is one of our newest and certainly our youngest Knitwit.  Betty introduced her to knitting this week while her mother worked on mastering crocheting at the other end of the table.  I'm trying to finish the socks I started last fall.  Socks are a lot easier to deal with this time of year than that heavy wool cardigan.  The last time I worked on the cardigan I felt like I was holding a 75-pound lamb on my lap.

Have I mentioned that Ouizer is helping Weather and I make t-shirt quilts?  Weather's creation features Rock and Roll Half Marathon t-shirts and I'm cutting up all the ratty t-shirts in the Ancient Mariner's drawer, the ones he should have retired ages ago.  It was meant to be a Father's Day surprise but I missed that deadline.  Christmas is looking possible.  

Ouiser shows us how to attach a border

This serger binds and cuts the edges.  It is an expensive, scary machine.

Don't slice off your fingers, Weather!

After our lesson this week we visited a local department store to select fabric for our borders. I bought plain red fabric for my borders and red-and-blue paisley fabric for no good reason other than I liked it. Weather's border fabric features fish and I'm starting to think I need a little piece of that too.

What I don't need, in case the Ancient Mariner is reading this, is a serger. They sound like jackhammers and would be just as dangerous in my hands.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Japanese Book Club Plans a Road Trip

There is no better antidote for Deployment Dejection than my Japanese book club ladies. Since our bi-monthly meeting just happened to fall the day after the USS Blue Ridge took a right turn out of Tokyo Bay, I barely had time to perfect my pout let alone wallow. I vacuumed up most of my guilt along with a ton of cat hair and went skipping off to meet Kyoko and Tsuneko at the front gate.

We had a birthday to celebrate (Tsuneko turned 70 last week) and a book to dissect (Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters) before capping off our session with lunch at Chili's.  Now that they've sampled fajitas and molten chocolate cake I doubt they'll ever want to see the inside the Officers' Club again.  That is good news in my world.

Usually we have to schedule our August meeting around the comings and goings of Tsuneko's grandchildren who live in Germany and Thailand, the price she continues to pay for allowing her daughters to spend a year abroad (the United States in both cases) during college.  But the German-Japanese grandchildren won't be visiting this summer on account of the nuclear reactor issues and the American-Japanese granddaughter, the one who lives in Thailand, is here right now, enrolled in first grade at the elementary school in Tsuneko's neighborhood for three weeks to hone her Japanese language skills.

While I was doling out our next book, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (will I like it as much at 59 as I did at 19?), Tsuneko said any of the last three days of August would work for her.  When I said any of those days would work for me as well, Kyoko proposed spending all three days at her rustic mountain cabin in Nagano Prefecture.  We'll take a train and a bus and maybe a taxi to get there.  We'll sleep on futons, go for hikes, and soak our tired bones in hot springs.

This is a lovely gesture on Kyoko's part.  It's one thing to speak a foreign language for three hours every two months.  It's an entirely different matter to do it for three days straight.

I am so excited that I've already started researching Nagano Prefecture which is often called the "Roof of Japan" because it includes nine of the twelve highest mountains in Japan.  The capital city, Nagano, hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, but you probably already knew that.  It's famous for mountain views, hot springs, soba noodles, and a special type of silk fabric used for kimono.

I've traveled the world through the pages of books, now I get to travel across Japan because of books.  Life doesn't get much better than this. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More Hydrangeas, or Why I Slept Through Dinner the Night Before He Deployed

The Ancient Mariner trudged aboard the USS Blue Ridge this morning. A few hours later the Seventh Fleet sailed out of Tokyo Bay bound for exotic and not-so-exotic ports. By the time I see my Ancient Mariner again, my stepdaughter Jewls will be married (with her father in attendance if all goes according to plan), I will be another year older (shudder), and Pip will be heading back to college.

Pip and I did not give the Ancient Mariner the send-off he deserved. One of us feels awful about this. The other one of us will no doubt feel similar pangs of guilt about twenty years down the road.

We were going to have a nice "last supper" at home but the Ancient Mariner suggested going out for sushi instead when I limped through the door after a long afternoon of gazing at hydrangeas in Kamakura.  To cut to the chase, I dozed off at 6:00 pm and didn't wake up until after midnight.  Pip disappeared with a friend whose family is leaving Japan today. He said he didn't know we were going out to dinner so he ate with his friend instead.

The Ancient Mariner tells me I snored through two telephone calls, one doorbell ringing, and -- incredibly -- a siren on an emergency vehicle that parked across the street from our house for twenty minutes.  He says this is my typical sleeping pattern prior to one of his deployments, that he's come to expect it and doesn't take it personally.  This made sense fifteen or even five years ago when my body needed to store up energy for the long weeks of single parenthood stretching out ahead of me, but now?  Sheesh.  Old habits die hard.

Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura

More likely my body was simply exhausted from hiking the length of the grounds at Engaku-ji after viewing the hydrangeas at Meigetsu-in. The property is narrow. Mainly it's a central path lined with interesting buildings and views. The views and buildings are so interesting that it's not until you've reached the last shrine at the end of the path that you realize you've walked nearly a mile and will have to walk another mile to get back to the exit.

The gardens here are more orderly than the garden at Meigetsu-in. There are fewer varieties of hydrangea and the colors are more traditional, meaning white, pink, and blue.  There's a pond on one side of the path where we stop to admire irises, ducks, and turtles, and one long stretch of hydrangea bushes on the other side of the path that's attracted a pair of amateur artists who look so cute in their little caps and smocks.

My feet were pointed toward the exit when Weather Explorer spotted a directional arrow pointing off to the left toward a National Treasure, the O-gane, one of the three great bells of Kamakura.  I was less than enthusiastic.  I remembered climbing those 200 stone steps to see the bell last year.  Then a wave of guilt washed over me.  She may never pass this way again.  We made our ascent, we glanced at the bell, we admired the view.  Good thing, too, because I don't think I could bear having two things to feel remorseful about today.  One is bad enough.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hydrangea in Kamakura

Meigetsu-in, Kita-kamakura
 A friend of mine who lives in Kamakura has never seen the hydrangeas blooming at the four shrines and temples most renowned for these flowers in her hometown.  Twice she's gotten as far as the Kitakamakura train station near two of these gardens but the sight of all the crowds surging from the station toward the hydrangeas paralyzed her.  She didn't get off the train.

Crowds don't bother temporary residents like Weather Explorer and Bossy.  This is Weather's first and last chance to see hydrangeas blooming in Japan and by the time June rolls around next year Bossy will be frantically rolling bottles of sake in Japanese fabric and hiding her plunder in Rubbermaid bins as a moving van chugs up to her door.

It's not just the "last chance" nature of this hydrangea outing that makes the crowds endurable.  Crowds are part of the attraction of visiting gardens during peak blooming seasons here.  We can and do grow hydrangeas back home, although not (yet) all these remarkable varieties, but enjoying them there is more of a solitary pursuit.  We like the social aspect of peak blooming seasons in Japan.

Our first stop is Meigetsu-in, a temple in North Kamakura with a gardening philosophy that can best be described as abundant, unrestrained, and eclectic.  A stark Zen garden of raked gravel and large rocks is an interesting counterpart to the profusion of hydrangea varieties on the other side of the grounds.  Off to the side there's a rabbit hutch ruled by the biggest tweedy brown bunny I've ever seen. 

This is what I mean by "eclectic"

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taxes and Decals: Contrasting Bureaucracies

The Ancient Mariner and I went on a field trip to the Prefectural Taxation Office today to pay our annual road tax. In years past we paid our road tax on base like most other Americans here, but the base in its infinite wisdom won't be accepting road taxes until the day after most of the ships, including the USS Blue Ridge, deploy.  One could almost get the impression that the base has forgotten that "serving the fleet" is its primary mission if there weren't so many t-shirts emblazoned with that slogan for sale in the Navy Exchange.

But I'm not going to grouse (much) about the cluelessness of the base schedulers because -- why were surprised? -- paying our taxes at the Prefectural Taxation Office was such a pleasant experience we almost wish we'd be here long enough to have to pay road taxes again.

The tax office is located about eight blocks from the base, a walkable distance but rain was in the offing so we decided to drive.  We didn't have to pay to park in the lot next to the office and there were plenty of empty parking spots from which to choose. 
A sign in the lobby directed us to counter #2. "This is a lot nicer than having three unsmiling sailors snarl you into line." "I agree."

"There's another sign reminding us we want counter #2."
"I can see it from here. It's exactly where the diagram said it would be."
"I like how each counter has a number suspended over it."
"In case we forget which counter we want, there's a line drawn between the words 'road tax' on the floor and counter #2."
"I like how the pretty clerk greeted us with a smile and handed us a laminated sheet that tells us how to complete the five blocks on the tax form."
"Well, that was easy.  Now what?"
"Now we have to visit the Vehicle Registration Office on base to get a new decal for our car."

"Either half the clerks didn't show up for work today or they are taking a very long lunch break."
"Could this aisle be any narrower? Or the floor any dirtier?"
"Shhh. I think someone just whispered 'next'."
"Try not to kick or trip over the little girl playing on the dirty floor."

"Why did you include this picture?"
"Because our topic today is automobiles and I've never seen that's model before."
"That's model?"
"That's what it says."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Dentist, a Priest, and a Doctor Walked into the Officers' Club . . .

...and we wished them Happy Father's Day then let them pay for brunch. How nice of us.

Remind me next year that the Ancient Mariner is owed a Father's Day with all the works: breakfast in bed (he can slide back under the covers after he starts the coffee), new tie, and back massage. This year's celebration was about as joyous as a funeral lunch in a church basement.

Mimi and her family are moving to North Carolina in a few weeks, Father Sal will depart Japan on their heels, and three days from now the Ancient Mariner will be back at sea for the duration of the summer. The air-conditioning doesn't work in the room on the ship where he works and sleeps. It hasn't worked for almost two years now. The thought of crossing the equator fills him with dread rather than delight these days.  One of his Father's Day gifts was an ice gel pad that he'll stow in a refrigerator during the day and spread on his bed at night.  Let's hope it works both for his sake and the sake of his co-workers.  Hot is not the Ancient Mariner's favorite body temperature.

Mimi was quite the fashion plate today. If I'm not mistaken, that jacket was a kimono in a former life. I'm pretty sure I need one of those.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sticking My Neck Out One Last Time

Turtles at Mitsuike Park

There's a moving van or two parked in every townhouse cul-de-sac, boxes stacked up along the sidewalks, and Japanese workers kicking their shoes off and slipping them back on as they scurry in and out of front doors. Invitations to sayonara parties are flying through cyberspace. It's that time of year again. PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season is upon us.

There is no better time of year to visit Second Hand Rose, the base thrift shop operated by our Officer Spouses' Club. There's a weight limit on the household goods we can take with us when we move and exceeding that limit means paying out of our own wallets so we cram china, rice cookers, golf clubs, books, and toys into our car trunks and head over to the thrift shop donation window on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Someone unloaded an entire Talbot's wardrobe last week and someone else got rid of every Star Wars book ever published.  .

Between our thrift shop and our gift shop, the Officer Spouses' Club raised nearly $70,000 this year. Now it's time to start doling that money out to worthy local causes. This is my third year on the committee that does the doling. I had hoped to lend a voice of reason and experience to the deliberations but, sadly, I no longer have the patience required for committee work.  About halfway through today's four-hour meeting I had to squeeze my hands between my thighs to stop myself from drumming my fingernails on the table.  Drumming her fingernails on the table was how my mother expressed impatience with rambling monologues (usually emitting from the mouth of her oldest daughter).

The Ancient Mariner and the husband of another committee member will deploy in four days.  It will be December before our family can spend another weekend together.  Why are we meeting on a Saturday morning?  Why couldn't we meet during the week when our husbands were working?

Why do we dole out money just once a year, in June, rather than two or three times a year?  The chairman has decreed that all organizations receiving money from us must spend it by December 31 but a third of the requests are from high school coaches wanting help with the costs of student lodging at Far East Tournament events, most of which occur in the spring.

We are told that our base commander has revised the regulations governing how we can dole out our funds and that none of our money can leave Japan.  Three committee members resign themselves to this turn of events while the fourth -- the one squeezing her hands between her thighs -- thinks it's likely the base commander simply stepped out of the room for a potty break during Command Leadership School and missed part of the session on how his boss's boss's boss expects spouse groups around the world to pitch in to cover the $60,000 annual printing and postage costs to distribute guidelines to families of individual augmentees and rising Navy leaders.

A school parent wants $5,000 to equip each classroom with an emergency bag the teacher can grab when exiting the room during an emergency.  Three months after the earthquake/tsunami, the principal still isn't sure what items those bags should contain but $5,000 seems sufficient to cover the costs.  Someone notes that the principal can obtain a time-tested list of items to be included in an emergency bag at the city's Earthquake Center two blocks from the base.  She then quips, semi-seriously, that she'd rather spend the $5,000 on training the teachers how to behave calmly and professionally during a disaster, something that is drilled into Japanese teachers.

Maybe it would be better if she shut her mouth and started drumming her fingers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

As rainy seasons go, this one hasn't been all that wet so far.  We spend a few minutes every morning carefully coordinating our umbrella with our wardrobe yet rarely have an opportunity to unfurl our colorful fashion accessories.  Those umbrellas add weight to tote bags already crammed with a Kindle, a towel for drying our hands and wiping our brow, a dollar wallet, a yen wallet, maps, caramels, a water bottle, more caramels, and our appointment calendar. 

In rainy seasons past the clouds emptied nearly every day between June 1 and July 12.  This year we are seeing three of four days of sunshine between cloudbursts. 

I miss the rain.  I like how rain makes the sidewalks glisten and the greenery greener.  I like having an excuse to buy another umbrella, and then another after that.  I like the sight of dozens of umbrellas popping open almost in unison, seemingly out of nowhere. 

Most Japanese women carry an umbrella in their tote bag like I do, but where do Japanese men stow their umbrellas?  When the drops start falling and the umbrellas suddenly appear, I remember standing on the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton when David Copperfield presented me with a dozen red roses.  I never did figure out from whence those roses came and that still bothers me almost thirty years later.  I am determined to solve the Apparitional Umbrella Mystery before this rainy season reaches its official conclusion.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Another Fork in the Road

The Admiral, the Forkhead, and the Ancient Mariner
It's impossible to walk more than two blocks in Tokyo without stumbling across at least one whimsical piece of public art.  Last week we spotted "Forkhead" and his spoonheaded partner flanking a restaurant entrance between the Kabuki theater and the Ginza.

A few days ago Fearless asked me if I like stone lanterns (yes) and if I would be interested in one featuring Anpanman (yes).  Then she burst my hope bubble by informing me that such lanterns are not available for purchase.  How curious.  How mysterious.  Still, I find myself scanning my yard first thing every morning.  Hope springs eternal. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Let Them Eat Cake!" cried Marie Antoinette

Just about everyone I know who lived within a 200-mile radius of the Fukushima nuclear reactor on March 11 had either gained or lost several pounds (or kilograms, whatever those are) by the time we turned our calendars to April. We've dubbed it The Tsunami Ten and chalked it up to stress, the modern era's favorite scapegoat.  Some have embarked on ambitious diet-and-exercise programs and I, who came down on the positive side of  The Tsunami Ten equation, fully intend to do the same at some vague future point which right now looks to be as distant as Mount Fuji on a hazy summer day.

Bemusement is one of my favorite forms of procrastination.  Rationalization ranks right up there as well.  Right now I'm bemused that most of the more ambitious diet-and-exercise programs these days require electricity.  Electricity powers the treadmills in the gym and plays a role in tracking our progress.  Were it not for electricity, we could not share our progress - every inch of pavement pounded and every gram of weight dispensed - with every Tom, Dick, and Harriet in our coterie of facebook friends.

I'll start dieting and exercising when I can recall the old-fashioned methods that served me in the past.  Heaven forbid I tax the limited energy of my host country by relying on Google to refresh my aging memory.  Heaven forbidder I be forced to limit my bread intake in this land of Bountiful Bakeries.  Heaven forbiddest I be expected to cut open a grapefruit as that was always my mother's job so eating them makes me sad and nostalgic and morose and a lot of other synonyms that I'll not bother to Google for the reason stated above.

But fruit, fruit in any form, might be a good first step.  Maybe I'll jog across the peninsula to Ofuna and load up on some of the fruit tarts I recently spotted in the train station.    

Apple, Kiwi, and Honeydew Melon?

Mango, Black Sesame, and Something White - No Thanks

Berries, Berries, and More Berries - I'll Take a Dozen, Kudasai!

Mango, Kiwi, and More of that White Stuff

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

JAW Farewell Party Takes the Cake

Twenty-three American Navy officer spouses visited Tadodai House today for the final event of the JAW year, a delicious farewell luncheon catered by our remarkable Japanese friends.

This was our first gathering since the March 11 earthquake/tsunami and it was a bittersweet reunion since five of our American members will be leaving Japan permanently this month and next. At first I wrote "leaving Japan for good" but the word "good" does not come close to describing how most of my friends feel about moving on to their next duty stations.  Living in a foreign country for nearly four years has made me a bit more sensitive to the subtle nuances of the English language and how open to misinterpretation our word choices can be.

Normally I'd include pictures of smiling Japanese and American military wives to illustrate a post like this, but this Japanese sailor captured my attention while we were lining up for our obligatory group photo in the garden behind Tadodai House.  He is turning away after offering advice to the young photographer so I managed to catch his profile.

In a nation known for producing thin people, he is strikingly so.  One could almost say he takes the cake when it comes to thin.  Except he couldn't take the cake at Tadodai House because I managed to knock over the yummy marble cake Hiroko-san made.  I was remarking on the cake's height and gesturing to make my point when my fork tines achieved contact with and toppled the masterpiece.  Whoops.  Gomen nasai, Hiroko-san!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sashiko by Ishii

Ishii-san made the Sashiko vest she is wearing in this picture (left).  Sashiko is a running stitch technique traditionally used to reinforce or repair torn fabric but nowadays is also often used for decorative purposes.

Sashiko literally means "little stabs" which seems appropriate since I'm sure my fingers would look like pincushions if I attempted this or any other form of embroidery.

The white cotton thread on the traditional indigo blue cloth gives sashiko its distinctive appearance.  Sometimes red thread is used although I suspect the red color might be a novice seamstress's blood rather than dye.

According to Wikipedia, many Sashiko patterns derive from Chinese designs, but just as many were developed by the Japanese themselves. The artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) published the book New Forms for Design in 1824, and these designs have inspired many Sashiko patterns.

Ishii-san has given me two lovely examples of her work, a small wall hanging and a quilted square.  My challenge is to quilt or knit something equally remarkable for her in return so I'm going to take a break from writing to work on my "skills".

If you'd like to know more about Sashiko and see some examples, click here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Boy Who Has Everything: A Birthday Dilemma

Pip is 19 today. In some ways -- vocabulary, insights, sense of humor -- he's always been old beyond his calendar years. But in other ways he hasn't changed all that much since he was a toddler stacking soda cans on the kitchen floor.

We haven't bought him a gift yet. He doesn't need much of anything but he's been angling for a three-volume history of China so I'll probably invest in the first volume and see how it goes. He hasn't asked me to buy him a book for nearly a year. College does that to a person I suppose.

I think the best gift I can give him right now is my time. When I tried that the day before yesterday, he dragged me into Pokemon Center in Yokohama. I lasted all of three minutes before escaping to the book store to hunt down the British version of the Harry Potter series. His father has a greater tolerance for Pikachu than I.
"If I was too old for Barbie at 10, you're too old for Pikachu at 19!"
This week I think we'll spend some quality time folding laundry together and cleaning his room.  Maybe I'll teach him how to pot plants.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Backstage at Kabuki: The Luckiest Americans in Japan

Yup, that's the Ancient Mariner and me with Kataoka Takataro, backstage at Tokyo's Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre. We had an unforgettable afternoon watching Kabuki from fabulous fifth row seats with our friends, Hiroko-san and Otsuka-san. Their friend Takataro is starring in the first of the three plays on the afternoon program this month (plus two of the three evening plays) so they made arrangements for us to visit his dressing room after watching him perform in the two-act historical drama Yoritomo no Shi (Yoritomo's Death).

The Ancient Mariner might have been the only member of our quartet who wasn't a little giddy with nervousness when Takataro's congenial young assistant escorted us out the front door of the theater to the stage entrance where we traded our shoes for slippers before padding down a narrow corridor skirting the stage. I snuck a sideways peek at the stage but resisted the impulse to dance across it out of respect for our hosts.  Go, me.

Entering the dressing room we stepped up onto a tatami mat. (Writing this, I find myself wondering if we were supposed to doff the slippers at that juncture. Did everyone else?  Drat. I was so preoccupied with expanding my Kabuki knowledge last night that I forgot to brush up on tatami etiquette.)

Takataro made us feel genuinely welcome. His deep voice and general masculine aura surprised me since he specializes in female roles (onnagata). He invited us to sit beside him on the mat and mentioned that he had wanted to be a Top Gun jet pilot when he was a little boy. He has a name badge featuring the crossed flags of Japan and the United States.
Takataro in his dressing room

We returned to our seats just in time to see the second play, a one-act historical drama extracted from a longer play originally written for the Bunraku puppet theater. This play was first performed in 1730 so it was about as easy to follow as an unannotated Shakespeare play, although the Ancient Mariner and I had a very helpful lady whispering carefully timed insights into our ears thanks to the complimentary English Language Guides Takataro's assistant provided to us when we arrived at the theater. How nice was that? We had every intention of renting headsets, of course, but were truly humbled by Takataro's hospitality as well as the Otsukas'. How can we begin to return these extravagant favors? What's a gaijin to do?

The last performance of the day was incredible, and not just because we had already visited Takataro's dressing room. Renjishi is a dance number based on an old Chinese legend depicting a parent lion teaching its cub survival skills by pushing it off a cliff. Takataro's father, Kataoka Nizaemon (67), was the father lion and Takataro's son, Kataoka Sennosuke (11), was the lion cub. That old chestnut "not a dry eye in the house" sums up the audience's reaction to this historical, exuberant, athletic performance by Nizaemon XV and his young grandson. According to Otsuka-san, it was Sennosuke's idea to perform with his grandfather and he willing gave up a sixth grade class trip to spend the month of June metaphorically falling off a cliff.

Surely he will never forget performing with his grandfather. I can't imagine anyone in that audience today will soon forget the experience either. I know I won't.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Save Room for Pies: Topping Off Your Visit to Yokohama

Japanese desserts contain less sugar -- a lot less sugar -- than American desserts but that didn't deter us from visiting Bubby's Pies in Yokohama. Bubby has been haunting my dreams since late November when I first spotted his pie emporium near Landmark Tower. Kaji-san gets credit for this find since she suggested the route to the quilt show that took us past Bubby's. 

We sampled five different pie slices this afternoon.  Pip and I rationalized ordering two slices each by marching briskly for about two miles from the crack noodle restaurant in Chinatown to Bubby's.  This is what we call "pre-burning calories."  The Ancient Mariner had to settle for just one slice since he covered the terrain at his usual snail-like pace, lagging about a block behind us on the flats and catching up with us at red lights.

Someone dove right into that Key Lime Pie
The tartness of the Key Lime and Michigan Sour Cherry pies more than made up for the sugar shortage. The same can not be said for the Chocolate Pudding Pie but now we know and, fortunately, Pip had ordered the Mile-High Apple Pie as back-up.

The Ancient Mariner had Whiskey Apple Pie. Whether it deserves another try is anyone's guess because he finished his piece before Pip and I could get our forks to that side of the table.

The entree menu looked interesting (bacon-wrapped meatloaf, anyone?) but I can't imagine ordering anything other than pie at Bubby's. "Save room for pie" strikes me as sage advice and in my case that room needs to accommodate both Key Lime and Michigan Sour Cherry.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ikebana With a Latin Flair

The March, April, and May Ikebana programs were cancelled as a result of the March 11 tsunami, but today we met to install next year's officers, raise money to help the victims of the tsunami, and listen to a Cuban guitarist/singer. I was a bit skeptical when Alexander Padron strutted into the hotel ballroom in his bright turquoise suit but by the end of his performance I was on my feet boogeying around the room like everyone else under the age of sixty, ie, about half the audience.

Some of our members, the dozen or so who actually know how to arrange flowers, treated us to an exhibit of their work.

Incoming President Cheryl on far right

Serving on the Ikebana board of directors this past year has been quite an experience, but not one I plan to repeat. Our last year in Japan will pass much too quickly. I'd rather be exploring than sitting through meetings. Does that sound terribly selfish?


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