Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Meditation: Fashion


Something I am really not competent to discuss, unlike the other topics where I am now a non-resident expert. However, I love to people watch and try and make sense of what I am seeing. Here are some (? surely not all, the boy just goes on and on and on!) of my general observations:

• The youth of Tokyo is way more fashion-forward than anywhere else we visited on this trip. The casual young men were very hip western-looking, jeans and tops, some baseball style hats, and hoodies, not quite as unkempt as you might see in a large city in the US (no shorts, not as many t-shirts).
• The guys in Kyoto (as noted before) really wore more outlandish (to me) haircuts and would be out-of-place in Tokyo (or anywhere else, for that matter).
• Only on Sundays did we see more than a few women of a certain age wearing kimonos. However, when we did see women in kimonos they did not seem out of place, certainly not garish, and not particularly “in costume,” possibly because these weren’t their finest ones, usually in muted colors and not outrageous bows in the back.
• The young women, particularly in Tokyo, (overall, probably ages 13-30) were not averse to wearing very short skirts, sometimes with leggings, sometimes not, and a lot of time with some form of tall socks, usually black. Every once in a while there would be a real short skirt with frills (or white lace), again with or without tights or leggings.
• Women in jeans with a blouse or tee tucked in was NOT very common. Women in scoop necks also not very common, sleeveless blouses not common.
• A number of times we saw (usually young) women walking as if disabled. Their high heels were clearly way to tall and they walked as if hobbled into a weird S shape. If I wasn’t paying attention, at first I thought they were trying to walk without a cane. Seriously!
• In Tokyo, we saw young men wearing boots or shoes with amazingly long toes, so long they almost looked like something from a circus.
• Dress casual has not come to Tokyo. Men were dressed more casually elsewhere; in Tokyo the dark suit or gray suit (less prevalent) and white shirts and not particularly bold ties were everywhere, all the time. Sometimes in restaurants we would see men take off their suit jacket, rarely in public. Not too many three-piece suits, sometimes a sports coat instead of a suit jacket.
• The women generally wore muted colors, and a number of younger women wore muted printed dresses (or long dress tops with jeans or pants underneath). This was a very common look, sort of like Laura Ashley done in soft colors.
• A number of men and even more women had “henna’d” their hair, a brown look that was so common in Tokyo it probably accounted for 10-15% of the people. The henna’d hair was often longer than others, though not every time. Very short hair on women was uncommon, not uncommon on the guys. We only saw a few “punk” hairdos. No Elvis impersonators!
• In general, the population is pretty thin. We saw more overweight people in Tokyo than elsewhere, and of the school kids we saw as groups, maybe one in 15-20 kids or so is a lot larger than the others. That actually seemed a higher percentage than in the general population.
• As noted earlier, there are many more women wearing short-shorts than in the US, even in really cold or rainy weather. How many? Enough!
• Service people (e.g., someone behind a counter) almost always was in uniform, and uniforms in general were big, and wearing a cap (more like a pilot’s hat) was also very common. In fact, the high school boys wear sort of a militaristic uniform, and the one day we saw three or four of them holding sticks (the size of canes) made me very nervous (teens with weapons). However that was just my projection, there is no hint of violence anywhere and things left out are still going to be there when the owners return for them. This is a very safe and friendly and helpful place to travel (major side-benefit of never knowing how to get somewhere).

I have probably (assuredly) missed or misinterpreted or misstated a bunch of stuff DB would get right, and for that I apologize!

Meditation: Gifts

Gifts: To say there is a fetish of gift giving is understating it: there are whole stores for gift wrap, every department store sells fancy cloth bags made just to hold gifts, every person walking around appears to have an extra bag or three (we saw one woman with four in an elevator, and that did not include her purse), and it is really important to have stickers put on gifts that come from fancy stores so the prestige level is on display.

We brought gifts to give (DB put a lot of thought into the range to bring from home, and when to give what), we bought gifts (wine from California), we bought wrapping, we had the hotel in Tokyo help wrap gifts, we brought envelopes to hold small gifts and expected gratuities (e.g., for drivers to cover their lunch costs, to translators, etc.), and we received gifts as well. We were advised gifts would not be opened while we were there and then found out that sometimes people were excited or curious enough that they did open them (and in the case of the chocolates we brought, to pass them around, Steve was surprised by that!).

There is no tipping here, so it is an offset. We’re still not entirely clear on the ramifications of outgifting or undergifting someone doing us a favor (like inviting us into their homes for a meal or snacks). And, there is also the act of refusal. In one case, on one of our visits apparently Steve was asked 6 times if we could be taken to lunch. Steve then asked us if it was okay, and of course it was. So when asked again, Steve accepted on our behalf.

When we parted, we gave a small gift and (in an envelope) a $100 “honorarium” to compensate for the time he had given us for a private audience. Steve assured us that this was expected, and the honorarium was refused at first and maybe a second time and then Steve basically talked him into taking it (or we would lose face? I have no clue, I should have asked Steve). In any case, the graciousness of the people we met with was overwhelming, and I think it had nothing to do with the expectation of a gift. And the gifts they presented to us clearly did not have reciprocation in mind, many knew (all?) that they weren’t going to see us again.

At another stop Steve had prepped us to again make an honorarium, which might be “forgiven” (by us, not him) if we made a purchase. This was because a translator had been arranged to make sure we could converse in depth (which we did). We bought a sake pot, and also gave the honorarium. They seemed surprised to get this gift from us (DB also had another small gift ready which was given to N-san’s wife, a jewelry artist, that was easily given and taken). We felt afterwards that it seemed the lesser of two evils, to over-gift than to under-gift. We’ll never know, nor did the “extra” for the translator seem unnecessary, she was great.

Per Steve, the ceramics artist would be paying the translator, most likely because it was not just a one-time favor to a friend. To us, the translator appeared as a friend doing a nice service. When we talked to her directly about where she learned her English, it was very personable, not formal.

Lastly, we had our sake pot sent to us at the hotel in Tokyo, then kept it unopened until we got to E-ville. We open the box, and there is another gorgeous box enclosing the sake pot, worth saving, and two more small gifts gorgeously wrapped. Even the purchases turn out to gift with purchase!

Meditation: Shoes and Cleanliness

Shoes and Cleanliness:

Let me start this with two anecdotes from Tokyo. First, the Narita airport security does not make you take your shoes off. DB thinks that this is because the Japanese would have some sort of visceral reaction if they had to walk in their socks on an unclean airport floor. The second: when we are done eating at Honmura-An and talking to Kobari-san, the thing that I thank him most sincerely for is that his place does not require you to take off your shoes in order to eat there. He of course laughs, he lived half his life in the US.

I think there is a strong connection between the removal and putting on of shoes, slippers, clogs, socks, mock-socks, and the fanaticism in all the different versions of toilets and bathrooms we find. The strong connection is that I put a ton of pictures of the bathroom fixtures and signs in the blog and talked at length about the folly of the shoe on and off procedures. Ohhhhhhhh, maybe there is another connection?

So, first the shoes. Protecting tatami mats, a big expense and a handsome floor, yep, maybe going in socks is a good idea. How about all the other floors, that not a single one looks like it needs protecting. It is just varnished wood (at best). Or the time you take off your shoes and lock them up (like someone might steal someone else’s shoes in Japan, not gonna happen), then walk in slippers to sit at the counter (when you sit, your feet don’t touch the floor) or at low tables where nobody ever sees the bottom of this pit the table sits in, never. Or switching from bedroom slippers to generic slippers or bathroom slippers (all of above as you walk around, switching, switching, switching. Or providing size 3 slippers for all guests, which means anyone over 4’6” has their heels flopping out the back (and maybe touching the floor…I hope not!).

An old truism: don’t let logic get in the way of tradition

Now the cleanliness. First, there are almost zero trashcans in public areas, which doesn’t seem to be a security thing. Second, every public area is spotless, people do not discard their trash on the ground, ever. Even teenagers clean up after themselves. We get a wet “towel” to wipe ourselves before we eat (and not just in places where we might be eating with our hands). That happens more often than we get napkins to lay in our laps (and keep our clothes clean, something just as important for us).

Lastly, the bathroom innovation is considerable, the toilets look harder to work than a VCR (which I know some of you have not mastered yet, or ever, maybe that’s why there is On Demand now!). They post instructions on the walls (yes, complete with pictures of bare bottoms and spray types, this is a visual society). Every room comes with slippers, sometimes multiple sets so you can keep the hotel bathrooms extra clean (something tells me this is not the reason, the customers demand the slippers). And, the hotels supply toothbrushes and razors everywhere, you don’t have to bring your own. Even the inexpensive hotels provide bathrobes, too.

So, with the focus on shoe changing and cleanliness, maybe this is all of a part: something “untouchable” that is not supposed to come in contact with body parts. My favorite of course was the train ride where a guy near us wanted to take off his shoes so he spread out newspaper on the area under his seat so his socks would sit on the newspaper instead of the train carpet (not linoleum, carpet). Now, most of us would not want newsprint on our socks, this guy did not want his socks on carpet that just might have come in contact with someone’s soles.

So, why this segment. I found the taking on and off of shoes remarkably inconvenient. I am not a limber guy, and I found myself contorting into odd positions to just avoid putting my shoe-clad feet in the wrong spot or my sock-clad feet in a cold spot (less improper). And, since you aren’t allowed to put your shoes on the surface you’re leaving, often the two are at different levels, with the shoes being on the lower level. As an accommodation, therefore, I often found myself sitting on the “step” to put my shoes on or take them off. How can rubbing my ass on the step be considered good manners? How can getting dirt on my pants be considered a clean way to approach life? The funniest moment (at least for her): when G-san’s wife was walking behind me and noticed (announced by much giggling) that I had white dust all over the tushy area…I guess I was one of the rare guests that couldn’t do the shoe thing without sitting down, in an area where there was lots of potter’s dust.

Meditation: Reading, and Visual

Reading, and Visual:

So, can these two dots be connected: we see a lot of people (particularly outside of Tokyo) reading comic books (illustrated novels?), and the streets are full of garish signage, even in small towns with small street commerce stores. The Japanese learn at least four alphabets (including ours) in school, and often the signs include at least three sets of script. Yet, just about every restaurant (85-95%, even the fancy ones) put plastic models of their menu outside next to or in place of a menu. Steve told us it made it easier to figure out what kind of restaurant it was, which I don’t think is true if you know how to read and the one page summary of the menu is put in the window. Six or seven plastic displays version equals a whole page of text? Is that a fair fight over content?

I have come to the conclusion that this is because this society thinks in pictures, not words. I can’t prove it (unlike everything else you’ve been reading, which is solid fact-based analysis). Those little maps, hey they are visual representations of where you are or where you want to be, why bother with an actual address. Even the menus inside contain plenty of pictures.

People are using their cell phones non-stop (not talking on them) and whenever I look they are playing games. Only in Tokyo did we see people reading on the subway or trains, And, again, this was a low percentage to those fooling with their phones. I-phones are not prominent here, they are expensive, new in the marketplace, and Apple partnered with the worst carrier. Now I realize that if we saw someone using an I-phone, they probably were foreigners and had roaming turned off (like DB).

Two different times (not just once, I guess that is what “two” means) we were in galleries where if you used the picture list to orient yourself to the price list, the picture titles were upside to the map. An accident? In a third gallery, we asked for the prices and it took two clerks cross-referencing different books to give us the prices (and not doing it particularly quickly). An accident? Taxi drivers studying small maps over and over again, making me think they couldn’t read. An accident?

And, the street level garishness is an attempt to get you to look in the store window or even go into the store. Plus, a lot of the stores are product separated, like the one in Kyoto that DB figured out was selling only things that measure. We found a cutlery, and they only carried things that cut (not necessarily just knives). The confectionery stores (the millions of confectionery stores) all tended to specialize: the waffle store, the mochi with bean paste filling, the mochi with ice cream filling, on and on and on. Generally same for restaurants, the all-in-one eatery (like a café or diner or Denny’s) is not very common here. So, once you’re there, you know you’re there. Which makes it kind of funny to show more than one picture of what you’re hawking, since one picture should be enough. Same with the plastic displays, if you have a regional style cuisine, how many versions do you have to show?

The subway signs are therefore a good fit, since with one color, number, circle, and letter combo you can pretty much define the train, station, platform you want. It took us a while, we finally got to point in Tokyo where we could read the overheads and find the ticket price. On the machine, they have a “mock” grid: you pick how many individual tickets you’re buying, and at what price, and they show only the amounts that you can afford by the money you have inserted. Pretty slick…and pretty much done everywhere.

I am sure I am missing some other examples. In any case, you get the idea: pictures count more than words.

Meditation: Labor, and Women

Labor, and Women: As best we can tell, everybody who wants a job has one. While we’ve read that the economy here has stagnated since the real estate bubble burst in the 80s, we think things are fairly comparable to the US in prices and yet a lot more people are working here to support everyone else. Service is top notch, things run on time (the exceptions are shocking when they occur), people take a slower pace yet things get done efficiently (sorry, not entirely consistent with the Lost diatribe), you never have to tip (thank goodness, one of the small pleasures in life as a tourist is not having to know when or how much to tip) and yet service is always very good.

We see only one or two people that might be homeless, and even then we’re not quite sure. There appear to be no pariahs out there walking around.

Maybe people are paid less, entry level jobs must open up frequently given the ages of the people in them, maybe people spend less on major items (we don’t think so, since everywhere we go outside of the inner cities there are single family two story houses and large cars, and energy prices are set by world standards, not local ones).

And, we’ve heard that all jobs are treasured (train conductor equal to salary man paper pusher), there isn’t much of a gap in salaries. Having heard that, it is damn clear that women are in a lot of the poorly paid service jobs and men aren’t as often. Well, I’ve segued to another topic, which is that women still have quite a ways to go here. We see plenty of women in Tokyo commuting in standard blue jackets and skirts, matching the men in their dark suits. I would estimate this is probably equivalent to the US of the 80s, with women gaining more ground in the work force and emulating men rather finding another path.

In only one of our house visits where men were present did the wife (or partner) come anywhere close to sitting at the table, and she was still expected to get the coffee and treats ready (and his hearing aid). At the hot pot dinner in Tokoname, some of the men were actually helping to clear dishes near the end of the meal, not many and only reluctantly under some kidding from the others. We never saw the women that had spent all afternoon prepping the meal, they stayed in the background (or kitchen). Men are always served first (and sometimes only served even if a woman is sitting there). Do women have independent thoughts they feel comfortable sharing? I think for most yes on former and no on the latter. You never saw a women interrupt a man, even if it meant the tea got colder and colder.

Meditation - Lost in Tokyo

Lost in Tokyo: This has been a non-stop conversation (one-sided, DB doesn’t really keep up her half, quarter, eighth), about how nobody can find where they are going unless:

a) they’ve been there before, at least 3 times (sometimes that fails too, we’ve seen it)

b) they ask and ask and ask how to find the place (someone three doors down is likely to not have heard of the place you are looking for, every likely, we’ve seen it)

c) maps are very often provided (they are every few blocks on the streets – you are HERE), are drawn ever finer until finally the individual buildings on the block are identified by name or size or shape or color or flags flying or how far they are from another building or alley, or some aura that may be flowing from the basement (yes, we’ve seen and felt it)

d) they get on their cell phones and repeat steps b and c, or the house phone (yessssssss, we’ve seen and heard it)

e) Five or six other ways we don’t realize they are using (not sure how often we’ve seen this, it must be true)

So, is this just being a lousy tourist, a boorish foreigner complaining? Oh, you mean those maps they have posted every few blocks –EVERY FEW BLOCKS - are for foreigners? Only if you believe a foreigner is anyone not born in your immediate vicinity. Those maps are for the locals! All the signs all over the subway stations giving each exit a number and finding out people need the numbers (as opposed to, say, a street name or intersection). Not for us dogs! For these dogs!

Here is the equivalent: You take the bus (or imagine a subway ride) to MacArthur and Grand. You get out under the freeway near the Golds Gym. Your first landmark is the Grand Lake Theater, yet you can’t see it because the freeway is in your way. You have to ask twice to find it, or look at a map posted that only shows the immediate 3 blocks. You get to the theater, and there is another map. That one shows Lakeshore with businesses marked, except rather than store names it has building names. You make it the two short blocks and you’re in front of Arizmendi (the post office is a good bulding, easy to recognize). Then you carefully look for the first street coming off Lakeshore, and you find Trestle Glen. You breathe a huge sigh of relief, it only goes one way. You start walking, trying to find Grosvenor and Trestle Glen by counting the streets that come off Trestle Glen (streets don’t have names, except the big ones, so knowing Grosvenor doesn’t help). You come to the first fork and get confused and consult the map posted there. It does NOT go as far as Grosvenor, it only shows the few blocks around where you are standing. Hmmmm…you take the fork in the road, as Yogi told you to, and either way end up at Trestle Glen and Sunnyhills, And Grosvenor (remember, unmarked and unnamed) is still not on the local map. Maybe some kind soul comes up and helps you (or sometimes points you in the wrong direction, it happened to us more than once) when you get to the next fork, Trestle Glen and Holman. When you finally get to Grosvenor and Trestle Glen, you see another local map posted, and if you can orient yourself (remember, no street names), you start counting the houses off from the corner. You aren’t sure, is this 1221? The house looks right (on you map, someone may have even drawn a picture of the house!). The map you have in your hand was faxed to you by someone who lives at 1221 Trestle Glen. This is not an exaggeration; this is what it takes to find a place that is around 3 kilometers from where you got off the subway or bus. Assuming you got off at the right stop. Welcome to Japan.

Let’s just say that when DB reads this she will be saying “give it a rest” (again) and I will continue to say if you want your entire population (and again I mean everyone, this is not just a Tokyo problem though it is worse here than anywhere else) spending an inordinate amount of their time bothering the friends, neighbors, acquaintances, etc., about how to find an address (actually, you can’t call it an address, they don’t have real addresses, though maybe the JPO might disagree, though I doubt even that), then Japan has the system for you.

Could this be fixed? Well, just maybe they could possibly visit ANY OTHER COUNTRY in the world and come up with a better system.
Or, as DB says, it’s all about fostering a sense of community. As THB says, God must have wanted cell phones and fax machines (which don’t exist now in most places) invented because it sure makes it easier to find someone and where they are right now if you have one. Or not, which is more often the case. Now we know where the Turn and Wave came from, either letting you know you finally found the place (greeting) or may the force be with you in finding your next stop (there but for the grace of some God go I).

Twenty times what DB would write or want to talk about.

April 20-27: Three week observations

April 20-27: Three week observations

Sanshuukan taiza-shmasu

I’m here for three weeks

• PDA (public display of affection) is not all that common here, you see almost no handholding and for sure no snogging in the streets.
• On one of our final train rides, Steve rotates the seats to face each other. We now realize that is possible on almost every train we have been on; ingenious! You step lightly on a foot petal and gently rotate. Of course, this is Japan, so we have to put the seats back the way we found them before leaving the train.
• While almost every house or small building is roofed with tile, it is going out of favor because in an earthquake the house becomes unstable and it means a ton of tiles fall on the inhabitants. Fire used to be the number one risk, and tiles were a lot better than thatch.
• Steve confirms that the roads are far safer here because people drive slower and provide more space between cars; road accidents are 50% lower here per capita (or is miles traveled), per Steve
• While most families have a car, it sure seems like everyone travels by train and subway and metro. The rail companies are private, and provide terrific service, though by US standards of cost per car mile, it may seem more expensive to travel between cities by train, especially if there is more than one of you. However, when you get to the next city, and are staying in the city, then you don’t need a car to get around (let alone find your way around in a car, which would seem even harder than by foot).
• Smoking outside is done in clusters around a common ashtray. When we see groups of people huddling, we know why now.
• At two different galleries, most of the work in the current shows had sold, most pieces in the $1-2,000 range. Must be encouraging to the art world, though we know big work has been very slow for the last couple of years (the artists tell us).
• Tokyo is loaded with 10-12 story buildings, many just one room wide. The streets are usually pretty wide as are the sidewalks, so it seems a very human perspective as opposed to being swamped by the enormity of the buildings you find in most US cities. Of course, given that many Japanese cities were destroyed or heavily damaged during WWII, most of the construction looks fairly new; they also have a history here of tearing down and starting over.
• Every single city, town, village has water running through it, whether it is a small channel or a major river. The whole country has water flowing, which makes some sense why rice is grown everywhere, not a problem to flood the paddies. For most part, very picturesque and very prominent.
• Bikes are used pretty much everywhere, and they are not afraid to get up on the sidewalks. We don’t see anyone with a bandaged wrist, so this is not like Berlin where we suspected that there were plenty of bike-pedestrian accidents. In Tokyo, we see a lot of bikes on the sidewalk, going fairly fast. That yellow line down the middle was for people that were sight impaired (yes, THB was wondering when he would qualify for the need to know about this), not to sort bikers and walkers.
• Unlike in India, we hear nothing about religious tension (overt or not), and it seems that many people are practicing some form of both Buddhism and Shinto. That may be a language barrier, or just peaceful coexistence of faith.

Monday, April 26, 2010

April 27: Tokyo – E-ville

The crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

Osewa ni narimashita

Thank you for your hospitality

A short day, we decide to head to the park across the elevated train from the hotel. Turns out to be some garden, requires an entry fee of $3. We pay and start to wander around. Lots of very pretty peonies in a profusion of colors. We see where the boat tour of Tokyo lands, and a swarm of 12-13 year old students departs to spend time in the garden.

We are right next to the fish and produce market, so with our last yen we trundle over and wait in a line to have super-fresh sushi; DB has two grades of tuna, I have two grades of tuna (one same, one lower than DB) and roe, both over bowls of rice with nori shards. miso soup, tea and unusual apricot ginger chunks. $32

On to the airport, where lo and behold there is a line to get through security. The two most inefficient moments on the entire trip have been in Narita airport.

April 26: Tokyo

April 26: Tokyo

DB says a word,
and I say a word - spring
is deepening

Eego ga wakarimasu ku?

Do you speak English?

Pics: Dog Wanted posted? Cuckoo clock, Farmers Market booth, and, yes, they do play Duplicate Bridge in Japan

The last complete day of the trip, and we don’t have much planned. We roam around from area to area, doing bits and pieces of art, shopping, galleries. We visit Mishima’s gallery in the Ginza district to discuss prices, and arrange to come back late in the afternoon to finalize options and to pick up our gift from the Osaka visit.

We take Yasuko from the gallery to lunch, we eat okonomiyaki, a griddle cake made with cabbage, egg, squid, shrimp and other unidentifiable items, plus we get fried noodles (a form of chow fun), a beer, and green salads; total $40.

In the late afternoon, as we tire from the walking and lunch has worn off, we stop for a truly western treat: gelato! It’s nice enough today to justify the stop, and help us ease into the Bay Area. You get multiple flavors, so along with Mexican, I order sakura, which translates to cherry blossom. What do I know; it turns out to be coconut! Hmmmmmm….not sure that’s right. Two smalls, $11

Return to hotel to rest up and drop off our packages and leave in time to catch the 6pm giant cuckoo clock show right outside our hotel. Pretty wild, maybe only worth one viewing.

Dinner at the place recommended by the organic rice booth at the farmers market in Roppongi. The restaurant makes us pre-order because nobody speaks English. Here are our instructions for finding the place: take exit 6 from Roppongi station, find the Haiyusa Theater, go a bit further to the Shimeda building, and the restaurant is in the basement. Amazingly, we find the place on first try, DB spots it (the name IS in English, it turns out), and down we head.

Well, of course when we arrive there is an English menu and at least one of the waitresses speaks enough phrases to guide us. We have appetizers (standard, we didn’t pre-order these) of a small cup of thick potato soup that seems more like a custard, then something we can’t identify (maybe clam?) with possibly bamboo shoots (also very good), followed by our pre-orders: sushi, pork belly, fried chicken in salt and tempura. All good to very good, and pork and chicken also easing us into our return though the pork was more like carnitas surrounded by mashed potatoes and gravy (much better than described here). Two plum wine cocktails, a glass of wine, and beer, $155.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25: Tokoname – Owari Seto – Tokyo

April 25: Tokoname – Owari Seto – Tokyo

Soba and more Soba
The Spring comes
When the day is over

Nihon-ryoori New York ga dai-suki desu
I love New York Japanese food

Pics: that sink on top of the toilet again, Toy Story 3 promo right outside our hotel (we pimping for our neighbor down the street), a machine in the subway that we think allows you to throw away liquid before crushing your cup, a bunch of G-san's work, and Steve doing his best turn and wave

Today we are visiting G-san, with Steve along to translate. To reach his house and studio from Tokoname, it takes 3 trains and a long car ride (with G-san driving us in a new Lexus the last 20 minutes or so through mountains).

He is renowned for skewing a style of glazing that has been lost for 350 years, and for being a contemporary ceramicist unlike any in Japan. He has been labeled the world’s best contemporary ceramicist by someone we know in the US. Not many make this journey; e.g., Steve has never been, the last time someone from his company visited was 10 years ago, and that was with L-san, a major art collector from Phoenix.

G-san and his wife are delightful hosts; she joins us while we have our welcoming coffee and sweets. Her sitting with us was very unusual.

The visit is scheduled for an hour. Three plus hours later we have seen an amazing range of work, looked at items in storage, and unexpectedly had lunch with G-san in one of his favorite noodle shops. We are now faced with an interesting dilemma, which of his pieces to purchase, if any. It is a big ticket, and he is not someone whose work we are familiar with, yet we know this is something we can’t pass up. Ahhhhhhhhh, the joys of being an art collector!

We decide, maybe we should at least get a small token piece. I select a coffee cup like one that we used at our welcoming, DB comes back: it is $650! Hmmm…better save our yen for one of the big items!

G-san is having an opening at a gallery in Santa Monica in September and keeps teasing DB about wearing a kimono to the opening party (a tea ceremony using some of his ceramics). We realize that if it is after September 12, we will be on our next big trip, national parks and an art detour to Des Moines and Omaha with the Oakland Museum.

After several trains, we are back in Nagoya for the mochi run to Mochicream. Steve only wants one for his ride, this is where we part ways, Steve home to Kyoto and we to Tokyo for two more days. Turn and wave, turn and wave, turn and wave!

DB and I double up on mochi this time and agree that three of the four rank in the top 5 all-time of desserts. Collectively, the three may be the best dessert ever. 4 for $7; worth any amount of train travel if you are in Japan, and maybe if you are in Asian, and possibly just thinking of traveling from your house wherever you live.

We are eating dinner in Tokyo at Steve’s final recommendation of the trip, Honmura-an, in Roppongi. The owner is someone who spent 18 years in the US, including a lengthy stay in Berkeley.

We show up, and Kobari-san greets us, and we share connections. Not too hard to do, he went to Cal and was in the food scene there and ran a well-known restaurant in NY for years. He’s good at name-dropping, guess the last names of: Steve, Alice, Ruth, Annie, and Yoko (you better get at least ONE of these!). Hint on the first one, his middle name starts with I-

Dinner is terrific, we leave the ordering to Kobari-san. We start and end with soba noodles, Kobari-san’s reputation was made on soba. Also have small chicken meatballs with hot mustard, tempura (all veggies we don’t recognize), thick/spongy tofu (definitely an unusual consistency) with wasabi, and a few other unusual courses. Apricot mochi for dessert (and two more for the plane ride home). Three plum wine cocktails and a beer, $150.

The art on the walls is intriguing, turns out the pieces are from Japanesque in SF.

One last tourist event, we head to Shinjuku, the world’s largest subway station, with over 50 exits, to see where Scarlett and Bill stood and chatted in Sofia’s best film to-date. Okay, we get off the train and start walking towards the east exit. We continue walking. We check a map, ask a couple of times, continue walking, check two more maps, ask some more. We have walked from somewhere outside of the Narita airport (west of here?) for something like a mile and we’re still underground.

Ahhhhhhhhhh, up and out, and there is a ton of neon. If Scarlett and Bill stood and chatted here, they were the only two people not moving. The masses are swarming, how they escaped the station to all end up here is beyond me. Now we return down into the station, and we see our line right away. Is that possible?

Welllllllllllllllll….yes, because it is the SECOND stop in this station for our line! We get on the train and go to the spot we first got off, I don’t know why we didn’t think of this on the way out, that we could transfer on our own line, go one stop, and still be in the same station.

Sorry, I am not making this up, though I could be, it is damn close to fiction.

April 24: Tokyo – Tokoname

April 24: Tokyo – Tokoname

Looking at the Tokoname clouds
blue in the ice-wind

Namae wa Ralph desu

My name is Ralph-san

Pics are out and about in Tokoname, Steve, Ralph and Ki-san (two of us in do-rags made by the other), and toilet at hotel, complete with instructions on a sign in the bassu-roomu.

Today is the start of an overnight. We checkout, leaving our big suitcases, and negotiate the local JR line metro to the Tokyo Station, and find our high speed train to Nagoya. It is Saturday morning, not easy to tell from the crowds, it is mobbed.

In Nagoya we meet Steve. We have about 20 minutes to make our connection to a local train. Steve knows of a great sweet mochi shop in the station, we leave DB with the bags and head off at a sprint. Imagine standing at a giant intersection with immense numbers of pedestrians awaiting the scramble crossing signal, and then the light turns to "walk" and everyone charges every which way. That’s what we are sprinting through. Find the mochi shop, nobody else in line (something that in retrospect makes no sense), buy three flavors (choc banana for DB), the salesperson (a young woman, of course) tells Steve we need to wait a half hour to eat them, they’re frozen, and sprint back. $5.

For this train, DB and I have a voucher, which the person at the entry gate stamps rather than issuing us small tickets to go through the turnstile. We agree to go one stop further than our destination to the new international Nagoya airport, about 30 minutes from downtown. It’s around 1pm, so first we have lunch at a soba place where the guy makes the noodles in a window in the front of the restaurant. We get the 100% soba noodles, Steve explains that this is rare, most soba noodles are sold as 80-20, mixed with wheat flour to hold the noodles together better.

The noodles come in a little basket and you transfer them to the broth yourself. Steve has ordered yam as a side dish to put in the broth. It is something that is best described as mucous (nothing like the yams we know, that’s for sure), and much better when mixed in the soup than separate. A great treat, above and beyond airport food! Total for three, $50.

I have to remind Steve and DB we have the mochi awaiting us, so we stop and all agree we are having a heavenly dessert. Now, I say out loud, was there some reason we only bought three? Good news: we are going back through Nagoya station with unreserved train tix, I see a sprint to the mochi in my near future.

In the airport is a large installation of porcelain tiles, with etching and some variation, very handsome and comparable to the Hung Liu glass cranes in Oakland airport, worth a detour (with soba lunch, a mandatory stop). We find out people come from Nagoya just to shop and eat in the new airport.

Now back to Tokoname,

Tokoname has a small section of town that has been restored from the larger factories and kilns where sewer pipes and kitsch pottery were made. Now only pottery is made, some it low-end and some of it quite contemporary. Steve has a friend here, a guy who helped restore the town, Ki-san, and he is a serial-designer: he ran a big business and has now pared back to doing his own paintings (Basquiat-like), sculptures, designing noodle restaurants, building furniture, helping his wife run a bakery. This is cutting back, the guy must never sleep.

We try a few of the pastries from the bakery and stock up on dried items (Liz, like those things we ordered from Door County, scorpa) for the trip home (if they survive that long).

Walk the town, lots of sewer pipe used as buttressing to prevent slides. We are thinking about the work we saw in Phoenix a few years ago where a clay sewer pipe manufacturer invited ceramicists and other artists to create work on 8 foot pipes and fired them in the industrial kilns. Almost bought one in Phoenix, until we realized that installing one meant the last 50 feet required a crane and crew for a day.

Dinner is a party hosted by Ki-san: there are twelve of us, 9 men and three women (including DB, we are the only couple, all others came without spouses). We each chip in $20 to defray costs. The designer’s wife does all the cooking and serving. She never joins the party!

Much drinking, including some potato vodka that is served either straight or in a tea cup with hot water. I try it both ways, plus drink beer. DB goes for the sake. The food is a series of small courses: sushi rice mixed with veggies, large black beans that you eat one at a time, edamame, inari, grilled octopus, smoked cheese, a few slices of great onion bread, and more.

The main course is Nabe. This is a hot pot, where a broth is poured into a wok, and then items are all set in before the broth is heated. In this case, we are having oysters, cabbage, tofu two ways, and then after most of these are eaten, noodles are added (no plain rice with this course).

The guests include two guys from the local chamber of commerce, an insurance agent (with a four-leaf clover on his card), a mochi store owner (that also invests in the China stock market and is in a group running tomato-based product stores in Tokyo), and a guy with three cards, one of which says he is a soccer coach. Steve translates all night long. The mochi store guy has a mah jongg trinket on his cell phone so there is much discussion of “you play?” and the difference between Japanese style and SF Chinatown style (which we play).

We have brought wine and chocolates and a bottle of sake, the chocolates are opened near the end of the party. Gifts given to us: a set of postcards done by Ki-san and a bag of stuff from the bakery, priceless!

We are spending the night in a hotel near the train station. The beds rival India for complete and total firmness. We sleep with the window open so we can hear the trains, helping ease our return to E-ville. The bathroom rivals those on cruise ships (what do I know about cruise ship bathrooms?), where the faucet from the sink can be rotated to fill the bathtub and you can shave by leaning over a bit from the shower to be over the sink.

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 23: Tokyo: Giants vs Carp

April 23: Tokyo: Giants vs Carp

THB: No. Who's playing first.
DB: What's on first?
THB: What's on second.
DB: I don't know.
THB: He's on third.
DB: There I go, back on third again!

Sagamoto, Matsumoto, Okasawa, Ramirez, Abe, Chino, just some of the Giants starters. The (free) program is all in Japanese except for a few guys that we figure are imports.

So, nice wide walkways in front of the concession stands, easy to walk around. The game starts at 6pm, which seems totally bizarre in a city where normal work hours are from 9am to 7pm. The cheap seats are all pretty much full, the second tier level seats stay relatively empty until the 5th or 6th inning. Security as you enter the game is cursory, we have to open our bags same as at the Oakland Coliseum, and swearched about as thoroughly. DB sees that people bringing in liquids transfer them to cups at the gate so they can keep drinking.

Before the game, they have “fans catch fly balls” contest, which is not easy because the roof of the Tokyodome is the color of a dirty baseball. We can’t tell for sure, the field seems smaller than normal for US stadiums. As the game starts, they throw out a first pitch and all the fielders are accompanied by little leaguers. High school baseball is the equivalent to US high school football, much mania and many people follow the game at that level. It shows here tonight.

There is no smoking in the seats, yet by end of game I feel like I am watching through a haze. The standing room is thick, and clearly people have come early to stake out their areas, some with newspapers spread around. Since you can bring food into the game, there are plenty of bento boxes and other eating arrangements set up in these standing room areas.

No National Anthem, making THB very happy!

As the fielders take their positions in top of first, they come out and throw balls to the fans. The fans in the bleachers stand the entire half inning their team is at bat and make a ton of noise. Very quiet when their team is in the field. They sing out cheers that include the name of the player at bat. Takes us along time to figure this out because they pronounce the names with Japanese emphasis (even Ramirez).

When Ramirez hits a homer in the first, the entire team comes out in front of the dugout to give him high fives and the mascot does some sort of silly dance with him.

The Carp leadoff hitter stands in and even though we are a long way from home plate this guy is small, really really small. Maybe 5’5” and 120 pounds. Plays second base. Of course, he walks. Pitcher throws over to first a ton, guy still steals second.

Next guy up is his kid brother, even smaller. He’s the shortstop. Second time up, the leadoff guy hits a homer, no cheapee, he’s the second coming of Rickey. And, nature of the game, must be 8 or 9 chances at second, he handles them all flawlessly.

Carp pitcher is a crafty lefty, seems to be in total command other than Ramirez blow in first inning. Gets to the 6th and in midst of a rally, grounder hit back to him. He gets a glove on it, slows it enough that the batter beats it out. Uh oh, the inning falls apart and a double with two outs knocks him out of the game. If he doesn’t touch the comebacker, or catches it cleanly, he’s out of the inning. Instead, he’s out of the game.

Guy on first, screaming liner off the wall, not a double, guy on first barely makes it to third. This makes me think the park is small. No way to read the meter measurements, needless to say.

No bullpens. The pitcher departs the mound before we even see a guy warm up. The new pitcher enters the game from the dugout, they must warm up under the stands. This goes along with almost no foul territory.

They do the 7th inning stretch, mostly it is watching the cheerleaders come out along the lines.

Giants take the lead, the starting pitch was pinch hit for in bottom of the 6th, so a new pitcher starts the 7th. Damn, I am watching an A’s game, the guy can’t throw strikes. Somehow manages to strike out the first guy. The leadoff midget gets a single just over the infield. Forced out by the number two smaller guy. Two outs, down by 3 runs, this guys steals second. Hmmmmmmmm….Then the next guy walks. This is like very A’s game ever…agonizing. And, I don’t care about the Yomuri Giants. Game is truly universal. Now tying run at the plate, the manager changes pitchers again. This new guy, he’s worse the first new guy, he walks his first batter, loading the bases, bringing up the go-ahead run!!!!!! Finally, he strikes out the #7 hitter to end the inning. Manager probably smoked more ciggies than Jim Leyland in this half inning.

We’ve seen enough. The seats are narrow, and hard, I miss my cushions. Back on the train, an easy ride to the hotel.

April 23: Tokyo

April 23: Tokyo

Take me out to the old ballgame
Buy me some peanuts
And crackerjacks

THB: No. Who's playing first.
DB: What's on first?
THB: What's on second.
DB: I don't know.
THB: He's on third.
DB: There I go, back on third again!

Pics: Shots from ballpark including one of the standing room only section (with newspapers spread out for them to stand on), one of THB chatting up organic vegetable grows at a farmers market, a few at the fish markte, and big Kaneko pieces in Roppongi Grand Hyatt

Up early and a 10 minute walk to the fish and produce market. More fish than you’ll ever see in a square kilometer, a square mile or a square ocean. Fish in various stages of barely alive to frozen and sawn in pieces. Also much produce, we see an auction going on, decide not to bid!

Stop and buy two of the famous NY Doughnut Plant donuts, eat with our café au laits in the hotel buffet. Also see about 200 young women waiting outside the hotel for a chance to see Jun Matsumoto, a local rock star and teen idol. This at 8am. When we leave around 10:30am, they are still out there in the cold and mist waiting.

We get good instructions to the subway, which is also massive, and separate from the metro system (that looks a lot like the subway to me!). We tour the Roppongi neighborhood, visiting museums (one on the 52nd floor of a high-rise with 360 views of the town deep in mist), eating at a pho place run by a guy from Myanmar (two great bowls of pho with spring rolls, $20), and looking at the Kaneko pieces in the Grand Hyatt.

On to the Tokyodome. We got a great tip from a guy in the subway earlier, take the train leaving from the station right under the hotel and you never have to transfer. We get off the train, exit and turn left: there is the Tokyodome.

Hey, domes suck, hard to see, bad lighting, artificial turf, loud, no weather…oops, the last is a benefit, since the game would be played in a drizzle if outdoors.

Here’s a brief summary (THB will do a separate posting for you baseball junkies):

• Our seats are as far out as you can get, except that they are 5 deep in standing room right (I mean right) behind us. $75/two tickets
• No t-shirts with the stadium name on it, get one with players from 2009 Yomuri Giants championship team, $40
• Hot dogs (no good), potato puffs (really not good), 2 beeru (lots of foam), and one ice cream sandwich (decent), $30
• Giants pitcher sucks, hangs in there. The Carp pitcher gives up a 2-run blast to Giants big number 4 hitter, Rah-meeee-ez, otherwise solid. Giants get to Carp in 7th to take a 5-2 lead,
• Stadium 85-90% full, left field bleachers hold solid section of rabid Carp fans. Rest of bleachers solid Giants fans, everyone wearing team shirt (red or white). Cheering, singing, rooting, drums, go non-stop in bleachers. When Giants break out in 7th, everybody in stadium waves orange towels.
• All the food servers, in concession stands or bringing beeru around are young women around 20.
• DB a hero for being at the game, being into the game, and for spotting for THB and his weak eyes (THB only person in stadium appearing to score the game, also one of two people in the stadium who has no clue to who the players are)