Monday, September 20, 2010

Chapter 10: Last Blog: Jewel in the Neighborhood Park

My J-life is winding down here in Tokyo.  Too many emotions, obviously profound unhappiness leaving Mari and Niko behind, but time will pass rapidly and in no time, I will be back to our new Kobama home. For this last blog, I want to share with you a gem. Like all great cities, Tokyo's best kept secrets are these little gems that are tucked away on side streets, in a park, or in a small neighborhood. Sometimes, it is a small place of worship, a park with towering trees providing a natural reprieve from the Tokyo noise, or a traditional home. 

Directly across the street from where we are renting a home, there is a perfectly intact Wakan, or traditional Japanese home, that was once the home of one of the wealthiest Tokyo clans, the Maeda clan.  This is open to the public, at least the first floor, and you can enter, savor the traditional tatami floor rooms, enjoy the beautiful simplicity of the architecture, then sit by the sliding shoji doors that are opened to reveal what was once this family's private garden. it is so incredibly serene, and it is such a delight that this exists in Tokyo and minutes from a busy street.  Here are lots of pictures, minimal commentary, as they speak for themselves.

This is the entrance to the home.

you are looking at the main gate to the home.

this is just a long view of the that gate

this is the walkway from the main gate to the home. photo taken looking back.

this is the formal genkan, where you leave your shoes before stepping up into the home. on the red carpet, slippers are given to you. here, you can see across several rooms and in the far view, a glimpse of garden, but there are lots of sliding doors to hide that view, all are open at the moment.

cabinet, storage space.

more traditional storage space at bottom, and black counter top for pottery, looking through rice paper or shoji toward the back of home with glimpses of garden.

looking down a hallway at a window framed in shoji, and this hallway runs around the home perimeter.

sitting on a cushion, zebuton, overlooking the garden, contemplating life's next move maybe.

Mari enjoying this garden space. It was 10 degrees cooler here so a welcome respite on a hot day.

a view of others enjoying this space.  tatami floors, shoji sliding doors, all of a bygone era.

above sliding doors are these elaborate wood carvings, a kind of detail seen in wakan.

a view of other rooms.

another vantage point. sizes of rooms are given in number of tatami mats, not feet or meters.

one last time to the garden for zen meditation for Mari and me, a moment for parents with no Niko.
my favorite view of garden.  until i sit here again....

two last photos, the first is an extreme closeup of the spiders i have yet to identify on google. any help?

on your computers, you can zoom this to get more details...

then, as we left, there were several stone statues in the garden all with the face of Buddha etched on them. nice resonance for us having left Nepal, recently, a place we both truly love and hope to return to visit.

until we meet again, sitting Buddha. 

Chapter 9: Ignorance is NOT bliss: Risto's Struggles with Illiteracy

Well, despite memorizing hundreds of kanji, learning hiragana and finally mastering katakana, i still am totally illiterate in Japan. For the non-Japanese bloggees (readers of blog):  hiragana are phonetic symbols of syllables used in Japanese language so "yama" mountain is "ya" + "ma". and there are an equal number of pictograms for foreign words that are taken into Japanese so "salad" becomes "sa" + "ra" + "da". then, these same words can be written with kanji. So there is a simple symbol for "yama" and once memorized you can forget about the "ya" + "ma". but, there are well over 3,000 such kanji which takes all of elementary, junior, and senior high school to learn, so without that, you cannot read a paper or read an important sign like "watch out, large chasm ahead, take detour".  you would think that Japan, which has thousands of tourists coming each year, would at least provide the phonetic hiragana for tourists and for its young children who do not know kanji, and you would think that, at least, in Tokyo, this would not be an issue. But, it is really surprising how frequently you find nothing but kanji in Tokyo.  Sure, some of the busiest subway stations and lines have hiragana, even English romaji, but many do not.  Niko and i had a really tough time getting to Shinjuku once as we were on the hunt for manga (comics) at a large bookstore, Kinokuniya or the knock-off shop, Book Off.  We changed at a station, smack in the middle of Tokyo, and then we were confronted with the reality that we could not figure out at all what to do next.  Luckily, we could ask the station manager in Japanese, but we really wanted to do this on our own. What if we spoke neither English nor Japanese?  We knew some Kanji so I knew the Kanji for Yoyogi, and knew there was a single stop between Uehara-Yoyogi and Shinjuku, so I pointed out the Kanji to Niko on the subway map, said "memorize that kanji" and we ran to find it on another map to try to get to the right place. You may be reading this and thinking, "big deal" but it is. There are hundreds of people rushing in all directions, and there you are looking up at this monster puzzle, no name of any subway stop recognizable, and no idea what line is what. Here is an example from this morning, at a subway stop en route to a visit to Niko's school.
and if that is not helpful, here is another one:
yes, that certainly clears it up for me.  What is wrong with this picture? Everything. No hiragana, no English names, no nothing to help the tourist. And these two examples are benign compared to the maps in stations like Shibuya which are so much bigger and just as confusing. You need a PhD to figure this stuff out. Normal Japanese have a devil of a time just getting around.

How else is it a problem?  Well, buying electronics for one. There are all these forms to fill out, and there are kanji on our address so i did not have Komaba memorized, and so I cannot write where I live, and without that, you cannot buy the stuff.  Nor do i know Mari's first name in Kanji yet, so i could not write to whom this should be sent. You cannot just do this in English, not at the discount store. The form is all in Japanese knaji. It would take hours to get a clerk to do it with me, translating into English, the forms to fill out, and there are many. So, that task i could not do.

Then there is the doctor's visit. What is great about Japan is its health care system, which was recently ranked the world's best. Mari, as a Japanese, and Niko, too automatically get health care. They have cards, and it is really inexpensive.  You can go as often as you like. The typical Japanese person sees a doctor 15 times a year. Visits are free.  Niko went once for a pre-school physical. It was great. You just go to the local doctor's office. There was a minimal wait. Done. You would have had a three month wait for an appointment in Vermont and a ton of paperwork to deal with.  Niko had a wart, and I had to take him to the doctor on my own as Mari had to work. Scary!  I can understand close to 80% of Japanese spoken at normal rapidity, but that 20% is crucial.  We went to the doctor, and we had Niko's card, but there was another card that we should have had with us.  I could not get one sentence right, so I turn to Niko who translates the whole conversation into English. The shamefulness of it all, really. I felt like some bad illegal alien. Now, at least, i know how they must feel in America not knowing any English and heading off to an ER. with a translating child in tow.  Then the nurse said to call my wife, which sadly i understood all too well. Reluctantly, I did, which was equally humiliating like yes, i am clueless, let my Japanese wife handle this, i am just the gaijin child-porter taxi service....well, they saw Niko right away. Visit and medicine, free! Mari even gets money from the Japanese government for having produced a kid!  Once i am registered formally under Mari, papers are being processed, i get free health care too when i am here since i am a part of her official family registry. This is the one great thing that all expats talk about who marry a Japanese then move here to live. They all are unanimous in their love of the Japanese health care system. They are the envy of their friends back home in the states. Well, that rant ends on an upbeat note, so last blog coming shortly.  And, if energy allows, an epilogue question and answer session.

Chapter 10: Final blog: The Jewel in our Neighborhood Park

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chapter 8: Meiji Shrine Visit: Niko Gets A Dose of Culture

Few 9 yr olds really like trekking to museums, but I knew that Niko would love going to Meiji Shrine which abuts Yoyogi Koen and is an incredibly beautiful wooden shrine with huge wooden gates tucked into a dense wood. This place has many paths to meander and structures to contemplate.

First, the gates are enormously tall, and the curved wooden features are dramatic, and you wonder how they did this. Looks Vulcan for those Star Trek fans.

No 9 yr old can resist the charms of a huge wooden gate that leads into a dense, dark woods. Too much
adventure beckons. I could barely keep up with Niko who took off running. (He did not get a batsu). 

Along the way are these  beautiful lamps in which the top part is wooden with shoji style windows. Would love to recreate this for the Vermont home. Much of this was created in the 1920s. 
We passed this structure, beautiful in its symmetry, and i am not certain of the significance of the white things which are hanging downwards.  It, too, has a carved wooden roof with a curve upwards at its ends. It is mid-afternoon but the densely wooded area creates dark shadow. Niko liked that best of all. Mysterious or fushigi in Japanese (nihongo).

These are all big colorful containers of sake, rice wine. This is a close-up and what follows is the long view.

Once past here, you get to the central area where this is a square, wooden structures on the sides but your gaze is directed ahead.
As you walk forward, there is this area for ritual cleansing of hands, and most people drank from here using these small bamboo ladles with cup.

This is just a beautiful wooden doorway leading to major shrine area. The chrysanthemum is a major motif in much Japanese artwork and is associated with the royal family and emperor, who was considered a deity up until the second world war.
Through here, you exit, and one is not allowed to take pictures of the most important part of the shrine where you clap your hands twice, after small coin monetary donation, and pay.  Niko remembered this all from Shichigosan and prayed for quite a bit. 
Here Niko is ready to leave. We ran or speed walked through this rather quickly, as Niko wanted to go to Kiddyland off Omotesando, and I made that promise. A bit of culture first before crass consumerism. As we exited, more bamboo forest, so beautiful these shades of bluish green.

And again, although not visible in this photo, huge bamboo spiders. i do not know what they are called, but if any of you in the blogosphere can successfully identify this with google, i owe you a Guinness.  Niko and I randomly asked several Japanese exiting with us. And, not surprising to me, as i have experienced this before in Japan, i get this response, "there are no bamboo spiders. no, there are never spiders in the bamboo forests." so i point to one. and they say "those spiders are not from here".  and i politely thank them but what i want desperately to do is to get right into their face and say "well then where did they come from. they did not just parachute from a plane, what, did they crawl from china, head to Korea, and hop on a log to get here?" Do not laugh. One respondent said that these come from Korea.

Stay tuned next time for Chapter 9: Ignorance is NOT Bliss: Risto's Struggles with Illiteracy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chapter 7: Our House: Before Container Comes....

Here come more pictures that words.  A relief to some of you.  Brevity is the soul of wit, and i am cursed with fast typing skills and thus long-worded or is it long-winded??

We live in Meguro-Ku near Shibuya-Ku, in Kobama-Todaimae, just behind Tokyo Univeristy. For those who grew up in Tokyo tuning into my blog, our closest stop is Kobama-Todai, Inokashira Line, just two stops to Shibuya station. 

Here is the front of our home on 3-12-22 or san chome kobama dori:

Niko's room is the dormer window to left of fireplace. cars are the landlord who lives in house to the right. this is much more space than we need. We chose this place for several reasons:  it borders the campus of Tokyo University so the back windows all face greenery, and across the street are single family homes, and behind them another park and more greenery, so at least a chance for niko to experience a park.  The location is very close to one of Mari's best friends from high school, and most important just minutes from his bus stop, about a 5 minute walk or run. 

Most of the space is empty. We live from suitcases for now, and we sleep on futon.  Here is what it looks like before the arrival of furniture:

this is the view from kitchen area. we overlook Tokyo University tennis courts.

this is the kitchen. two small windows overlook the park. yes, that is an espresso machine out back, and there is an espresso maker on the stove. yes, my priorities are the caffeine.
the kichen area with chairs that are on temporary loan from mari's office.

large living room and dining room, fireplace in far corner facing a tv.
a little bit of outdoor space, enough for a barbecue and to hang out clothes to dry, a nice luxury.

a large genkan or space just past the front door, lots of space for shoes, then you step up onto the home's flooring in socks. this is a great Japanese tradition, i think.  then we head upstairs:
more stairs:
at the top of the landing there are stairs to the left to a small third floor attic space, niko's cave and den where we will store his books and burgeoning bey blade collection. it will be the space of zen concentration.
and up here we have more bedroom space than we need. 
this will be niko's bedroom. for now, it is a toy and sporting goods repository.

this is an empty room for guests. no furniture for this room for a while.
this is ojisan (grandfather's room). three nice windows, large casements, and his own tv, and this is a quite corner of the home.

this is our current master bedroom. yes, those are flat futons. they are very, surprisingly comfortable. it only hurts to get up quickly. then your joints creak and crack to remind me of my age.
this is our view from master bedroom, nice treetops from the todai campus.

mari's walk in closet, i mean our walk-in closet...

and this is the upstairs study from which the blogs are generated. it is hard to type from the floor, but the blog must be obeyed.
That finishes the house tour.
Here is a picture to let you know where Mari is working.

Yes, there is a UN University, which is located in Tokyo, and there are lots of small UN offices here. Mari is Director of the UN Information Bureau. She has a staff of 12, and here is just a shot of the building, which is a 15 minute walk from Shibuya, 5 minutes from Omotesando/Harajuku area. 
with respect to the house, just to put it into perspective. mari's good Japanese friend lives in an apartment with her husband and two kids, which is a bit smaller than the living room and dining room area.  these large gaijin style or western style 2-story homes are the most expensive places to live in tokyo. prohibitively expensive, and the domiciles of successful businessmen, a sort of CEO row. frankly, even with a UN subsidy, it is pricey, but we chose to live there for its safety, proximity to greenery, the short 10 minutes from one of her best friends with 2 kids Niko's age with whom he loves to hang out, and most important of all, the short 5 minute walk to niko's bus stop and a very short, reasonable commute for Mari. 

Chapter 8: Meiji Shrine Visit: Niko Gets a Dose of Culture

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter Six: Whales' Tale or If you are Japanese, you may want to skip this blog.

So, there i am, just minding my own business, in shibuya, which is this crazy five-way intersection of human chaos, and i decide to venture up this road to Shibuya 109, a trendy teen place, not to teen watch but because it is near the only bank that takes my ATM card. it is. 

i see this sign, and i am really rather startled, especially as all the masses of japanese and tourists walk by without even a pause in step.

For those who know Japanese, this is hiragana for "whale" so this is a restaurant that just specializes in whale dishes. I had to look more closely, and i then noticed that there is even a helpful outside menu.

That menu photo i took the following day, and i took it obliquely so that no one would notice. i just did not want to get into it with a local.

My thoughts on this are complex. First, i have a genuine, heartfelt, and profound respect for Japanese culture. I agree with historian Friedman who included Japanese as one of seven distinct cultures in the world, and i am convinced that the Japanese diet is the most healthful and delicious in the world. My stomach has never been more blissfully happy.
Second, i have to remind myself and perhaps a few blog readers that much of New England's glory days of wealth in the 19th century were completely related to whale blubber, the source of oil for lamps for light and heating. All those picturesque coastal New England towns with stately, elegant Captain's homes with widow walks, particularly along the Cape, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard, were all paid for by New England whaling, which brought whales to the brink of extinction, so we New Englanders tread a historical fine line.
I bet you that most average Japanese have no idea how many Western European nations and Americans view their whaling practices, as i am equally certain that it gets scant media coverage here.  And, while yes, i think the whale restaurant should be shuttered and closed, i think that my main argument is that not just Japan but Norway and Iceland (the other two nations in this trio of whale infamy as they actively harpoon) are some of the wealthiest places on the planet with 7 of the top 10 most expensive cities located within Japan (it has 4, tokyo # 1) and Norway (it has 3) so these nations can afford alternative food sources for protein. So frankly, there is no real need in Norway, Iceland, or Japan for protein supplementation with whalemeat. 
I have no idea what "research" the Japanese government purports but i suspect it is something like 101 ways to create whale sashimi...OK, my rant is over.  But honestly, as much as there is to love about Japan, and as much as I love being here and living here, i have to be critical when there is something that i observe or experience that really gets under my skin, and this was it.  I thought, could the restaurant at least be more discrete, it just hangs right out there as if to make the point that the country does not care what the world thinks of its whaling practices.

Coming soon:  Chapter 7:  Our House:  Before Container Comes...