Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

Siberia

It takes my mother 11 hours and 20 minutes to fly from San Francisco to Japan. It takes me about 6 hours to fly from New York to San Francisco. Now, how long do you think it should take me to fly to Tokyo?




Please forgive the SAT like format of that question; some habits do die hard. Here's the thing; when I leapt into my plane seat and listened to the pilot chatter as I always do, I was stunned to hear that our flight time would be approximately 12 hours and 20 minutes. This seemed like cheating! How on earth could we get to Japan so quickly?



As I followed the GPS monitor (What can I say? I'm a geek. I love that little map) I saw that our plane was actually flying north of Canada and Alaska and over the Arctic Sea. This time there would be no little island of Attu to photograph. Instead, we came down over Siberia where the air traffic controllers had marvelously robust Slavic accents. I knew that no one in Japan would believe me when I told them that I had come via Siberia; things that seem unbelievable to my family are often attributed to my status as a foreigner (everyone asked my mother if I had really seen the Emperor or if my Japanese was just "off," for example), so I snapped the photo you see above of our little plane coming down over the cold north.





Ah, what romance! It's to Siberia which Eliade referred when he wrote about shamanism. The view made me think of the wonderful puzzle game called Syberia. There was nothing to see out of the window but mountains and snow. No roads. No towns until we were further south. Just miles and miles of exotic landscape and so, instead of sleeping as one is supposed to do, I was glued to my window. I felt awed, and sad that I would probably never get to visit the space over which we were flying.

Later, I fired up my another favorite toy, Google Earth, to see where I had been when I took the picture of the GPS map.



Here's a rough approximate, with the screen turned.



When I zoomed in to the same spot on Google Earth, I got the above.



Funny thing, I actually took a photo of what I think is the same enormous river you see on Google Earth. I remember at the time being absolutely stunned at the size of this body of water just pouring down the side of the earth. Remember, I was easily 36,000 feet in the air, and yet the river was still this visible and charged.

I started to get nervous after a while, wondering if we were going to fly over North Korean airspace, or perhaps even China. But, abruptly, the pilot made a sharp left and we arched over Niigata, before coming to Iwaki, where I would later go to see my family at the temple. Then, it was down the Pacific coast and into Tokyo.



I swear, these Tokyo/New York flights are so interesting it is difficult to go to sleep the way you are supposed to. One stewardess thought my enthusiasm was amusing and she gave me a very nice copy of a book on the history of United Airlines called "The Age of Flight." There are some priceless photos in there from the early part of the century when mail was dropped from the sky, etc. How far we have come.


Monday, May 29, 2006

 

Temple News

I was always under the impression that to go to Japan for any amount of time less than 10 days was simply a waste of time. Modern life being what it is, however, it can be very difficult to get that much time away from work. I ended up taking 8 days away from the States, which gave me a full 5 days in Japan with some overlap here and there. And you know what? It was wonderful. When I showed up at the temple, my lovely cousin beamed and said, "Hey! You were just here!"




He's in his priest robes here, leaning over a bridge which connects the main house to the hondo, or the temple hall. One of the danka-san, which loosely means parishionner had come by to talk to him, and I love how candid and cheerful he looks. He confided to me that in my 2 month absence he had grown up a great deal, which means he doesn't tend to dress as ostentatiously as before. He has even sold his hearse and now relies on a compact Toyota.



Certainly he strikes an impressive figure when he reads (sings) sutras and plays the different instruments. I can see why he is so popular with people. He's talented. And we had an interesting talk about how, as time goes by, he understands more and more about the wisdom contained in the sutras, and what he is actually saying. I liked that concept.



The pro, though, is still my mother's cousin who I snapped here as he was putting the finishing touches on my grandmother's funeral. Sempou-san has the most beautiful voice you have ever heard. And when he chants sutras, when he does the little yell to remind the spirit that she is dead, and that it is time for her to part and move on, the hairs on my arms and neck stood up. He told me that every funeral is different, that within the established tradition there is plenty of room for creativity. In this case, he wanted to run a traditional funeral to please my grandfather who, at 93, knows a thing or two about tradition. But he also wanted to make it clear enough for me to understand.

I never quite feel like I've had a complete visit to the temple unless Sempou-san and I have had one of our "talks." Once upon a time I found him difficult to understand because he used so many technical words. But now, things are easier. We stayed up very late, just the two of us, talking about his work and his feelings about Buddhism. Those are the kinds of conversations that stay with you.



My grandfather, not to be outdone, decided to climb into the priest's chair. I think he looks pretty cool. He spent his early years at this temple before he moved on to do other things, and feels quite at home with all the accoutrements. If I may say so, he looks quite pleased to be sitting there.





Now he's sitting with Sempou-san's wife. I don't know why this generation of Japanese finds it so difficult to smile for photos, but I suppose we were there on a sad occasion. Ryoko-oneisan's gorgeous kimono made me wish I had dressed better for the occasion, but I'm never happy with how I look in a kimono. I'm glad that she was able to add such a nice touch of formality since I couldn't.

All in all, I would say that the 8 day trip is completely worth it. I feel as though I've been gone for a long time, but I don't seem to be having the same wrenching adjustment problems I did last time. I think this is because it is comforting to feel that people I love aren't really too far away, that I can go see them any time. This is a relief.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

 

Imperial Sighting

While in Japan for some personal business, I took the shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya. It quickly became apparent that something was afoot in the Tokyo station because it was filled with police and secret service agents. As a New Yorker, this kind of thing makes me uncomfortable, and my first thought was that Tokyo must be under some sort of terrorism watch; this would be the natural thing to assume in the subway.



But then, up on the train platform, I looked across and saw this sight; photographers hovering over a neat line of men in suits with little imperial symbols pinned to their lapels. I became excited. A quick chat with a policeman confirmed that the Emperor and Empress were on their way back to Tokyo after a trip to Gifu-ken. The men waiting to meet the imperial couple are part of the cabinet.



There were literally minutes separating the departure of my train, and the arrival of theirs, but I figured out where the "Green Car" on the track next to ours would stop. And once it came, I, a group of middle aged women and a few bashful men were screaming "Michiko-sama!" And there she was, just as she appears on her photos. I don't know why this is so surprising. Of course statesmen and celebrities should be recognizable. It's just that so often celebrities don't look like their photos. So often you expect that a flesh-and-blood sighting will somehow be different than a static image. But both Empress Michiko and her husband looked . . . exactly as you would expect them to. She even had on one of those little hats.



Sadly, this is the best picture I was able to take, which is to say that I didn't take much of a picture at all. But I swear I did see them both and if I look hard enough, I can just see the outline of her shape in the window.



Here is a proper photo, with hat and all. Sadly this was not taken by me, but it gives you a sense of how they appeared.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

 

What I Dislike

Last week at a dinner party a friend said to me (and to my partner): "I can't imagine that there is a place, a person or a thing about which you guys wouldn't have something positive to say."

Since I am the kind of person who often likes to take on a challenge, I proceeded to come up with a list of things that I dislike.

Here it is.

1. Men who sit on the subway with their legs spread apart.

What gives? I asked my partner what the deal was with this kind of behavior and being a somewhat proper British man he became embarassed until I pressed him for an answer. Then he leaned forward and whispered into my ear; "They're trying to keep the pressure off of their balls."

But if pressure on balls is such a problem, then why do so many other men manage to sit within the confines of the subway seat and not spread apart their legs? I think that the leg-spreading has to do with some sort of inferiority-complex-territoriality-thing that I don't even begin to understand as a woman. You know, as a woman, it is not exactly exciting to spread your legs apart on the subway. It sends the wrong signal and knee-rubbing with strangers is not exactly a turn on.

Lately I've tried to observe these leg-spreaders. I've decided they often have a definite sneer on their faces, as if they are daring you to tell them to shut their knees together.

One day I imagine I will snap and order a man to do just that. This will not be a good thing to do. It will not be a good day.

2. Men who insist on reading the newspaper during rush-hour with the pages spread wide open.

This item is closely related to item 1. Why does anyone need to open a newspaper to its fullest width? And why do this during rush-hour? I mean, I get that manners have fallen by the way-side in the States, but isn't it just a little bit embarassing to spread your newspaper open to the point that you are inconveniencing other people? Don't you care? I mean, okay, obviously, you don't care.

If your job is so important that you must absorb all of the Wall Street on the way to work then, for God's sake, take a cab. If you can't afford a cab to work everyday, then you aren't that important. Taking the subway and spreading open the newspaper all the way isn't fooling anyone into thinking you are some kind of 7 figure salary earner. And, yes, I realize how offensive this sounds. But I know people who are important enough to take said cabs to work . . . and they do just that. They won't take the subway. And no, I am not such a person. But I also don't spread open my newspaper.

3. Cashiers who hand back change, bills and the receipt in a fistful.

One upon a time, a cashier used to count back your change. For example, let's say that something cost $4.56. You handed the cashier a $10. The cashier would give you $.44 and say, "Here is 5." This gave you enough time to put the coins in your purse (or coin purse) and put your hand out again. Then, the cashier would hand you $5 and say, ". . . and 5 makes 10." At this point, you could put away the bills, and wait to receive the receipt. These days, you are sullenly handed everything at once. It's a clumsy way to handle change, and yet, as in items 1 and 2, no one seems to care any more if you are made to look clumsly.

It pisses me off.

4. Young women who yack on the cell-phone while waiting in line at the post-office, then don't turn off the phone once they are waited upon.

I was recently subjected to a young woman (who, by the way, hadn't gotten the message that super straight dyed hair is out) going on and on about her completely irrelevant and uninteresting personal life on a cell phone. When she got to the window at the post-office, she continued to yack away and the man behind the counter couldn't tell if she was talking to him or to the phone. When he asked her, "Excuse me, are you talking to me?" she snapped at him and snarled, "I'm on the phone. Can't you tell?"

I just about bit her head off on behalf of the postal worker.

5. Women who (and sorry, it generally is women) have such self-entitlement issues that, when sitting on the floor in a bookstore and reading a book, they will not move if you need to look at a title that is right behind their bodies.

It's like, "I'm reading this book, and I'm sitting on the floor, and that is so much more important than your need to look at a particular title that I'm not moving." I find this behavior akin to the challenge of driving in Boston. It is as though by avoiding eye-contact with you, you might not want to look at the book that badly after all. I mean, what gives? God. I'm getting so upset just thinking about it. It annoys me so much that I make it a point to look at several titles behind said squatter, and if she still won't move, I end up saying, "Excuse me, but I need to look at some books behind your head" in the bithchiest way possible.

6. Actresses who analyze their non-existant careers in a loud voice on the subway.

This may just be a New York thing, but I don't understand these pseudo-dramatic people who want to discuss their "careers" on the subway. This happened to me the other day; I, and a car-full of quiet New Yorkers (who were neither leg-spreaders nor newspaper spreaders) had to listen to this woman go on and on about how she was coming to terms with the fact that she was a Catherine Zeta Jones type and not an ingenue and how she was accepting this even though she wasn't sexually confident, and how she had recently hired some personal coach who was teaching her to think of dieting in terms of developing a love for exercise instead of an addiction to the weight scale and how she was learning to touch the men in her acting class . . . I just thought to myself, "We don't care!!! It is not enough to have an attention-seeking personality if you want to become an actress! You actually have to have talent! The subway is not an audition! We can't give you a part and we don't want to anyway!" Thank God she got off at Midtown. The rest of the ride was quieter.

7. People who are rude to waiters.

Have you ever been a waiter? It's hard work. I once read somewhere that a person who is nice to most people, but not nice to waiters is not a nice person. I firmly believe that this is true.

I can't stand it when people treat wait-staff, cooks, maids, cleaners, office assitants, etc. with rudeness. It's enough to make me re-consider a friendship. The only people who do this, in my experience, are people who either 1) have self-entitlement issues or 2) haven't really ever had any kind of service job.

Thus ends my list of things I cannot stand.

 

Dungeons and Dragons


I never played D and D in high school, but a friend recently invited me to try. It is apparently enjoying a resurgence, like many things from the 80s. We even had a writer for the D and D franchise in our midst, which is about as hard core as it can get.

Given how much I loved the game Knights of the Old Republic, which uses D and D's dice throwing rules, I was curious about D and D. Did I like it? Yes and No. I think that I am very spoiled when it comes to writing stories because, in the stories I write, well, I write them. I have readers I trust and I will craft some of my narrative based on what they tell me, but it is an entirely different thing to write a story with a whole group of humans (and dwarves and halflings). This kind of collaboration, I'm afraid, made me want to act out and steal things from the other people in my party, which I did pretty successfully. I also bluffed my way out of it having to admit that I was stealing(thanks to how I rolled my di).



But I did find it interesting in a discover-the-roots of your most beloved game kind of way. In this photo you can see our "characters" in a pub. With a little imagination, we transformed this set up into an actual experience. In a way, this kind of transformation is related to what happens when you read a wonderful book (where the images are all in your head) and what happens in a great video game (where freakishly talented illustrators, programmers and writers give you something to look at).



Here is the origin of the going through the castly and finding treasure and killing monsters experience. Here are the conventions of princesses, kings, sorcerors and elves. And, unlike video games, you really can do all these things with your friends. It makes me very, very curious about online gaming which, now that I have DSL, I imagine I will try.

In D and D, a lot depends on your Dungeon Master, I think. In our case, we were lucky to have a very good one who put up with my character's constant pilfering, and our collective desire to have a grand adventure.

Friday, May 12, 2006

 

Opposite of Engrish?

I was fortunate enough to have dinner at the beautiful and delicious (if slightly expensive) restaurant March in New York the other day. Like a lot of upscale restaurants, March includes many items that are "fusion" in nature. Here is one such item.

zabuton menu

I realize that this is a sort of obscure item over which to obsess, but I thought that you Japundits out there might find it amusing. I'm pretty sure that the menu writer actually meant to spell the word "Zubaton" as "Zabuton." Here is a real life zabuton.

zabuton sitting

As you probably know, a zabuton is a pillow on which to sit on a tatami floor. It may or may not come with a back rest and arm rest. I think that the basic shape is very much like an enormous ravioli, and I suspect this is what the chef had in mind when he came up with the "pillow of marinated beef" for his menu.

Sadly, I didn't get to eat this "zubaton" as the kitchen was out of Kobe beef . . . which brings us to another interesting question. How can one eat Kobe beef in America? Well, the one time I've had it here, I was told that I was actually eating beef from a cow that had been raised in Texas. However, this particular cow was a genetic copy of a cow from Kobe. So, technically the waiter said, Kobe beef does exist in America.

What do all you Japundits think?

First poted at Japundit.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

 

Matchy Matchy

I first heard this term a few years ago. I was at a sample sale for high end costume jewelry, completely stunned by just how many racks of fake pearls (glass, not plastic the sales woman kept telling me) and crystal a 300 square foot showroom could hold. It took a lot of work for my hunting and gathering instinct to ferret out the nice pieces from the glitz.

I was hunting for a bracelet to go with a crystal and gold plated necklace I had found, and I mentioned this fact to an overly tanned (think leather) woman with a patient-bordering-on-disgruntled husband who kept sighing and coming in and out of the store.

She said, "Oh. I don't worry about things like that. I'm not matchy matchy."

It was one of those moments which reminded me that, no, not all women want to be friendly. At least I got a long suffering look of sympathy from the husband.

It was also my introduction to a new term.

Apparently, to worry too much about "matching", as in "matching in an obvious way" is considered very suburban and therefore not New York. Not at all.

Case in point. Last week I complimented a young designer acquaintance on his outfit. He said to me: "Really? I think the whole green tie and green shirt thing looks suburban to me. Like a set on sale at Macy's. Too matchy matchy."

I assured him that the very fact he was wearing so much green made up for the matchiness, but he wasn't convinced.

The trick in fashion, apparently, is to buy things that go well together, but don't obviously go well together. This is how you have style, how people look twice at your clothes and admire your ability to put an outfit together. It is what stylists do for starlets, what magazine editors seek out in the never ending quest to identify trend-setters. It is what makes someone's personal style interesting. I guess that, in the language of a writer, avoiding matchy matchy is the same as an ability to write without cliches.

In my never ending indoctrination to New Yorker rules, an awareness of matchy matchy is something that I simply cannot shake now. And, no less than Lucky Magazine, that wonderful bible of women's shopping has advice this month on how to avoid looking too "matchy." So, the term has legs and now will most likely be read by women across America. The Lucky styling guru, a woman named Andrea Linnet intones that it is best to "match" elements in dress (ie a polka dot skirt and a polka dot blouse with different sized dots), but to not match them perfectly. Therein lies the art of dressing. If you don't match your clothing elements to some degree, your look will not be "pulled together." If you match too many things, you will look matchy matchy.

(Sidenote: Linnet's an amazing stylist. I have fun going through Lucky trying to guess which shoots she supervised and which she didn't. You can usually tell because her work has an extra un-matchy and funky sensibility).

Of course, avoiding matchy matchy hinges on a few things. It means that you have to have a lot of clothes in the closet. You will have to try on several combinations of things to ascertain that you have the right version of matching-but-not-matching. You also have to trust some sort of inner sense that tells you that you have matched well, but not gone overboard.

Getting dressed is hard.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

 

A Sea of Pink


Where did this sea of pink come from?



It's cherry blossoms, of course. I went back to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and found, quite by accident, that there was a festival on that day, called "Hanami" after the loosely organized Japanese tradition of the same name.



This little girl was eating an onigiri under the trees and it made me wish I had brought some too.



I liked the fact that this Japanese man did not let all the gaijin around him stop him for wearing his yukata. I think he looks cool. He has all the accessories: geta, baby-buggy and cell phone.



There were some Japanese "folk art" performances during the Hanami. I guess, like Obon in Monterey, Hanami in Brooklyn is a chance for a general showcase of many Japanese cultural art forms.One of the dancers turned out to be my friend Ayumi who used to take dance class with me at Steps. Right after we took this photo, she said to me: "The Okinawa dancers have even better costumes."



Well, I have to admit the costumes are pretty spectacular.



I also managed to look at other flowers aside from the cherry blossoms. At one point I came across a group of Chinese women speaking with great excitement. It turned out they were admiring these peonies, which are a popular subject in classical Chinese still life paintings.



Here's another view of the torii in the garden. I liked the fact that there were so many kinds of birds sitting on it and sunning themselves. The effect is almost Japanese -- not completely, but almost.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

 

Obaasan


This is my favorite photo of me with my grandmother. It conveys a lot about her personality, her style, her grace, her mischievous humor and her love.

When people see this photo, they invariably ask me the following questions:

1. Is that you (yes it is).

2. How old are you there? (2 and a half).

3. You look big. Were you a big baby? (No, I was not. She just happens to be 4 foot 8. This is part of what I mean when I saw that I always end up feeling enormous in Japan).

My grandmother passed away April 10th. I'll be going to her funeral in a couple of weeks which will be held at our family temple. She was 97 when she died and it is difficult to complain about someone leaving this world after so many years. However, final goodbyes are difficult and do leave a space.

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