Monday, June 1, 2009

7 Japanese Ideas We Could Use in the States

1. Sending directors of traffic to baton-waving school

Imagine how much better road travel in America would be if the construction-crew members who direct traffic were properly trained in the use of clear, consistent signals. No more misunderstandings about whether the slacker with the flag wants you to stop immediately or hurry forward; merge to the left or to the right. In the small park across the street from our house, several times a week there are classes in proper baton waving and whistle blowing for purposes of traffic direction. The usual number of students is somewhere between three and eight. That may sound like a lot considering this type of training must go on all over Tokyo, but in addition to using multiple traffic directors whenever there is any kind of repair or construction work (even if traffic patterns aren’t affected), I think every parking lot in Japan has at least one professional baton user. Their training is taken very seriously. I’ve seen the teacher earnestly correcting students for not executing a crisp wrist flick that ends at just the right angle and in the correct location in space. Then the whole group has to do the wrist flick several times to make sure there is no more confusion about the proper technique. Any deviation could, after all, lead to disaster. Once you accept sloppy wrist flicking, you start down a slippery slope indeed.

2. Circumventing the post office

Here in Tokyo, we pay our utility bills at the convenience store (“Family Mart”) down by the station. Now that’s convenient. You stand in a short, fast-moving line with others who are waiting to pay for their take-out sushi or deodorant, and when it’s your turn you simply hand the cashier your bill. She scans a bar code and you give her cash for the amount due. While you’re there, you can even pick up some dried octopus snacks for the kids or tickets to Cirque du Soleil.

3. Circumventing the bank

Perhaps to earn new market share after losing bill payers to the convenience stores, post offices act as banks, offering savings accounts and other financial services. In fact, the government-run Japanese postal service has more than 24,000 offices throughout the country and assets sizeable enough to make it one of the largest banking institutions in the world. Of course, with long waits for service at many U.S. post offices, having to pay a visit to mail something is painful enough. It’s unlikely anyone would willingly increase their reliance on post-office workers (or trust them with their money). Maybe instead U.S. banks should offer mailing services?

4. Tiny restaurants

Tiny restaurants, which are exceedingly rare in America, are superior to big restaurants for one simple reason: The food is much better. Why? I have a few theories, but will spare you the details. If you don’t believe me, come to Tokyo and find out for yourself. Of course, tiny restaurants are not huge on space, so you may have to get up and move out of the way when someone needs to get to their seat at the table next to yours. But that just makes things friendlier.

5.       Biking for groceries

Most Tokyoites rely on bicycles to some degree. Like many of them, I use my bike when I go grocery shopping. Transporting everything home in the baskets on my bike beats the hell out of carrying it by hand for the 8-minute uphill trek to our house. When you grocery shop by bike, the amount of stuff you can bring home is naturally limited, which means you have to go to the store more often. Once you get used to it, you realize this is a good thing. For example, it enables you to increase your personal fitness while reducing your carbon footprint (as opposed to, say, driving your car to the gym). In addition, you can pick items for a meal that suits the day’s mood perfectly instead of having to decide on Saturday what you’ll feel like having on Wednesday. Of course, there are days when the prospect of biking for groceries brings out creativity you never knew you had, as you strive to make use of the food already in your freezer or pantry – anything to avoid another trip to the store on your damn bike. Once you’ve mastered grocery shopping by bike you can graduate to bar hopping by bike (see photo).

6. Not taking what isn’t yours

Along with the bike-to-the-store idea, it would be helpful to adopt the Japanese concept of respect for personal property boundaries. It’s not necessary to lock your bike in Tokyo because it’s highly unlikely that anyone in this metropolis of 12 million people will steal it. Biking becomes more convenient when you can count on your faithful steed always being right where you left it.

7. Princess fashion

Escape from reality and help restart the economy. What are you waiting for?


Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Ironies of China

Over spring break, we travelled to China to see its most famous sights and experience something of its culture. During our trip we spent time with several different guides, which gave us a small window through which to glimpse what it’s like to be Chinese. One thing that struck me was the great irony of China: Despite ditching imperialism, the Chinese are still ruled by autocrats interested more in the preservation of their power than in the welfare of their people. Instead of a single emperor, it’s a group of Communist Party leaders, but the end result is the same – repression for the Chinese people.

Emperors of old turned their subjects into slaves to build the awe-inspiring projects that tourists like us flock to see today. The Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and the Forbidden City were all designed to protect an emperor’s power and increase his personal comfort in this life or the next.

The Communist Party leaders of today continue that venerable tradition, using the labor of citizens to build for the government a strong protective shield – international economic power. In fairness, today’s workers are paid for their services, but while the Chinese government has amassed an estimated $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserve, the average Chinese household earns $3,000 a year. While China is becoming a serious player on the world’s financial stage, about 60 percent of its 1.3 billion citizens remain farmers, many of them living in poverty.

Analysts estimate that half of China’s foreign exchange reserve is invested in American Treasury bonds and other notes. You don’t have to think about this too long to realize that relying on China to finance our way of life makes it risky to pressure the regime in any meaningful way on human rights or other issues. As Maureen Dowd wrote in a February 10 op-ed piece for the New York Times: “When, exactly, can China foreclose on us and start sending us toxic toys again?” Like China’s emperors of old, its Communist rulers have found a way to use Chinese citizens to protect their power – in this life, if not the next.

What do Chinese citizens get in return? More irony. I met a man who was removed from the prestigious teaching job he loved for having a second child. In Tiananmen Square, I spoke with a young woman who, despite having a college education, told me she knew nothing about what happened there in the spring of 1989. When I asked people we met about the recent closing of Tibet, I was told, “It’s not closed.” I saw it argued online that this piece of news hasn’t been reported in Chinese media because the border isn’t closed to Chinese nationals, only foreigners. If the U.S. Government stopped letting foreign tourists into Alaska, is it conceivable that there’d be no mention of it in the press – even if Americans could still travel freely in and out of the state?

I heard from a man with personal experience that 95 percent of Chinese citizens who apply for visas to travel outside their country are denied. It’s a mystery to me how people can square in their own minds a positive feeling toward their government with the very clear and obvious fact that they are captives in their own country, but somehow many Chinese manage to do it. That, perhaps, is the saddest irony of all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Top 10 Things I Learned from Karaoke

Last Friday night, I had my first karaoke experience. It was in a tiny, dimly lit local hot spot below ground somewhere near our train station. I emerged Saturday morning a woman wiser in the ways of karaoke. What follows is a distillation of what I learned in that cozy cellar, dense with cigarette smoke and the haze of musical genius.
 10. A true karaoke pro can fall asleep, wake when his song comes on, sing his heart out, have another drink, and go back to sleep until his next turn.
   9. My friend Karen is very good at playing the tambourine.
   8. Not everyone truly appreciates Johnny Cash.  
   7. It is not physically possible for me to sing bass (which might have made appreciation of Cash challenging). 
   6. The Japanese make some seriously strange videos to play at karaoke bars.
   5. My husband looks very cute when he is channeling Jim Morrison.
   4. One Japanese pop song is an interesting cultural experience. Two is torture.
   3. Beer may not enhance performance, but it sure makes listening easier.
   2. What happens at karaoke does not stay at karaoke. You will be given grief for days and, in most cases, you will deserve it.
And the number one thing I learned from karaoke is…
   1. It is possible to injure yourself clapping (sorry – no additional details available).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Going for Gold

You may not keep track of such things, but gold teeth generate their share of news. For example, with the economy tanking and the price of gold rising to record levels (it was over $1,000 an ounce in February), the Associated Press reports that people are now raising cash by pawning gold crowns and teeth they apparently have lying around in drawers. Yet, despite people’s growing appreciation for gold teeth, in West Palm Beach, Fla., a man was thrown out of a bar because the manager thought he had too many of them (still in his mouth). Go figure.

A few months before that incident, in what was either a nod of appreciation to the fashion traditions of cannibalistic societies or a sign of over-developed self esteem, the actress Scarlett Johansson marked her boyfriend’s birthday by giving him one of her wisdom teeth, dipped in gold and strung on a necklace. Remember that idea for your special someone, ladies.

Gold teeth are on my mind because I’m about to get one. I won’t be able to give it to Mark because I’ll be using it, but it’s possible I could get kicked out of a bar. It’s happened before, although I was younger and more fun at the time.

In Japan, gold teeth are the norm under dental circumstances like mine. The Japanese are a practical people. Compared to tooth-colored alternatives, gold holds up better, doesn’t stain and even costs less in some cases. As my dentist was explaining the logic of choosing gold, he also acknowledged that his foreign patients never choose gold, so he expected I would want a more natural looking crown, too. Now I was faced with a dilemma.

To be illogical and predictable, two things I find really annoying? Or to place a chunk of gold in my mouth? WWJD – what would Johnny (Depp) do? He’d take the gold tooth, as he did when he accepted the role of Captain Jack Sparrow.  In fact, he took five of them – had gold caps bonded right to his own teeth. After pressure from studio executives, who were concerned about getting the balance between coarse and sexy exactly right, he had three removed for filming. But he kept two – for several years, at least until the third movie was finished. For all I know, he still has them.

Once I have my gold tooth (what can I say, I love Captain Jack), you probably won’t notice it, at least not really. Well, maybe if you make me laugh. Or yawn. More importantly, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have another problem with that tooth, which was at the root of some excruciating pain, oral surgery, a bone graft and…. Well, I hear you all screaming “TMI” so I’ll stop there and leave you to ponder these immortal words from Benjamin Franklin:  “Early morning hath gold in its mouth.”

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Angst of Cooking

Cooking is a skill set I never mastered and sorely miss now. The daily responsibility of planning dinner with unfamiliar foods then teaching myself how to prepare it almost makes me want to get a job. Working provides the perfect alibi for not cooking yourself, while simultaneously supplying the funds to pay someone else to cook for you, whether that’s the grocery employees who rotisserie your chicken, the restaurant chefs who prepare your take-out, or the thoughtful folks in the frozen-food industry.

Japanese grocery stores do sell a variety of pre-cooked foods. I never know exactly what I’m getting, but they’re convenient when you’re coming home late on the subway (after spending half a day on a simple task like filling a prescription) and really don’t want to cook. On those nights, dinner conversation at our house tends to run something like this:

“I think it’s either chicken or pork.”
“I don’t know. Tastes kind of – different.”
“Well, it’s pretty good.”
“I prefer this.”
“What is it?” “Beef, maybe?”
“It’s cold and kind of chewy. Is that normal? Maybe we’re supposed to cook it first…”

On one such evening, I searched the pre-cooked food shelves for things that looked like chicken, which generally stand the greatest chance of being accepted by the boys. I spied one package containing short skewers with two breading-covered balls on each. I’ve had balls of chicken before that looked like that, so I put a few packages in my basket. Feeling like I was finally starting to get the hang of things, I headed for home.

Our 13-year-old was the first to try a chicken ball, which is unusual because historically he has been a very picky eater. Of course for him, trying it meant nibbling off a tiny section of the breading. The hole he made revealed the curve of something whitish, shiny and round. Weird looking chicken. He handed it to me with a look that said, “Last time I trust you.” I took a brave bite to set a good example and tasted egg. Quail egg I guessed, because of the small size. It was actually pretty good. I’d say, “live and learn,” but I have little hope of finding breaded quail eggs again now that I know I like them. Next time I buy round things skewered on sticks it will probably turn out to be liver.

Once a week we treat ourselves to Dominos pizza, which is actually better here than in the states. We stick with standards, like cheese and sausage, but the Japanese think that’s strange. They prefer pizzas like these from the Dominos menu:

Lasagna Pizza – potato (when did they start putting potato in lasagna?), parmesan cheese and parsley
Mayo Jaga – potato, “fresh” bacon, corn, pimento, onion and mayonnaise (whitish horizontal and vertical lines crisscross the whole pizza, creating an interesting checkerboard effect)
Giga Meat – pepperoni, “fresh” bacon, pork sausage, and… bacon (not so fresh?)

So next time you fill your cart with foods you can identify and load them into your trunk to drive home, think of me playing guessing games, riding my fully loaded double-basket bike uphill home, and scouring The Joy of Cooking to find out what to do with octopus.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Akemashite Omedetou!

That’s Happy New Year, for those of you without my astonishing grasp of the Japanese language. New Year is Japan’s most important holiday and virtually all businesses are closed for the first three days of January. Most people spend time with family and visit a shrine to offer prayers for the coming year. In the next three days, 3 million people will visit Tokyo’s most prominent shrine, Meiji Jingumae. Mark and I are heading out soon to see if we can get anywhere near it. Leading up to the holiday, the Japanese clean house, finish outstanding business, and generally embrace the prospect of a fresh start.

The New Year in Japan is associated with poetry in traditional styles, such as tanka. For more than 1,000 years, there has been an Imperial ceremony in Japan called Utakai Shiki (Ceremony for Chanting Poetry). Shortly after a new year begins, the Emperor and members of the Imperial Family, all trained in the art of writing poetry from an early age, read aloud the best poems they wrote during the preceding year. As the Empress of my own home, I decided to try my hand at tanka. In Japanese, these poems are often written in one straight line, but in English they are usually divided into five lines, with syllable counts in this order: 5-7-5-7-7. I’ve no doubt butchered a truly venerable tradition, but here’s my poem nonetheless (with apologies as needed):

TokyoMy attachment grows
Like a new crocus in snow
Tentative until
Experience makes a home
And melts the unfamiliar

It’s appropriate for me to share my first tanka poem on New Year’s Day because when a new year starts many “firsts” are celebrated in Japan, including the first exchange of letters, first calligraphy, first laughter, and first dream. Your first dream of the year, called hatsuyume, is thought to signify what you can expect from the next 365 days. So that you can recognize your good fortune if you see it, the three symbols considered most lucky to dream of are (in order) Mount Fuji, hawks, and eggplants.

Traditionally, the Japanese send New Year postcards to friends and family. These are held by the post office and all delivered on January 1st. Can you imagine the U.S. Postal Service pulling that off with Christmas cards? Many of the postcards feature images of the animal that the traditional Chinese calendar ties to the coming year. 2009 is the year of the cow or ox (for calendar purposes, the two seem to be used interchangeably).

Mark was born in 1961, which was also a year of the ox. For him, that’s a propitious sign for 2009. Here’s hoping that the coming year is a healthy and happy one for the rest of us, too!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Portrait of a Pedestrian Scramble

Since my first visit to Shibuya (Noise Capital of the World), I’ve returned often. Now that I only rarely get lost, I can look around and actually process some of what’s going on around me. On weekends, in addition to the usual hubbub there are public speakers and pamphleteers milling around the train station plaza that abuts the main intersection.

One Saturday recently, there was a group handing out flyers related to the abduction of Japanese citizens by agents of the North Korean government, which according to Wikipedia happened between 1977 and 1983. One gentleman even had a pamphlet in English. He began talking to me in my native tongue, which was appealing, but I was distracted by a man in military uniform standing near us on a makeshift platform. He was giving an impassioned speech (subject unknown) and wore dark green fatigues with a red star stitched above the left breast, which made me uneasy. Isn’t that the symbol of some stridently communist nation or other? No one else seemed to care, but I was happy when the crossing light finally changed in favor of escape from his vicinity.

All the folks with views to impart locate themselves strategically to take full advantage of a captive audience – the throng congregating to wait for the “walk” signs at the main Shibuya intersection. This intersection, where 5 major roads meet, is purported to be the largest in the world in terms of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. To get people from one side to another, an “exclusive pedestrian phase” is used. This system is called a scramble or a Barnes Dance (after a guy named Barnes who first used it) because all traffic stops and people can cross in any direction – even diagonally – at once (see photo). The Japanese like the pedestrian scramble, which is used at more than 300 intersections across the country. I like it, too – it’s liberating to walk however you want through the middle of the world’s busiest intersection.

Experience has taught me how to negotiate Shibuya’s seriously crowded sidewalks, deftly passing dawdlers while avoiding collisions with oncomers. I’ve also learned that the sound of a bell means any sudden moves would be best avoided because a bicyclist (also on the sidewalk) is approaching from somewhere outside my field of vision. I’ve come to appreciate being in a place where crossing the street makes you feel like you’re at the center of the universe – part of a mass movement (literally) dedicated to shopping and dining. How could that not be fun?