Meguro Madness

Each year around the first of April, Tokyo comes alive with color, as Sakura trees all over the city burst into full bloom.

The Japanese have an appreciation for the beauty of nature, and Sakura season brings out thousands to view the blossoms. There is even a term for it – hanami – meaning, roughly, flower viewing. In parks and gardens all around Tokyo, you’ll see hanami parties. Tarps on the ground, food, drink, and people just having a great time enjoying the spring weather and beautiful Sakura blooms.

One of the more popular hanami areas is the Meguro river. A stream running about eight kilometers through several wards of Tokyo, it is well known for the hundreds of Sakura trees lining its banks. Particularly in the area around Nakameguro, thousands of people come to stroll along the river, take in some street food, sip some Sakura-themed drinks and view the beautiful blossoms.

Getting to Meguro river is easy. Just take the JR Yamanote line to Meguro station. It’s a five-minute walk to the river. From there, just look at the beautiful trees and follow the crowds. It’s a walk you’re sure to enjoy.

Africa — Part 2 — Cape Town, SA

Back to the second part of the blog about our trip to Africa. I am sorry to say that I got a little distracted from it. It is spring in Tokyo, and the weather has started to warm up a bit. We had some friends from back home visiting/working in Tokyo, and I spent a couple of weeks sight-seeing with them around town. It is always interesting to show people around because it makes me see Tokyo — once again — through the eyes of people who don’t live here! After three years, for us, it feels more like “home” and less like a tourist destination. It is nice to feel the “newness” and wonder of it again.

Also… with warmer weather, the cherry blossoms (and lots of other flowers and trees) are beginning to “pop.” There are so many beautiful places to visit in Japan to see the sakura blossoms! “Hanami” (literally “flower viewing” in Japanese) is a really big deal here, with parties and gatherings under the beautiful trees. We spent last weekend wandering around some of our favorite “Hanami” locations — even though it was still a bit early, and the trees are not yet in full blooming glory.

But… back to our trip to Cape Town, South Africa. I will mostly just post photos, and descriptions.

Cape Town is a beautiful city at the southwestern tip of the African continent. It was originally settled in the mid-17th century as a stop-over for European ships on the way to trade in India. The Cape of Good Hope (originally named the Cape of Storms) is only a short drive south of the city. Capetown (and all of South Africa) has such a varied mix of people and cultures — and certainly has had a turbulent political past. So much history, and so many interesting sights.

This was the view from our hotel window in Cape Town. That is Table Mountain in the distance… with its typical “tablecloth” of clouds. Some days the clouds are so thick, and the winds so strong that the cable car to the top of the mountain has to be shut down.

Across from our hotel… St. George’s Cathedral — The Anglican Church of South Africa — is the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town, and is said to be the oldest Anglican congregation in South Africa. The existing building was built in 1901 to replace the original building that was built in 1834.

The inside of the cathedral was beautiful, and had many colorful stained glass windows.

Also inside was a sculpture of the “Black Madonna” by Leon Underwood (1939) that was given to the cathedral in 1987. And, in the inner courtyard, was a stone labyrinth — the path of the labyrinth is used as a form of walking meditation.

Near to our hotel was the 24-Hour Flower Market, filled with stall after stall of colorful fresh flowers.

Everywhere were paintings, sculptures, and images of Nelson Mandela.

In the shopping street next to our hotel, was this small section of the Berlin Wall…

And a plaza filled with street vendors selling all sorts of South African souvenirs.

This grape vine — brought to Cape Town from the Western Pyrenees of France — was planted in 1771, and is believed to be the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the Southern Hemisphere. It still produces fruit that is made into wine each year.

During the business meetings, the spouses had a bus tour along the coast south of Cape Town to The Cape of Good Hope. The views of the ocean from this cliff-side highway were amazing.

And then… The Cape of Good Hope. Previously believed to be the southern-most point of the African continent, and the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it is now known that Cape Agulhas — 90 miles to the southeast — holds that distinction. Still… the Cape of Good Hope marks the point where the sailing ships turned more eastward in their travels to India and the east. This photo was taken from the lighthouse at Cape Point. Another lighthouse had to be built lower down the cliff-side because this one was often shrouded in clouds and not visible to the sailing ships that depended on it for guidance around the cape.

Further around on the eastern side of the cape, is Simon’s Town, and Boulders Beach. Simon’s Town is a quaint British-style town that has been, first, the home of a British naval base, and now a South African naval base. It is also the home of Boulders African Penguin Colony! This colony of African penguins is fairly new… and got its start when a couple of penguin pairs showed up at the beach in the 1980’s. Now estimated to number between 2000 and 3000 penguins, the beach has become a popular tourist site.

The day we were there, was late in the breeding season, and we were able to see adults, juveniles, and even some penguins with eggs in nests built in the sand.

After the penguin beach, we went for lunch at a local winery. South Africa has many vineyards, and some amazing wines.

The last day of our stay in Cape Town, after the meetings were done, my husband and I took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain.

Table Mountain is a flat-topped plateau overlooking the city of Cape Town. Approximately 2 miles side to side, it is over 3500 feet in height. Beautiful views of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula can be seen from the top.

Unique flora and fauna inhabit the scrubby, rocky mountaintop…

Including this brazen Redwing Starling… looking for a handout…

Various flowers and lizards…

…And the Rock Hyrax — commonly known in South Africa as the “dassie” — a badger-sized mammal native to Africa and the Middle East. Having been fed (against the rules) by visiting tourists, these little cuties showed little fear, and wandered around the top of the mountain… especially near the food vendors and restaurant areas.

South Africa is an amazing and starkly beautiful country, with so many things to see and learn about. It is a place I would happily return to, to visit again — despite the arduous 24+ hour travel time to get there from our home in Tokyo.

Buying theater tickets

We recently found a theater in Tokyo that has a long-running production of Cats, one of our favorite shows. So, in celebration of our 40th anniversary, I set out to buy two tickets for the theater.

How to buy tickets? Go to the website for the theater, of course. Sure enough, type “Cats Play in Tokyo” into a browser, and the first item in the search list is “CATS|SHIKI THEATER COMPANY.” Ok, we’re in business.

Clicking on to the website, I find a lot of information about Cats, much of it in English. Scroll down a bit, and here’s a handy tab – “Performance Schedule.” Click, and I’m on a calendar page…mostly in Japanese. I can read enough to tell how to select a month, so I go to July 7, our desired date. Click, and I find a nice theater map showing available seats. Again in Japanese, but not too hard to figure out.

Now it is getting trickier. I click on the seats we want, no problem. But going on to make the purchase is getting complicated. Everything is in Japanese, with a lot of Kanji, making it impossible for me to read. Click on the “Translate” button…but nothing doing. Still all in Japanese.

So, pull out the Google translate app on the iPhone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it works well enough to get me to the purchase screen. Enter the name, address, credit card information. With Google Translate’s help, seems to be working. There are a couple of extra pink boxes in the name field, but that probably isn’t important, right?

Wrong. Click on “Submit,” and there is an error message. You guessed it – I need to fill in the pink boxes. After a little thought, I found a dropdown menu, and got Google’s help to translate — “enter name in full-width Katakana.” Katakana is one of the three character systems used in Japanese, the one used mostly for foreign words imported into the language (like English names). I know how to write my name in Katakana… but my computer doesn’t. It doesn’t have a Japanese keyboard installed.

So at this point, I’m not really sure if the purchase was done or not. But since I didn’t receive a confirmation in email…doesn’t appear that I have any tickets.

Fast-forward to the next day, and I search the website for a phone number to call for help. Sure enough, there is a handy number for the theater. Dial it up, and a friendly voice answers…in Japanese, of course.

“Eigo ga, hanasemasu ka?”–Do you speak English, I ask, hoping I don’t have to try to discuss this in my very limited Japanese. “Oh – shou-shou omachi, kudasai,” is the reply — please wait a minute. After a short wait, another friendly voice comes on the line — this time, speaking very good English.

A few minutes later, the nice lady secured my seats, and kindly explained how I can go to the theater to pick them up (cash only please – a common requirement in Japan).

So come July 7, we will be seeing Cats in Japan (in Japanese?) Like many things here, it sometime takes a little extra effort to get the result you want when you don’t speak the language very well. But invariably, there is someone who is always friendly, and willing to help.

Onigiri

This may seem like a silly blog topic, but we will talk about a very popular — and tasty — Japanese snack food: onigiri. I thought about this today as I was eating my onigiri lunch. When we came here 3 years ago, one of the first “snack” foods we discovered was the simple rice ball. Rice, of course, is a staple food here in Japan, and the most popular type is “sticky rice.” It is a short grain rice, with a lot of starch on the outside, and, because of all that extra starch, it tends to stick together in clumps. this is actually good when you are eating with chopsticks, because the clumps of rice are much easier to pick up with chopsticks than the separate long grain rice that is more common in the US.

Also, that stickiness makes it easy to form it into balls that can easily be packed and carried in a lunch box, or backpack or purse. These wonderful balls of rice are often filled with various things like cooked meats or fish, or sweetened red bean paste, fish roe, or natto (future blog post?)

There are many forms of these rice balls… some are toasted, but most commonly they are wrapped in sheets of dried nori (seaweed). The dried seaweed, along with being tasty, is helpful to keep the “sticky” rice from sticking to fingers while you eat the rice ball. But… because the moisture in the rice would make the dried nori sheets damp and messy in themselves, additional wrapping is required. The Japanese — being incredibly inventive people, have come up with an ingenious wrapping method for onigiri.

This is an onigiri “rice ball”. They are available in all the grocery stores and convenience stores for about 100 yen (less than a dollar). I bought this one from a local Lawson conbini (convenience store). I have sampled the onigiri from many stores in the past three years, and this is my favorite. Lol… Lawson’s has a nice “rice to filling” ratio, and is my preferred source. Note that this rice ball is basically triangular in shape. Not all are triangular, but most are.

This one actually has the English for what the filling is… some stores do, and some stores don’t. No matter… we can read the Japanese. But… this one also has a different Japanese name than most! Reading down, top to bottom, left to right: マヨネーズ = mayonaise (ma-yo-ne–zu) is pretty straight forward. Tuna, in katakana is usually: ツナ (tsu-na). But in this case they spelled it: shi — チキン. (Sorry… Google Translate won’t show the first character in katakana, and I don’t have a Japanese keyboard.) I think, that what they were going for was “sea — chicken”. You, know… as in “Chicken of the Sea”… lol. Anyway… my favorite filling for onigiri is tuna and mayo.

Also, notice the numbers on each corner of the triangle… 1 — 2 — 3. These are very important in knowing how to open the onigiri properly. There is an extra layer of cellophane between the nori seaweed,and the rice ball — thus keeping the nori dry and crisp until you want to eat the onigiri. I have to admit that the first time we ate onigiri here, we unwrapped it wrong, and made a total mess of it… even though there is a label on the bottom with pictures showing how to unwrap it properly. So… here is how to unwrap an onigiri rice ball properly:

First step is to pull tab “1” down and all the way around the onigiri, completely removing it.

Then pull the flap next to the number “2” straight out to the right. This removes the cellophane between the rice and the nori.

Repeat on the other side with flap number “3”… and you are left with a rice ball wrapped in nice, crisp nori.

Eat the onigiri by holding it with the nori. Tasty filling inside, chewy rice, and crispy nori on the outside! Yum. Oishii desu!

Feeling at home in Japan

Three years ago, when we first moved to Japan, it seemed that everything was strange and different. Everywhere we looked, there were new things, different customs, unfamiliar practices. We thought of endless lists of blogposts… but…

After living in Japan three years, we feel like we are really just at the surface of understanding this unique and wonderful country. But some of the things that once seemed strange and unusual now appear to be common place. Now it is sometimes hard to think of things to blog about. Here are some examples:

  • Using cash. In the US, we seldom carried cash. Everything was charged to a credit card. In Japan, cash is the standard. Some of the bigger stores accept credit cards. But a lot of shops, and even larger hotels, only take cash. So here, we carry cash. The ATM is our new best friend.
  • Japanese credit card? For a lot of reasons (taxes, ease of exchanging funds, etc.) it is advantageous to have a Japanese credit card. But Japanese banks don’t seem to talk to US banks, so there isn’t a seamless transfer of money. And getting a Japanese credit card is tough. We have excellent credit in the US, which meant exactly nothing in Japan. Don’t even apply for a Japanese credit card until after you are in Japan at least six months. Only then, after several rejections, were we able to get a JAL visa card. Ours is set up to withdraw the current balance each month from our bank account. It may be possible to monitor all this through the credit card website…but it is all in Japanese, so understanding is difficult.
  • Eigo ga, wakarimasu ka? 英語 が わかり ます か At first, we assumed many Japanese people could easily speak fluent English. Soon we realized that is not the case. Although many Japanese study English in school, many do not have an opportunity to speak the language and are not conversant. Often if you ask a Japanese person if they speak English, the reply will be “no.” Even if they understand a bit of English, unless they are comfortable with the language, they are reluctant to speak it. We have found that our minimal ability to speak Japanese is appreciated, and our bit of Japanese can combine with their bit of English to make communication possible.
  • The perfect sakura blossom. The Japanese people have a great appreciation of natural beauty. Whether it is a search for the perfect sakura blossoms in spring, the careful arrangement of flowers (ikebana), or the quiet solitude of a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, the people here appreciate and respect natural beauty. (Yes!)
  • May I have a doggie bag? In the US, we’ve found that portion sizes at most restaurants are so large, we often take part of our food home. In Japan, portions are more realistically sized. Seldom is there more food than desired for a single meal. Most restaurants do not allow you to take out excess food. It’s just not part of the culture.
  • Is this train full? We’ve found that in Tokyo, there is never a full train. It’s just a matter of pushing more people on board. Not a problem most times, but at rush hours, you get to know your fellow passengers better than you ever care to. The Japanese, for the most part, seem to handle this collapse of personal space in stride. It may not always be pleasant, but it is handled. And some rush hour trains have special cars for women only, to help ease the crush of humanity.
  • Safety and security. One of the remarkable things about Tokyo is the safety of the city. We’ve walked all over Tokyo, and never felt at all uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course, there is crime. But it is infrequent. Soon, we forget about the constant awareness of surroundings that we have to maintain in the US and most other countries. Perhaps we should be more concerned in Japan, but the feeling of personal safety is comforting.
  • Kindness. We don’t speak the language well, and we obviously stand out as different from the Asian population. But in the time we’ve been here, we’ve only experienced kindness and patience from the Japanese we’ve interacted with. We continue to appreciate the warm and gracious welcome we receive.

These are just a few of the things we’ve observed in our brief three years in Japan. As more comparisons and contrasts become apparent, we will include them in future blog posts.

Africa — Part 1 — Livingstone, Zambia

As we have said before, this job assignment in Tokyo came with some travel opportunities. And… as the spouse on this assignment, I sometimes get to accompany my husband on these trips. The latest trip — last week — was to Africa. I will do this post in two parts, because his meetings were in two countries: Livingstone, Zambia, and Cape Town, South Africa. This post will be about our time in Zambia.

First of all… Zambia is in a malaria area, so some preparation is required. We visited a travel clinic in Minato-ku, Tokyo, and they were very helpful, giving us anti-malaria tablets to take while we were in Zambia (and one week after) and providing us with insect repellent, and a very ingenious mesh mosquito jacket to wear when we were out in the bush.

We left Tokyo on Singapore Airlines to fly to Singapore, and then on to Johannesburg, South Africa. At Johannesburg, we took a flight on South African Airways to take us back north to Livingstone, Zambia.

On arrival, I guess we were somewhat surprised by the size of Livingstone. They have an international airport there, but with only one gate, and only have a half dozen flights out of this airport each day. It is a nice airport, but very small.

At Livingstone, we met our driver, and he took us to our hotel — the Protea. We had nice accommodations… the hotel had an open air lobby and restaurant/bar, and our room was supplied with mosquito repellent. Malaria is a real risk here. You ALWAYS begin your day with sunscreen and mosquito repellent.

While my husband was in business meetings, I met with the other spouses, and we sampled Livingstone… we wandered through the markets, and the downtown area. Livingstone is not a big city — the city named for Dr. David Livingstone (I presume!) — the missionary from the London Missionary Society. The population is less than 150,000, and the entire city has only ONE traffic light.

It was an amazing place… raw, and wild. It was interesting to see the people, and the way that they lived, though it is somewhat disturbing to me to see tin shacks, and dirt-floor homes, while others are staying and living in modern homes and hotels within gated walls and razor wire. The people I met in the market where wonderfully kind, and friendly… just trying to sell their items, and make a living for their families.

On the weekend we had opportunities to tour some of the local sites: most notably Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River, and the game parks around Livingstone. So much to see, and such a beautiful and unspoiled place!

The waterfall near Livingstone on the Zambezi River, called Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) in the Lozi language, was renamed Victoria Falls by Dr. David Livingstone in honor of Queen Victoria. Dr. Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, is believed to be the first European to view the falls in 1855. There is a statue of him in the park near the falls.

Victoria Falls is considered to be the largest waterfall in the world, although it is not as wide as Niagara/Horseshoe Falls on the US/Canada border, and not as tall as Angel Falls in Venezuela. Combining both width and height, Victoria Falls becomes the largest sheet of falling water in the world.

It is actually difficult to understand the size of this waterfall from the ground. Visibility is sometimes poor due to the amount of mist surrounding the falls. If you go, be sure and take a raincoat! We walked along the Zambian side of the falls and got spectacular views. The Zambezi River forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As we flew out of Livingstone headed for the next meeting in Cape Town, the pilot banked and circled around the falls so that everyone on the plane could get a good aerial view of the Zambezi and Victoria Falls. Incredible.

Also while in Livingstone, we visited Mukuni Big 5 Cheetah Farm and got to pet (and walk on a leash!) two rescued cheetahs. Beautiful animals!

We went on a “Game Drive” through the Mosi National Park…

And spent a day fishing for Tiger Fish on the Zambezi River.

You can probably guess why they are called Tiger Fish… This one seemed to be missing a few of his teeth, though.

There were many hippos in the shallows, and we steered clear of them. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They can easily capsize a fishing boat.
And we saw several large crocodiles. This one sunning himself on the Zimbabwe bank of the river, looked to be about 8 to 10 feet long. As we passed by, he slipped back into the water.
This large herd of elephants came out on the Zimbabwe bank while we were taking our lunch break. They splashed around in the water, and soon wandered back into the trees.
The Zambezi River is a wide river with many islands. The current in places is strong and fast, and the bottom is rocky. We saw rapids and whirlpools… but parts of the river were beautifully calm.

All in all, it was an experience of a lifetime. Beautiful scenery, friendly people, amazing wildlife, and interesting cultures. Despite the long 24+ hour travel days to and from Tokyo, it was well worth the visit, and we hope to return someday.

Day trip to Shirakawa-go

This weekend, we did a day-trip to Shirakawa-go, a quaint and historic little town in the Japanese mountains. Well, it was a day trip from Kanazawa, Japan, where I had been attending a meeting. It’s probably a 2-day trip from Tokyo, unless you want to have some really early and really late Shinkansen reservations.

Thatch roof house in Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a small village designated as UNESCO world heritage site. The houses are historic wood structures with steeply pitched thatch roofs. It’s typically a picturesque winter scene in the December to March months. We visited on a bright, sunny day when much of the snow was beginning to melt.

Our trip began with purchase of highway bus tickets in Kanazawa. With our limited (but growing) Japanese language skill, we were able to ask for tickets on Saturday morning around 9:30. The nice lady at the window spoke some English, and quickly let us know that the 9:41 bus was full, but the 9:10 was available. We selected a 15:55 return bus, and our trip was set. Cost for two people for a round trip was 6500 JPY = about $65 US. It is possible to arrange guided bus tours, which provide a guide and structured visit. Costs are about 5900 JPY per person. We are pretty comfortable on our own, and like the flexibility of managing our own time.

Highway bus ticket to Shirakawa-go

The bus trip to Shirakawa-go takes a little over an hour from kanazawa. Travel by highway bus in Japan is great. Price is reasonable, the staff and bus drivers are friendly, the coaches are spotless and they are almost always on schedule. For places where there may not be train service the highway bus is a great option.

Highway bus at the Shirakawa-go bus station

As we approached Shirakawa-go, it was obvious we were climbing rapidly into the mountains. There are many long tunnels, between which we could see the landscape was changing to tall mountains covered with snow. It has been a warmer year than usual in this part of Japan, but there was still snow to be seen.

Arriving at the Shirakawa-go bus station, it is easy to find an English-language map of village. The village is easily walkable. The day of our visit, the streets were clear of snow. Perhaps it may be a more challenging walk around the village with a foot of snow on the ground.

We had a leisurely walk through the village, and enjoyed looking at the thatch-roof houses still covered with snow. There are also temples and shrines in the village that are open for viewing. If you are into “touristy” nick-knacks and souvenirs, the shops are plentiful. Some of the offerings are beautiful – and expensive – local crafts.  

There are also restaurants and coffee shops. We found a little coffee shop with traditional tatami mat seating. A wonderfully relaxing place to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.

We were fortunate to be able to see the village from a scenic overlook high above the village. It isn’t accessible when there is heavy snow. The village offers a free shuttle to the top. We opted for the short, but steep, walk up.

Our visit was a good one. It’s an interesting village, and provides a glimpse into this region of Japan long ago. Shirakawa-go is well worth taking a day trip from Kanazawa, or a 2-day trip from Tokyo.