Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Moment for Zack

Each dog in our lives has his or her own special personality. Michelann has written a tribute to Zack on her blog at, which lovingly describes the dog that was Zack.

For me, I'm finding it very difficult to look at a an empty paper towel roll and not think of Zack. One time he carried the carboard cylinder around for several days sticking it in our faces and in the faces of the other dogs to get us all to comment on his treasure and share his joy... I guess. After several days of this Bea (a dog of very little patience) got fed up, grabbed the paper towel cylinder from him and tore it to shreds. I have to admit we were all a bit relieved.

Socks were another treasure, especially the stinky dirty ones. He could be in and out of the laundry room in a flash, showing up back in the kitchen with a mouthful of sock. Another time he decided to forage the open dish washer. Shaun found him carrying around a knife in his mouth... a large one.

He also believed that all junk mail and packaging materials were his personal property... treasures to be admired by all who loved him. This was especially frustrating to Ladybug, who inherited her dad's appreciation for portable items and would often try to steal them from him by attaching her teeth to the other end. Shaun referred to this as the Kiss of Death. Zack would patiently hold onto his end as she tried to pull him around the room.

Flower pots were the funniest because he would grab the rim at the bottom of the circle instead of the top. A large pot would cover his eyes, causing him to walk into walls and chairs and other dogs.

And of course Lady Bug is a ongoing reminder of Zack. All of our puppies were raised by Zack who taught them to play while Amber was weaning them. At first Amber wouldn't let Zack near her babies, but he hung around a lot waiting for a sign that she wanted his help.

When the time came, he was ready. The puppies would pile onto him (all eleven of them) to play. He'd have puppies biting his ears, pulling his tail and under his front paw. They learned to make the growling sound that changes in pitch with the intensity of the play and also the importance of savoring your food... that's eating it very slowly while the other dogs watch.

We miss him a lot, especially when we change the roll of paper towels, try to match up pairs of socks, throw away the junk mail without a nudge on the arm, or sit next to his empty chair in front of the television.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Traveling to Hiroshima

It snowed a lot more during the night after our snow day, but the next morning we caught an early bus to the train station and took a train to Hiroshima.

Looking out the window of the train at the blanket of snow covering the cities we passed through, we were quite happy to be in the warm train. Even the train had to slow down at one point to maintain traction on the frozen tracks.

It was snowing in Hiroshima, but not as much... just enough to get caught in your eyelashes but not enough to blanket the ground. Posted by Picasa

A Snow Day

This was our first snow day in Japan. Snow was not part of our itinerary. We cancelled all major travel for that day, shopped at the local grocery and the 100-yen store and then went home and baked. I made lemon tarts and Dave made homemade bread. Jeff cooked us a delicious dinner. With the heaters running we were nice and warm and it was beautiful to look outside.

These pictures are taken at Karen and Jeff's house. You can see the neighboring houses from their upstairs window and the depth of the snow on the balcony railing (I think it was about six inches).

Jeff and Dave drove to the hardware store to find a shovel, since it is customary for each homeowner to clear his own section of the street. Not having brought a snow shovel with them from the U.S., they had previously used a dustpan... a slow and laborious chore. Jeff decided that with this amount of snow it was time to buy a real shovel.

In the meantime, kids on their way to school were outside laughing and throwing snowballs at each other. We could see red and yellow umbrellas passing above the snow-covered wall. A snowman appeared at the end of the street (and lasted until after we returned from Hiroshima).

Take a look at the lower right-hand photo. The string of bells hanging down from the corner of the roof is the rain spout. This is the standard design for rainspouts in Japan.

The bottom of this photo shows the top of the clothes line... actually it's an assembly of poles. Karen has a washing machine, but no dryer, so all clothes hang outside in the sun to dry... when there is sun. Sometimes the clothes come back into the house at night frozen and are hung on hooks and hangers near the electric heaters to defrost and dry.

Like in Europe, homes all over Japan have clothes hanging outside. In this case, hangers can be used on the poles and the poles are removable so you can stick the pole through a leg of a pair of jeans and place it back onto the frame (horizontally) to hang the jeans. There is also a revolving plastic assembly with multiple clothespins hanging from it for smaller items like socks and underwear. It has a hanger at the top, so it's portable (can be taken inside to use near the electric heater). Since space is at a premium in small Japanese homes, there are lots of ingenious space-saving tools like this in the household section of the stores.

The evening of our snow day, we drank warm tea, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and watched a Christmas movie together before going to bed. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Christmas in Japan

Last year we went to Germany, expecting a snow globe Christmas... no snow. Well not in Berlin. We did get to see some snow in Dresden.

This year we thought we'd do something really exotic and spend Christmas in Japan... a brief escape from the holiday madness. Guess what? Bing is everywhere. Bing was singing White Christmas in the airports in Holland and Berlin last year and there he was singing White Christmas in the shopping malls in Japan.

Probably our most exotic experience was when we attended a small private Chrismas concert given by the mother of one of Karen's and Jeff's students. She is an opera singer. We spoke no Japanese and the rest of the audience didn't seem to be speaking English, but they smiled and nodded in a friendly way.

Our hostess and two other opera singers sang familiar arias in the first half of the program. We knew we were heading into the Christmas part when they passed jingle bells out to the audience. Karen spent the intermission trying to sound out the characters on the program to figure out what was coming up. We assumed Jingle Bells was one of titles.

Not only was it on the program, it was a sing-along. You can see the words in the picture on the left. They started off the second half with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in Japanese, sung by three Japanese opera singers. Now that's a treat! It's pretty hard not to laugh when you hear Rudolph sung in Japanese.

They closed the program with Silent Night, sung first in German, then in English, and finally in Japanese. It was better than a snow globe Christmas!

After thanking the singers for a lovely evening, we bundled back up for the cold walk to our train back to Kosoji... warm with the glow of the music and the exchange of friendly nods and smiles from our fellow concert-goers. Hmm, a little Christmas is nice. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Japanese Toilets

I really do need to mention the toilets in Japan. There are Western style and Japanese style. I wasn't surprised by the Japanese squat toilets because I'd seen them in Italy. But my first experience with the heated Western toilet seat was in this hotel in Tokyo. The toilet seat in our bathroom was toasty warm... a great place to spend a little time when it is snowing outside. Take a book.

The seat had additional features... a couple of bidet streams, one with a picture of woman and another that looked like a shower. Hmm. Ours was turned up a little high. Dave is still laughing about the scream.

On many models, you also find that when you sit down, you hear the sound of a burbling brook. And sometimes in Japanese style stalls a little speaker turns on and plays the burbling brook sound when you walk in. There is a button to push to replay it. When I asked Karen about this, she explained that you use the brook music to mask embarrassing sounds. Aha... like when you blow your nose.

Mostly I used the Japanese style toilets because I thought it might make me seem less foreign. On one snowy day in a public restroom without a heated Western toilet seat I chose Western and discovered why they heat the seats and why it's better to use the Japanese style if they don't. Cold, very cold!

You also learn to take your packet of kleenex with you because most public restrooms do not supply toilet paper. Nor do they have paper towels to dry your hands. Advertisers hand out free kleenex packets in the shopping district... gives you something to read in the bathroom. And women carry small washcloths in their purses to dry their hands. The fancier places have electric hand driers.

At home and in some restaurants and hotels they have Western style toilets with a fresh water spout above the tank on the back. You can wash your hands without having a separate sink. That water goes into the tank to refill it for the next flush. Very clever. Nothing is wasted. Posted by Picasa
We bought this t-shirt for Shaun. Since he is a drummer and a cook, we thought he might be able to figure out what it means.

I wonder if the Japanese characters used on American-made t-shirts are as thought-provoking. Posted by Picasa

Japanese subways

Most restrooms in Japan have the universal picture of the man or woman to help you find the right restroom. The other hint is that the men's restroom usually doesn't have a door and the urinals are directly across from the entrance. If you see men standing facing the wall and you're a woman, find the other restroom.

This is a subway restroom. The subways in Japan look a lot like the subways in London, Germany, and the U.S. The maps are designed the same way. Each line has it's own color etc. and the stops are listed on a map inside the car, usually above the door. As you can see the signs are very helpful when they include our alphabet (rumanji). You can count the stops from where you started and look for the rumanji lettering for your stop.

It's more difficult if you have to look for the kanji since that is not familiar to us. For example if it didn't say "toilet" on this sign, you would have to look for the combination of an unhappy face, a telephone pole with three lines, and a man with a hat running from a semicolon with a dot above it. That's a lot harder to recognize as your subway car sails past the sign. Karen said when they first arrived there were few rumaji signs, but in preparation for the World Expo in Nagoya this year, they put up a lot of new signs. Good thing because otherwise we wouldn't have known when we'd gotten to Nagoya. Even if you've figured out how to pronounce the name of the place you're going, it doesn't sound the same on the train or subway recording. The name melts into all the other words that come before and follow it.

People were very helpful to us when we were on public transportation or walking around trying to figure out where we were going. Somehow they recognized that we were tourists and that we probably spoke English...

Nighttime subway is quite different from daytime subway. Riders during the day are very quiet. If a cell phone rings, they move to the end of the car to talk quietly. Usually they text message each other on their cell phones or nap. No one even talks to the person sitting next to them. After dinner, however, the restraint disappears. One night we got into a car full of middle-aged (like us) dinner companions who were all laughing, teasing, and joking loudly across the aisle with each other. It was quite a contrast. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, January 14, 2006

I mentioned the mochi men. Here they are making fresh mochi.

A large batch of sticky rice has been boiled on an outdoor fire (off to the rear left of these pictures). The cooks bring the hot rice over and dump it into this pot, where the guys with the sticks push it together until it becomes a big glutenous lump. Then they bring out the mallets. Noisy process... each man in the circle takes a hit with his mallet and lets out his own personal exclamation as his mallet hits the ball of rubbery rice. That goes on for at least 10 minutes. It's ceremonial, a good workout, and obviously fun. I understand that mochi making is in preparation for the New Year's celebration.

In the first picture on the bottom row, there is a man on the left wearing a surgical-type mask. He is apparently the mochi master. He decides when the mochi is ready for the big mallet and he's the one who wields it. For some reason we didn't get a picture of him using the big mallet, but it took a lot of muscle to heft that one. One trusting assistant quickly turns the mochi between hits with the big mallet. I'm not sure I'd want that job... timing is critical. The master decides when the mochi is ready to eat.

Mochi, like green tea shows up in a lot of forms in Japanese cuisine. My favorite was some barbequed mochi on a skewer from a street vendor in Kyoto. Unfortunately I made the mistake of going into a shop to look at some gift items and when I came out Dave had already eaten the rest of the skewer full.

In case you wonder, the face mask is not a food prep thing. One of the first things you notice when you get off the plane in Japan in the winter is the number of people around you wearing masks... children, students, businessmen. It's cold season and if they are feeling sick, they don't want to spread their colds. They take this pretty seriously. We were also warned that it is not considered polite to blow your nose in public.

The morning we left Shinagawa (near Tokyo) for Nagoya, I was waiting in the train station at the bottom of the stairs with all our luggage while Dave went up the stairs to the Starbucks to get us some hot tea. With nothing better to do, I decided to count how often I saw someone wearing a face mask. It was about 1 in every 25 people. Posted by Picasa
Note the blue and red lines under the drinks in this vending machine. Blue means cold and red means the cans come out heated. So on a cold day, you can get cans of hot chocolate, coffee, or tea and put them in your pocket to keep your hands warm... or you can drink them to warm up from the inside out. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Just this one last sign and then I'm logging off the computer for tonight.

This sign comes at the top of the Miyajima ropeway and tram. There are monkeys at the top... well on days when it's actually warm outside. We were apparently the only animals willing to walk up the icy paths that morning. The view was outstanding but we didn't hang around long enough to need a rocker. Had it been warmer, we would have hiked up to the shrine at the top of the next hill, where I hear there are cans of hot chocolate and hot Royal Tea (tea with lots of cream) in the vending machine. Posted by Picasa
We didn't run. In fact it took us a lot longer than 10 minutes because when we turned a corner we were greeted by hostesses carrying trays of hot sake. So we sat down on the benches outside their ryokan to drink the sake and watch mochi men demonstrate how to transform a huge pile of hot steamed rice into fresh mochi. The hot sake was a welcome gift on that cold foggy morning, ten minutes away from the Miyajima ropeway. Posted by Picasa
We apparently weren't the only ones enjoying this. Note the deer cookie salesman in the background. Posted by Picasa
Outside the Miyajima train station there was a guy who sold deer cookies. Karen warned us that the deer pretend like they really like these cookies so that the tourists can take pictures. She volunteered us to buy the cookies while she and Jeff took pictures.

A deer was butting Dave in the butt as he bought the cookies. Once I had cookies in hand, I had a deer pulling on my jacket sleeve.

The cookies went pretty fast. Posted by Picasa
Cute aren't they? Kind of a mix between Amber and Ladybug. These deer are sacred on Miyajima. That means they are protected and allowed to convince tourists that they are starving. Posted by Picasa
Okay, this is the sign on the bench at the shrine in Kyoto. We weren't sure what the warning meant. It was across from a food stand run by the shrine folks, so we figured it wasn't warning us not to eat. But the stuff about the dioxins was a little scarey so we decided not to eat or to sit on the bench. Maybe I could get a job as an editor in Japan. Posted by Picasa
This is another example of English that doesn't quite hit the mark we would shoot for. Pocari Sweat is apparently a Gatorade-type drink that is pretty popular... or at least is advertized a lot. This was a vending machine in Kyoto. Japan appears to have vending machines in every conceivable place. Karen described climbing a long steep trail to a shrine and finding a vending machine at the top... along with the shrine. Posted by Picasa
We saw this sign several times in Japan. Note the temperature. I took this from a train platform on the way to Hiroshima.

There were lots of samples of English phrases that didn't quite make sense, but sounded good. It was a good way to start the day.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Just the beginning

"Okay, I'm here," she said, wondering exactly where she was. "Oh yeah, I'm in BlogLand. I've heard it's a place where you can talk as much as you want and no one has to listen. Hmm. Kind of intimidating." Her brain went blank.

"Maybe I'll come back tomorrow and try it out. It would probably be more fun than cleaning the house."

Then she yawned and shut down her computer for the night.