Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mt. Fuji, Eagles, and Eggplant

In Japan, you will be lucky if, on New Year's Eve, you dream of one of these three things.

This remarkable photo, from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Collection, was taken from the space shuttle with a radar image overlaid showing color as height. [ Mt. Fuji and Tokyo]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Honorable House Cleaning

In Japan, you clean your house inside out during the days before the New Year holidays. I followed that custom when I lived in Shizuoka, but my tiny, sparsely furnished apartment was easy to clean. Translating that tradition to my house in NH is a lot more work. Yesterday, I cleaned my oven and the greasy tiles around the stove. The day before, I ousted pernicious soap scum out of the tub, but I'm losing momentum, watching the snow fall in the woods, with many rooms to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake, a strawberry sponge-cake with whipped cream, is a British tradition the Japanese adopted. (Though many Japanese think it's American, and were astonished that I never ate Christmas Cake. I was tempted to wear a button saying "Ask me about pumpkin pie.") However, in Japan the tradition has a twist. In American Fuji, a Tokyo woman, Jiyuko, explains to Alex why she doubts she will get married (p.17-18):

"I'm twenty-five. I'm Christmas cake. It's too late."

"I don't understand. Christmas Cake?"

"Everyone wants fancy decorated cake for the night of December 24th. But on Christmas, the 25th, the cake is stale, and no one wants it. It is the same with girls. If a girl is not married by the age of 25, she is too old, and Jingle Bells are 'Single Bells' for her."

Another layer of this Christmas Cake metaphor is that Christmas Eve has become the designated night for Japanese boyfriends to propose marriage to their girlfriends. The stroke-of-midnight proposal is a staple of Japanese TV mini-series dramas. In real life, it causes much nervousness between dating couples.

(The cake pictured is from the Belle Epoque bakery in London. Highly recommended.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The end of the year is bonus time (yes, professors in Japan get bonuses!) followed by company parties to celebrate the bonuses. Loved that bonus. The parties . . . not so much. In Japan, drinking is a social mandate and I was a light drinker. My trick was to hold a drink, sip from it (or pretend to) whenever a kampai toast occurred, and not let the liquid level fall below the halfway point of the glass. If you drink below the glass's equator, servers magically appear to refill it and it's rude not to swallow a few more sips. But whether or not you drink, late December is the friendliest time of the year. Christmas decorations abound, red lanterns glow, street stands sell yakitori (shishkabob) late into the crisp cold nights, and total strangers sing karaoke together.

Monday, December 14, 2009


The type of tangerine we call Clementines, Japanese call mikan. Shizuoka, the California of Japan, was the top mikan growing region. The classic winter treat is to eat mikan sitting on the floor with your legs under a kotatsu, a low table with an electric heater under its surface and a comforter-type blanket on top to trap the heat below. Sitting on floors was never comfortable for me, so I didn't care for kotatsu, but I loved buying mikan fresh from neighborhood orchards.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dharma Doll Goals

Omnipresent in Japan, especially approaching the New Year, Dharma dolls, named after the founding monk of Buddhism, are sold with blank eyes. When you set a goal, you paint one eye of the doll. When you realize your goal, you paint the other eye. Most of the dolls (just heads) are like this one: made of paper mache with brushy beards and eyebrows and painted red, but some come in the colors of their regions. I saw a lot of one-eyed Dharma dolls in Japanese homes, but I don't remember seeing any with both eyes open.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

First Snow: 6 Dec 2009

I didn't experience much snow in Shizuoka City. Winters were cold, but snow didn't accumulate. Apartments had little to no insulation and no heaters (tenants buy their own). I recall laying my long underwear between the covers of my futon in order to make it warm enough to put on in the morning. Now, back in New England, I have snow outside (on my informal Japanese rock garden) and heat inside.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Remember OUTRUN?

Remember the early 1990s video arcade game in which you virtually drove a red car across the country as fast as you could? Believe it or not, I was one of the top ten players of Outrun in Shizuoka City. My initials remained on the scoreboard at least as long as I lived there. Closest I ever came to being a jock!