Plain Talk

Big World, Little Cat
7 Stupidly Big and Small Things in Japan by Alex Parsons

One of the things that keeps surprising me in Japan is the size of everyday objects. Miniature dogs wandering big cities, huge sumo wrestlers squished into tiny cars... Every day there is something that makes me feel like I've been secretly downing the size potions in Alice in Wonderland. Here are some things that have really caught my attention:

1. Small - People
I know the Japanese are a smaller nation than us Aussies. The average height of Australian males is 178cm, and 164cm for females. Whereas in Japan the average male and female height is about 171cm and 159cm respectively. But I didn’t think my 174cm frame would cause such a stir. I'll never forget the time that I stopped by my favourite cafe in Nozawa Onsen after an autumn hike. An elderly couple in the cafe took a keen interest in me and after some small talk the husband asked to take a photo. Very excitedly, he made me stand next to his diminutive wife, and exclaimed that I was "Oki!" (huge).

2. Big - Bread
Japanese thick cut toast blows my mind (And my daily carb allowance...). I love how toast is categorised by its thickness in Japan. It means that when I buy the loaf with just 4 chunky pieces in it, I can tell myself I was good and only had one slice of toast today.

3. Small - Peanut cream
I am obsessed with this delightful peanut-toffee spread. But the containers are just so small! Don't they know I need truckloads of this magical goo? One tub lasts me 2 days. Yes, I know it should get me through the week, but I always end up going at it with a spoon and finishing it in one go. You don't have to say it. I know I have a problem.

4. Big - Dinner and drinks
When the Japanese do dinner and drinks, they do it right. I have never felt so sick-to-death full and yet wanted to keep eating so badly until I came to Japan. Last week my friends and I brought Christmas presents to a lovely old lady's house. She insisted we stay for dinner and then called up two other families to come over and join. Soon there were 6 of us around a table crowded with nabe, curry puffs, deep fried potato things, nozawana, sauteed meat, maki sushi, inari sushi, eggs, and 6 different types of sake we had to try. The Japanese do alcohol in a big way too - huge 1.8 Litre bottles of sake (Isshou-bin) and those hilarious 3 Litre Asahi beer cans that come with a handle on the side just so you can carry it. I could get used to this!

5. Small - Coffee
Whether it comes in those silly excuses for a can or at a real cafe, the size of coffee is always underwhelming. Ship this stuff in the form of megalitre vats please, and hook it up to my veins!

6. Big - Apples
I'm living in Nagano, which is famous for apples. These things are in such abundance they're passed around like a burden. I have friends who have accumulated over 40 apples because people just keep giving them to them. To make matters worse, these things are huge. I think I could fit 2-4 Australian apples inside one of them.

7. Small - Shoes
While I am yet to try it myself, I hear it is very difficult to buy shoes as a gaijin due to our godzilla-sized feet. What I have experienced personally is how bathroom slippers are simply not designed for me (as you can see in the photo). There's nothing like barely being able to fit your toes into a pink slipper to make you feel like a giant, unfeminine freak.

Plain Talk


Lesser known places to go in Tokyo
Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum by Simon Duncan

This collection of old buildings and structures, located in a large park in a quiet area in the western suburbs of Tokyo, actually has a better name in English than it does in Japanese. Edo Tokyo tatemono no en, literally translates to Edo Tokyo building park.

Edo is the former name for Tokyo, used from the period 1603 to 1868. So, you may expect to find a collection of buildings from that period. The seven hectare park doesn't disappoint and boasts around 30 buildings and structures from the Edo period up to early Showa period (1920s and 1930s).

These buildings, which range from large houses formerly inhabited by rich, influential people (including the creator of the Calpis soft drink) to an old public bathhouse, were carefully taken apart and lovingly re-constructed in the park. This provides a rare glimpse into the Tokyo of the past. Especially interesting is one street that boasts an old izakaya, a pharmacy, and a soy sauce shop amongst others. This part of the open air museum also has a street car and a police box, adding to the atmosphere of the Tokyo of days long gone.

The park is similar, but smaller, to Meiji Mura near Nagoya city which has a superb collection of old buildings including the entrance of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Imperial Hotel, formerly a Tokyo landmark. Despite being more compact than Meiji Mura in Nagoya, when I visited Edo Tokyo Outdoor Architectural Museum I spent around 3 or 4 hours wandering around (there is a decent amount of walking involved), not bad for 400 yen!

Children who are not yet in high school can enter for free (if they have proof of living in Tokyo). Children and animation fans may be interested to know that Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki also designed the mascot character for the park.

The park can be reached by taking a bus (or a long walk) from JR Musashi Koganei or Seibu Shinjuku line Hana Koganei and is closed Mondays (except national holidays). Please see their website for more details.

Finally a thank you to various volunteers that I talked to in the open-air museum, they were very friendly and able to answer all my questions about the buildings.








Unfinished business


HACKETTSTOWN by David Gregory

Boxing Day, raining hard on the two-lane highway winding between dark cliffs, our headlights poking snow piled heavy on fir trees, Yoshi driving, Naomi and Tomoe talking in back, following red tail lights streaming ahead, toward home, all tired after a long Whistler skiing day. “Dave, what is your best Christmas memory?” Tomoe asks me, switching to English.

Ah, Christmas...probably, with Aunt Roberta, about 1993, I think. Hackettstown, New Jersey. The best gifts show people you know something about them that they do not know themselves. That was one of those times.

Hackettstown snuggles up to the Appalachian foothills in the wilderness corner of New Jersey. Aunt Roberta is alone. She has lived most of her life in that big, old house that needs something done to that peeling gray outside. If she had the extra cash. She lost her husband when he was 35; her only son, Richard, in a construction accident a year after he returned from Vietnam; and her later longtime special friend, Joe, to cancer, just before the Christmas I went back.

She has not traveled in nearly 10 years due to her health. But, she holds her head high. Those strong blue eyes that have cried so many times still look straight at you, with love. Her soft voice calms you. Her fine silver hair is casually brushed back; she only takes care of things that really matter.

How does she keep going? She has a way of becoming attached to other families. Allison, next door, loves Aunt Roberta as she had loved her own mother. Allison’s little boy, Kaleb, calls Aunt Roberta, “Grandma”; he never met his own real grandmother. Eric and I always thought of Aunt Roberta as one of our grandmothers, too. She always told us to open her small packages before Christmas day. She knew little boys.

That Christmas in ‘93 I came in from Japan to meet Mom and Dad at Aunt Roberta’s. “Too far away,” she sometimes complained. But, she had always said, “Go.” Find out. Tell her about it. She would be waiting, back in New Jersey. “Write about it.”

The New York bus dropped me into Hackettstown’s snow and cold in front of the boarded up movie theater on Main Street. Mom and Dad came in from Chicago the next day, and we sat around the old table in the warm yellow brown kitchen. It looked like the usual Christmas Plan: early dinner out, gifts, visit Grandma the next day... lots of slow sitting... a routine more than a celebration. Yes, good to be with family, but... then the telephone rang.

Aunt Roberta called from the living room, “David, it’s your friend... he’s in the City... .”

Steve! With Heidrun! They made it... at Kennedy, just in from Germany. Can make a quick stop on their way to Buffalo tonight. “Finally, we’ll meet!” Mom said. After almost ten years, she would have a face to match the name of my good buddy from our early career trainee days at GE. Then, Mom and I sensed a chance. Why not invite a few others, too? Aunt Roberta would love it. I picked up the phone. Of course, Allison said. And with Jay, her husband, and Kaleb, and the new baby, Yeshua.

Allison and crew were already with us when Steve and Heidrun’s headlights finally swung into the driveway. We welcomed them in from the frosty night with hugs. Then, I popped outside and crossed the snowy yard to pull Angie out of her kitchen. “OK, but just for a few minutes,” she promised. “Angie Our Angel,” we called her. She often looked in on Aunt Roberta. Her eyes twinkled.

Coats and scarves piled in the kitchen, we packed into the living room. The party sparked to life all by itself. “So, you are...?”, “How do you know...?” Glasses of juice were poured, plates of baked sweet breads were passed around, fingers poked into bowls of spiced nuts. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about... ”, “Where do you...?” No music, no special lights, no decorations. Not needed. Only the stuffy sofa and armchairs encircling us.

And the old gray house had never seen such a potpourri of people! Look at tall, German-blooded Steve, with his German girlfriend Heidrun, educated in France and the USA. Allison, from Trinidad, descendant of Native Americans, sitting on the sofa. Jay, son of Indian parents, standing taller than us all, a little shy in the big group. Angie, on the other hand, daughter of Italian immigrants, squeezing her happiness into other arms or hands. And Mom, Dad, Roberta, and myself, the instigators, maybe looking like old timers in the New Country, but with roots that also went back to others brave enough to leave their homelands, in our cases Germany, England, Scotland, and maybe Wales. Who knows? It didn’t matter anymore where anyone was from.

“Ah, I’ve always wanted to....”, “How do they celebrate...?” Yeshua just smiled, cradled in Allison’s arms. Kaleb bounced around, greeting and investigating everyone his bright-eyed way, and finally, exhausted, flopped down into Grandma Roberta’s lap.

Swirling, glowing, an hour passed, filled with chatter, munching, and laughter. The old living room had never been so alive. And, in the middle, Aunt Roberta sat, quiet, soaking it in. Just smiling. But, if you looked behind her glasses, you would see teary eyes. “All these people, from so many places... came here... just for this,” she said to me in her soft voice. “You don’t know how happy I am. Oh, it’s just... .” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.

You see, Christmas is not always a happy time for Aunt Roberta. Richard was born on Christmas Eve.

Then, almost as fast as everyone had come together, it was over. Angie had food in the oven. Steve and Heidrun were still long hours from Buffalo. Yeshua was already asleep. Kaleb slumped like a rag doll over his father’s shoulder as they walked out. We waved good-byes from the back porch door and slowly returned to the suddenly empty living room.

Over, so soon. But, we made it happen, one magical hour, that year. For Aunt Roberta. She still asks me to write about it.

“My best Christmas memory? That would probably be from Hackettstown, in 1993... .” The four of us watch the wipers swish away the dark rain, the snow piled heavy on the fir trees. Hackettstown had lots of snow that Christmas. I’m wondering, now... how maybe I, too, received a best gift... one time... many times... in Hackettstown... .

The earliest version of this story I printed in my 1998 end-of-year holiday letter; a revision I read at the “Tribute to Roberta Lyon” memorial service in Hackettstown on 6 January 2001. Special thanks to Eric Gregory for editorial assistance.
Copyright (C) 2014 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan


Tokyo Fab

50 Shades of Yikes by Joshua Lepage

So, 50 Shades of Grey's finally hit the theaters. It's been making headlines constantly, too, with housewives arrested for masturbating in movie theaters and other shenanigans. I'm about as far as one gets from the intended audience for this thing, but after hearing so much about it, I decided to crack open the book and see what the fuss is about.
As 50 Shades was originally a piece of Twilight fanfiction, it came as no surprise to me that the titular character, billionaire Christian Grey, goes about seducing shy, virginal Ana by stalking her, watching her sleep, sending her lavish gifts roughly twelve minutes after meeting her, and generally acting like a creep.
After reading so many scathing reviews, too, I wasn't surprised by the frankly insulting portrayal of the BDSM scene. Grey bullies a girl he's just met into signing away all control over her own life, ignores their previously agreed-upon safe word, and, most egregiously, has a dark, traumatic past that made him into a sadist, as if all BDSM enthusiasts are broken people.
No, what really got to me was the quality of the writing. 50 Shades reads a lot like some form of alien life spent about two days observing human sexual behavior and wrote a really bad entry about it for its travel blog. The straw that broke the camel's back, for me, was a beautiful moment when Ana, after waking up for the first time in Christian Grey's house, surreptitiously brushes her teeth with his toothbrush because "it would be like having him in my mouth." We readers are supposed to see this as an erotic, thrilling little moment. Forget the badly-written spankings and floggings; this, right here, is the stuff of nightmares.
I hear the 50 Shades movie is just as laughable as the books are, but it's the books I want to heartily recommend. For a good giggle and, if you're an aspiring writer or editor, some great examples of what NOT to do, skip the movie and pick up the novels instead. Just make sure to get them from a used bookstore so E.L. James isn't encouraged to produce a fourth volume of offensive pseudo-BDSM dreck.

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Tokyo Voice Column

Thirteen Good Turns by David L. Gregory

My mother had just called and told me about the passing of a special person. Bicycle to the beach, I decided. Take and leave the sadness there.

On my way, a changing traffic light diverted me onto a street where I passed an elderly Japanese woman struggling alone with the back wheel of her bicycle. A hooked cord had slipped off the rear basket, caught on a spoke, and wrapped tight around the hub. The wheel would not budge. The woman’s fine, frail fingers were no match for the spokes. She was on the verge of crying.
The beach could wait a few minutes.

My trying to untangle the cord and pull it off was not working when a young Japanese mother and her daughter passing by on bicycles stopped and asked if we needed help.
“Tools,” I said. The mother promised to return in five minutes with her husband’s box.
The beach became less urgent.

The woman and I chatted while we waited. She was 83 years old, lived alone nearby, and was going shopping. “Honto-ni, domo arigato gozaimasu! Really, thank you so very much!” she said over and over.

The young mother returned, and with a few twists of her husband’s screwdriver and pliers I pried loose the hook and freed the cord. The woman thanked the young mother, and then me, again.

After the wheel was rotating again, I bent the hook back into shape, against the women’s protests, and re-attached the cord to the rear basket. She pulled out her wallet as I gave the wheel a final checking spin and offered me \2,000.
“No, no. You keep that.”
She insisted; I resisted.
“No, you helped me. That’s enough. Thank you!”
The sadness from my mother’s news never made it to the beach.







Strange but True

Stoned wallabies make crop circles

It's long been proven that crop circles, intricate geometrical patterns found in fields and supposedly made by aliens, are the work of creative pranksters with too much time on their hands. This time, though, crop circles found in a Tasmanian poppy fields were shown to have a much more entertaining origin.
Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the state of Tasmania, recently reported that wallabies had been finding their way into poppy fields grown for medical uses. The kangaroo-like marsupials would eat the crops until they got high, then walk around in circles.
It seems that walking around in circles is common in animals who've ingested poppies, as sheep have also been spotted making these drug-induced crop circles.

Warrant issued for Elsa

Elsa from the popular movie Frozen may be impervious to cold, but the winter has been harsh enough in Kentucky to move a local police department to issue a warrant for the arrest of the Disney queen.
After more than a foot of snow fell over parts of Kentucky, police in the town of Harlan posted the following Facebook message: "Suspect is a blonde female last seen wearing a long blue dress and is known to burst into song 'Let it Go!' As you can see by the weather she is very dangerous."
The police department then used the attention they got from this message to remind all residents to take the weather seriously and be careful. Elsa, meanwhile, remains on the run.



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