Plain Talk


Small and Incredible by Alma R. H. Reyes

Miniaturization is a widely known phenomenon in Japanese culture-seen in the bonsai, o-bento box, or tiny trinkets hanging from teenagers' bags. This mentality arises from the Zen teaching of "small but powerful" - the compactness of rooms, toilets, or traditional oshire closets that fit exactly the width of futons.

The traditional Japanese home has historically been built on a concept of communal living where in families occupy a single room utilized for all purposes. We find the low kotatsu (low table with built-in heating underneath it) sitting in the middle of tatami mat room where everyday life circulates. Here, the family gathers around eating mikan oranges while watching television; the child works on his homework; the family eats their meals together; the husband sits to read his newspaper; the wife folds the laundry: the guests are entertained: and, at the end of the day, here, the table is set aside, and the space is replaced with futons where the family sleeps together. This compact living makes no room for privacy and independency, yet psychologically provides a safe mental niche for security and a sense of belongingness, even if its un-isolated structure ironically creates a subconscious isolation that sets the Japanese part from everything that exists outside those wooden walls.

The capsule hotel is another explicit sample of Japanese miniaturization and compact culture. First introduced in Osaka around the late 1960s, the concept of a tight "livable" glass enclosure, measuring roughly 1.25m x 2m, perfectly accommodated busy Japanese salary men who commute from city to city, and must survive on a budgeted income. Usually priced at around 2,000 to 4,000 yen, the capsule room has just enough space from head to foot to sleep in, in an almost coffin-like box equipped with a television, wireless internet connection, mirror, and clock. Toilets and showers are shared, and only men are allowed in the hotel. Would a traveling foreign businessman, equally busy as the Japanese salary man, choose to sleep in a tight, claustrophobic glass box void of any possible leisurely movement, even for just a night?

In fact, we are all pitiful victims of cold isolation and miniaturization in this digital era, wherein our supposedly simple and proactive life has been compartmentalized in a tiny, super mega techno rectangle: the smart phone. And, the Japanese are either to be admired or be stupefied by their tremendous capacity to take in such a "tight" manner of living.






Plain Talk


3 Japanese Things I’ll Miss & 3 I Won’t by Alex Parsons

With the summer coming, my time to return to Sydney is approaching. It’s not forever, 6 months at most, but I’ve become so used to Japan that I expect a little bit of culture shock and nostalgia upon my arrival. And yet there are also some things that I’ll be glad to leave behind. Here’s what I will and won’t miss about Japan:

Won’t Miss − Smoking Everywhere
When it comes to smoking, I feel that Japan is very behind the times. You can smoke in restaurants, bars, even hotels. This is a real novelty for Australians as smoking is banned nearly everywhere (including some university campuses) but for non-smokers like myself it’s frustrating. I don’t appreciate having dinner with carcinogens floating over my food, or coming home from a bar with my hair and clothes smelling hideously smoky.

Will Miss - Mochi, Tofu & Bento Boxes
I’ll probably miss a lot of Japanese food, but these are the ones that are tricky to find in Australia. I’ll miss the stunning variety of mochi available everywhere (mochi skewers, sakura mochi, the ones with strawberries in them!) and the aisle dedicated to all different types of ridiculously cheap tofu. Oh, and bento boxes. Sometimes picking one up from a convenience store or train station can make your day. I rarely know what everything is but that’s half of the appeal.

Won’t Miss − Carb Loading
I’ve ranted about this before...but I will not miss the amount of white carbs that enter my diet on a daily basis. Thick white toast for breakfast, rice with lunch, rice with dinner, maybe some bakery treats for a post-snowboarding snack. In Australia I followed a low-carb diet, but in Japan that’s practically impossible.

Will Miss − Uber Politeness
I remember the last time I came back from Japan and landed in the Gold Coast. How loud Australians were and how much they swore hit me like a slap in the face. Now I’ve spent 8 months in a quiet, rural village where the people are kind and giving, know you by name and will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. I will miss friendly store people who actually care about your needs instead of what they’re doing after work. I’ll miss saying hello to everyone I pass on the street. I’ll miss the attitude of putting others before yourself, and having that reciprocated.

Won’t Miss − Old School Technology
I worked in a Japanese office for a few months and was shocked to discover that faxes were still in use. Japan is so technologically advanced and is leading the way in a lot of electronic fields − but so very traditional in other areas. I was surprised I might need a hanko (signature stamp) to open a bank account, that I had to walk down to the town office to register my presence in the village, that health insurance had to be paid in person at the bank, and that few shops allowed credit card purchases. And don’t get me started on the lack of free Wi-Fi and how foreigners can’t use their phones in Japan.

Will Miss − Mountains
Australia is a very flat country. But like a cat, I love high places and have adored being able to get up into the mountains. The big mountains of Nagano mean amazing snowboarding, stunning views and hiking − 3 of my favourite things! There’s just something life affirming about getting to the top of a mountain and looking out across the world, seeing snowy runs zig zagging down the faces, and gazing out across row upon row of peaks fading into the blue.

All good things must come to an end. But I’ll be back!

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


Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum (And Why You Should Go There) by Joshua Lepage

If you're a Tokyo Notice Board regular, you'll already be aware that we cover a whole bunch of museum exhibits, usually ranging from Impressionism to Impressionism and even, shockingly, Impressionism. (Seriously, what's with Japan and Impressionism?) This week, I thought I'd throw in something a little different from our usual line-up of museums: the Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum, which I sadly never hear about despite the fact that it's really cool.

And honestly, I wouldn't have heard about it either if it hadn't been right next to the college I attended for two years. It's sort of out of the way, sitting by the side of Koshu Kaido about eight minutes from Shinjuku Station's South Exit, and it's easy to not to notice the small entrance among the line-up of boring grey office and college buildings.

Step inside, though, and you'll be amazed by their collection. It spans not only Japan (including a superb line-up of Edo-period kimono) but also Europe, with everything from 18th-century Rococo to Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint-Laurent classics. And there's plenty more -- I even had the chance to see some great African and Chinese pieces when I was in Japan.

This summer (from June 6 to July 31), Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum will be hosting an exhibit focused on war-influenced clothing, ranging from military-inspired women's suits from 1940s America to a mix of Japanese- and Western-style clothes from the Meiji and Showa periods. And since I'm stuck in Canada and can't go despite my love for everything military-influenced, I'm counting on you guys to go in my stead and give this oft-overlooked museum some love. General admission is only 500 yen and it's right in Shinjuku, so really, there's no excuse not to check it out.

If military clothes just aren't your thing, keep an eye on the museum anyway! They'll be hosting another very cool exhibit later this year, focused on clothing and accessories that a variety of ethnic groups wore for spiritual or good-luck properties rather than for physical protection. Awesome theme, right? And why are you still reading this, anyway? Check for directions and go enjoy some fabulous clothes. Shoo!

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Tokyo Voice Column


Living in Tokyo for twenty something year olds. by Charlotte Woods

Having now lived in Tokyo for almost two months I have fallen in love a little bit more each day with a city that by its true nature seeks to excite, enthral and embrace those who embark upon its streets. Tokyo - a city whose culture, colour and spirit ignite surprise and unprecedented joy into the hearts of even the most experienced travellers. A city to be explored and feasted upon, a city which will never tire and will by no means cease to amaze.

Originally living and working in London moving to Tokyo was quiet a change from the everyday ‘norm’. As every dutiful traveller is obliged to do so, I did my research and scrolled through the endless Internet articles and links, blogs and vlogs. Insightful as they were, they didn’t do anything to prepare me for what I might actually feel once I had and started to settle into my new life as an expat living on these distant shores.

If I can provide you all with perhaps one analogy to summarise the feelings evoked during my time here, it is the sense of living within an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world. As a Western traveller you have fallen down a rabbit hole and ended up in a place full of unexpected twists and turns, where everything is a wonderful surprise and above any expectation you might have had. Walking through Harajuku and eyeballing the perfectly and creatively dressed to looking down at the world from tilted windows of Tokyo’s SkyTree, you will be lead through doors − in to bars and restaurants where imagination, expertise and culture all seemingly roles into one beautiful experience. An experience where there is something for everyone, a realm of wonderment, variety and soul.




Strange but True


Miss Piggy receives feminist award

Popular porcine Muppet Miss Piggy was recently recognized for her contributions to society with a feminist award at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
The annual Sackler Center First Awards honor women who are first in their fields, and Elizabeth A. Sackler, the president of the Center for Feminist Art, stated that she chose Miss Piggy because she embodies exceptional spirit, determination and grit, teaching generations of fans about overcoming obstacles.
Long-time boyfriend Kermit the Frog was in the audience for the ceremony, which included a 20-minute retrospective of Miss Piggy's career. Miss Piggy stated that she was "thrilled, but frankly, not surprised" to be receiving the award.

Convicted killers escape prison, leave note

David Sweat and Richard Matt, two inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary near the United States-Canada border, caused a massive manhunt on June 6 after escaping using power tools and tunnels.

Apparently inspired by the film "Escape from Alcatraz", the two men set up makeshift dummies in their cells and left a note behind that said simply "Have a nice day!" before sneaking out of the prison. They did so by breaking through its thick walls and steel pipes, finally escaping through a manhole.

Sweat and Matt are the first inmates to escape the maximum-security portion of the prison since it was built in 1865. They remain at large, leaving investigators baffled as to how they obtained power tools and gained such detailed knowledge of the prison's infrastructure.



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