Plain Talk


Visiting Japan by Georgina Miller

I’d always wanted to visit Japan and in the spring of 2013 I finally landed. Considering I’d watched NHK World for a number of years and also read up on the country before arriving, I believed myself to be well equipped knowledge-wise and thought that I’d be able to avoid committing any embarrassing faux pas over the course of the trip. Oh how wrong I was.

Mistake number one came in a deceptively familiar guise. It was our first morning in Tokyo and we'd somehow remembered the directions to Okachimachi station from our hotel. Considering how close we were to the area, our first destination was Yodobashi Akiba. My boyfriend’s a big fan of Gunpla and I love all things beauty, so it was a win-win situation.

It was quite early in the morning but even so, the shop was bustling when we arrived. We headed straight for the escalators and stood on the right hand side, as we would do in the UK. The man behind me seemed really fidgety and kept sighing, but I thought he was just generally in a rush. It was only after my second or third escalator trip that I noticed that people stood still on the left hand side, whilst people on the right walked.

Mistake number two seems so obvious to me now, remembering it still makes me die a little inside. It was raining heavily the day we visited Harajuku to do some shopping and general exploring. Lowering our umbrellas, we walked into one of the stores on the main strip and expertly managed to overlook the plastic cover dispenser at the door. I’d never heard of disposable umbrella covers and, as is the case in the UK, thought it normal to leave a small trail of water on the ground as we browsed.

After a minute a very polite, yet obviously agitated sales assistant approached us and gestured to the dispenser. Another couple had just walked in and I watched, cringing, as they popped their umbrellas in and tugged them out, all neatly wrapped in plastic. We offered a hasty apology and exited the shop.

A few other memorable incidents included us forgetting that some restaurants use ticket machines in place of ordering at the table (the waiter literally walked us to the machine and helped us choose what we wanted), and taking a train ride next to an older Japanese lady who decided to ask my boyfriend various questions in Japanese, none of which he could answer. Each time he shook his head she laughed a little harder, until her face was a bright, red, beetroot colour. Luckily it was our stop not long after, and she was finally able to catch her breath.

Silly mistakes aside, we were charmed by the sheer variety of things to do and see in Tokyo. My boyfriend and I were lucky enough to visit Japan again earlier this year and, thankfully, didn’t come back with nearly as many embarrassing stories to tell.


Plain Talk


Secret Garden by Hiroko

When I lived near Waseda University in Shinjuku-ku, I found a temple with a not-so-large, yet lovely garden adjacent to a graveyard. For some reason, its stately gate with its wooden double doors facing the main street was always locked, and a smaller gate to the side was used instead. You need to turn in to a back street and walk up some 20 or 30m along the wall to reach the smaller gate, so not many passersby drop in unless they come specifically to visit it. It took me two out of the three years that I lived in the area to finally noticed the temple and wander in.

A temple’s premise is half private, half public, I suppose. I like walking through temples for their greenery and quietness, but when I enter a small temple without any specific purpose, I feel somewhat guilty, or secretive, as if an obo-san would rush out at any minute and accuse me of trespassing on her property. Once I was actually stopped and asked if I was paying a visit to someone’s tomb at a small temple in Taito-ku. They must have had some bad experiences with rascals who let themselves in and played practical jokes. Other times I pretended that I was looking for an acquaintance’s tombstone, strolling slowly among the oblongs of gravesites.

So I was feeling that way when I first stepped into this particular temple. Passing through the small gate, I saw the thick shade of trees to the left beyond a metal door. Locked? No, it creaked open.

I found myself standing in an enclosure of trees and bushes. To the right, I could see the graceful slope of tile-roofing through the leaves. To the left, a raised mound with an arbor housing a large bronze bell hanging from the ceiling. Beyond the belfry lies the graveyard. Despite the fact that the garden and the graveyard were located along the main street (I could now see the large wooden gate at the back of the garden, heavily bolted, with thick timber lining the inside) quietness prevailed as if it were a separate small universe. I stood still for a time in amazement. It was a secret garden.

Since the first time I discovered the garden, I returned time and time again while I lived in the neighbourhood. I visited there mostly on the way to or from my Saturday grocery-shopping, for the vigor of the garden never failed to give me a lift. The frequency of my visits has dropped since I moved, but I can still cycle to the temple reasonably easily.. I was there in late March when the weeping cherry tree was in full bloom in the garden. I sat on the dusty wooden veranda running around the main hall, listening to birds chirping and looking out over the garden. The willow-like cherry blossoms swayed in streams, sending petals on to my shoulders and lap.

The last time I was there, the weeping cherry tree was covered in fresh green.

Sitting on the veranda of the temple, I detected a smell that was almost familiar to me; faintly acrid, kind of similar to a type of herbs Ah, it was the smell of the old bathtub in my childhood! Made of cypress and oval-shaped, the smell of wood rose from the deep tub and I breathed in the scented steam as I soaked in the warm water years ago. When rubbed on with fingertips, the tub felt slick and at the same time a little fluffy on the surface under the water. The veranda was probably made of cypress too.

Triggered by the image of the ancient bathtub in the old Japanese house of my childhood, other images connected to the bathroom came back as well; afternoons in summer, me and my little brother, aged six and four, ran back home in their swimming suits in the sudden squall from the concrete neighbourhood reservoir; made into a makeshift kids’ swimming pool. Our flip-flops pitter-pattered hard under our feet, kicking dirt up, drawing spots on our thin, childish calves. We jumped in the bathtub together. We shot water at each other through linked fingers. We were safe now. Outside, raindrops hit the roof hard, drowning the world in slanted white sheets. Thunder rolled, and we imagined an enormous, ogre-like God of Thunder beating gigantic drums up in the grey sky. We were psyched up and happy.

A fat cricket with long and strong hind legs would lurk in the damp corner. It was scary because it leaped high in unexpected directions. I desperately ran for fear of accidentally stepping on it, its slimy juice all over the sole of my bare foot. We children were not assigned to cleaning the floor. Mother did all the cleaning, and I suppose it was quite an unpleasant task with all the slime and grime and tangled hair and possible crickets and snails hiding under the floor board.

It was quiet in the garden. The metal door creaked and someone came in.. He was in samue, the Japanese working clothes that Buddhist priests wear. He walked briskly toward the belfry. After a moment, there came a strong, vibrating sound of the bronze bell. Dinnnnnggg…. Donnnnnngggg…. I imagined the priest holding onto the strap attached to the lumber mallet and swinging his body, building the right momentum to drive the lumber to the bell. I felt the sound on my skin as well as well within ear drum. The bell sounded 18 times, and went silent. The priest came back and looked over at me. I nodded, he nodded back, and he then disappeared beyond the metal door, which he left open behind him.

The quietness returned again. A truck rumbled down the street outside, but the noise didn’t register. My mobile read 5:11p.m. The late afternoon light was slanting low, but it was still some time before dusk. I stood up, dusted my backside lightly, stretched my arms up; ready to go.

This is my secret garden. I can’t tell you exactly where it is.










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


Tanabata by Joshua Lepage

You might be noticing lots of pieces of paper tied to bamboo or trees this week. These decorations are part of the Tanabata Festival, which celebrates the yearly meeting of the deities Orihime (the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (the star Altair).
The festival was initially imported from China to Japan in 755 by Empress Kouken. Although it was celebrated only in the Kyoto Imperial Palace at first, the festival became popular in the Edo period (1603-1868) and is still celebrated throughout Japan today.
According to legend, Orihime was a princess who wove beautiful cloth for her father Tentei, the Jade Emperor, by the side of the Milky Way. Because she was lonely, Tentei arranged for his daughter to meet the cow herder Hikoboshi, who lived on the other side of the Milky Way. They fell in love and married, but as a result, Orihime could no longer weave cloth for her father, and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander freely. To punish them, Tentei put the lovers on either side of the Milky Way and forbade them to meet. Upon seeing his daughter's sadness, though, he decided to allow them to meet once a year -- on July 7th.
Today, perhaps in reference to the original "Festival to Plead for Skills" that later became Tanabata, people generally celebrate July 7th by writing wishes on small strips of paper called tanzaku, which are then tied around trees or sticks of bamboo. It's a great excuse to party, so you can expect tons of parades and events all over Japan. The largest Tanabata festival is held in Sendai from August 6 to 8, but check your nearest shopping street or temple for local festivities. It's a great occasion to learn more about local culture, see the colorful tanzaku, and stuff yourself with street stall food.
And speaking of tanzaku -- since colors are an obsession of mine, I'll close this column by explaining why those little paper strips are traditionally white, black, green, yellow and red. It's simply in reference to the five Chinese elements of metal, water, wood, fire and earth, which are associated with these colors. These days, though, black is often replaced by purple, which looks more festive and is also fairly close to black in terms of symbolism: as they were both very expensive dyes to produce, they're both associated with nobility and luxury. But depending on where you go to celebrate Tanabata this year, you're just as likely to see tanzaku in pretty rainbow hues that have no connection to the traditional five colors.

What’s App With You?


80 Days:

Don't be turned off by the price -- with oodles of gushing reviews from publications like The Guardian, Edge Magazine, and the New York Times, it's obvious that this steampunk-inspired game has something unique to offer. The player is put in the shoes of Phineas Fogg, who's bet that he can circumnavigate the world in just 80 days. From there, it's all up to you: you can travel by submarine, airship, steam train, or even mechanical camel, encountering different challenges along the way. The clock keeps on ticking to create a fantastic piece of interactive fiction that blends strategy and resource management, and you'll definitely want to play it over and over again to try other routes around the world and see what you missed on your first playthrough.

Jurassic World:

With a mega-dino expo coming to Tokyo and Jurassic World's recent release, a lot of people are sure to have dinosaurs on the brain this summer. And to coincide with the latest movie release, Ludia's come up with a cool little park-building game based on Jurassic World and its characters. The player is put in charge of Isla Nublar and must gather resources, expand the theme park and bring to life more than 50 dinosaurs. It's a little heavy on the optional micro-transactions, but the app itself is free, and it's easy to progress without paying a single yen. Definitely a fun little distraction for '80s and '90s kids who grew up with the Jurassic Park franchise and want to relive a slice of their childhood.

Tokyo Voice Column


LGBT Pride Parade Shows Positive Changes in Tokyo by Ken Saito

On Sunday, Tokyo had its annual Pride Parade in the Shibuya district. More than 3000 people showed their support for the LGBT community. Some participants were also able to join a walk starting from Yogogi Park going through Shibuya and then ending in full circle back at Yoyogi Park.

Appropriately, some people were as bright as the weather on the day. Among a sea of rainbow flags were some equally bright and flamboyant fashion choices giving the event a fun and lighthearted feel. It was all done of course in a uniquely Japanese way.

It was surprising to see the amount of support the parade had on the day. Japan still has a traditional view towards LGBT people but from the amount of support present on the day, it seems views are indeed changing with the times. Japan still has some way to go but this was a step in the right direction.

People from all walks of life were in attendance. Families with small children, tourists, businesses, and even representatives from from embassies were all keen to show a positive shift in perception towards the LGBT community.

There hasn't been as much political debate on LGBT issues in Japan as there are in other countries. Only last month, Shibuya was the first district in Japan to allow unions between same sex couples. Japanese LGBT make up 7.6 percent of the population.

While the event did feel joyful and positive, 3000 participants in a city with a population around 14,000,000 is only a small drop in the sea. There's still some way to go for full equality and acceptance but taking small steps like the Pride Parade to get the message across are crucial.






Strange but True


Blue eyes linked to alcoholism?

According to a new study by genetic researchers at the University of Vermont, people with blue eyes may be at a higher risk of becoming alcoholics.

The study, led by Arvis Sulovari and Dawei Li, uncovered a correlation between European-Americans with light-colored eyes (including green and grey) and alcohol dependency. The strongest tendency was among blue-eyed people, suggesting that there may be a link between the genetic components that determine eye color and those linked with excessive alcohol consumption.

Li has submitted a grant application to delve deeper into the subject using a genetic database of over 10,000 individuals he has built with the help of fellow physicians and scientists.

Woman sleepwalks into the sea

Marie Lord, a 39-year-old woman from Britain, was shocked to wake up one night by swallowing a mouthful of seawater.
After leaving her home around 1:30 a.m., she walked for more than 800 meters to the beach, went down some steep stairs, and only regained consciousness after entering the cold water. When she walked back onto shore, disoriented, a nearby hotel employee heard her cries for help and called emergency services.
Marie had not had a sleepwalking episode since the age of 13, and her dangerous nighttime dip into the sea occurred after she settled down for the night as usual. "It's absolutely mind blowing to think about what could have happened," she stated. "All I remember is seeing is a flashing star and it all seemed like a dream."



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