Plain Talk


Lesser known places to go in Tokyo

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens by Simon Duncan

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens (小石川植物園) are situated in Bunkyo Ward within walking distance of Myogadani Station on the Marunouchi Line or from Hakusan Station on the Toei Mito Line. The history of the garden stretches back to 1684 when shogunTsunayoshi Tokugawa set up a herb garden on this site. In 1877 ownership and management of the gardens was transferred to the University of Tokyo.

Today the gardens are still owned and operated by the University of Tokyo. Entry is 400 yen and the gardens are closed on Monday. Seeing as this is a botanical gardens people may imagine something as picturesque as Shinjuku Gyoen or Kew Gardens in London. To be honest, this is not the most beautiful garden in the world. As it is part of the University of Tokyo you may imagine that you can see the new statue of Hachiko here. Again, sorry, that is not to be found here (try the University of Tokyo, Hongo Campus:

So, if there is no dog statue, it's not amazingly attractive and costs 400 yen to enter, why come here? Firstly, it is large and quiet: 40 acres of park land is tough to find within the 23 wards. Also, the entry fee and the fact that it is rarely mentioned in any tourist literature means it is never going to be that crowded. A 10-15 minute walk from the nearest subway stations in a seldom visited part of the city also helps. The second reason to come here, aside from the pleasant, large gardens is for a slice of Tokyo history. Along with the gardens themselves and their long history you can learn about the history of the University of Tokyo, often regarded as the premier educational establishment in Asia.

In a nice setting by a pond that would make a pleasant picnic spot, you can visit a museum dedicated to the history of the medical department of the University, housed in a reconstructed 19th century building. The greenhouse in the gardens is closed for repair at the moment and it is unclear exactly when that will re-open. On the plus side I did find an ice cream vending machine on a recent visit that was fully operational!

For more information regarding opening times etc, please check their website which is available in both English and Japanese:

For a map from the subway stations please check the following link (only in Japanese):






Plain Talk


LIVING NEXT DOOR by Alma R. H. Reyes

What is it like “living together and growing together” in Japan?

First, in renting a place in Tokyo, you are painstakingly subjected to the disturbing real estate and landlord system of paying 2-months “reikin” (gift or key money that doesn’t return to you), 2-months “shikikin” (deposit that supposedly returns to you after the end of the contract), 1-month broker’s fee, and the first month’s rent―a total of six-month’s rent just for the initial payment. In other cities outside Tokyo, the payment values may differ, sometimes depending on the landlord system. In Kyoto, for instance, some real estate agencies charge 3-months reikin and 1-month shikikin, or 4-months shikikin, but zero reikin. Studio apartments may range from ¥70,000 up, while 2-3 bedroom flats can range from ¥100,000-200,000 or more, all depending on the building condition, location, close vicinity to the train station, etc.

Then, there are certain “rituals” foreigners need to practice as well. Ningen kankei (human relation) in Japan is a very intricate learning process, and can cause friction, stress and harsh social pressure if not observed well. For instance, the first thing you need to do when you have moved in to your new abode is to present small gifts to your immediate neighbors, introduce yourself with a bow, and the usual “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.”

In some cases, when you go away on a vacation, it is customary to inform your immediate neighbors about your absence, again, with the bow and “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.” Then, when you return, it would be better to offer them some “omiyage” gift as a gesture of thanking them for looking after your place. If you hold a party that may make some noise, you would appear polite to ask your neighbors for pardon in advance.

Do you have trees around your home? Watch out that the leaves don’t fall off on the property of your neighbor during a harsh typhoon or windy day! Do you know there is a property line around your home? If you own a bicycle, normally, you are not supposed to station your bicycle beyond your private property line.

When you are having some home repairs done that may involve pounding on the wall, sound of drilling, scaffolding on the exterior, or even the mere smell of paint, you may have to apologize to your neighbor in advance for the “inconvenience.” When the repair is over, you may be expected to again apologize and thank your neighbors for their patience, and offer them small gifts like fruit, soba noodles, or a piece of cake!

There are, indeed, so many rules to adhere to in Japan, and we have to be more sensitive in giving respect to our neighbors who on the other hand, also demand a high level of expectation from you, whether you’re a Japanese or not. Welcome to comfort living in Japan!

Unfinished business


I Did It! by David Gregory

She had been here before. But, those were tour-guided or hand-held visits. After living most of her life in white-bread suburban USA, driving everywhere, shopping in giant malls and supermarkets, and needing only one currency and one language, my mother ventured out on her own, within and beyond Chiba, during one trip to Japan. From her notes, here are Dorothy’s...

Grocery Shopping in Neighborhood―Walk five only one bag...walk five blocks back. Survived it!

Shopping in City Center―Walk six blocks to bus stop. Ride bus fifteen minutes. Arrive at stores. Walk around. Look. Decide: cookies.

Buying: “Ikura desu-ka how much?” Hmm. “Kakimasu kudasai write please.”

Paying options: give large bill, let clerk figure change, or open change purse, let clerk take out correct amount. Decide to just give some cash.

Clerk shakes her head (“NO! MORE!”), then counts out correct amount needed from register and shows me. I mimic her action from my change purse. Smiles! Deep bows with many, “Arigato gozaimasu thank you very much!”-es.
(My error: thought there was decimal point in Yen price....)

Open cookies, expecting pirouettes with chocolate centers. Instead, peanut butter waffle rolls, no chocolate. No wonder, now I see peanut sketch on package. “Shoganai can’t be changed,” I did it to myself. It could have been worse!
Travelling to Visit Friend’s Family on Other Side of Chiba―Walk ten blocks to train. Purchase ticket. Electronic lady on ticket machine screen says, “Arigato gozaimasu” and bows. Ride train twenty minutes, watching for correct stop, get off, walk seven blocks to house. I did it myself!

Visiting Hisae Overnight―My Japanese study partner in USA returned to Japan, now lives on other side of Tokyo Bay.

Take large purse and large tote bag with jacket, nightie, toothbrush, cosmetics. Walk six blocks to bus stop. Ride bus to train station. Ride train eighty minutes to Yokohama. Find correct exit from station. EASY. Did not even look at note in pocket explaining route and Japanese signs. And, look! Hisae and three-year old Kei are waiting! “Hello!” they say! Many hugs!

I did it!

Then, still more travel: train together fifteen minutes, short taxi uphill to lovely apartment, sunny and bright.

Returning to Chiba, just reverse process. Next time, we can meet at a station halfway in between. I can do it.
I can do it!

Copyright (C) 2015 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan

Book Revi]ew


Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras
By Leza Lowitz
Stone Bridge Press, 2015, 264 pp., \2251 (Paperback) /\1489 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Allan Cook

“Here Comes the Sun” is the autobiography of Japan based American writer Leza Lowitz. Born in San Francisco, Leza now lives in Tokyo with her Husband Shogo and their adopted son. Published on June 6th and printed by her home-state publishers Stone Bridge Press the novel is the journey of a woman in a foreign land in search of love, motherhood and ultimately of finding herself.

Hailing from one of the world’s most Asian and Japan-centric communities with about a half-million Japanese and over 5.5 million Asians, Leza, as all Californians, grew up in a deeply multicultural society with a deep Asian influence. With such deep connection to Asia and especially Japan it was no surprise that 1989 saw her first stint at life in Japan when she lived here in Tokyo until 1994.

Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras
By Leza Lowitz
Stone Bridge Press, 2015, 264 pp., \2251 (Paperback) /\1489 (Kindle)

In that time, Leza worked as a writer and literary translator utilising her knowledge, experiences and passion for Japan, by writing for the Japan Times in addition to lecturing on American literature at Japans most prestigious university, Tokyo University. Lowitz's translations included haiku and tanka a task that ultimately led her to writing her own books of poetry while in America. Published in 2001 “Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By”, saw Lowitz connect her other passion, discovered in her childhood, of Yoga and her desire to write.

It was that passion for Yoga that much of her life has been devoted, and which, in 2004 led her to return to Tokyo after a decade of absence. Opening a Yoga studio in Shinagawa, Lowitz finally began to see her life fall into place as the many seemingly disconnected pieces of her life finally connected, revealing their ultimate meaning. A road that would eventually lead her and her husband to revealing their greatest gift, Shinji the child they would eventually adopt.

It is from the Sanskrit teachings that each chapter of “Here Comes the Sun” is identified through its 8 Chakra titles. In Hindu according to the tantric yoga traditions, a chakra is a location on the subtle body! That is, the psycho-spiritual body! They are points of energy, points that channel our life force. Chakra also means “to move”, and is where the words origin can be found. As with all our lives, movement, change and adaptation are constant. Ultimately “Here Comes the Sun” is the Chakra of one woman's life and the connections that lead her through it to the understanding and wisdom that comes with that movement.

Tokyo Fab


Tokyo Fab: Holiday Recipe Edition by Joshua Lepage

Looking forward to osechi-ryori this year? None of my Japanese friends ever do -- aside from zoni mochi soup, which is awesome, I hear it all looks great but tastes kind of bland. And since I'm lucky enough to have a French-Canadian mother who'll keep me stuffed with meat pies, mashed potatoes, turkey and rich desserts throughout the holidays, I thought I'd share a little of the diet-ruining joy with you this year: her shortbread cookie recipe.
From what I understand, this recipe is printed (or used to be printed) on the side of cornstarch boxes in Canada. The resulting cookies look and taste great, but they're ridiculously easy to make. So men, I'm looking at you. If you need something more inspired than Kentucky Fried Chicken and store-bought cake to impress a girl this year, a box of homemade shortbread cookies might just do the trick.
-1/2 cup cornstarch
-1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
-1 cup all-purpose flour
-3/4 cup unsalted butter

Sift together the cornstarch, flour and sugar, then blend in the butter until you have a smooth dough. (If your butter's hard, just microwave it for a few seconds.) Make slightly flattened 2.5-centimeter balls, or roll the dough into a sheet and use cookie cutters to make your cookies. Bake at 300°F for 15 to 20 minutes. Simple, right?
Now, as you can see from the picture, the traditional thing here is to decorate them with sprinkles and candied cherries before baking, but if you're feeling fancy, try dipping them into melted chocolate once they're baked. If you don't know what a bain marie is, forget what I just wrote and plop a Hershey's Kiss onto each one of them instead. They're heavenly without any decorative bells and whistles, though. This recipe yields about 24 cookies - try not to eat them all at once!

What’s App With You?


Quizzitive - A Merriam-Webster Word Game:

Looking for a fun way to increase your English vocabulary? This app offers 10 difficulty levels that will teach you "1,000 words worth knowing" -- words selected by Merriam-Webster editors to challenge, intrigue, and contribute to a powerful vocabulary. The quizzes range from multiple-choice speed drills to illustrated "name that thing" questions, offering a good deal of variety. You will, however, need to purchase the full version of the app to unlock 8 of the 10 levels and turn off the app. But even the free version keeps track of your progress, compares your scores to other users, and lets you master some interesting new words. Give it a try!

A World of Ice and Fire:

Whether you're a fan of the books or prefer the TV show, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones have such a sprawling universe that it can be hard to keep track of all the characters and locations. This handy little app serves as a complete guide to the world created by G.R.R. Martin, including profiles for over 600 characters and guides to over 500 locations. You'll also find tons of maps, plenty of info on religions and houses, and some fantastic illustrations. If you're only partway through the series, the app even lets you specify what book you're reading and hides all spoilers automatically. One negative aspect of the app are the micro-transactions ("infopacks" specific to each book in the series, totaling a few hundred yen), but the free content is enough to keep you busy for hours.

Tokyo Voice Column


Make like a Dice and Roll by William Livingstone

There are many board games clubs in Japan, a fact I'm very happy about.

I love board games you see, although love might be too light a word for my passion for all things to keny and dicey. I really can't get enough and if I'm not consolidating my power over a newly founded Empire among the stars or decimating hordes of zombies with my umm... attack dog (he actually survived the whole game and won, so don't knock him) I want to be.

The first step is to check out a few websites, such as There you can find the wonderful world of JIGG (The Japan International Gaming Guild). There is a list of board game days on the page, with the fastest approaching dates at the top, complete with maps and a list of games that will be there.

It doesen't matter if you haven't played many games before, it's of no consequence if you don't know anyone there (you will soon) it's a trifing matter if your village is ransacked by marauders who later burn it to the ground and do a jaunty dance on the ashes, it's all part of the fun!

The days are usually from about 11am to 6 or 9pm at night, but you can stay as long as you like. There is usually a 200-400 yen entrance fee, depending on how many people are there, to cover the cost of the hall or pub. The events are spread across Tokyo to give everyone a chance to have one closer to home they can attend.

So come on down and do battle against the forces of evil, make some friends, and trust your luck and the dice gods!



まず、 のような仲間探しサイトをチェックしてみよう。すると日本国際ボードゲーム会、通称JIGG が見つかるだろう。 JIGGのページには上から開催間近なボードゲーム会が順番に掲載されている。日時と地図、それとゲーム内容が記されている。




Strange but True


Single losers protest against Christmas

A group of about 20 men marched through Tokyo's Shibuya district on December 19, protesting against Christmas.
The group, which call themselves Kakumeiteki Himote Domei (Revolutionary Losers' League) took offense to the commercialization of Christmas and its romantic nature in Japan. The head of the league, who identified himself by the pseudonym MarkWater, said that the rally was also in support of unloved men, who often feel left out of Japanese-style Christmas celebrations.
"In this world, money is extracted from people in love, and happy people support capitalism," he stated. "Christmas is the most symbolic event for this."
In the past, the league has also held marches to protest other Western holidays such as Valentine's Day.

Scientists attempt to find source of "Christmas spirit"

A recently published study in the British Medical Journal has used MRI scans to understand the differences between the brains of people who love Christmas and those who have more in common with Scrooge.
The team of researchers looked at the brain of 10 Christmas lovers and 10 people who did not celebrate the holiday. After presenting the subjects with pictures of everyday items and Christmas-related objects, researchers observed differences in three areas of their brains: the parietal lobules, related to spirituality, the premotor cortex, which is active when sharing emotional experiences, and the somatosensory cortex, also crucial to social interactions.
Although the researchers warn against using MRI results to analyze specific behaviors, these findings are intriguing and may be relevant to people who suffer from seasonal mood disorders.




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