By our calculation . . .

We have had many unexpected experiences in Japan.  Perhaps as unexpected as any of them was out visit to the Tomoe Soroban Company.  Soroban (そろばんis the Japanese word for abacus, the ancient calculating device that began in Mesopotamia as long ago as 2700 BC (before computers).

yohei_baseballHow did this happen?  Well, we have had almost no bad meals in Tokyo, but one day, we were in a rush and out of breakfast groceries and we ended up in a local restaurant that serves “English and Turkish breakfast”.  It wasn’t so good, but we happened to sit next to two young Japanese.  One of them, Yohei, spoke particularly good English.  He turned out to be a college student, a senior at Keio University, a large and prestigious Tokyo university.  He pitches for their baseball team.  Both he and his friend Wako were charming.  We talked about sports and he invited us to go to a soccer game at Ajinomoto Stadium, home of the Japan national team and also FC Tokyo.  (Yohei is a great name for a baseball player – I told him his nickname should be the Yo Hei Kid, after Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid.)

A few weeks later, Yohei and Wako picked us up and off we went to the game. Since the only food was KFC and Fiona doesn’t eat meat, after the game we ended up having a terrific dinner together in a great izakaya in Roppongi.  There, over some utterly delicious sashimi, we learned that Yohei’s mother, Tomoe, is the CEO of the Tomoe Soroban Company, Japan’s leading maker and seller of abaci.  (The company was founded many years ago by Tomoe’s father and named after her.)  And his mother extended a compelling invitation to visit the company.  So, off we went a few days before our return to LA, to the company’s Yotsuya headquarters.

Tomoe Soroban Company Japanese-style abacus

After a warm welcome, we were ushered into a classroom where we learned how to use a Japanese abacus (photo to come later).  Unlike the Chinese ones you may have seen, which have two and five beads per row, the Japanese version has one and four.  And it works!  If you’d like to see how, and also learn why the Chinese ones have more beads – take a look!!  There are plentiful resources on the web to learn how to do more complicated tasks than mere addition and subtraction. Michael and Fiona come at this from very different perspectives – Michael is the numbers person in the family who can’t remember images, Fiona the artist who can remember artwork and landmarks but has a less friendly relationship with numbers.  But both of us were able to master the basics within a few minutes.  And we were given an abacus as a memento, on which Michael at least is refining his skills, slightly concerned that he will learn the abacus faster than he is learning Japanese.

leaving_with_Yohei_smAnd after our visit, our gracious hosts took us out to something that all can enjoy without regard for their prowess on the abacus or its slower rival, the electronic calculator – soba and dashi!

When our visit to Japan came to an end a few days later, Yohei drove us all the way to Narita.  The kindness we have received in Japan extended to our very last hours there.

What We Already Miss

This phase of our Japanese adventure has ended and we landed on July 9 back in Los Angeles.  We have had an amazing time living in Tokyo and there are so many things that we will miss.  We made a list, some important, some more trivial.  Here it is.  We’ll probably add to it.

  • Our many friends in Japan
  • Subways, trains and the shinkansen (the bullet train), and not having to drive
  • Suica cards – the easy way to get around and pay for things – swipe right or left
  • Quiet – people don’t shout or honk their horns.  We could have lived without the electioneering vans, however.  Half of Japan’s Upper House was elected the day after we left and the candidates were out in force with all to efficient loud hailers
  • Safe – we have spoken about this but we still marvel.  The West has got rid of public lockers due to bomb threats but in Japan they are plentiful and multi-sized
  • The customer service ladies at Oakwood, Aya, Ayaka, Izumi, Keiko and Miki
  • No trash – we have seen way more trash on the streets since we got back to LA than we saw in four months in Japan
  • Kindness and consideration – and speak 5 words of Japanese and you will be greeted with 「ああ、日本語上手ですね」 (aa, nihongo jozu desu ne – oh, isn’t your Japanese so skillful)
  • Nobody gives directions, they take you there, even when it’s radically out of their way – really, this happened to us many times
  • いっらしゃいませ (irrashaimase) – the ubiquitous greeting in every place of business
  • No tipping – it would be an insult if you implied that a tip was needed to get good service
  • Ice packs for cold grocery items – so cute, and really helpful
  • Packaging – for good or ill, the Japanese (over) package everything, but beautifully
  • On the other hand, presents . . . every time you go out to dinner with friends, every time you visit a place of business for the first time, lovely, thoughtful and, of course, beautifully wrapped
  • Jazz instead of Muzak – so many places in Tokyo play music you actually are happy to hear, especially welcome in Peacock Stores, our favorite market
  • Food – there is a myth that it’s expensive to eat in Japan.  It certainly can be.  But there’s no need.  Food is sensational and so varied and you can easily find places to eat a lot for very little, often at bargain sub-basement prices
  • Sushi go round – the conveyor belt sushi, so much food, so much fun, such low prices
  • Sashimi – yes, you can get in LA but in Japan, so good and so plentiful
  • Adzuki mochi and onigiri – Fiona-sustaining snacks every day (Michael developed a taste for the soy-based soft serve at Shibuya Station)
  • Pastries – more marvelous pastry shops everywhere than you can shake a baguette at, especially in subway and train stations
  • Great coffee everywhere – we mean everywhere
  • Convenience stores  (コンビニ) and vending machines everywhere, by which we mean abso-blooming-lutely everywhere
  • Hand towels in restaurants – before you eat
  • Clean public toilets, warm seats – even in public parks and train stations, hole in the wall restaurants, wherever you went, toilets were clean and spotless, not to mention warm and comfy
  • City life – people on the streets; the Shibuya scramble
  • Discovering things in a walkable city – see our postings here, here and here. Oh, and here and here and here.  And many more.
  • Exploring small streets – safe, fun, constantly unexpected and surprising
  • M Sugawara – our favorite clothing store (well, OK, Fiona did lose it at the Issey Miyake shop at Mitsukoshi in Ebisu, but apart from that).  Located in Aoyama tantalizingly close to our apartment.  See, for example, the hat in Hats and Cemeteries.
  • Department store food halls – all over Japan, they make the Harrods Food Halls look like a suburban Tesco.
  • Tea ceremony – so very refined, although one is occasionally reminded that some of Japan’s most bloodletting shoguns were big fans
  • Bowing – it’s really a civilized way to greet and acknowledge
  • Japanese baseball – see Take Me Out to the . . . Yakyu and GO GO Swallows.
  • Aoyama – our ‘hood.  From the day we arrived (nearly) to the day before we left, the day we left, we were still discovering its by-ways
  • Museums – Fiona visited 30+, many of them more than once, and Michael was not far behind
  • Being in a bubble, especially during Brexit and the 2016 elections – we just got an occasional reminder seeing the silent but captioned CNN screen bla(the)ring at us as we passed through reception at the Oakwood
  • Sakura – see Sakura, cherry blossom:  the meaning of Life and subsequent entries
  • Signs and the Japanese love affair with the English language – we tried really hard not to make fun, but some of the translations were simply unforgettable.  Who could resist the kleptomaniac lobster or wine by the grass?

Home Stretch

Just a few more hours.  Four months seemed like an eternity when we began and feels like a flickering of an eyelash now.  It has not dimmed our enthusiasm.  We will be happy to be home among our family, our friends and our colleagues, but we will also truly miss much of what we will leave behind.

We are therefore on the lookout for a better Japanese word than シャーデンフロイデ (sha-den-fu-ro-i-de – thanks, Google Translate) to describe our feelings.

Some measured reflections are certainly in order but our overwhelming feeling about our time in Japan has been joy.  Joy at the beauty and diversity of our surroundings, wherever we have been, whether in our remarkable Aoyama neighborhood with its constant new discoveries or the many places we have visited in Tokyo and beyond; joy at how safe we have felt, whether in crowded trains, the amazing 渋谷スクランブル (Shibuya Scramble, or su-ku-ran-be-ru) or narrow streets at night; joy at the dozens of tiny pleasures, such as the daily performance of the crossing guard at the Cerulean Tower Hotel or the cheerful greetings we receive in every shop, restaurant and train station we frequent; and joy at the reaction of our visitors to this remarkable country.

We came to Japan for several reasons, but one of the most important has been to improve our Japanese language skills.  We have surely accomplished this but we have come to appreciate what a gigantic task this is and how much we still have to learn to acquire an acceptable level of competence. We intend to keep going.

School finished for Michael two weeks ago – true to form, for the last two days (since the outing to the beer museum), the teachers have kept plugging away with a pretty intense preview of next semester’s grammar, but on the last day, even they are throwing a party in which we will learn . . . Japanese dancing – the coal miners’ dance from Kyushu, known all over Japan.  And then, a sort of speed dating session with another class at which we had to introduce ourselves, over and over again, to people we didn’t know.

We have spoken more than once about feeling safe.  We won’t pretend that Japan is a society without crime, violent or petty, but walking around just about anywhere, we have never once felt that sense of threat or insecurity that characterizes living in Los Angeles, even in the comparatively safe neighborhood where we live.  And the contrast has been reinforced by the events in Orlando and Dallas, where the U.S. epidemic of gun violence has been met with continuing widespread denial and the abject failure of our government to respond adequately – we refuse even to let the Center for Disease Control study the problem.  Japan, on the other hand, is a country where gun deaths and violence have essentially been eliminated – as discussed in an a 2012 article in the Atlantic magazine.

How much still awaits us on future visits – a sumo wrestling tournament, a Kabuki performance, visits to places far and near, such as Hokkaido to the north, Kyushu to the far west, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Sendai, Chiba, the Isu Peninsula to name a few.  And how much we have done – so many museums, temples, parks and gardens, train rides long (to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Kamakura and Yokohama) and short (we truly are masters of Tokyo transit), baseball and soccer games, shopping and eating out and long walks everywhere.  Fiona has visited over 30 museums, several more than once, and Michael has been to a great many of them; the list of other things we have done is also lengthy. It’s been a full and fulfilling four months, as I hope this blog has conveyed.

We must say a few words about the Oakwood Apartments, our home for the past four months.  The apartment itself was well-equipped, quiet and spacious (a real luxury in space-starved Japan) and the spare room ideal for guests – both comfortable and small enough not to encourage people to stay for too long!    We were very well-looked after by the housekeeping staff, who cleaned the apartment twice a week (whether it needed it or not) and also fixed whatever minor items needed attention, with a lightning response time.  But above all, we were lucky to be helped by the front desk, staffed from 7 am to 10 pm and often beyond by five charming and efficient ladies – Aya (亜矢), Ayaka (綾香), Izumi (依泉), Keiko (恵子) and Miki (実希).

A few more blog posts to come – we must catch up on our day in Yokohama, visits to the Tokyo Skytree and also to the Tomoe Soroban Company (the abacus company), and our farewell party.  We know we will be consumed by Los Angeles and our “regular” lives as soon as we come home, so this is a marker to remind us.  We’ll also add some more photos.

At Peace in Hiroshima

Hiroshima is not the first destination of most visitors to Japan.  The city itself is mostly, but as you will see not entirely, an unrelenting medley of not especially appealing buildings.  These were mostly erected in the 1950s and 60s as the city recovered from the atomic devastation of August 6, 1945 (8:15 am local time, as the stopped watch of a man on his way to work reminds us when you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum).  But its place in history is assured by that tragic event and the Museum, the park in which it resides and, at the other end of the park, the poignant remains of what is now know as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

We spent a couple of days in Hiroshima with Toby, Kyle and Griffen.  It was not our first visit to the city – we had first been there in 2010 – and we were glad to be there again. Because it turns out that there is indeed more to Hiroshima than the bomb.  Certainly, the Museum is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of atomic warfare.  Yet, unlike the presenters of the Yushukan War Memorial Museum in Tokyo, whose revisionist view of the war is controversial among Japanese and rejected almost everywhere else, it offers no judgments on the war or what led to the American decision, for good or ill, to drop the bomb.  At least at the peace museum, you will not see the kind of detailed discussion of that decision that you can find elsewhere, starting with the Wikipedia entry about the debate.  Instead, the focus is on the devastation, the loss of life and limb and the deep desire that atomic weapons be expunged from the earth.  Is that enough?  For that, we refer you to David Karlin’s blog posting after he visited Hiroshima earlier this year and Michael’s response.

Beyond the Museum and the Park, the city itself offers almost no reminders of what happened.  A subtle note in the one pager about the history of the glorious 17th century Shukkeien Garden notes that the garden was destroyed by the bomb but reconstructed.  The nearby Hiroshima Castle and its fascinating museum were also entirely reconstructed based on the original plans but again, no emphasis is placed on the destruction of the original.

Shukkeien Gardens – with wedding photographs being taken in the background

In part, we think, this is due to the fact that Japan has endured so much destruction over the course of history.  Wars, of course, until the Tokugawa shogunate brought two and a half centuries of peace starting at the beginning of the 17th century.  But also fires, which plagued Japan, a country where most of the buildings were made of wood.  And the earthquakes, less frequent, but ubiquitous and tremendously devastating.

Now, however, Hiroshima stands as a peaceful bastion of modernity and 45 minutes away by various means is the glorious island of Miyajima.  Famous for its floating torii (the red orange gate you see at the top of this page), it is home to the beautiful Itsukushima shrine, where we ran across a low-key marriage blessing, and a nearby stage where the Noh plays were performed beginning in the late 16th century.  It is also home to a large number of peaceful but quite human-acclimated deer, whose lives alternate between lounging and scrounging.

Food in Hiroshima, as everywhere in Japan, is wonderful and varied.  We had, for example, a truly delicious meal at a riverside Italian restaurant.  However, the local dish, par excellence, is okonomiyaki, which unlike, say, bouillabaisse, has stayed true to its roots as inexpensive left over food.  Okonomiyaki, which in restaurants is usually served on a teppanyaki (hot plate – think Benihana), is essentially a pancake with shredded cabbage and anything else that happens to be in the kitchen, often topped with a delicious plum sauce.  Oysters are a particularly popular ingredient in Hiroshima but as you can see, spring onions, pork, and lots of other things can make it in.  And vast as the pancakes may seem, somehow the leftovers were pretty scarce.

IMG_7896 (1)

The takeout version (or should we say, the home delivery by scooter version) is just as good (here at the home of Michael’s university classmate David Paul and his wife Yumi). Fiona likes to take these picture pre-devouring but you will have to take our word that not much was left after we got done.


The Japanese for I’m full is お腹いっぱい (onaka ippai).  Indeed . . .

Day in Arashiyama, Kyoto

We left at 6am, took the subway to the JR line to the Shinkansen and whoosh, were in Kyoto by 9:50am for breakfast with Toby, Kyle and Griffen. Their last two days included many temples, shrines, castle, market…….so we headed out to the beautiful area on the west side of Kyoto which Laura and Isak introduced us to in the spring. Weather forecast was good but soon, though it remained very warm, it started to pour and we Californians loved it! The bamboo forest smelled glorious, and the colors were intense. We looked from the top of the mountain down into a deep river gorge, there are forests on all sides, and a temple across the valley. Toby summed up our profound sense of the place:  Japanese art does not come from the imagination of the artists but really from appreciation of the actual landscape.


We visited the little shop where Isak fell in love with the handmade papers, and Kyle did some wedding shopping! On to the ceramic shop in drenching rain and again we experienced the incredible kindness and generosity of the Japanese people. Not only did the owner bring us each a magnificent umbrella, but also towels to dry our hair. Toby poses in exactly the same place as Isak…..

And tea

And lunch

The Togetsukyo Bridge was not a disappointment, looking just like it does in the Edo period woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige (dating from 1830-40). (The mountains seem to be in a slightly different place though!). Beautiful, beautiful.



Toby, Kyle & Griffen visit Japan


Tour Guide tires them out…..First day for the boys (Kyle arrived 2 days later): Suica/Pasmo cards and maps to the subway system,  visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa, noodles, Senso-ji temple complex, matcha ice-cream, Sumida River walk, Shibuya music stores, Mary Jane jazz cafe, sushi go round!

And next day on to Shinjuku, The Samurai Museum, ramen, department store food halls (mango costs $200), and the quest for #1 matcha ice-cream – unfazed by this instruction:IMG_7592

We make train ticket purchases and itinerary at Shibuya  Station.

Kyle arrives and we go the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park on Sunday with Sumiyo, Shogo and Sachiyo.  More matcha cones, rose garden in full bloom, amazing street drummer and an all-male university cheerleading team.

Gallery exhibition opening and a children’s book store – what a day!

Toby, Kyle and Grif made an early start for Kyoto, and we joined them 2 days later.

Wildlife in the city


Dragons, foxes, tanuki, A and Un guardian lions, mermaids – the city has creatures looking at you from everywhere. Even HRH Queen Elizabeth waves at us from the bonsai

Real wildlife, too. The egret flew right across the pond in Hibiya Park, and that giant stag beetle nearly ate my glasses in Nezu Museum gardens.

かんぱい Cheers!

Michael’s class finished their exams and headed off to Ebisu for a fieldtrip to the Museum of Yebisu Beer, a short train ride from school in Shibuya. Here they are heading out of the station: IMG_7452



The drinking age here is 20 but nobody seemed to mind, or ask. Museum rules………We Americans can only marvel at a school-sponsored trip to a brewery museum!






The brewery was started here, in what was the a rural area in 1889, and the technology and brew-master were brought in from Germany.  In 1900 Yebisu Beer won a gold medal at the Paris Expo and, as our handout said, “the quality of Yebisu beer rocked the globe”. Here is our docent – the tour was in Japanese and made no concessions to our group! So: Fiona is applying to transfer from LACMA…

A note on Ebisu/Yebisu:

The original name was written with a syllable no longer in use, sounding the “Ye”. The station and area, named after the brewery, are known as Ebisu, but the brand name reverts to the old sound of Yebisu. Yebisu is the god of commerce and one of the seven gods of good fortune. Always shown holding a fish, probably a carpIMG_7487

Michael’s teacher takes this part of the course very seriously! And the group joins in the tasting part of the tour with enthusiasm:

One last thing you may wonder about. Why is the theme tune from The Third Man played in Ebisu station every time a train arrives? Well, in 1994 a “We Serve Yebisu Beer” campaign involved a TV commercial which chose this tune. It is now known here as the Yebisu Song.  (You can hear the jingle recorded at the station here (at about the 1 minute mark) and the original Third Man track here.)



GO GO Swallows

sutajiamu no minna san mo isshou ni odorimashou – Everyone in the stadium, let’s dance together!

It must be because we feel our time is flying by (like our local baseball team!!) that we are already writing another blog. We leave Tokyo 3 weeks today.

Kyle Davies, our neighbor in these apartments, is a starting pitcher for the Yakult Swallows, so we went out to Meiji Jingu Stadium for today’s game.  One block from home.

Kyle Davies pitching
Meiji Jingu Baseball Stadium

It is 90 degrees and humid but the place was packed, especially because the Swallows were playing the Seibu Lions, who come from Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo less than 30 miles away.  Again we were struck by how polite and civilized it all is. No obvious security presence, no bag check, metal detector or aggro. And so clean.

Every different kind of beer is served, and the girls run up and down the bleachers the whole game. Here is the Ebisu beer girl, keg on her back, pouring us one. Lovely and cold!



Swallow Mascots












Drumsticks beat out a rhythm in unison
And then there’s the Parasol Wave


Yakult Swallows 5 Seibu Lions 4.  Happy Saturday!