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.

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.

A Brave Post-Script

Try googling pictures of Merida, the Scottish heroine of the delightful Pixar movie, Brave, and you will find no shortage of red-headed look-alikes.  But being a redhead in Japan is different.  During her stay, Laura was approached, more than once, by little Japanese girls pointing at her and crying “Merida, Merida”, to the point where I think she ended up having to sign autographs.  I guess you can see why.

And in our apartment building, a little boy from South Africa, Leo, concluded that Laura must be in need of a bow, and offered to give her his.  Here he is:

Now the world (or at least the Oakwood Apartments) is safe from big bad bears.

We miss you already, Laura and Isak.

Bye bye at Gaiemmae Station! We are thrilled that you had so many wonderful adventures in Japan. Here are a few of the things we enjoyed together.