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.

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.

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!



The Samurai Museum

Shinjuku is a crazy part of Tokyo where anything can happen. Samurai have been portrayed in so many undignified and inaccurate ways. How bad can The Samurai Museum in Shinjuku be we asked ourselves: shall we risk it? Sam Knowlton is a Japanese history enthusiast, I studied up and toured the Samurai exhibition at LACMA and we did not want to be disappointed. We decided to go anyway.IMG_2905

And it was wonderful. We arrived and were immediately greeted and introduced to the armor by a delightful guide who spoke good English and was very, very knowledgeable. Not surprising:  Noguchi-san is the museum’s owner! He has assembled this collection over 7 years, and it is housed on  2 floors of an old building with small rooms, sliding doors and tatami mats. The labels and lighting are greatIMG_2907

We saw the progression of styles from 12/14th century Heian and Kamakura armor, and helmets through the  Muromachi and great Edo periods and ending with the Last Samurai during the Meiji time.


Noguchi-san unlocked cases and we held face masks (very heavy), swords (very sharp, he warned he had cut us his silk necktie by leaning over the sword) and guns (17th century matchlocks). Hey LACMA docents, that was FUN.

And finally, the photo studio where we dressed up and helped to tell you all about the museum by posting on Facebook.

A Day in My Tokyo Life

This was a terrific day and I would love to share it. I bought airmail stamps and mailed letters, cards and a parcel – all in Japanese at our local Post Office. Yes, it’s these simple achievements that can make us happy!

Google Maps cannot deal with huge cemeteries. My walk to The National Art Center was “18 minutes” but started to go around in circles in Aoyama Cemetery so I made a big mistake and asked two very little, very elderly ladies which direction to the museum. They were delightful but insisted on walking me somewhere (Google Maps now said “25 minutes”) until fortunately we saw a delivery chap on a bike, who insisted on walking me onwards…….We have encountered this kindness before – ask for directions and you will be escorted by someone who indicates it was where he/she wanted to go all along!

How could I possibly have missed this anyway? One of the largest, all glass buildings I have ever seen:

And inside there is space to land a plane. Three storeys each with 6 huge galleries, and a cafe on top of each inverted stone cone. I saw the Renoir exhibition, paintings from the Musee D’Orsay, on its 30th Anniversary (remember when it opened?). Beautifully exhibited, and I remembered how much I love his landscapes and still-lifes. Then – a wow of an exhibition in a gigantic gallery: Miyake Issey. I wondered at the colors, fabrics, shapes and sheer inventiveness of his costumes. How I wished I could see the  Invertigo dancers bring them to life!! No photos allowed, sadly. You can see the ‘flying saucer’ style hanging above the lobby. I will have to go back to his 3 shops which I passed in Omotesando and photograph their windows!

I know from Toby how hard it is to find practice space, and looks like Tokyo musicians have the same problem. I made another detour through the cemetery to find out who was playing Debussy’s Prelude L’Apres-midi d’un faune.


Then a delightful break – a chalkboard at the entrance to a narrow alley included two words that popped out at me “after noon” and I recognized tea in kanji. It was a tiny room with two tatami mats and a small counter, 3 stools. Delicious green tea and adzuki jelly treats. Because I did exit through the gift shop I had a bag showing on it the logo for the National Art Center,  and the only other customer was a lady who had also seen the exhibitions. She had also visited Paris and the Musee d’Orsay two years ago so we had a great conversation. Some English, some Japanese, some pretty good acting and visual aids.

I carried on through the small back streets where all kinds of shops, cafes, and businesses can be seen and came across a little gallery with bamboo growing around it and a lively exhibition opening going on, was invited in and saw beautiful work by a local bamboo artist, whom I met.

There is so much going on around – and a walk through the city is always an adventure. Tomorrow’s museum is the Ota Memorial Museum and its latest rotation of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. However – now it is time to meet Shogo, Sumiyo and Sachiyo for dinner at Napule which has on its card “Innovazione Bio”.

Walking Around, Stopping and Seeing

Naturally I stand in the correct place – and read the sign: STOP.

And I wouldn’t dream of doing this.IMG_4874

A Friday Night Out in crazy Shinjuku – saying good luck to Niko and Rei who are going to San Diego to live for a while.

How could you disobey this sign to keep off the paved area? Behind the pink kitties is one of the glass enclosures where smokers to go for a cigarette!  And how about a rest? So convenient……

Toby and Michael: the new lunch box look, teddybears and strawberry cream sandwiches – and a fruit gift for $340. Bread is expensive, so here is a carefully packaged set of 6 , crust-removed slices.


Safety First. California, take note of this sign when the next earthquake comes because it may rearrange the furniture. WOW! Just had a pretty strong shake, honestly! As I wrote this. It was a 5.6 in Iwai just 40 miles north of Tokyo. Serves me right for being flippant.

Outside busy Shibuya Station I counted 7 uniformed security guards. Whenever a truck needs to cross the sidewalk into the loading zone they start up a chorus of  calls and march out to escort it in, and to keep us pedestrians from walking into it! I love this dramatic performance:


However, nobody wears helmets and there are so many kids’ seats ingeniously attached to the bikes.IMG_6620

Stopping for a quick drink/snack/dinner after school. Of course the pizza comes with sides of pickled Japanese (!) eggplant, onions + sesame and a baked tofu with bonito + ginger.

This was a surprise! The Hoppy came with a tankard of……..strong clear shochu! Knocked that back thinking it was H2O.

Buy a ticket to go into lovely Shinjuku Gyoen Park, but remember it closes at 4:30pm. Strange timing because sunrise is at 4:40am, sunset at 6:40 or so! No changing of the clocks in Japan. There are 4 park attendants waiting to collect and sort the trash – and we didn’t see anything dropped, or left behind to spoil our peaceful enjoyment!

I miss walking my doggies – but these made me laugh! A rabbit, matched outfits and a small round ball of fluff on a wheel, a star and lastly, why walk?

Next time: we go to a professional soccer game with a young college baseball player, and enjoy a day in Kamakura with our friend Natsuo’s daughter, younger son and his wife. And do our mid-terms!

Tea Time, Springtime

We are coming to the end of Golden Week, the week when Japan incongruously has major public holidays on the last Friday in April and then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the first week of May, leaving everyone to work, or, in our case, go to school, on Monday and Friday.

Japan, unlike Southern California, is a land of seasons.  Two months ago, when we got here, the cold was quite sharp, relieved only by the arrival of cherry blossoms in late March.  Now, it’s May and the weather is pleasant indeed.  The rainy season and the beginnings of a hot and humid Tokyo summer await us next month, but for now, we are happily venturing out without sweaters, umbrellas or Uniqlos .

We have used some of our time off to catch up with our studies – the Naganuma School isn’t kidding when it calls our course “intensive”.  But we have also had a few outings into this city of contrasts.

Saturday, we paid a visit to the Riviera Sports Club, where we swam laps in a pool that looked like the set of Scarlett Johansson’s swim on Lost in Translation.  (That actually took place at the Tokyo Park Hyatt.)  Here is the sign at the entrance.  Most of it is in Katakana, the syllabic alphabet with which foreign loan words are adapted into Japanese.  We have added transliterations – remember, these all started out as real English words.  See if you can guess what they mean!  At the end of this post, we have added a version with actual translations.


OK, on to other activities.

On Sunday, we went for a walk in Aoyama that began with a close-up view of political protest, Japanese-style.

On Thursday, we were lucky enough to be invited to a tea ceremony, conducted by a renowned tea master (or mistress, I suppose).  One of the staff at our school happens to be a friend of the tea master and asked us to accompany her to the ceremony, which took place at the at the Tokyo National Museum of Art, Tokyo’s equivalent to the Met or the National Gallery of London (or LACMA!).  This was quite an honor and so we donned our Thursday best and zoomed across central Tokyo on the Ginza line to Ueno Park, scene of some of our more spectacular cherry blossom viewings six weeks before.

Tokyo National Museum: Fountains and Haniwa – Kofun period clay figurines from the 6th century placed on top of tombs.

Ueno Park – late March – early May.

Children’s Day is celebrated this week and there was a Book Fair in Ueno Park which showed us that children’s books are a thriving business. So many wonderful and beautifully illustrated books! Michael is now reading his favorite Babar, in hiragana.


Here are some random things from our life: our local flower stall; our low maintenance garden; vending machines: is this meal hot or just casually cold?; slippers provided whilst shoes are mended; how to time the tea infusion; poster for a great exhibition of 19th century woodblock prints, we spent hours there (loan from the MFA, Boston).

And the maple leaves are out; the trio of my no-English, fabulous hairdressers; how much more traditional than a Japanese lantern?

And finally, here is the Riviera Sports Club sign, translated.