Take me out to the . . . Yakyu

2016-04-17 15.32.37_featuredSoccer (サッカー, pronounced saa-kaa) may be overtaking baseball in popularity – a recent survey of Japanese boys shows that more of them want to be soccer players than baseball players, although a recent poll showed businessman to be the top choice for boys and the third top for girls.  Still, professional baseball attracts large crowds, comparable to attendance at Major League Baseball in the United States.  In fact, attendance has been rising and in 2015, the top-drawing team, the Tokyo Giants, averaged over 42,000 a game and a total of 3 million spectators, more than all but six MLB teams (and that was playing 9 fewer home games).

Enough of statistics.  (Click the links, if you must.)  Let’s play ball!  Or はじめ! (hajime, let’s begin, as the locals would say). On Sunday, five of us went off to the Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants play the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.   A short subway ride later, we found ourselves outside the Dome, with its white tiled roof and a huge crowd of fans, orderly and well behaved as ever.


I wore my Giants’ cap and jersey, the latter graced with the name of Giants’ star Hayato Sakamoto, purchased when we first went to a game in 2010.  Sakamoto was 22 then and a rising star – now he is one of the established veterans.  I high fived it with a couple of other fans wearing the same jersey.

The rules of the game are basically the same, 3 strikes and you’re out, etc., but everything else has a Japanese take including, surprisingly for a country which has imported huge numbers of foreign words, the word for baseball, 野球 or yakyu, the Kanji characters for which signify “field” and “ball”.  Here are some highlights, in no particular order:

  • The fans:  Although there were fans of the visiting team sprinkled around the stadium, a large contingent of them was concentrated in left field, dressed in red Carp shirts.  As the Carp came to bat in the top of the first inning, they made a tremendous din, chanting, clapping, waving banners, all supported by incessant drumming and brass instruments.

    The home fans were strangely silent until … the bottom of the first, when it was their team’s turn at bat.  The Carp fans tucked away their instruments, and flags, and their cheers died down and now it was the Giants’ turn.  This alternation went on all through game.  As each team came to bat, their fans went wild and the others grew quiet.  The Carp fans made up for their smaller numbers by jumping up and down – every other seat – for innings at a time.  P.S. to Dodgers fans:  Almost everyone arrives before the game and almost no one leaves before it ends.  And just about everyone arrives by subway or train at one of the stations that ring the stadium, so no overcrowded lots and the stadium clears really quickly.

  • The beer:  The highlight for everyone.  The Giants don’t have an official beer – it’s come one, come all.  It’s how you buy it.  Even before the game starts, pretty young women, each toting a massive keg on her back, dash down to the bottom of the aisle, turn, bow and then run up the stairs.  You wave when the girl carrying your preferred brand appears in your aisle and she comes and serves you at your seat.  They do this for all nine innings – service keeps going to the very end.  These women are, without question, the fittest human beings on the planet.  You can also buy shots and sweet treats the same way.
  • The food:  Yes, you can buy hotdogs.  But why not try a rather yummy bento box, complete with tasty Japanese dishes?  But get your order in early.  Fiona and Laura went off in search of them in the third inning and had to go round the stadium because so many of the vendors were sold out.

    And when you are done, do not, repeat do not, throw your food and packaging on the floor.  Put it all in the helpfully provided plastic trash bag you are given with your order and deposit at the top of the aisle.  Result – the floors are so clean, you could eat off them, before and after the game.  The only trash we saw was left behind by a know-it-all English guy who spent most of the game explaining it to his Japanese neighbor.

  • The cheerleaders:  The cult of the cute is in full swing at the Tokyo Dome, never more so than when, instead of a seventh inning stretch, the cheerleaders came out accompanied by a posse of cheerleading kids, seemingly around 8 to 10.
  • No bullpen was visible – it’s underneath the stadium.  So no photograph of that.
  • There is a super-giant screen, on which we made a brief appearance although we were too slow to catch it on camera.  So no photograph of that either, I’m afraid.  No Kiss Cam, either, as Japanese are not given to PDAs (public displays of affection).IMG_5825

A baseball game actually took place although, as you can see from the final score, it was a bit of pitcher’s duel.  My man Sakamoto struck out in his only appearance as a pinch hitter.  This Carp player fared no better.  Still, each team hit a home run and the Giants scratched out a run in the bottom of the eighth.  The batter of the game-winning RBI ended up with a weird looking toy and the game MVP award.

As always, we were shepherded into and out of the stadium by many many attendants .  As we left, one of them pointed at my cap and gestured to me to hold on to it.  I thought he was trying to get me to duck as I went through the quite low door.  But what he meant was, hold on to your cap.  There was a blast of wind from some wind tunnel effect and my cap went flying.  A kindly fan caught it and returned it to me.  And off we went to dinner at our favorite/only Western restaurant, a pizzeria called Bamboo.  (おいしかった.  Look it up on Google Translate and say it to the waiter after your next Japanese meal.)

Next up on our sporting calendar, a trip in mid-May to see FC Tokyo of the Japanese professional soccer league.   We are being accompanied there by our new Facebook friend, Yohei, a Japanese college . . . baseball player.

Earthquake Update

We have been touched by hearing from many friends asking if we are OK following the earthquake.  We are fine and, as noted in an earlier post, the recent large earthquakes, including foreshocks and aftershocks, took place on the island of Kyūshū (九州), 700 miles from Tokyo.

Japan is composed of four main islands.  Kyuushu, where Kumamoto is located, is the westernmost.  Tokyo is on the main island of Honshū (本州).)  We haven’t felt any of the tremors.  Here is a diagram from the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) which shows where the shaking was felt and the intensity using the JMA scale.


Japan measures quakes not by magnitude but by intensity of shaking.  So while the Richter scale measurement of the Saturday quake has settled in at 7.0, comparable to the 1989 San Francisco quake and somewhat more than the 1994 Northridge earthquake closer to home, Japan uses a scale from 0 to 7, where 6.5 to 7 means that most homes collapse or are severely damaged.  On this scale, the recent quake was measured at 6+ at its epicenter.  Here is a full explanation of the JMA scale.  (I am still trying to puzzle out why it is a meteorological agency that is responsible for this.)

The earthquake has, of course, occupied the news here and we have been following it on NHK in English – our Japanese has not progressed to the point of understanding the rapid fire speech employed by news broadcasters.  The news is, sadly, about death and destruction, but public order in Japan is very strong and there have been no reports of looting, as has occurred in Ecuador.  The building codes here, especially in the urban areas, are very strict.  Some of the problems in Kumamoto were caused by the fact that it is a more rural and less modern area with many wooden houses that have not had been built or upgraded to the most recent standards.

Today will be our first day in school following the second, more damaging quake, which occurred early on Saturday morning, Japan time.  We’ll see whether the teachers deflect from their very structured lesson plans to talk about it.  In preparation, we are boning up on Japanese earthquake vocabulary.  The only two we know now are the words for earthquake, 地震 (jishin, ji meaning ground and shin meaning shaking)and volcano, 火山 (kazan, meaning fire mountain).  We’ll be prepared – and although we are in the land of intensive earthquakes, we are also in the land of intensive preparation.  Our Japanese adventure continues.

Japanese loos: the peak of civilized behavior

IMG_2285This is our very own Toto. If you have never visited Japan, you cannot imagine the joys of Japanese loos.  Nor their complexity. But it is so worthwhile to spend a while mastering the art of using them, because this will lead to a  thoroughly wonderful experience.  You’re not in Kansas anymore.


IMG_4055These are not so much fun. Be careful not to go into the wrong stall (sign may read: Japanese style). And if you do: well done! It was worth working those quads at the gym. Just make sure you face – backwards – and hang onto your purse, above ground level.


What could be more useful if you have a child with you? A child seat! (Or, put your backpack, carrier bags, etc. in it!) These are to be seen in most public loos in parks and department stores.





Now: the instructions. These can take some time to de-cypher. (Feel free to zoom in . . . ) Here are some to work on:

The basic few instructions you need to know are these (thank you to our friend Niko, the Nihongo Shark):

I will supply a translation/explanation to this diagram upon request! This way, I will surely know who is reading our blog. And one thing I would like to know: is it Spring yet? Does this one apply still?

Winter (season)

And next  – our all time favorite has to be this. Who knew?


But seriously. There is nothing better than knowing it is a clean, dry, safe place with a warm seat. Best ever for me was on a very cold day, after a few too many Ebisu beers and green teas, and a very long walk which ended up in a vast cemetery  where I found a small, perfect retreat with every imaginable comfort including a button to play soft music which may disguise any possible embarrassing sounds.


This may be my last photo of cherry blossoms. What a perfect way to celebrate! Thank you to the Raku Museum, Kyoto, for their attention to detail.

Towering Above It All

It’s an old joke about what you learn from the movies:  Every window in Paris has a view of the Eiffel Tower.  Tokyo is sort of the same (except from our apartment). Wherever you are, you can see the Tokyo Tower.  Rising 333 meters (1093 feet), with the highest viewing platform at 250 meters, it dominates swathes of the Tokyo skyline.

Of course, Tokyo and Paris are different.  Tokyo is flooded with skyscrapers, none as tall as the Tower, but there are tall buildings in every direction.  Still, you can’t come here without visiting it, even if, like Fiona, you aren’t keen on heights.

thumb_IMG_5315_1024So when we were invited to meet someone at the next door Prince Plaza Hotel, we did what we had to do and headed off to the Tower after an 一番おいしい (ichiban oishii – number 1 delicious) Tempura lunch with our very knowledgeable host.

There we were greeted by several smiling young ladies dressed like 1960’s flight attendants who shepherded us into the glass-windowed elevator, where an enthusiastic young man operated the buttons and proceeded to dole out facts in Japanese, Chinese and English.


2016-04-06 15.01.26thumb_IMG_5375_1024We reached the 150 meter viewing platform, wandered around, and took some pictures including, incongruously, a shot of a model of the Tower framed against a window.  A little girl, fearless or simply unaware, looked through the glass floor, mocking our weak knees.

Then, we caught a ride on the somewhat more unnerving second elevator to the top platform.  The view was, as you would expect, stunning in every direction although sadly, due to the afternoon haze,  Mount Fuji could not be discerned.  (We have actually seen Mount Fuji in real life, if somewhat fleetingly, on the train to Kyoto, but I think the fact that it is so often hard to see adds to its allure.)  Since it was still sakura season, we caught some glimpses of canopies of cherry blossoms below and we also had a pretty good look at Tokyo Harbor, with Haneda Airport nearby.

2016-04-06 15.44.26Mostly, however, we saw the astonishing number of Tokyo’s tall buildings, a reminder of how this small and mostly mountainous nation manages to pack in over 100 million people, including nearly 40 million in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, to live and work.  We got another reminder when, around 5 pm, we returned home on the Ginza line.


One month has passed, which amazes us. We wonder if some of the new  things we saw and heard are becoming a part of ourselves now, familiar and no longer strange. So here are few random observations collected together as we reflect on the last four weeks.

Food, of course! The department stores have glorious displays, and expensive luxuries (knock off the last two numbers, and you have an approximate $ amount, the mango is $25, the melon $16 and the croissant $4)

What says BUY ME more persuasively than these smiles?

These are onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed, filled with fish, seaweed, pickled veggies, plums, and so much else. These were $2-3 each, bought at the station on our way home from school (notice the packaging, more below). Also at this restaurant, we ate noodles at the stand up counter.

Fast food: a delicious tempura and bonito rice bowl, under $12, and a sushi-go-round counter where we ate  22 pieces for 3500 yen. The color/pattern of the plate tells you the price of the sushi on it!

And there are the expensive restaurants. One whole meal was made from this “rosy sea bass”: sashimi, baked, tempura, sukiyaki (hotpot), fried, so many courses and all delicious. The restaurant is below sidewalk level, unmarked and has only about 4 tables. Next up – a counter where we ate so many light, fresh and totally non-greasy fish and veg tempura, followed by a mussel soup, rice with shrimp and egg topping and tea.

Sunday in the Park with Snacks! How could you miss out on fish-on-a-stick, octopus balls,  crab, pancakes, corn or sticky rice?

So many choices, but the window displays at restaurants can make it easier to decide. And if you don’t want to go out…….

What is in here? Strawberries on a styrofoam tray, covered in a plastic lid, in a plastic bag (inflated to stop the berries squashing) with an ice pack. From a regular small supermarket. The wine has its own  protective sleeve, and the little icepacks are in every bag with cheese, meat and fish. Extra icepacks available of course, on the bagging counter, in a special bin.

We dread Laura and Isak’s stay because they will have a fit over the packaging culture. Apples, dry-cleaning and individual slices of bread within the packet:

Random sights: these raised yellow lines down the sidewalks and corridors? Used by the blind as guidelines. And notice the two guards in their white rain uniforms posted at the entrance to the hotel, they direct pedestrians and traffic so politely, with a bow!

Late one afternoon we saw a little girl fast asleep on the subway and Michael woke her up at Shibuya, our stop, and the end of this line. Children are used to taking the subway alone and I loved these 3 little girls disappearing down the steps to the tracks. This sign is in our local station: Gaien-mae, and says “safety station for children”. Go Thomas The Tank!


Hats and Cemeteries

IMG_5300In keeping with the problems that a vowel can cause (see Settling In), we can add a couple more we have encountered. Michael slipped up when using the word しゅじん (shu-jin, or husband) and instead referred to  しゅうじん (shuu-jin, or prisoner). And in buying a great new hat ぼうし (booshi) for Fiona, we had to be careful to avoid using the word ぼち (bochi), meaning a cemetery, our next destination.

Today’s sakura viewing was much quieter.  No parties or picnics under the trees.  Instead, just 5 minutes walk from home, we happened upon the unexpectedly large and utterly peaceful Aoyama Cemetery, lined with cherry trees at the peak of their beauty.

And the best view of the cemetery on a cold, gray day was from here, just across the lane!

Walking home from school

IMG_5178Our school is in Shibuya. That’s a 5 minute walk from the apartment to the subway station, 2 stops on the subway (no changes), and a 10 minute walk from the station: allow 30 minutes. Today we walked home and here are some photos – 3 hours later!

It won’t last much longer so everyone is making the most of the sakura in Yoyogi Park


Parties under the trees go from the big office party, to a few friends, to a couple  seated on the ground already covered in petals

And an official wedding portraitIMG_5214

I think we observed the rules, but only saw this sign as we left:


Our meandering took us through the very cool area of Harajuku.

I must go back and try the lobster:


We usually know immediately what the signs mean, despite a strange use of vocabulary and/or grammar. But this dish? Any suggestions?

And what do you do when your daughter sprouts horns between 9 and 5?IMG_5240

Translation by Michael – no bicycles, Sundays and holidays, 9 am to 5 pm.  (Who knew?)

We are always surprised and delighted by what we see as we walk around this city, small adventures every time. Nearly home but first we made one stop: at our local Soba restaurant – kanpai!  (Warning – the exact same-sounding word also means utter defeat or annihilation.)IMG_5247






Sakura, cherry blossom: the meaning of Life



cherry blossoms–

I’ve been living in Edo

for this day! (Issa, haiku poem, 1807)

2016-04-01 09.28.12(

(Edo is present day Tokyo)

Sakura symbolize the life of a samurai: beautiful but brief, and they refer to the transience of life in Buddhist teachings. It is called a blizzard when the wind blows and petals fall.

Hanami: cherry blossom viewing. It is an act of faith, patriotism and reverence + a good reason to party!!

The least important person in an office hierarchy goes out first thing in the morning to secure a good “hanami” space. Office parties take place after work under the trees.

Family picnics, group field trips, and poetry writing groups gather. Websites are devoted to tracking the progress of cherry blossoms in every area of Japan. The weather forecast becomes a forecast of the effect weather is having on the blossoming times. Restaurants, bakeries and confectioners produce appropriately colored and decorated foods. Pink and white everything! Every conversation begins with a hope that one has seen sakura and it was pleasing.

Yesterday the sun peeped out and the cherry blossoms looked glorious. It was the best day for them in our area apparently and the place was thronged with sightseeing Japanese people. So here are a few of our photos for you to enjoy as we walked around the Imperial Palace.

Although there are thousands of people, there seems to be no need for crowd control despite these security measures!

Nightime viewing is especially dramatic – and here we are in Ueno Park, taking a selfie along with everyone else! The avenues are lined with 1,000 cherry trees all illuminated, and the parties are in full swing beneath them.

A few stops on the Ginza line to Asakusa and we found another top place for Hanami –  Sumido Park. As we walked along more avenues of cherry blossom and parties, we looked over the river and saw the Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi building.

So exciting! We wish you could also share how much fun it was to be a part of the crowds, to smell the blossoms, and to feel an absolute sense of safety and enjoyment.

Tokyo Contrasts


We have our Suica rail cards and ride the subway like true Tokyo-ites, but we walk around as tourists making new discoveries and seeing bewildering, surprising and exciting sights. A samurai sleeps on the Ginza line.

See Michael check out the local fire hydrant and learn the kanji for Emergency;  look up and see these kids skipping up the side of the building; catch the Tokyo version of a leaf blower – so quiet; peer at the straw door hanging which tells us what is served within – sake I think; and, below, the ubiquitous vending machines. They sell everything and are everywhere.


This temple is very close to our apartment, set back and easy to miss from a busy street, and the shrine is just below the raised rail tracks and downtown skyscrapers.  Tokyo has been completely rebuilt since WWll, and the modern architecture is stunning.  Buildings housing designer brands line up on Omote-sando.

The Kabuki-za theater in the Ginza district opened in 1889, survived the 1923 earthquake and was rebuilt in 1951, faithful to its original architectural style. A huge skyscraper rises up behind it.

We were introduced to Naoya Yoshida san, who is a third generation horse breeder and trainer from Hokkaido, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.  He invited us to Saturday afternoon tea at the Prince Park Tower, in Shiba Park. This spectacular modern hotel is just across the park from the Tokyo Tower.

You can see the Tower, built in 1958 and taller than the Eiffel Tower, just behind the Zojo-ji , a Buddhist temple – what a contrast. It dates from 1393, and in the grounds is the family cemetery of the Tokugawa. These Jizu statues are all holding pin-wheels! There were hundreds of them spinning in sun.

IMG_4914.jpgNow here’s a sign Mickle can translate: Soccer is Forbidden (sakka kinshi)!

Perhaps that is to protect the sakura: the cherry blossoms that are all this city can think about this weekend. Here is lunchtime outside the Suntory Concert Hall, where we found food tents serving delicious lunches, and the whole area packed with people celebrating the brief Sakura Season.


This weekend we will share the wonders of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo with you.