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.

Read the Signs

I was handed this political flier and I think I will start a competition for a Hillary Clinton logo based on it .



Staying safe:

Just don’t:

And who is this person dripping a wet umbrella in the subway? Not me, but sure looks like it…….!


Saddest street art



Maybe he should go here for a coffee

Or better still.

The small slimy brown mushrooms may not cheer him up (truth in advertising) but how about beer on a stick? The only thing Isak didn’t try during his visit. He ate all the fish, octopus, sticky rice balls, everything on a stick!

The flower shops are gorgeous. And wow! I wish I had thought of this when marketing The Flower Girl.

Here I am – not in Beverly Hills!
Still not in Beverly Hills.


Working on it……


Next Blog:The Samurai Museum, which was absolutely wonderful.

Parading through Kanazawa

(Before we start: please let us know if you have any problems with all these photos in the blogs. Does it take too long for them to download?)


Last weekend we took a trip to Kanazawa with our friends Sam and Brit Knowlton, from Austin, Texas. It is 2 1/2 hours on the new Shinkansen, in an area previously not easily accessible because of the mountain ranges. We arrived on a special weekend (ha! that is why hotel rooms were so hard to book): the parade for the Hyakumangoku Matsuri (百万石祭, meaning the festival of a million jewels) celebrating Lord Maeda’s arrival at the castle in 1583. Over 2,000 residents in full costume re-enact this historic event. We hope that this slideshow gives some idea of the excitement. We were at the castle when the parade arrived:  samurai, court ladies, cheerleaders, marching bands, boy scouts, taiko drums, ninjas, dragon dancers and acrobats……

We couldn’t help comparing this with events in the States. There were dozens of polite Event Staff, no metal detectors, no bag checks, and the few police were mostly involved in keeping Lord Maeda safe from his adoring fans – he was represented by a very popular Kabuki actor. There was no trash around, no yelling, or pushing, no fences or barriers. The only official warning  was prohibiting drones and selfie sticks, which can cause nuisance to the visitors!

Kenrokuen Garden is glorious, deservedly designated a ‘Cultural Property and National Site of Special Scenic Beauty’. It is a traditional strolling garden with ponds, waterfalls, paths, plants designed to reflect the seasons, every angle giving a different view, using  “borrowed” landscapes, and celebrating the Japanese love of nature. Look at how much care is taken to prop up the ancient trees.

Lunch, of course, and green tea ice cream with gold flakes. Kanazawa is where gold was mined, and gold leaf was made. The Gold leaf Museum gives a wonderful display of this process.

There is no main entrance to the glass, oval shaped 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art – art should be approached from all sides, any angle.


And who recognizes this installation? (with Fiona doing the docent thing!)


(Answer available if you email us). Other exhibitions include Erlich’s Swimming Pool, 2004 and an imagined Land of Xijingman. Here is Michael in its immigration hall where you need to smile, dance and have a good attitude to enter.

More snacks. Cucumber on sticks and KitKat sake. Covers all food groups.

We wandered around the Edo period area, Higashi Kuruwa. Lovely lattice windowed shops and homes and here  is a restored, 2 storey tea house which was delightful

Time to go home, below see Michael in our hotel room with his wall-to-wall wingspan: we need some more space!


Ending with a view of spectacular Kanazawa station architecture, the waterfall clock (accurate) and a station official who receives the exiting passengers’ neatly bagged-up trash.

And home on the Shinkansen . . .rice fields seen from train at high speed.


何かを習いましたか. Have we learned anything? 


Returning to Tokyo from a week back in Los Angeles is a good time to reflect on how we are getting along with the Japanese language. 何かを習いましたか (nanika o naraimashita ka – have we learned anything?)

The Naganuma School intensive course is living up to its name. We have studied hard.  It is, however, difficult to tell how we are doing, because progress is necessarily incremental.  (Incremental is a fancy word for slow, we think.)

So what constitutes progress?  Communication in a developed language generally involves four elements: Speaking, listening, reading and writing.  Japanese presents major challenges for Western learners in particular because it has little in common with anything we are used to. Even when Japanese borrows words from English and other European languages, it often changes them in ways that are not immediately obvious.  (See Tea Time, Springtime.)

We’ve probably made the most progress in speaking and writing, because there we control the process.  We need to learn 2,000 Kanji, which takes years rather than months, but we can often decipher Kanji, especially online, with the help of a site like, which gives both phonetic readings and, if we want to peek, translations.  For signs and Kanji we meet in the real world, if it’s critical or merely to satisfy our curiosity, the Google Translate app on our phones allows us to scan and recognize Kanji.  Writing Kanji is also not as hard as you might think because of how virtual Japanese keyboards work, where they will suggest Kanji if you can spell the word phonetically.  So Kanji, as hard as it is and as much as we need to improve, is not our biggest problem.

For us, the hardest by far is understanding the spoken language.  Japanese people speak quickly, to our ears, and Japanese has so many homonyms that processing them, even when we know the context, can be a big challenge.  If we process speech too slowly, we may get the first part of a sentence but actually don’t hear the second part of a sentence – a problem in a language where verbs pile up at the end of the sentence.

So what can we do now?  Well, we can have basic conversations, especially if we can persuade people we talk to to respond slowly.  Gestures, occasional English-sounding words and animated facial expressions also help.  In person communications are much easier than phone calls.

We have also found that we can watch Japanese video with subtitles and realize we knew some, and occasionally a lot, of what we just heard.  This will prove invaluable in improving comprehension, especially of normal spoken Japanese, as opposed to the highly formal and grammatical usage we are taught in school.  On that score, we occasionally get told by Japanese people that our Japanese  is too perfect – perfectly absurd, of course – but we get their point.  We sound like walking textbooks.

An interesting test approaches.  Our beloved Los Angeles teacher Hiromi is coming to visit her parents in Yokohama and we will be meeting them all.  Hiromi, of all people, will be able to gauge how we are doing.  If her opinion is not unduly humiliating – well, even if it is – we will report back in this space.

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”.

Welcome Home: おかえりなさい

Our flying visit home is over and where did Saturday go? We left LAX on Saturday afternoon – flew 12 hours and landed on Sunday evening. We felt a strange and reassuring sense of familiarity as we flew into Narita airport early in the evening on Sunday, you can see all the rice fields from the plane window and a vague outline of Fuji-san in the distance. Back in our apartment, and time to sleep. Not much in the fridge but we made coffee and okonomiyaki for breakfast, with bonito and nori topping.

We are excited to be back and have 6 more weeks to spend here in this endlessly fascinating country. Naganuma School starts again for Michael, another 4 weeks of classes. And Fiona is off to do what docents do: see at least one museum a day! Explore Tokyo and try out all that Japanese grammar on the city. More to follow!




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.


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.