2005/11/30

Moody Minstrel vs Momo The Wonder Dog

A title fit for a 'clash of titans' kind of movie such as Godzilla vs Mothera - Godzilla being the Americanization of the Japanese "Gojira", which was a combination of gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). Bad form to digress in the first line of my post, I know. Sorry. Now on to the exciting story.....

The Moody Minstrel has finally met Momo The Wonder Dog - face to snout, toe to paw, mano a pato, homosapiens to canis lupis. Moody was returning a book and also bringing a ticket I needed to purchase to the next Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra concert, which will be held December 11th. K already had her ticket as she pre-paid for it at the time of the last concert that I participated in.

To my utter amazement, Momo not only did not bark at the Moody Minstrel, she laid down before his feet, supplicating him for favor. Some watchdog. (The static electric shock he unintentionally gave her nose when he first reached down to pet her may have had something to do with that. She may have thought, "wow!, this guy has a taser built into his index finger, I'd better be doggone careful").

After giving him her approval and receiving sufficient attention and petting, she retreated to her dog house, but later came back for some more petting and scratches behind the ears.

This is more proof - as if any were needed - that "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast", sometimes without a single note actually being played.

Or maybe she was just in awe of the BLUE RAV4 that appeared in her driveway and imagined herself in the front passenger seat, Stan Getz playing on the stereo, front paws on the window sill, her head out the window, nose gathering every scent, ears flapping in the breeze. Dream on dog!

Fortunately it was a fine day as Moody and Pandabonium were confined to the driveway during their conversation because K woke up with flu this morning and we didn't want to pass it on. So Momo heard everything that was said, like a Gary Larsen cartoon perhaps: "blah blah blah blah MOMO blah blah blah FOOD blah blah blah blah WALK blah blah blah MOMO" etc.

Momo did leave an impression on Moody, if only in the form of her dusty paw prints on his pants (could have been much worse, Moody). It is her signature move: 1) supplicate; 2) befriend; 3) jump on pants. Moody has been now been initiated into her inner circle and shall henceforth be greeted at our home accordingly.

We only hope he will accept our invitation to return after this.

2005/11/29

DokiDoki Is Yummy Yummy

As with many of life’s nice surprises, it started as a fluke. Every few months I order organic foods from a farm and market (Tengu Natural Foods) in Saitama Prefecture on the other side of Tokyo from us. Mostly, I just buy basics I can’t find around here and can’t seem to live without – oatmeal, whole-wheat flour, dried kidney beans (for making for my hearty vegetarian chili) and dried peas.

The other day I was looking them up again, and just out of curiosity I did a Google search for organic food in Ibaraki Prefecture. What I found was a restaurant review by an American ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) who is working in Ibaraki. The restaurant was described as a place that served locally grown organic foods buffet style, and also had a farmer’s market on the premises. The review of the food was all raves. We decided to check it out.

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"Pocket Farm Dokidoki"


The name of the place is “Pocket Farm – Dokidoki”. Dokidoki means heartbeat, (maybe a heartbeat fluttering in anticipation). Don’t look to me for exact translations. Japanese language seems to have a lot of onomatopoeia. Dokidoki is located about 45 minutes drive to our North near a little town called Ibaraki Machi. The actual restaurant part of it is called something like “The Restaurant Serving Homemade Dishes in the Woods”. Whatever. Sounds great. Tell the three bears we're on our way.

We took Route 18 that follows the East shore of lake Kitaura to Hokota town – soon to be incorporated with its neighbors into another so-called “city”. It is a beautiful drive along the lake, which is calm this day. Hawks and heron dot the sky showing off their mastery of the air. People can be seen walking their dogs along the levy, while others fish along the shore. The Kashima-Oarai rail line comes through here, which connects Kashima City with points North. At times the elevated track appears to offer the best view around.

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Hokota Station


Hokota is an old town and has an interesting mix of architecture, consisting of the very old, the very new, and several rather tacky looking rust-stained, paint-peeling buildings. Kashima City escaped this fate thanks to the soccer stadium and local team, the “Kashima Antlers”. Downtown Kashima is still hanging on and has not yet succumbed to competition from the ugly commercial “big box” store sprawl to the South of it. The combination of styles and ages of the buildings in Hokota though has character and shows the town is still alive, if going through difficult changes. K went to high school there, commuting by bus.

Moving on past Hokota, after a little map consulting we get on a road labeled “Route 18” again (give me a break), which becomes very narrow and winds though small villages and along valleys dotted with farms - their post-harvest rice fields nearly dry. I say “give me a break” because near home, Route 18 is a wide two lane highway with curbs, broad sidewalks on either side and right hand turn lanes at major intersections. This section is nothing like that. When I say narrow, I mean a road with no centerline, no room for parking on either side, and barely room for two vehicles to pass each other without exchanging paint. It is a nice little country road, and its size makes perfect sense for people on foot, horses or bicycles. But modern humans now hurl tons of steel along the same path in opposite directions and at alarming velocities.

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Maple by Route 18


The autumn leaves are evident here and there in the surrounding hills. Chestnut trees look toasted to a golden brown and the occasional “momiji” or maple trees are all aflame in red against the backdrop of cool green bamboo and dark cedars.

K is enjoying the sight seeing, as am I. As a hapless passenger, I am also nervously watching for on-coming traffic, which I thought was the driver’s full time job. “Watch it!” I call. “I know”, she replies calmly as she swerves and a truck flashes by. It is my curse as a pilot. In the air, a “near miss” is defined as anything less than two miles. On the highway it is reduced to a gut wrenching few centimeters. I try to relax and keep my mouth shut.

Happily, as we near our destination there are plenty of signs to guide us the last few kilometers. As we pull into the parking lot I am surprised by the size of the facility. I am expecting a kind of big cafeteria, but what at first appears to be the restaurant turns out to be the market. The restaurant is behind it, against a background of tall trees. Stacked against a post at the store entrance are some very large squash and large orange pumpkins. So that’s where they hide them! I had been unsuccessful in finding pumpkins suitable for making jack o’ lanterns for Halloween.

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A path lined with plants and flowerbeds of pansies leads to the restaurant. As you enter, a sign on the wall behind the cashier says “Welcome Home”. Inside the dining area it is like a mountain lodge with high open beam ceilings, knotty pine paneled walls (like the kitchen of my childhood) and tall windows looking out at the trees. There is a brief wait (we were told to expect up to a 45 minute wait for a table) and we are given a mouth watering tour and explanation of the foods that await us, culminating at our table which happens to be next to a Yamaha baby grand piano. I am thinking that perhaps the Moody Minstrel can practice his newly found piano tuning skills here. To add to the rustic, natural atmosphere, the plates are wooden and the cups are hand shaped glazed ceramic. Glasses are made with colored glass that contains bubbles.

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The Restaurant Serving Homemade Dishes In The Woods


I don’t have room on this blog to go into enough detail about the food offered. A brief overview will be long enough. There are five or more types of salad to choose from – from seaweeds to tossed mixed greens - with as many dressings. Curries, tempura, several varieties of pasta, kimchee, potato crouquettes, vegetable soup, miso soup, daikon dishes, miso dishes, takoyaki, five different types of rice: white rice (yawn), brown rice, rice with black beans, rice with wheat, mixed grains), lotus roots in ginger sauce, and on and on it goes. For one price you also get fresh coffee, several types of tea, fruit and vegetable juices - as much as you want. All food is organic, fresh, and prepared with their own recipes. Some dishes have a card next to them with the name and photo of the cook who contributed the recipe for that item.

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After a large plateful of this bounty, we went back for another. There was no guilt on my part. It is all healthy food. For those who eat meat, there are dishes that include it as well – fish, sausage, beef, pork. No big roast or slabs of meat. Rather, the meat dishes are complex creations like the rest of the fare, of which the meat is just one more ingredient.

The food is always fresh from the kitchen. It doesn’t sit under infrared lights. Every several minutes a chef appears from the kitchen with a new dish and announces what it is and what it is made from before placing it on the buffet table.

Of course they had a beautiful selection of deserts to choose from. We opted for cheesecake. It is easy to justify that after such a healthful meal. We were so satisfied that we didn’t need dinner. No kidding. I didn’t feel the least bit hungry until breakfast time, and I had a light one at that.

After our lunch, we found out that the piano is put into use on Sunday and Monday evenings when they hold a “mini concert” during dinner. For that you need reservations. We’ll have to come back and experience it sometime. Sundays can be rather crowded we were told, so it will be a Monday.

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We did some shopping in the market and the garden shop before leaving. I was surprised that the prices were not outrageous as one might find in a “tourist trap”. I expect to pay to a bit more for organic produce, but this store does not overcharge. They have a nice variety and for those who'd rather not cook, a deli. We bought some spinach, tomatoes, taro, strawberries and peanut butter cookies. If you like meat, they have a long meat counter with everything you might be looking for, and a gift delivery service for that as well.

K bought some cyclamen flowers and we looked over the X-mas d├ęcor, garden sculptures, and wide selection of orchids. I found a metal sculpture that reminded me of the Moody Minstrel for some reason.

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I am sure we will return to Dokidoki soon. This little surprise was quite a find and I recommend it to anyone who may travel within striking distance. Click here for directions and map in Japanese. If you need directions in English, just let me know by comment or email.

Next post: what we discovered on the way home.

2005/11/25

Macy’s Parade Marred by Terror Attack

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During the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a 50 foot tall Iraqi helium balloon disguised as an advertisement for M&M's candy, careened into spectators knocking down a light pole and injuring two women. A high Pentagon official, on condition of anonymity, said that the balloon was launched by Saddam Hussein just prior to the 2003 invasion of his country. It is the first attack on US soil by balloon since World War Two when Japan sent balloons across the Pacific carrying incendiary devices designed to start fires along the West Coast of the United States.

The Iraqi balloon is believed to have circled the globe twice prior to coming down in the streets of New York. New York Mayor Bloomberg’s immediate response was, “We will rebuild the light pole. We must show the terrorists they cannot defeat us with cowardly attacks using balloons. Terrorist balloons must not rain on our parade.”

“This could have been much worse. We dodged a bullet”, said President Bush from his Thanksgiving table at his Crawford Texas ranch. “This shows I was right to invade Iraq. Who knows how many more balloons they might have launched at us otherwise? The CIA has confirmed that they had even bigger weapons, one of which was shaped like Bullwinkle J Moose. Imagine the destruction that could have caused. Our intelligence sources now believe that Saddam was training al Qaeda on how to inflate balloons of mass destruction. These are evil doers.” Asked why terrorists would use an inert gas like helium rather than highly inflammable hydrogen for the attack, Bush answered that it clearly wasn’t “in-earth”, in was in the air. “Now excuse me, but I’m a wartime President and I’ve got to eat some more stuffing. It’s hard work fighting terrissts. Pass the cranberries please.”

Why no Air Force jets were scrambled to intercept the huge balloon is not yet known. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld angrily quipped, “This took place in New York City. I would suggest you ask the NYPD, it’s their jurisdiction.”

Condoleezza Rice stated that while the US had reports of terrorist plots involving Thanksgiving Day, “we had no idea that helium balloons could be used as weapons of mass destruction by careening them into pedestrians.” Critics point out that the FBI has known about the use of balloons in this manner since 1995 when then President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, was attacked by a circus clown with links to al Qaeda using 100 helium filled balloons. President Ramos was not injured in that incident.

Vice President Dick Cheney, enjoying a quiet Thanksgiving in his bunker, interrupted his dinner and emerged to tell the media, “This vindicates our intelligence on WMDs and our decision to invade Iraq. I hope this will put an end to the unwarranted and irresponsible criticism of this administration’s war on terror for once and for all.”

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters, “Right now there is an on-going investigation and we have a policy not to comment while an investigation is on- going. I would love to discuss this with you when this process is complete, but the investigation is still on-going and I can’t comment on an on-going investigation.”

Homeland Security Secretary Ridge said that while the balloon’s helium was not toxic, it did cause several people close by who inhaled the gas to speak in a strange high voice. He has raised the nation’s alert level to Brown, matching one of the panels on the balloon, between Yellow and Orange. “Just because the alert level is Brown does not mean we can be complacent. Go about your lives as usual, enjoy your holiday, but be vigilant. Watch the skies for more balloons. Keep watching the skies.”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

2005/11/23

Mum's the Word!

Some of the photos in this post can be viewed in larger format by clicking on them. You may need to do so in order to see some of the things I comment about.

November is the month when chrysanthemums are in bloom. Called kiku in Japan, almost every garden has some variety of them to brighten up the landscape. This morning, I took the picture below in my neighborhood.

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Oddly, Momo The Wonder Dog likes the smell of chrysanthemum leaves - she doesn't give whit about the flowers, just the leaves. Just shows perhaps how humans and dogs differ in which of the senses they each favor. We get more information through our eyes, dogs through their noses.

Chrysanthemums are as much loved in Japan as anywhere else (in fact, the flowers originated in China and Japan) and the Japanese Imperial Family has used the chrysanthemum as its family crest for over 700 years. I read that, according to Feng Shui beliefs, the chrysanthemum brings laughter and happiness to your home.

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Floral displays of mums line the path to Kashima Jingu.

Every November, the City of Kashima puts on an exhibition of the flowers at Kashima Jingu Shrine. Participants display their flowers which are judged and the best awarded ribbons. I had no idea how many colors and varieties there are.

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On the left, a father tries to gather his children for a portrait, while on the right, an older girl in kimono poses with the flowers adorning the gate.

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Some are grown onto a wire frame and shaped to become flower cranes, turtles, trees, or fans. The gate of the shrine, built in 1634, is decorated with flowered fans, birds and mounds.

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One of my favorites.


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Some varieties are grown on wires to keep the stems straight and have a single large, but delicate, blossom at the top. They resemble exploding fireworks to me.

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Others look like marshmallow "show balls".


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There are even chrysanthemum bonsai plants.


In addition to the chrysanthemum exhibition, November 15th is Shichi-go-san - literally "7, 5, 3" - a day for parents to pray at the shrine for the health and longevity of their young children at those ages. The children come to the shrine in their best clothes, whether Western style or traditional Japanese.

The significance of the ages 7, 5, and 3 correspond to old traditions. Back in the old days, kids aged three stopped getting their heads shaved and were allowed to grow out their hair. Boys aged five would wear hakama, traditional pants, for the first time in public. Girls aged seven would begin using obi - the wide decorative sash - to tie their kimono instead of cords.

There is additional significance in the numbers, as historically many Japanese, like many Chinese, regard odd numbers as lucky. Adding the three numbers results in 15, also lucky, so the date has been set as November 15th since the Edo period.

The parents buy the children chitose-ame, or longevity candy.

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Chitose means 1,000 years. The candy, which is red and white wheat gluten, is in the shape of a stick and comes in long paper bags decorated with turtles and cranes - more symbols of longevity.

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A little girl in kimono pauses for a precious moment, which I am lucky enough to capture with the camera. My friend YD of the blog Perspective shared this quote that comes to mind at times like this: 'The photograph itself doesn't interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality'. (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004).

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People come to pray at the main hall, called "hondo", accented by yellow chrysanthemum displays. Note the boy on the right is carrying a bag of chitose-ame. The hondo was built in 1619. The cedar just behind the building is over 1,000 years old.

If you're ever in Kashima City in the month of November, remember that mum's the word, and treat yourself to a stroll through Kashima Jingu.

2005/11/08

The Mild Mannered Snake

Question: What do you call a mild mannered snake?
Answer: A Civil Serpent.

What is it with humans and snakes? Some people don't mind them, but most people I know are at least a little afraid of them. I have a healthy respect for things which may be harmful to me. I don't "freak out" when I see a spider, a centipede or snake, but I do go into a cautious mode of awareness. (My oldest sister on the other hand, goes ballistic at the sight of anything with 8 legs or more).

In the foothills of south California I used to come across snakes on occasion. Some were "garden (or garter) snakes" which are docile and, I discovered, will let you handle them and can even swim well in one's swimming pool. Another was the "southern pacific rattlesnake". Those I tried to keep my distance from for obvious reasons, and the bigger the distance the better.

In Hawaii, I didn't think much about snakes because there aren't any. That was fine with me. However, upon relocating to Japan I was promptly reacquainted with that kind of our herpavore cousins. Japan has a number of snake species that call this archipelago home - and no, I'm not referring to the ones found in every government. I mean the reptilian variety.

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I have met two of them so far. The first was at the local Shingon Temple. It was a rather large "Aodaisho" or Japan Rat Snake that was soaking up some sun atop the gravestone of one of K's ancestors. It looked harmless enough, so I reached out to pet it and ...... JUST KIDDING!. I am not one of those whacky Aussie naturalists you see in documentaries. I kept my distance and took a photo. It turned out to be a pretty harmless snake after all, and actually good to have around. I'd rather see a few snakes than an infestation of rats. I've seen several since around Tsubaki shrine, down the street, but mostly ones that didn't make it across the road. Interestingly, when Momo saw one, her reaction was not fear, but mild curiosity.


The other day while riding my bicycle near lake Kitaura, I saw a snake sunning itself on a back road next to an irrigation ditch. It was actually very pretty as snakes go, with black, green and red markings. I stopped well short of it to take a picture. The one shown here is someone else's find. My digital camera is so slow that if I tried to take a photo of an iceberg, I am sure it would be melted before I got my picture. My snake disappeared into the grass. That was not altogether a bad thing, for the "Yamakagashi" or Japan Grass Snake, is a very poisonous variety.

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They are shy, living off of small fish and frogs, and don't usually bite humans even if handled (what genius figured that out I wonder?-"crikey, mate, let's see if he'll bite when I pick him up...."). If they do bite you, the venom can be fatal. They don't have hollow fangs to inject venom as vipers do, but rather have glands in the back of the jaw, which secrete from the gums around their teeth. Just getting the venom on your skin can cause you problems and if it gets into an open wound, such as the one it just put in your finger!, you'll need a trip to the hospital to avoid a painful, lingering death. From what the Moody Minstrel has posted about waiting times in Japan's hospitals, I'd rather not take a chance.

So what about Fiji? Don't think for a minute I didn't look into what kind of nasty critters they have down there before deciding to even take a look at the place.

As it happens there are just two snakes in Taveuni, Fiji. One is a sea snake, which one is not likely to encounter except while scuba diving. Even then, unless you go poking your fingers at them, they are not likely to be a problem. While they are deadly poisonous, I could find no deaths attributed to them in Fiji in recent years.

The other snake is the Pacific Tree Boa, a constrictor which lives in the rainforest and lives off of small animals. The only picture I have to offer is a Fiji postage stamp set which shows one. It is so rare to see one that even scientists out to find them have a hard time. In any case, they are no threat to humans.

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For some reason many of us develop unreasonable fears about these creatures (as evidenced, I'll admit, by my questioning of Taveuni natives). We often fear snakes, poisonous insects, sharks, bears and so on. All of these things can be dangerous, and warrant caution at some level, but usually to a much lesser degree than things we deal with every day and never have a second thought about. In the USA, auto crashes are the leading cause of death of people aged 3 to 33 years. Cancer and heart disease are major causes as well. Yet, most people think nothing of driving down to the fast food restaurant to eat, or the grocery store to buy cancer and heart disease causing items like alcohol, cigarettes, or foods laden with fats, pesticides, and other chemicals.

So what is it with snakes and people? Is it in our evolutionary history? Do we learn it culturally? It seems strange to me. Almost as strange as those nutty Aussie naturalists who seemingly have NO fears. Crikey!

2005/11/02

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

When we resist our fate we suffer.
When we accept it we are happy.

We have time in abundance, an eternity, to repeat our mistakes. But we need only once correct our mistake and at last hear the song of enlightenment, with which we can break the chain of vengeance forever. In your heart you can hear it now. It is the song your spirit has been singing since the moment of your birth.

If the monks are right, and nothing happens without cause, then the gift of suffering is to bring us closer to God, to teach us to be strong when we are weak, to be brave when we are afraid, to be wise in the midst of confusion and to let go of that which we can no longer hold.

Lasting victories are won in the heart, not on this land or that.

- Le Ly Hayslip


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Le Ly Hayslip was born 'Phung Thi Le Ly' in a rural part of central Vietnam in 1949. Coincidentally, the wife of one of my nephews, born in Vietnam after the war, still has relatives living on a farm in that area. Needless to say, Le Ly grew up in turbulent times and suffered greatly, as did so many Vietnamese, alternately at the hands of the French, the Americans, the so-called Viet Cong, and the South Vietnamese (including torture by the South Vietnamese police and rape by the Viet Cong). Whichever power occupied the village punished the villagers for having followed the orders of the previous occupiers. Her life in her homeland was one that we who have lived in highly secure first world surroundings can scarcely imagine in our worst nightmares.

She eventually came to the United States. I will let you discover her full story on your own. She has written two autobiographical books and served as the chairperson of "East Meets West", a humanitarian organization dedicated to helping improve the lives of the Vietnamese people. Her life was the basis for the Oliver Stone movie, "Heaven and Earth", which, though not a documentary, very accurately (and graphically) reflects the origins and conditions of that war, in addition to being a work of the cinematic art at its best. The stark contrast between the pastoral beauty of the country and the horror of war is gripping.

But this post is not about Le Ly per se, the movie, or that particular war. It is simply about what she wrote in the quote above. I have carried this quote in my day planner for several years now and reflect on it from time to time. Depending on your background - cultural, religious, national, political - parts of it can be interpreted in very different ways. The words "fate" and "God" are two glaring examples of words which can have very different meanings depending on your frame of reference. I actually like that aspect of it. If we are to understand each other, we need to attempt to learn about each other - to walk in each other's shoes.

It seems there is always somewhere in the world with the kind of conditions that Le Ly grew up in. And regardless of outward conditions, everyone of us, everywhere, suffers in some way. So, as it speaks to these universal conditions, I also feel the quote offers a bridge upon which many people from many lands may find a meeting place in their hearts and minds for understanding and peace.

That is my perspective. What's yours?