2007/08/28

Come Again?

Last year on August 20th, I posted a picture of a Japanese tree frog (amagaeru) which had paid a visit to our back door.

This year, they are coming in the front. As I went to lock the house this morning, I found this fellow perched on our front door:


As you can see, he's only about 2 1/4 cm long (less than an inch) He's still there this afternoon. Judging from the lumps on his back, he must of eaten something relatively large and is taking time to digest the big meal.


As I mentioned last year (for any new readers of this blog), the generic word for frog in Japanese is kaeru. Kaeru also means "to return", so small frog shaped charms are a common item for travelers to carry with them in hopes for a safe return.

People also put ceramic or wooden kaeru in their gardens as an invitation for guests to return. Now we've got a live one right on our front door. Perfect.

Come again.

2007/08/26

Lights Out!

In the interest of saving energy, the moon will be turned off tomorrow night between the hours of......

Early Tuesday evening in Japan (early Tuesday morning in the USA) we will be treated to a total eclipse of the moon. Europe and Africa will miss this one.

It does not look like the weather here in Japan will cooperate, but we'll see. In Japan time, the total eclipse of the moon will begin at 6:52 p.m. and end at 8:22 p.m. Tuesday, and the full moon glowing dimly in a red copper color will be visible from around 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the southeastern sky. The last total lunar eclipse to be visible from Japan occurred in January of 2001.

For skygazers in Fiji, the eclipse will begin at 8:52 PM Tuesday evening. In Hawaii, it will be 11:52 PM Monday night. If you're on Pacific Daylight Time, you'll need to be awake at 2:52 AM Tuesday morning (yawn!).

NASA graphic showing times for Pacific Time Zone viewers.



The times I've given are for totality. You'll want to be watching well in advance of that in order to witness the whole event.

For details regarding viewing the eclipse in your location see the Earth & Sky or NASA websites.

Following the eclipse, the moon will be returned to FULL in time for my mother's birthday on Wednesday.

2007/08/25

Aming

Back in early 80's I walked into Shirokiya department store on Maui (yes, we had a Japanese department store) and bought a cassette tape of Japanese pop music by a duo called "Aming". I liked the harmony of their songs a lot, even thought I did not understand the words. I also could not find out anything about the duo - or was it one person singing duets with herself?

I listened to other Japanese pop singers over time and like some of the songs by some of the singers - Pink Lady (tongue partly in cheek), Akina Nakamori, Seiko Matsuda and Miki Imai, who is still a favorite of mine. But I never found another album or any information about Aming. I have kept an eye out for a CD or any indication of more of their music, to no avail. Not that I thought it was fantastic, but I enjoyed it and if nothing else would have liked a CD copy of the tape I already had.

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Aming - Haruko Kato & Takako Okamura
Cover of their single - my cassette tape didn't have their picture on it, just the logo.

A few weeks ago I was riding my bike in town and as I passed the repair shop for the used car dealer, "Lemon Cars" (I'm not making that up and I've posted about it before), I heard Aming being played on the loudspeaker. I was really surprised and mentioned it to K later. How amazing that some auto mechanic liked their music. Or could it be that a radio station was broadcasting such an old tune? It really felt odd to me. I was hearing a song from a group that lasted only a year, some 25 years in the past. I could almost hear Rod Serling - "Witness a lone cyclist, one "Pandabonium", following a tune as he rides down a musical path in a foreign land; a path that can only lead ..... to the Twightlight Zone."

Last week - not even thinking of the incident - I was looking up videos of some Japanese pop songs on YouTube and came across, of all groups, Aming. It turns out that Aming has recently reunited and recorded their old hit song "Matsuwa ".


In 1981, the two girls were in college. They performed together for a year, recorded four singles and two albums, but then decided to split up and go their own ways. (Probably a wise life choice). One graduated and went to work as a secretary, then got married and raised children, the other dropped out of college and became a solo singer/song writer. In the video above Takako Okamura (the song writer) is on the left. Haruko Kato is on the right.

Now, 25 years later, they have come back together to record more music. I wish them every success. After all, I've waited a quarter of a century for their second album.

To see Aming singing Matsuwa on Japanese television in 1982 click here. (Sorry, they won't allow me to embed the video).

Trivia: "Matsuwa" is a song about something along the lines of "I'll wait for you until the other girl dumps you". Whatever. They still sound pretty good to me.

2007/08/24

We're Back!

And we're beautiful. *

Pardon the delay in responding to your most welcome comments on previous posts.

We just returned from an exciting three day and two night "ryoko" (trip) to Hakone National Park and Kamakura. I'll be posting all the exciting cliff hanging details of this blitz feiertag (lightning holiday) soon.

Meanwhile, we'll be soaking in a hot bath and sleeping a lot.

Trivia: "we're back and we're beautiful" is an obscure reference to a civil war skit by Firesign Theatre which can be found on their album, "Everything You Know Is Wrong".

2007/08/19

Kashima City Furusato Matsuri

Furusato means "home town" and each year towns - excuse me, "cities" - around Japan
hold a celebration Bon dance. Strictly speaking, it isn't a Bon Odori, since it is not religious, but it has its roots in Japanese Obon tradition and in practice it amounts to the exact same kind of event.

The last two Furusato Festivals we attended were held at Hamanasu Park, just a mile or so from the house. This year, the location was just a little further away in the soccer field of a park, above an elementary school. It's very near Kitaura Lake, with cedar covered hills as a backdrop. This was the 12th festival since Kashima became a "City". The park is in an area that was called "Oono Machi" before it was incorporated into Kashima City and is about 15 kilometers from the city center. A second dance was held next to Kashima Jingu shrine, right in the heart of the city, a few days later.

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The chochin (lanterns) were hung on the yagura (center platform) with care, in hope that the dancers soon would be there.

A line of tents covered games for kids (ball toss, catch a fish, etc), and food booths (yakitori, yakisoba, hot dogs on a stick [yaki doggie?], cold drinks). Some tables with umbrellas were available and rows of chairs were assembled in front of an entertainment stage - actually the bed of an open truck van. (Most van type trucks in Japan open on the sides as well as the back.) Some people had thought to bring a mat to sit on (doh! why don't I ever remember to do that?).

We made sure to arrive before 5:00 PM when they started distributing (free) tickets for a drawing held at the end of the festival.

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Ten folding bicycles were the top prizes for the drawing.

Drawings or games for prizes are popular in Japan. The way they are run reflects Japanese cultural attitudes about community - everyone gets something. In this drawing they would be giving away ten bicycles, 100 electric fans, and I don't know how many tenugui (towels). So there are no losers, only winners. K and I have attended a dinner function last year that had over 200 guests. At the end, there games with each table as a team, and a drawing (top prize a bicycle). But there were prizes enough for everyone, even if just a beautifully gift wrapped bar of bath soap. Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawaii do the same thing at their parties and I always thought it was a fun idea. There, they play bingo and stores donate bags of rice, paper towels, even toilet paper as prizes. Everyone goes home with something.

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Hey! Over here! I know appears that everyone turned their back on me...well they have, but it was nothing personal.

I really don't know what everyone was looking at and this picture looks rather odd. Perhaps they were just facing away from the hot sun. Anyway, the lady in the kimono is the wife of the mayor. She later smiled and bowed to me, so I felt better. And those guys on the left didn't just bring a mat to sit on, they brought a whole picnic table with seats! I used to have one of those. It was great. Folded into a slim suitcase size and was easy to carry in the plane for picnics on the lawn at Hana airport.

The prize thingy is illustrative of the Japanese ethic of teamwork, and sharing the rewards. Some aspects of that mindset can be frustrating for a gaijin, particularly when practicality is sacrificed for form in a work setting (just ask the Moody Minstrel). But it does have its benefits for the society as a whole. In Japan there are rich and poor as anywhere, but the range between them is not as great as it is in many other countries. Under the ultra conservative LDP in recent years, there has been a tendency toward the rich getting richer, and that was part of the reason for their recent election defeat. This society embraces a system of rewards, but not a winner take all, every man for himself attitude. In Japan the pay ratio between chief executives and the average employee is about 10 to 1 in 2004. In the USA it was 531 to 1 that year.

In the US, people seem to tolerate that more, perhaps because they accept the myth (promoted by the power elite) that "anyone can become one of the rich if they just work hard enough", keeps people from wanting to question the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few - they cling to the hope of becoming one of them - or because they believe such disparity is necessary to spur productivity (another myth). Not that Japanese people don't fall for the same consumerist traps as Americans, if not more so - buying designer name clothes or importing cars from half way around the world even though equally good vehicles or better are built right here for less. But I'm not talking consumerism with this point. Rather, "fairness" or "community". But I digress...

Here's an old recording of "Tanko Bushi" (coal mine song) - one of the odori we danced...


"Au", a mobile phone service, provided hand fans for everyone who attended. These were put into immediate use, as the temperature was around 33 C (91 F) and a bit humid.

Later, anyone who danced was given another fan (partly for a practical reason you'll see later) and at the end of the dance, cans of cold tea and snacks for the kids were given out.

As the ticket line opened, the entertainment started on the stage with a couple of "Enka" singers. Enka is to Japan music what Country and Western is to American music. The songs are often sad tales of a broken heart. One of the singers was "Okama" (a guy dressed as a woman). Later, he/she sang some for some of the dances, accompanied by the Mayor (who does NOT cross dress). Then came a few Hawaiian music acts - very popular with middle age and older folks in Japan. In fact, a Japanese hula halau once won the state hula competition in Hawaii, much to the chagrin of the locals. No one in Hawaii makes too much fuss over that though as there is a lot of money to be made teaching hula to the Japanese.

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Ukulele players on stage.

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A hula halau dressed in mumus with maile leis and lilies in their hair. They were very good.


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Another hula halau - I liked their outfits, the color of ti leaves.


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Lots of kids recognized K-sensei (teacher) and came up to talk with her

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There was an Okinawan dance troupe that wasn't from Okinawa. They were from towns here in Ibaraki and part of an organization of performers of Okinawan dance that has member groups around Japan and is headquartered in Wakayama prefecture next to Osaka. Another group of women performed traditional Japanese Odori (a dance style that goes back about 400 years) using fans, tanigui, and hand motions. (They were all far superior dancers than any robot could ever hope to be.)

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Okinawan Dance

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Odori - look ma, no robots

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And of course, we had speeches from our local politicians. Here, Toshiro Uchida, Mayor of our fair City of Kashima, welcomes everyone to the festival.

Through it all, cicadas in the surrounding trees vibrated their mating calls. While some school children performed some dances, we walked to the top of the hill where I took the first picture of this post, and another, below, of Kitaura Bridge. The sun was setting in the clouds, turning the sky pastel pink and orange.

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The final act was a girl from Shinjuku (a part of Tokyo) wearing a pink cowgirl costume who sang a medley of 1960's Japanese Pop songs. I couldn't relate to it, but I guess for some of the local folks my age it sounded like "golden oldies".


At 7:30 the main festival dance started. At these dances (as well as Bon dances at temples) a group of women who practice the dances together and wear matching yukata, form the inner ring. That way, other people dancing can look to them for guidance on the dance moves and try to follow along. In Hawaii, there are so many Bon dances each summer that one can learn the dances pretty well. But here, there is only one or two dances to attend each year, so that isn't an option.

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K dancing the Kashima City festival dance

There were three different dances. Tankobushi is a coal miner dance with motions a coal miner would make: digging, trowing a sack over the shoulders, wiping the brow, pushing a cart, etc. to a song about a love struck miner. It's a simple dance that is easy to learn and so most people can do it well. Then there are two Kashima dances, one is quite new as it was developed for the 10th anniversary of Kashima City two years ago.
Both of those are more complex and involve use of a fan. The fan given to dancers has a round handle as the new dance requires one to spin the fan between the hands, as K is doing above, and which you can see being done in the video clip below.



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Do I look like I'm melting? I was. Did I mention it was HOT?

On the back of the dance fan was printed "愛らぶふるさと” The first character is "ai" which means love and sounds like the English "I". Then ra-bu which sounds a bit like the English word "love" followed by furusato, which as I earlier indicated means "home town". So it's kind of a clever form of "I love my home town" that strangely plays on English words.

During a break, we were treated to hanabi (a fireworks show). Here's a short clip of the finale...

After more dancing, the festival came to a close. Not! There was still the drawing. After winning the tanigui (towel) which was printed with the city flower - Hamanasu (Rugosa Rose) - and the words "12th Annual Kashima Furusato" (in Japanese of course), we decided to head home. The weather was still warm, and we were ready for a rest after standing and dancing for five hours. The tiredness has faded, but the joy of the festival remains.

2007/08/16

Robots To Preserve Culture?

Thanks to George Kenney at Electric Politics for sending me the link to this story.

On the National Geographic website: "Dancing Robot to Preserve Japan's Folk Arts"

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The robot, HRP-2, is programmed to replicate human dance steps and is being advertised as a way to preserve Japanese cultural dances. Here is a video of HRP-2 dancing alongside a human to the traditional folk dance Aizu-Bandaisan:



There are numerous scientists and engineers in Japan raised on comic books and robot animated characters, who are still fascinated with robots that look something like a human, and they keep trying to find some practical purpose for them. They need to keep looking. Non-humanoid specialty robots such as those used in manufacturing are an example of an invention meeting a need. Humanoid robots are the opposite - a "hobby" or perhaps fetish looking for a purpose. Every few months another story comes out in the Japanese press about a humanoid robot. None of them do anything of practical value. If there is a need to preserve such things as traditional dance steps, it would be much simpler to create a computer program that would play them on screen in 3D.

Besides, I'm betting there will be humans around to learn dances long after these machines are recycled and their software languages forgotten.

2007/08/12

Itako Gion Matsuri Part II

A gathering of giants

We returned to Itako City late Sunday afternoon for part two of the three day festival and positioned ourselves not far from the train station where seven floats or "dashi" (thank you Moody) would gather after a long procession.
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Itako station's neon welcome sign - how "RETRO".

Gion Festivals have their origins in Kyoto and date back to 869 AD. That year, an epidemic swept through the city and people believed that it was a sign that the gods were angry. The festival was an attempt to appease them. Led by the priest of Yakasa shrine (also known as Gion), the procession was originally called "Gion Ceremony for the Holy Spirits". Today, many cities around Japan hold their own Gion Festivals.

Our timing was perfect, as the first of the dashi would come into view within minutes of our arrival. The streets were not over crowded, offering good views of the floats. Food stalls lined the sidewalks. Many people were dresses in hapi coats or yukata (the colorfully printed cotton garb for summer wear worn by both men and women).

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It was warm - around 30C (in the high 80's F), but cooling off a bit. Most folks had a "tenugui" (light cotton towel) draped around their neck (including me), and some had a fan as well.

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Festival officials led the parade with large chochin (paper lanterns).


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The dashi were pulled along with long ropes held by teams of all ages, starting with young folks like the ones above.


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Muscians on each dashi don't get a free ride - they play non-stop.


The people on the ropes did pull the floats along, but alot of the motive power can from a group of guys behind each float, pushing with all their might.

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The rear "engine" - pushing together and getting crushed together in the process.


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Atop each dashi is an image. Most are of famous mythological or historic figures. In this case, however, it is bales of rice with white mice on them. White mice are considered a sign of plentiful food.

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Mice and rice rhyme so nice. There's an easy poem in there for someone like Moody or Quasar9. All I came up with was a ribald limerick: "There once were two mice from Itako..." (Just kidding!)

As the floats approached us they slowed to a stop to wait their turn at parking in the area in front of the train station. This takes some time as the tall figures must first be lowered into the float and also because turning one of these dashi which weigh a few tons and have fixed wheels, is no easy task. The pause gave us a good chance to look over the dashi and gave the people moving them a well deserved break.
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The legendary "Nihon (or Yamato) Takeru no Mikoto", prince of the 12th Emperor of Japan. He was said to have been a brave general.

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The back of "Nihon (or Yamato) Takeru no Mikoto", with his quiver of arrows.

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Pausing to pose for a picture in front of their float.

Two large poles at the front of each float are used as brakes, like the one on your childhood "soap box" car. They are also used to steer.


Above: Dashi with Okuninushi no Mikoto (a god-Prince in Japanese mythology)

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This float depicts Honda Heihachiro Tadakatsu, a great general who was born in 1548 and served the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. I think he is supposed to be holding a pole weapon in his right hand, but it appears to be missing.

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Here is Emperor Jimmu (god-warrior) guided by his three-legged bird, Yatagarasu, he is the mythical founder of Japan said to have been born in 660 BCE.

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The Empress-regent Jingu Kogo born about 170 CE, she ruled Japan for 69 years and brought Korea under Japanese control.



Sanada Yukimura(1567-1615) - a famous samurai warrior and leader of the Sanada clan who fought against shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Dashi with Okuninushi no Mikoto being pushed toward the train station to join the others already parked there.


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Nihon Takeru no Mikoto and Jimmu

As darkness fell, the last of the floats was put into position. The participants gathered front of them for a traditional dance in the streets. My batteries were gone by this time and besides, it was too packed to get close enough or high enough for a good shot of the dancers, so we called it a day.

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(I see Honda Heihachiro Tadakatsu found his spear - they must have removed it earlier to get under telephone wires.) A throng of dancers among the dashi perform with the neon lights of Itako Eki (train station) as backdrop - ancient tradition in modern Japan.

2007/08/10

Momo Archive

By popular demand (blush) I have created an archive of all my own posts as well as the posts that Pandabonium has written about me. Just click the link under my picture in the right hand column.

2007/08/04

Itako Gion Matsuri - Part One

As a reward to me for agreeing to see a second doctor (I have a minor skin condition on few fingers) we had lunch at Wordsworth restaurant Saturday. I don't have a high regard for medical doctors (a view which deepens with every visit). Oh, they are very good at fixing broken things, and offering chemicals to treat symptoms, but pretty clueless about getting to underlying causes, keeping people healthy or restoring health. But I digress. I told K she'd have to bribe me if she wanted me to go.

Anyway, it was a hot day, and the air conditioning would have been welcome, but the interior of Wordsworth was pretty packed (as usual) and we opted for the lanai (covered patio) which has no air conditioning, but a nice breeze and no crowd. We had specials of the day - cold angel hair pasta salad. K's choice was topped with medallions of roast beef. Mine had a sauce with diced raw scallops and avocado, daikon radish sprouts, a bit of onion, lettuce and tomato. Oishii! (ono, delicious, maleka). Those Wordsworth chefs really know their art. Price was right too - ¥1000 each (about US$8.40).

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Then we were off to check out the Gion Matsuri - a festival of dancers and floats taking place Saturday, Sunday, and Monday in our neighboring city of Irises and canals - Itako.

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We found one float on a narrow side street, the musicians playing as young men did the heavy work of moving the float and doing a U turn. The four wooden wheels are fixed, so turns must be accomplished with chocks to stop a wheel as long poles are used as levers to push the float around by brute force. Older men, who no doubt have experience at this, supervise.

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K was please that we came upon this particular float, as it was dedicated to Benkei - full name Saito Musashibo Benkei - a legendary Sohei (warrior monk) who lived in the late 12th Century and whose exploits have been the subject of Kabuki and Noh plays. He's a very popular figure in Japanese folklore. His statue's head and hand are visible in the first picture, atop the float. The entire statue can be raised up out of the float during the parade through the streets, or lowered for bridges, phone wires, or for making turns.

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As we watched them, a freight train from Kashima Port roared across the concrete trestle above us, juxtaposing the modern "magic carpet made of steel" with the ancient ritual on wooden wheels, and the mass transport made possible by cheap fossil fuels with the man powered mode. The energy in a single liter of gasoline could easily move this float several kilometers, yet is priced more cheaply than bottled water and so carelessly wasted as if in endless supply.

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K inquired about the rest of the floats and the planned activity for the day. It turned out that there would be five floats meeting at the town center. Larger celebrations of twelve floats are held every so many years, and 2008 will be one of those occasions. For now, it would be some hours yet before all five of today's floats got together, so we decided to return for Sunday evening's festivities when they would be in full swing (and at a cooler time of day).

Here's a very short (ten second) video clip of this float. I'll be taking more clips and pictures Sunday evening.

2007/08/02

What's Happening Now?

Coming up on Pacific Islander:

August -

* Itako City Gion Festival

* Suva, Fiji - special event

* Kashima City Bon Dance

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Obon poster at our local temple showing ancestors making their annual visit guided by bon fires. (Riding on cucumbers? I guess that represents the offerings left for them.)
UPDATE: I've learned that an old tradition during Obon (the Buddhist holidays when ancestors are said to visit) is to make horses and cows out of cucumbers and eggplants, using hashi (chop sticks) for the legs. These are offered so that the ancestors can ride these animals home for the Bon visit.

* A 9th century Buddhist temple which I've never shared before.

* Kashima City Fire Works

September -

* 9th - Hyakuri Airbase Air Festival featuring the JASDF Aerobatic Team "Blue Impulse"

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Blue Impulse

Oh, yeah!

and as they say on late night TV, "and many, many more"...

Trivia: Comedian Flip Wilson (1933 – 1998) used to do skits on his TV show as Reverend Leroy, minister of the "Church of What's Happening Now!"

2007/08/01

Momo - All Dog

While hanging something on the laundry pole this morning (we have a solar clothes drier), K said good morning to Momo, and while looking down at her, saw a mole.

"Oh, you mean that cute little Momo the Wonder Dog has a mole like the famous beauty mark on actress Anne Francis' face?", you may ask.

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Anne Francis

No, I mean this kind of mole:

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Only this one was dead and laying neatly in the center of Momo's outdoor blanket, as if one of her toys.

Lovely. Yup, she's all dog.