Some Final Pictures of the Year, Ones I Hope I Have Not Used in Mysterious Orientations Before…

December 31, 2010

While not as good as “Fanny Hair”, a beauty shop near my apartment, “Hair Make Heaps” is nonetheless a pretty fine moniker for that sort of establishment.

The picture I never tire of taking: Mt. Fuji at sunset, from my bedroom window.

Hey, this place sells bread and food!

Baked cookies are always best, that’s my take on the situation…

This is not a name that rolls off the tongue like Stag’s Leap or Clos du Val…

Perhaps this place could merge with the other hair stylist (above), and they could call the new venture “Hair Make Heaps of Moss”…

Care to make a guess how this might be pronounced? It’s “Marui”. Go figure.

These guys, who hail from Turkey, make the best kebabs in all Japan!

Tokyo Tower rises up behind Zozoji Temple.

Three junior high school girls show off for the gaijin. I thoroughly expect that they could beat me in a hundred-meter dash on their bamboo stilts (by which I mean them on the stilts, and me just running).

Here’s something you probably haven’t had yet: sweet potato soda! News flash: I haven’t had it either, and I have no intention of having it anytime soon.

You can’t argue with that…

This reindeer, which I happened upon in Ikebukuro train station at Christmastime, is life-size, and quite lifelike as well, despite the fact that he is made from styrofoam and nylon fiber.

This must be the world’s shortest escalator!

The colors of winter: persimmons drying in the sun. Thanks, Saki, for this pic!

Happy New Year all! I am on my way out the door, headed for Ikebukuro and an overnight bus trip to the sea. If the weather gods cooperate, I’ll post some pictures of the trip in the next day or two. Sayonara!

The Special Shopping Opportunity

December 31, 2010

It’s New Year’s Eve, a bit after 6pm Tokyo time, and soon I will depart on my annual New Year’s Eve bus trip, which takes most of the night and ends up somewhere with an eastward sea view, where I and my fellow travelers can watch the first sunrise of the new year. This will be my sixth such voyage, and I have acquired something of a reputation among my friends for bringing good weather, even at times when the forecast was bleak. I may not be so lucky this year, as the sky is totally clouded over, and the predictions are for rain, but I live in hope.

The bus trip is something of a Japanese institution. Every day hundreds of modern buses leave Ikebukuro, Shinjuku or Ueno, loaded with camera-bearing tourists, all headed for one of the myriad ocean or mountain destinations that lie within a day’s trip of Tokyo. The prices are reasonable, usually sixty or eighty dollars for a ten-to-twelve hour trip, which would include lunch, admissions to whatever attractions were scheduled, and of course the round-trip transportation. A typical excursion might include a visit to an onsen (a hot spring / health spa), a stroll through a flower park or a pine forest, a fruit-picking experience (such as a visit to a strawberry field or a peach orchard), and several brief photo-op stops.

The best part, though, is the mandatory stop at whatever sales venue sponsors the trip. It could be a pottery factory, a fish processing plant, a jewelry outlet, just about any sort of shop with suitable bus parking, where the owners feel that they have a chance of separating day trippers from their hard-earned cash. This is quite common all around Asia, as far as I can tell. I have been on similar day excursions in China, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and each offered a “special shopping opportunity” to punctuate the grueling sightseeing schedule.

In one particularly memorable trip, the sales venue was an amethyst shop. One group of fellow travelers hailed from India, and the women in the party were clearly enamored of amethysts. To the men fell the task of negotiating a suitable price for the purchase. The Chinese store owner chattered amiably in her native language while tallying figures on an ancient calculator (not as ancient as an abacus, but pretty old as calculators go). Whatever the final figure, it began with a seven (as in seven thousand monetary units, or 70000, or whatever). The owner smiled at the elderly Indian man, saying in English “This is very good, very good indeed. In China, seven is a very lucky number!” “Really?” he replied, not missing a beat. “In India, six is a very lucky number.” I suspect that a compromise was made somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.5 (which I have also heard rumored to be a very lucky number), as the Indian family carried bags of swag back to the bus at the end of the special shopping opportunity.

I don’t know what shopping experience will be on offer tonight and tomorrow, but I can tell you I’m looking forward to finding out!

Steamed Buns and Cultural Anomalies

December 30, 2010

In Setagaya, a borough or ward of Tokyo, there exists a small storefront that sells the best Chinese steamed buns I have eaten thus far. They cost 140 yen, less than two dollars, and depending on my appetite, I can manage one or perhaps one and a half. They are filled with a mixture of pork (I think; if it is not pork, I’d prefer not to know what it might be), vegetables and some liquid that is roughly the consistency, color and temperature of molten lava. The preferred method of consumption is to bite a small hole in the top of the bun to allow the steam out, and then wait about five minutes before attempting any further incursion into the bun’s heart. The first time, one is sorely tempted to dig in directly, as the outside of the bun is cool enough to hold in one’s bare hand, but this is a mistake made only once.

In late December, Setagaya ward holds a week-long flea market. The streets are filled with eat-on-the-fly food stands and sellers hawking every manner of merchandise imaginable: antiques, jewelry, clothing, artworks, kimonos, New Year decorations, and stuffed animals depicting the upcoming year’s mascot on the Chinese lunar calendar (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit). This provided a good excuse for me to pay a visit to Setagaya, a place I don’t often get to as it is some distance from my house. And of course, any visit to Setagaya would not be complete without a stop at the steamed bun place.

It turned out I was not the first person with this idea. The line for steamed buns stretched from the shop front all the way back to the first corner, at which point it made a 90-degree turn and continued down the side street to the first crossing, then another 90-degree turn down that street a good fifty or seventy-five feet! Yikesu, as we say in Japan. Still, I was not going to come all the way to Setagaya and not get a steamed bun (or two), so I gamely got into the line, and there I stayed for the better part of an hour.

During this time I made some observations, which as time went by turned into assumptions, and which at some point may evolve into a hypothesis or theorem. The concept of a queue is regarded quite differently from country to country, I think. In the US and Canada, if there is a line for, say, a movie, one is expected to join in at the end of the line, and await one’s turn to buy tickets. In Mexico and other Latin American countries I have visited, this seems to be more or less the same in concept, but differs in practice in that one looks for a friend or acquaintance already in the line, expresses hearty surprise at one’s good luck at meeting said acquaintance at such a propitious time, and then joins the queue at that point, engaging in enthusiastic conversation with the friend until arriving at the destination point (and then, of course, buying the tickets). In China, lining up seems to be for dilettantes only; one simply makes one’s way to the forefront, sometimes by misdirecting the attention of one of the aforementioned dilettantes already in line, and then sneaking in ahead of him, or sometimes just by outright shoving. The Japanese, naturally, are polite above all else. The queues are quiet and orderly, and everyone waits his turn. But here’s the part I have never seen anywhere else: I’m standing in line, minding my own business, dutifully waiting my turn, when some guy walks up and asks “What’s everybody lining up for?” So I tell him we’re waiting for steamed buns. “Cool,” he says, and he gets into line too. Where else in the world would somebody veer off his intended path to voluntarily join an hour-long queue for something he had no particular knowledge of, and no previous desire for, just because other people were already lined up for it? I love this place!

And They Say Paris is the City of Lights…

December 28, 2010


This really does say Tokyo Dome, not Tokyo Dame (for example). It is the home of the legendary Yomiuri Giants, the oldest team among the current professional baseball teams in Japan. And it takes Christmas decorations quite seriously, as you will see.

Tokyo Dome Adjacent

We speculated that the ship, whose masts and sails poke up through the blue-light ceiling, is actually “under water” the water being the ceiling. We may have been reading more into it than the designers intended, though.

This sign was on the side of a truck alongside Tokyo Dome. The name notwithstanding, the audio sounded pretty normal to me.

The Golden Periphery of Tokyo Dome.

This is the “bug guts green” parachute ride at Korakuen Park, just across the street from Tokyo Dome. There is also a giant Ferris Wheel, and a roller coaster that takes riders through a hole in an adjacent office building! (see below)

These primary-colored “pencils” are directional indicators for the Tokyo Dome grounds.

Now we head off to Roppongi, the home of the fat-cat foreigners who live in Tokyo. It is perhaps the only place in the city where the gaijin march in similar numbers to the locals. It is a place I avoid like the plague except for Christmastime, when their “Illumination Events” rival any I have ever seen.

Blue trees reflect in the glass waterfalls behind. There really is water running down the glass panels, a beautiful effect both for the eyes and the ears.

The crystal reflecting tree in Mori Koen pond.

Where there are illumination events, there you will also find the Red Bull Mini Cooper, complete with lovely young Japanese girls handing out free samples of the cough medicine-flavored beverage. I mentioned to one of them that my car is a Mini Cooper too, and she said she liked this one very well! I have often found with mine that it is a difficult vehicle for any sort of clandestine operation, as it is quite recognizable among the ubiquitous silver-grey sedans of Prince Edward Island, but my sedate blue convertible doesn’t hold a candle to this one when it comes to shock effect!

Blue Field Acres, with Tokyo Tower rising Eiffelesquely in the background.

A full moon cooperated nicely in the illumination event.

Or how about these trees, cleverly illuminated to evoke champagne flutes. I think a glass of champagne would be a fitting end to an evening of light-gazing, actually. As a matter of fact, I have a bottle of Moet a-chillin’ in the fridge as we speak. So, sayonara for now!

February Books That Didn’t Make Into the Whodunit Column, Part Two

December 28, 2010

I am always a little leery about reading a book bearing a blurb like “…a worthy successor to Chandler”, but this blurb had perhaps a bit more street cred than some, as it was penned by none other than Michael Connelly. The book, you ask? P.G. Sturges’ debut novel, Shortcut Man.

The title refers to the job of the lead character, Dick Henry, a fellow who short-circuits the strictly legal ways of getting things done, opting instead for a quick and discreet hands-on (or “fists-on”) approach to problem solving, be it evicting a deadbeat tenant or “encouraging” a sleazy contractor to make good on some slipshod home repairs.

By night, the rigors of his day job left far behind, he hangs out with lithe and lissome Lynette. He doesn’t really know a lot about her, but then history (or “her story”, to be precise) has little to do with why they spend evenings together.

‘“What don’t I have?” she asked that night, with a twisty smile. I looked her up and down. Honesty sprang to my lips and I let it pass. “You have everything.” Another devilish smile. “You’re wrong, Dick. I don’t have any underwear,” And we’d be off and running…’

Things get a bit dicey, however, when Henry accepts a job to spy on the wife of a notorious Hollywood porn producer, and the wife turns out to be—you guessed it—Lynette. Except that her name is not really Lynette, it’s Judy. Oops. Now Henry has eight grand, the down payment for his investigation, burning a hole in his pocket, and he faces the unpleasant task of offering himself up as sacrificial goat to the producer’s burning desire for revenge.

So, that’s the setup. But the gods live in the details, they say, and that is the case with Sturges’ writing. He is, simply put, one of the cleverest and funniest new writers to grace the mystery genre in quite some time. Also, it doesn’t hurt that his protagonist drives a ’69 Cadillac convertible:

“I found a spot near the corner. Well, two spots, but a silvery Korean import was in both of them. This was no problem if you owned a ’69 Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible. I pulled up in front of Pusan’s finest, backed up carefully until I kissed it, then, with 472 cubic inches of raw Detroit horsepower, pushed it back and created my parking space. You gotta know how to use your Cadillac.”

Here’s a bit of trivia: Sturges is the son of Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Preston Sturges, who wrote and directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Sullivan’s Travels (as well as a number of other well known Hollywood hits including Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, and Unfaithfully Yours). It would appear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

February Books That Didn’t Make Into the Whodunit Column, Part One

December 26, 2010

The mystery lineup for the February issue of issue of BookPage is truly exceptional: a new Robert Crais novel featuring Joe Pike; the highly anticipated follow-up to Noah Boyd’s 2010 thriller, The Bricklayer; the new Jack Caffery novel from bestselling British author Mo Hayder; and the English-language debut of Japanese suspense icon, Keigo Higashino. The sad thing was that I had to limit the selection to four, when there were at least a couple of others that deserved inclusion. Both are first novels for their respective authors, and yet both have the feel of books from well-established writers, as if the reader were dropping in somewhere in mid-series and meeting characters well known by scores of appreciative fans.

First up is Urban Waite’s The Terror of Living: Phil Hunt is a rawboned cowboy of middling years, who, with his wife, runs a small and struggling horse farm in rural Washington state. There’s not enough money in horses to keep body and soul together, though, so he augments his income with some cross-border heroin running from time to time. He seems a natural choice for this job, as his knowledge of the mountainous borderlands is second to none. His opposite number on the “right” side of the law is Deputy Bobby Drake, also a fairly skilled mountaineer. Drake’s father, once a deputy himself, languishes in prison for drug-running, so Drake understandably has a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder where illegal substances are concerned. He makes it his business to take Hunt down.

He almost succeeds. Hunt’s partner is apprehended, his horse is shot out from under him, and his drugs are intercepted by the cops, but amazingly Hunt makes good his escape. His employers are none too happy with his performance, however, and they recruit him for a gratis offshore run. What Hunt does not anticipate, though, is the method for moving this latest batch of heroin into the US: a double-handful of small latex spheres located somewhere in the digestive tract of Thu, an extremely skittish Vietnamese girl.

This story line in itself would be enough to sustain a good novel. But then Grady shows up, and all bets are off. Grady is a stone-cold killer, hired by the bad guys to do some “wet work” in retribution for the drug deal gone bad. Thing is, Grady’s idea of problem solving is just to take all the players off the board, regardless of which team they play for. This he does with utmost dispatch, taking out several of the crooks and a couple of cops in the bargain, until the only opponents left standing are Hunt and Drake. Thus, in a strange turn of events, cop and criminal find themselves unwitting (and certainly unwilling) allies against a ruthless and unpredictable adversary.

Both setting (Washington state) and principal character (Deputy Bobby Drake) will appeal to fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series. Drake is a taciturn fellow, a straight arrow not much given to humor. Like Pickett, he is driven by an innate goodness of spirit, always trying to balance family and work, and to reconcile the points where “good” and “lawful” are somewhat at odds with one another.  

PS: tune in tomorrow for part two of “February Books That Didn’t Make Into the Whodunit Column”, featuring P.G. Sturges’ darkly comedic Shortcut Man.

The Mona Lisa Twins

December 25, 2010

This blog topic has been on my “bubbling under” list for ten days or so, and today it seems to have bubbled its way to the top. Throughout the past couple of weeks, during the endless unpacking of stuff in my apartment, one thing that had eluded me until last night was the power supply for my Bose computer speakers. Thus, I had been listening to YouTube and CDs on the tiny (and tinny) built-in laptop speakers, all the while aching for some higher-fi tuneage. Once I figured out the wiring connections (although the power supply turned up, the instruction manual appears to be MIA), the first thing I called up on the YouTube playlist was the Mona Lisa Twins, specifically their video of the old Beatles’ chestnut, Blackbird.



I ran across the pair for the first time last week, while looking for an obscure live version of the old Scott McKenzie tune “San Francisco”, the one that exhorts listeners to “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” The Mona Lisa Twins’ version appeared in the queue, and I clicked on it just for grins and interest; I was quite taken with it, I have to say. The harmonies are spot on, as if they were channeling the Everly Brothers (I know, the Everly Bros aren’t dead, but you know what I mean…). So I did a bit of investigation, locating their website (, and a plethora of other YouTube vids. There is a page on their website with links to a number of their videos and concert footage as well:

They are indeed twins, and really named Mona and Lisa, apparently. They are sixteen now, and have been performing together since they were little tykes. They are from Austria, and they sing (in charmingly accented English) cover versions of songs I grew up with: California Dreaming; Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door; Mr. Tambourine Man; Wild World; Love Is All Around.

I mentioned them in passing to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, wondering if she had ever heard of them, and she said (with a distinct “duh” in her tone, I thought) “Of course I know them; they are huge in Japan! Everybody waits for their new videos on YouTube.” If that’s true, I can certainly see why. The twins are pretty in a wholesome and unaffected sort of way (think: a younger Claire Danes, or rather a matched pair of younger Claire Daneses), they quite clearly love what they are doing, and they are talented to a degree well beyond most sixteen-year-olds.

Perhaps you already know the Mona Lisa Twins, and I am the last person on earth to have heard of them; as I get older, that seems to happen with rather alarming frequency. That said, if you haven’t run across them yet, check out their video of Blackbird, either on their website or on YouTube. Chances are it will make you want to see more.