Monday, February 28, 2011

an american day

On a cold rainy day, my friend took me to Costco.

It was my very first time to visit a Japanese Costco. Funny how a mixture of two familiars can be disorienting; all those Japanese products in a huge warehouse interior I've known from California for long.

Not everything was Japanese. In fact, it was the American products that appealed to me now that they aren't as common and boring as when I was in the States. I saw the rotisserie chicken I'd never tried though I'd always wanted to. The selection of cheese, ham and sausage was amazing. Out of habit, I almost bought the 36 rolls of Kirkland toilet paper and a huge bottle of orange juice that would last for weeks. But, in the end, I only bought a box of Campari tomatoes on a vine, which used to be my all-time favorite purchase at Costco.

My friend dropped me off two stations away from my place, so I had to take the train home. I'd never realized how much interest people have in tomatoes in this country; carrying twenty or so mid-sized tomatoes in a clear plastic box, you get serious staring (or glancing and looking away, in Japan's case).

Earlier on the phone, my mom, who had just strained her back this morning, nicely declined my offer to cook dinner and made a specific request for the food I could buy on the way home.

So I did.

Costco and McDonald's. What an American day it was!
(Well, at least, there's no teriyaki burger in the US.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

is this finally happening?

A few days ago, we had such a nice spring day , the sunshine pouring down from the sky, the wind gushing through our hair (we call it "haru ichiban"--the first wind of the spring). I couldn't help but go out to take a stroll (in my TOMS!).

As I walked down the winding narrow street near my house, I started to feel some itch in my nose, then my eyes began to feel heavy. Soon I was sneezing, with my throat slightly sore.

I have the same symptoms with cat allergy; whenever I snuggle my cat, sneezing and coughing attack immediately. But this time, it was happening outside without my kitty, or any kitty. I went home and reported this to my mom, who uttered the much-dreaded word, kafunsho (hay fever).

It's dreaded because it's incurable. Once you get it, you suffer for years and decades. Though I've been allergic to some things, cats and dust namely, I felt lucky that my allergy didn't seem to apply to pollen. Finally, however, it may be happening.

"Maybe it's a cold," I said.
"Yeah, of course. Probably." My mom went along.

Today was another warm sunny day, and my nose itched as I walked in the street. My throat also itches, but well, maybe that started after I got home and played with the kitty. At least I'm not crying as some people with hay fever I know do...

Yes, I'm still in denial!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

needed catching up

I stayed up until five in the morning. I heard my mom in the kitchen when I got out of the shower, so I went downstairs to give her some things I bought for her yesterday. I ended up sitting on the kitchen floor while she fixed her lunchbox, with the kitty on my lap purring, happy that she had someone to give her attention, someone free of chores. There was a lot of talking to do, for my mom and I hadn't seen each other for the past three days (she was gone when I got up and I was gone when she got home). I ate the food that didn't fit in the lunchbox for breakfast.

It's eight o'clock now and I'm wondering if I should go to sleep or just stay awake for the rest of the day (and if that's possible).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

same mistake

Coffee in the evening. Regret in the early morn.


Monday, February 21, 2011


I've seen hipsters of the mission district in San Francisco wearing TOMS. Those little canvas slip-ons with cute pattern inside I saw in every store on Valencia. Never a big fan of slip-ons, I avoided buying them, until when my friend convinced me to buy a pair when we visited Whole Foods in LA before I left for Japan.

"Not that you have to buy them, but they are pretty reasonable," she said. "And really comfortable. Like, extremely."

I mean, who doesn't want a pair of extremely comfortable shoes?

I stuffed the new shoes in my backpack in case I felt like wearing them on the plane, but my Saucony sneakers were comfortable enough. The winter weather in Japan has been more suitable for boots, so my first TOMS have been sitting in the shoe cabinet for the past month.

But a sunny and relatively warm day like today is perfect to put on a brand-new pair of shoes!

My friend was right, they are extremely comfortable. They fit nicely, and they are super light. I wouldn't go on a hike in them (they are canvas slip-ons after all), but they are perfect for strolling around on a sunny, or even cloudy, day (no, they are not rainy-day shoes). And most importantly, they are cute.

What an awesome feeling to find another favorite pair of shoes! It totally adds to life's joy. My TOMS will be out more often as spring nears.

Oh, and it's also cool to know that with every pair of TOMS we buy, they give a pair to a child in need (One for One Movement) --of course, San Francisco hipsters love 'em!

Sunday, February 20, 2011


En is a Japanese word I like. The best way to translate it would be "connection by chance." Some may say it's "by fate," and the word certainly has the sense of "being meant to," but to me, "fate" is too strong a word. En is more like paths crossing, the luck of it, and the connection that stays after you go different ways.

Moving around and going through some goodbyes, I started believing more in en. You meet someone, and the connection remains after a goodbye.

So yesterday, I had a plan to meet up with my friends from college. I was just having brunch when I thought of another friend, Jodi, whom I also met in college when she was here as an exchange student. We'd known each other since then, nearly for eight or nine years, though we'd only seen each other twice after she'd gone back to Vancouver. We'd kept in touch mainly thanks to the fact she's such a good letter writer, and now, I knew, she was living in Tokyo though she'd said she was going to visit Vancouver till mid Feb.

Just on a whim, I texted her, along with my number, asking if she was back yet and saying we should hang out if she was. She called right away and said, excited, "Oh my god, I just e-mailed you like five minutes ago!"

Turned out she'd sent me an e-mail to my PC asking for my cell phone contact info literally five minutes before I sent out the text. Some synchronicity, isn't it?

We ended up meeting up in Shinjuku, shopping and walking around the city while catching up, and having dinner and drink with the college friends in our college city. I hadn't seen Jodi in four years and the other friends in almost six years, but it felt as if nothing had changed. "You haven't changed at all!" we all told each other.

There were, of course, things different from the "old days"--different make-ups, talks of career, loves lost and found--that told me we were not the college students who would drink and fool around all night, but what we'd had was still there.

It's not even about keeping in touch. You may hardly talk, or never, even (I hardly talked with my college friends while I was gone), but the fact you met and shared some time of your lives won't go away, and when luck has it so, your paths cross again, and you pick it up where you left it off.

That's en, and, I tell you, it's a great thing to believe in.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

thursday night

We went to a bar in Yokohama called The Tavern. The decor was nice. Lots of glasses, bottles, very bar-like. It was also a Ladies' night (every Thursday is) so the drinks were half off. We spoke with a friendly bartender from Spain and made a promise of visiting his country after he goes back. It was good, for my friend and I both missed speaking English. It's funny there are actually quite a many opportunities out there to speak the language in Japan if we just look, and I sometimes went for days hardly speaking English in San Francisco because I wasn't really looking for chances. Looking makes a difference.

The rain is hitting the windowpanes and I'm singing Priscilla Ahn's Rain in my head. It's a peaceful night.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

in the kitchen

My mom was peeling cabbage to make salad. I was cutting eggplant. She felt a leaf in her hands and said, "I know spring is coming when cabbage leaves are soft."

It made me happy about living in Japan, this little country with four beautiful seasons.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

longing for beer

Beer never was my favorite drink before moving to the States. Whenever I went out to an izakaya, I would order anything but beer. Cocktail, umeshu (plum sake), or something that's sweet.

But in the States, at bars where poor grad students would go out to, it could be complicated and pricey to get "something sweet" that was good. After getting cocktails that were too sweet and strong a few times, I gave in and just started ordering beer.

First, I was getting used to the taste.
I learned there were darker beers and lighter beers.
I learned I liked beers that are in the middle to the lighter side.
Then, finally, I started to be able to tell the subtler differences little by little.

I don't remember exactly when it was that I thought I liked beer. Maybe it was when I tried some German beer at Suppenkuche, a great German restaurant in San Francisco. Maybe it was around when I tried New Castle for the first time at a bar in Long Beach. It took me a few years, and I'm still a novice--I stumble due to lack of vocabulary when the bartender asks me what type of beer I like because I usually just rely on the color--but now I much prefer beer to "something sweet" oftentimes, especially with a meal.

And because I hadn't known the joy of drinking beer while I had lived in Japan, I didn't know, in my life in the States, I was being spoiled by the variety and the quality the country offers when it comes to beer. I thought it was normal for a bar to have different types of beer, at least three or four of them, on tap. Different colors, possibly from different countries.

Then I came back to Japan, and found that beer is Beer. Just one. No other choices. You go to an izakaya and order Beer. Of course, there are place that carry more than one type of beer, but they are usually all pretty similar, the light, Japanese-style beer. Don't take me wrong, I love Japanese beer, too. Sapporo is good. Kirin is nice. But when it comes to the variety, it's surprising how little it is compared to other drinks--they carry seven different types of umeshu (plum sake), ten sojus and twelve cocktails and sours!

I guess that explains why I used to prefer other drinks, often sweet, to beer before. Simply, most izakayas in Japan have much better a selection of those.

So I've been a little frustrated with the beer situation in Japan since I came back. The low-malt beer my parents drink didn't satisfy me. I went out and had some draft beer. It was good, but not enough. I missed being able to choose which beer I wanted. The tap handles.

Then, tonight, I found the perfect place.

The bar is called The Taproom, and it's located in Yokohama near the Kannai station. The place looks pretty little, though it sounds like it's actually not with the upstairs space with extra seats, and the wooden interior has such a cozy, warm feeling to it. And, oh, the tap handles! My heart shivered with joy when I saw there are about fifteen or so of them behind the counter. I tried a Belgian beer called Winter Wit and another beer brewed by Baird, the Japanese company in Shizuoka that owns the bar, both of which were really really good; and their American style BBQ was actually better than the BBQ I'd tried in California!

We started talking with the bartender, and when he found out my friend was from Denver, he told us he'd gone there for Great American Beer Festival last year and stopped by at several breweries. He couldn't remember their names when my friend asked, but he said, "I'll check when I go home and let you know next time. You're coming back, right?"

Without hesitation, we said, "Yes!"

So for now, I'm happy to say I've got The Taproom to fulfill my thirst for beer and the whole bar experience-random tipsy conversation, a tiny bathroom and paying at the counter (yes, even little things like that), and hopefully, I will find more places like this as I continue with my search.

Monday, February 14, 2011

good food cursing

"Wow, Mom, your fried chicken is good. I can't stop eating."

"God, I'm so full...Oh! These anpan (red bean bun) look so good! Can I have one?"

"Hey, there's flan in the fridge. Let's have it for desert."

"I know it's three in the morning but I'm hungry...and I don't think these rice cookies have so many calories..."

Who said Japan is a skinny country?

Saturday, February 12, 2011


My mom makes me wonder if I talk this much, too.


i miss

being on the bus listening to my iPod words of angry people and thrilled kids still coming in through the earphones; getting off at geary and fillmore, holding the door before and behind me, afraid of it closing on me; walking up post street, stopping by at new people and buying new orleans style iced coffee ("with half & half, please." "good choice!"); sitting down on a bench at peace plaza, sometimes alone looking up at the pagoda (ah that lovable over-the-top japaneseness!), other times with the people i worked with, the ones who made life easier when it wasn't.

the cold, moist surface of the wooden bench.
the fog, the sunshine, both.

Friday, February 11, 2011

it's snowing!

I haven't seen snow in four years, and this winter it's everywhere I go; Lake Tahoe, Salt Lake City, and now in my hometown.

The only snow I know is a kind one, a white blanket tucking us into her softness, soothing our minds. Quiet, quiet, it's a snow day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

learning to ski

There are some new things I experienced while I lived in San Francisco, and skiing is one of them. Well, not precisely. I had skied before, just once, about ten years ago on a high school field trip. Though we had lessons with a professional instructor, I couldn't even learn to stop. The most vivid memory I've kept from the trip is of sliding down a hill at full speed, which probably wasn't that fast but felt so to me anyway, yelling, "HELP MEEEEEEE!!" until another instructor finally stopped me before I dove into the line of his students.

Thanks to this both terrifying and embarrassing experience, I decided skiing wasn't for me. It was a torturous activity. Not fun. I'd never tried it again since then even though my mom, who's from Yamagata, a northern part of Japan with lots of snow in winter, told me how fun it could be if I practiced a bit more.

So when my friend asked me if I wanted to join him for a snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe, I hesitated. But there was a promise I'd made to myself when I'd moved to San Francisco; to say yes to any opportunities for new experience. So yes I said. Even if I couldn't ride well, it would be nice to see some snow anyway, and it was snowboarding, not skiing, this time. There are a lot of people who enjoy snowboarding. Maybe it's actually easier than skiing.

"Snowboarding is tough," another friend told me.
She was going to Lake Tahoe with us. It was about two weeks before the trip, and I had been getting myself ready for snowboarding, rehearsing in my mind how to keep balance, trying to build muscles needed for the activity.
"Why don't you ski instead?" she suggested. "It takes a lot of practice and time to get used to snowboarding, and we're only going for a day. I don't know if you get to enjoy it. You know--," she added, "You're not really an athletic type."
That is true. Of all the adjectives out there, no one would choose athletic to describe me, unless they are being sarcastic. But, you know, you never know until you try, right?
So I declared, "I'll be fine!"

A part of me was indignant at her doubting my capability of learning snowboarding in a day (which probably was right), but another part of me was simply traumatized, almost, by the experience in high school. I'd failed once already, no need to try again.

But my friend kept insisting on me skiing. She said she was going to ski, too. And one day, about a week before the trip, she told me a story about her friend who'd gone for a snowboarding trip with her for three days and hardly enjoyed any of it because of having such a hard time learning to ride.

At that point, I was losing my confidence about learning to ride quickly. I was, after all, not athletic at all, and the muscles hadn't developed as much as I'd wanted. It scared me to think I might end up struggling in snow for the whole day.
"Snowboarding is tough," my friend said. "That's why I think I'm gonna ski this time."
"Okay." I gave in. "Maybe I should, too."

Thank God I did.

With skis on, even getting up after a fall on the flat ground was a challenge. Struggling helplessly on the snow, I realized my friend's insistence on making me avoid snowboarding was sheerly an act of thoughtfulness. I couldn't imagine doing this having both my feet tied onto a single board. If I fell on that, I would lie and move about like a dying cicada until someone came for rescue.

Finally, I managed to learn to get up. Sort of. Then it was stopping, slowing down and turning, none of which I could do very well. My athletic friends were patient, though, and with their help and guidance, I eventually learned to keep my back straight like a statue as I sped down the hill without falling.

We went up on the lift and skied (and rode) down. Up and down. Up and down.

After a few rounds, my friend asked, "Having fun?"

I was, truly. It amazed me how something that had once seemed impossible could be not only possible but so enjoyable. It wasn't my physical ability--I was as athletic (or not athletic) in high school as I am now--but the mindset. In high school, skiing was merely a mandatory part of the school trip. I hadn't chosen to do it. With this mindset and absolutely no experience, I had no faith whatsoever in my ability to learn skiing. All I thought during the lessons was, I can't do it, I can't do it, I can't do it. 

This time, though the voice was still there, barely but surely, whispering the same thing, it wasn't my main concern. I was determined to have a good time whether I could ski or not. My friends, with their you-will-do-it-or-you-won't attitude, made me move before I could start thinking, and once my brain recognized the activity as enjoyable--wow, skiing is fun!--that was that. It was fun.

As simple as that, but it took me ten years to learn it, just as skiing--keeping your feet shoulder width apart, bending your knees, moving your weight inward and outward, all those tips I'd heard but never really practiced before.

"You'll be hurting all over tomorrow," my friends told me as we drove home after a long day, tired, lazy and peaceful. "Maybe you'll have a hard time walking."

Well, I thought. That's not such a bad price for what I've learned, is it?

After all, if you can't walk, you can ski!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

warm warm

A hot bath makes all the troubles go away.


be young, be free

Today, walking down the stairway to a train station, I saw a crowd and heard music and yelping. I peeked through the crowd, and there was a bunch of young people of different colors singing and dancing to musical numbers.

They were a group from the US called The Young Americans. I stopped to watch for a few minutes--and ended up staying for half an hour till the end of the performance. I was captured by their energy. Oh, how joyful they were, their voices, their smiles and dancing so powerful!

Joy is contagious.Though the majority of the polite Japanese audience stood still except occasional clapping and picture/video taking on their phones, there were lips curled into smiles, eyes twinkling and giggles as happy as the musical numbers the performers were singing.

And then, there was a sudden urge, to dance, to sing, to laugh and speak English, a language I've somehow been helplessly in love with. I didn't do any of them, but the sentiment was so strong it made me a little teary-eyed as I stood in the crowd, the sound of English words so familiar in my ears.

The performance ended in great applause, and slowly, people began scattering away. I started walking toward the ticket gate, too, and then it occurred to me that it was an urge to let go, to be free. The young performers dancing, enjoying every moment with hope and joy, that sense of being in the present, that's what I was longing for. In an attempt to readjust to my own culture which so far felt rather restricting, I hadn't had that feeling of freedom since I'd come back.

For a moment, I missed California terribly, but then, I decided it wasn't the matter of where. Wherever you are, you can feel whatever you want--hope, joy, you name it--and it's all up to you to create where you want to be, whether that means refusing some restrictions of your own culture if necessary to protect self or bursting into dancing and singing in the middle of a foreign train station building, hooking the busy commuters and spreading joy even just briefly.

Maybe not briefly. The train ride home was a happy one.

Thank you, Young Americans!

Monday, February 7, 2011

body, space and purpose

I've been sneezing and sniffing a lot, and don't know if it's a cold or allergy (oh my beloved kitty, I know I'm allergic to you). My skin is also suffering, and so is my stomach. I often catch myself holding breath. My shoulders are always tense, and I need to loosen up, making a conscious effort to breathe in and out deeply.

My body is trying to adjust, and I wouldn't say it's because I'm in Japan. I always go through this period of tension with an environment change. A move, a new semester, a new job. It's probably natural, to some extent at least, because after all changes come with some stress, wherever you are.

But one thing I miss being in Japan is space to stretch out. Grass fields and beaches to lie down and do nothing. Japan is so small that space has to be used efficiently, so it feels as though you always have to have a purpose when you are out. You can lie down and relax at home, but once you step out the door, walk toward your goal, no stopping, or stopping only for a purpose such as tying your shoes, buying train tickets and lighting your tobacco. 

So instead of wandering out the door with a paperback and some money for coffee in my purse as I would do in San Francisco, I spread my arms and legs on my bed and relax, and then, when I feel I've wasted enough time, I shake myself up to put on a make-up and change, getting ready for a purposeful outing.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

round and chubby

I met with a friend who I hadn't seen in 6 months.

"Oh, you've got your hair pretty short!" she said.
"But...with the sides like that, it kinda makes your face look round and chubby, doesn't it?"
"Um," I said, "I think my face is round and chubby. I gained weight."
"Right on!"

I wish I could say it was my hair, but when I came home and pulled up the hair on the sides, my face still was round and chubby in the mirror.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

reverse culture shock: "irassyaimase" at the store

Coming back from the States, I now find it odd when I go to the store and the clerks say, "Irassyaimase! (Welcome to the store!)", without looking at me. It's as if they were in a musical; when one of them says it, it's the clue. The others, each of them, say it (or sing it, almost, in this particular Japanese-store-clerk intonation) while not stopping whatever they are doing even though they haven't even seen the customer who just came in. Once I was at a store and a clerk started blurting out while putting out some stuff onto a shelf, "We offer a variety of gift ideas for Valentine's Day. Please do take a look!" It bewildered me, as it only seemed as though she was talking to the shelf. That's what she was looking at. The shelf. She didn't even glance at me for one second. But because there was nobody else around her except me, I understood she was talking to me.

The problem is that when someone talks to you without really talking to you, you don't know if or how you should respond. It was much simpler in the States. Clerks greet and talk to you, if they want to, and you know they are because they are clearly looking at you. "Hi, can I help you find anything?" they say. "Oh, no thanks. I'm just looking." Somebody talks to you. You respond. Done. Clear and easy.

But maybe it's not the case in Japan.

I go to another store and walk up to the second floor. It's deserted on a weekday afternoon, but they somehow have five clerks hovering around. They see me and say, one by one, "Irassyaimase!", and--out of habit--I respond, to each, by nodding and mumbling, "Oh, hi." Then I see their puzzled faces and realize it was, if not inappropriate, unexpected. I think of what would be most appropriate and decide most people probably just ignore the greetings, or maybe simply just acknowledge but not really respond.

This avoidance of direct interaction slightly bothers me, though I understand this is deeply rooted in our culture. There's the traditional notion of customers being superior to store clerks; thus the superior need not bother to respond to words from the inferior. But more prevailing than that here, I believe, is the Japanese tendency to avoid conflict and confrontation. Rather than directly staring into eyes and throwing messages at each other, we prefer to look sideways and mumble off, almost to ourselves, euphemistic words that imply what we want to say. This often makes it difficult to get points across, but it's also a virtue, a wisdom to cooperate peacefully in small communities in this small island country. It's about being polite and respectful. It's about keeping enough distance not to step into other people's territories before getting permission. You know, like cats looking away, trying to make peace, and, after some time, softly sitting down beside you without you noticing.

I leave and walk into the next store, and when the clerk welcomes me, I curl my lips into a smile without a word, trying to keep the balance of ignoring and acknowledging. I don't know if I managed the task of juggling those two together. I couldn't tell, for I didn't really look at her face--just a brief glance, half a second. If I failed, well, she just let it pass. After all, that's the whole point of this ambivalent communication, not to cause conflict, right?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

there's been love

I went to visit a friend to meet her 3-month old daughter. Ah, those little hands (with super little fingernails, as the Korean girl says in Juno), marshmallow cheeks, and toothless and yet sweet mouth! She wiggled, and it filled me up with warmth that tickled inside my heart. I was captured.

Babies do that. You look at them and see how precious they are and, all of a sudden, you feel an urge to hold them tight into your arms, press your cheek onto theirs and keep them away from all the bad things in the world. It's an instinct. It's love.

And whenever I fall in love with a baby, it gives me hope, because for every one of us alive, even if we feel nobody has ever loved us, there have been moments when someone fell in love with us. Those moments might not have been permanent. That someone might've been just a passerby. But there has been love. Someone saw us and felt the urge to protect us from all the bad things in the world. How could we survive our baby time, otherwise, being so helpless and fragile?

I believe this love might sustain us when we are desperate and feel there's no love, even if we don't remember.