Category Archives: Shopping

Amy and Me

Back in December, my old friend Amy was in town, however briefly. We had been roommates freshman year in college, and lived together pretty much all the way through school after that, except for junior year when I was abroad. Sophomore year, a group of us shared Pine Tree House. Pine Tree House 1983 That’s Amy at the upper right.

I’ve since lost touch with most of these people, except for Darrell. He’s sitting next to Amy.

After college, Amy went on to become a lawyer and then some kind of big cheese with the United Nations. She jets around the world doing her part to make it a better place.

She had flown in from Doha or some such and was supposed to be in town just for one night, but arranged to stay an extra day so she could hang with me, then fly three quarters of the way around the world in the wrong direction to get back home. That made me feel pretty special indeed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAShe was staying at The New Otani, a posh hotel in a business district. The only time I’d ever been there before was when a wealthy student of mine took me to a hotel restaurant called La Tour D’Argent and I got the menu without any prices on it. Oh, my.

The first day, Amy and I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the neighborhood, catching up. We’d both been through some similar challenges in recent years and had a lot to say. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be able to open up like that. I’ve had wonderful friends here over the years, but one problem with being an expat is that people leave, and as you get older, it gets harder and harder to replace them.

The day after her meetings, Amy wanted to do some shopping, so I suggested that she come to my neighborhood, and when she got here, she said she’d really like to have a massage. “Sure,” I said, “there’s a place by the station that’s quite reasonable.” I hadn’t been there but had wanted to try it. The place was on the third floor, and as we were climbing the steps, she suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked, “This isn’t going to be one of those…sex kind of things, is it?” I just laughed and said, “Nah. This isn’t that kind of neighborhood.” I liked that she didn’t have any way of knowing that.

An hour later, both semi-comatose, we were re-arranging ourselves, and she said, “That goes on the list of one of the best hours of my life.” Yup. It really was.

After a Really Great bowl of noodles for lunch, we hit a couple of stores. She started running out of cash and asked where there might be an ATM. “No problem,” says me, “there’s a Post Office around the corner.”

One of the oddly third world things about Japan is that the banks are not on the international banking grid, but the Post Office ATMs are. That still amazes me. I’ve gotten cash from my US bank account at ATMs in Luxor, Egypt, and the Middle of Nowhere, Cappadocia, Turkey, but in Japan, an otherwise (sort of) fully developed first world country, you have to go to the Post Office. (I’ve heard they’re thinking of rectifying that in time for the Olympics, so they’ve still got six years to dither about it.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI promised I wouldn’t tell the umbrella story, so I won’t. Let’s just say that Amy was inadvertently naughty, and it didn’t occur to either of us to give it back.

Amy wanted to buy a Really Great Knife, so I took her to the Really Great Knife Store, but on the way warned her that my knife vocabulary is rather limited.

“Suck it up, kiddo,” she said. “You know more than I do.” So I did, and we managed to procure a Really Great Knife as well as some other stuff. Amy has always been a fan of tools.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAHaving had about all the shopping either of us could take, and still having some time before her flight, we came to my house. Here in the study, I noticed her looking at this shelf. “That’s my vanity shelf,” I said. “It’s all stuff I’ve published.”

She stared at me for a moment and then said, “So you’re kind of famous?”

That one surprised me. “I guess, in a very small way and a very small world, I am kind of famous. But you can’t begin to compare what I do with what you do.”

And then she was gone, but it was wonderful to get a fresh perspective on my life by sharing it with someone I’ve known so well for so long. I loved that I could use my language and experience to make things happen for someone I care about. Sharing memories of people we both knew, and things that we did together, and all that’s come between then and now, and the people that we’ve become isn’t something I get to do very often. Most likely, neither of us will ever cure cancer or invent a better mousetrap, but I think we both turned out pretty well.

Thanks, Amy. It was a great day.

Amy and Me, December 2013
Amy and Me, December 2013

Do the Math

After not taking a single day off this month, NOT ONE SINGLE DAY, the math is almost done. (More about that later.) We’ve even got a couple of spare days to squeak in under deadline. Today is a beautiful, sunny day and the sakura are just beginning to open, so I decided to tempt fate and take a day off. While punching things at the dojo would have been fun, my stress level has suddenly dropped and more than anything else, I just wanted to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERASo we went for a walk, which turned into more of an epic journey. My granny phone says we took 16,568 steps, which corresponds to 10.7km, which means 1548 steps per kilometer, which can be rounded off to either 1.5 or 1.6 steps per meter depending on whether you round from the 1/10 place or the 1/100 place. We left around 10:30 and got back home at 3:00, which means 4.5 hours but subtract about 20 minutes for lunch at the Daiei food court, so convert the time unit to find 250 minutes, so a speed of 66 steps/minute or 3960 steps/hour.

A contributing factor was my Jones for a roast beef sandwich for dinner and the consequent search of a myriad of supermarkets. We can extrapolate the following equation:

Daiei + Ozeki + Summit + (Tokyu x 2) +  Maruetsu = tired feet

A Tale of Honesty

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI passed by a flower shop today. As you can see, the shop was closed. I thought it odd that they’d left the flowers outside when the shop was closed. But if you look closely, there’s a small wooden box on the pavement. It has slots in it for inserting money. The box is neither nailed down nor locked. And all my astonished self could think was this:

Damn! Japanese people are honest.

And that is a very, very good thing indeed.

New Year’s Day

The Yomiuri newspaper comes with a stack of shiny ads every day, but on New Year’s Day in particular, the advertisers go whole hog. Today’s haul was enough to stuff a pig. So if you’re looking for something to do on this beautiful first day of 2014, you can always…


PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERANormally, I take a quick gander and then toss them into the recycling bag, but this year I decided to investigate more thoroughly. Here’s the tally:

11 clothing and shoes
9 department Stores
6 electronics and cell phones
5 houses and apartments
4 supermarkets
4 health and fitness
3 furniture
3 politicians, each with a picture of Mt. Fuji
3 cable TV and video games
2 restaurants
2 cars and car accessories

And if all else fails,

1 life insurance
1 Buddhist altar

Being rather averse to shopping, I opted instead to eat my New Year’s noodles and then mosey on down to Shoin Jinja to make my New Year’s wish with about a gazillion other people.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I always enjoy checking out the sacred garbage. (Thanks for that, Jonelle!)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERANot a bad way to start the new year.

And so, gentle readers, thank you always for dropping by and I wish you satisfaction, peace of mind and karmic well-being in the coming year.


Every year I promise myself I will avoid supermarkets at the end of the year, and every year I end up having to buy stuff. At year end, the normally polite and deferential Japanese somehow mutate into consumerism crazed maniacs, smashing into each other, fighting over the suddenly more-than-usually over-priced fish and vegetables, and ramming their shopping carts into the small of my back.

At Tokyu, a woman jabbed me in the boob with a gobo root.

At Foodium, I actually said “Arrrrgh!” to a man as he nearly toppled me onto a stack of tempura shrimp. He turned and gave me a look of such sweet innocence that it was hard not to find out just how strong my right hook is.

I SWEAR I will stay home next year and eat nothing but oatmeal.

131231_1556~01Or maybe I’ll wear my boxing gloves when I shop and let every man fend for himself.



There’s a supermarket in the neighborhood called Foodium. I can’t really think of a worse name. It sounds like a body part:

Patient: What’s the prognosis, doc?
Doctor: Well, you seem to have an unusual growth in your foodium.
Patient: Is it serious?
Doctor: Maybe. Does it hurt when you shop?
Patient: Only when I buy food.

Or perhaps it’s built on the site of an arena where they used to feed Christians to lions.

At any rate, as of a week ago, there are notices by the registers saying that as an environmental measure, plastic bags are no longer free.  At first, I thought it was just another spiteful act of greed on the supermarket’s part, but I think they might be sincere. The notices do not encourage us to buy bags. Instead, they politely request that customers bring our own, reusable shopping bags.

The plastic bags are not expensive–5 yen for a big one, 3 yen for a small one–but suddenly everyone has their own tote bags. It’s amazing how environmentally conscious people become when they have to pay for something.

I just toss everything in my backpack as usual. I haven’t taken a supermarket bag in years. The only problem with that is the occasional overlooked item. My gym bag still smells vaguely of rotten chicken. Yuck.


This one goes out to Adam J. Holland, who writes a wicked good blog that also tantalizes the taste buds.

His Creamy Tex-Mex Orzo Salad seemed just the thing for the dying days of summer, so I set out in search of ingredients. Tomatoes? Are you kidding? Check. Sour cream? Check. Coriander? Check. Mayonnaise? Check. Corn? Check. So far, so good.

Copied, with permission, from Adam’s blog.

Limes? Available, but very expensive. Luckily, a colleague had just given me some green Japanese citrusy things that seemed would suffice.

Orzo? Are you mad? I scoured the import stores but no such luck. I finally settled on some terribly cute bunny shaped pasta from Germany. (I say if you’re going to substitute, do it with flair.) Most of their ears fell off when I boiled them, but I’m not sentimental about such things.

When I went to put the whole thing together, I discovered I was out of salsa, but since the bunnies were already humiliated, I decided to persevere. I even tossed in some leftover grilled chicken just for giggles.

The result? It didn’t look much like the original but was still quite tasty. I guess it all comes down to expectations. If you don’t have any, you can’t be disappointed. Also, life without orzo is still pretty great.

Thanks, Adam!

Goofy English of the Day

It seems the latest trend in women’s fashions is wedgies with lacy, frilly tutu mini skirts and over-sized t-shirts bearing goofy English.

Case in point: I saw this on a little boy’s t-shirt yesterday:


Granted, he wasn’t a woman and probably doesn’t pick out his own clothes, so you can’t really blame him, but my advice to young fashionistas is download a dictionary app for your smartphone and USE it when you go shopping.

Making Mistakes

Japanese is a syllabic language and there are only 52 syllables. And there are only five vowels. Only five. Yes, English only has five, but there are a gazillion combinations and possible pronunciations of them. In Japanese there are only five. Such a limited number of sounds makes learning pronunciation easy, but making mistakes equally easy since so many of the words  sound alike.

Classic examples include trying to say, “May I sit here?” but instead saying, “May I touch you?” or trying to be the hip foreigner who shops at the veggie stand instead of the supermarket, but asks for pregnant instead of carrots, or being in a restaurant and asking for pee instead of pickles. I once asked for a sunflower instead of the daily special.

Don’t even get me started on idioms, the bane of any second language learner.

So this guy really has my sympathy.

Poor Jennifer.


Growing up in Pittsburgh, one had to look sharp at the local Giant Eagle supermarket or risk having ones ankles crushed by the shopping carts of possessed older ladies intent on snagging the very box of Corn Flakes that one was foolish enough to show an interest in.

It’s no better here. I’ve written about the Japanese New Year’s shopping frenzy before. Intent on getting the perfect package of steamed fish paste or sweetened beans, it doesn’t matter that they’re tiny and Asian; their shopping carts and purses still pack a wallop.

One of the first idioms I learned in Japanese was Obattalion. An Oba-san is an older lady; Battalion is the Japanese title of Night of the Living Dead. You get the picture.

But that isn’t always the case. There’s a woman with straight, white, bowl-cut hair who hangs around on the street outside her building doing nothing as far as I can tell. When I pass her, I always nod and say Konnichiwa. She always covers her mouth with her hand and breaks into giggles. It’s great fun to walk home with someone who has not seen this happen—my little party trick.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s another old lady who is outside nearly every morning sweeping up the leaves that fall onto the street from the trees in her garden. She’s always wearing a cotton house dress and  uses a stump of a broom that looks to be nearly as old as she is.

After passing her many times, I realized that I had never seen her face; her body is completely bent in half. I imagined her face wrinkled and dry, her eyes watery, perhaps a wart.

One is conditioned to expect such things.

Then one day she was sweeping and looked up to pull down a vine hanging from the wall. Her face was surprisingly smooth and youthful, her eyes clear, nary a wart in sight.

She smiled. I smiled back. It was a nice day.