Category Archives: Work

My Pasmo Pal


When I got off the train at Shibuya this morning, I noticed that my Pasmo prepaid train card wasn’t in its usual pocket in my backpack. After a moment of frantic scrambling, I realized I must have dropped it on the train. I scurried back and spotted my card lying on the floor just as the doors were closing.

SHIT! I said out loud.

It wasn’t a great monetary loss; there was only about 1000yen left on it. And in this honesty loving country, there’s a good chance I would eventually have gotten it back. It has my name printed on it and I registered my phone number with the train people when I bought it. But I would have had to go to the ticket counter, explain the situation, fill out a form, pay an extra fare, inconvenience throngs of other morning travelers, be late for work and get myself into a foul mood.

As all of that passed before my eyes, a young man on the train must have seen my expression and followed my eye line, because he immediately bent down, picked up my card, and waved it at me with a big smile. I nodded and smiled back with enthusiasm. Then we had a “what now?” moment and came to the same conclusion at the same moment. We both stepped toward the window, which he opened and passed my card to me just as the train started pulling out of the station.


I hope the unicorns of destiny did something particularly nice for him today. Grasping a moment to do something kind without thinking twice is a mark of all that is good in humanity. I have felt warm and fuzzy all day.

Penguins and Prairie Dogs

The journey from home to the studio is just over 16km, which doesn’t sound like much, but if you think about the number of streets and buildings and vehicles and bikes and dogs and feet the trains pass under in that distance, the numbers get overwhelming pretty quickly. Add to that the trains were running late so the platform was human gridlock. She  had to wait for two trains to pass before she could even descend the staircase.

Space is plentiful in a sardine can compared to the crush of humanity inside the cars. The man crammed against her chest has beads of sweat on his upper lip. Someone smelled of mothballs, another of garlic, but worst of all is the tobacco stench, which curls its hateful fingers into her nostrils no matter which direction she turns her head.

The train lurches and rattles. The bodies getting on and getting off press against each other, each determined to reach its destination, oblivious to the others. The pain begins in her feet and slowly travels to her knees, intensifying as the journey lengthens. Tears threaten.

And then, at long last, train arrives at the station and she makes her way to the street. She passes through an elegant bamboo gate…


…into a wonderland where she is greeted by sophisticated penguins…


…and prairie dogs rise out of the pavement to greet the warmth of the sun.

prairie dog

She indulges herself in a celebration of this magical world, then takes a deep breath and turns her footsteps toward the studio, the work, the people, drawing strength from the electric fibers in the threads that bind the universe.

Sometimes a moment of recharge is all it takes.


Lost in Translation


I had to go to a meeting at the Shinjuku Mitsui building yesterday. It’s got a large lobby and an outdoor terrace, both of which are occasionally stages for mini concerts. This time there was a grand piano, a man in a tux and a woman in an evening gown. When I came in, she was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, in English, and quite well, I might add but I can’t imagine why she chose that particular song. Then she sang a special Christmas medley including Joy to the World, Silent Night and Rudolph, all in Japanese.

I once saw a US military band performing there. No explanation, but I suppose it’s got something to do with neighborhood relations, except that the “neighborhood” is a bunch of other tall office buildings and a couple of ritzy hotels, including the Keio Plaza, where they filmed Lost in Translation, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

I tried to enjoy the concert, but it’s disconcerting (nyar, nyar, nyar) when Rudolph has an akai hana instead of a red nose. The whole experience gave me a brief reality jolt. I guess some things just get lost in translation.

It’s War!

121127_1411~01I was directing the narration of an NHK program today, one from a series about technology and innovation. Each time, two teams try to outdo each other in solving some sort of problem. This time, we had a team of brainy college students pitted against a group of mostly old guys, professional artisans, trying to build a bridge made of wood that can weigh no more than 500 grams but can support a ton of weight. Actually, what they said was the weight of seven sumo wrestlers, and as the teams worked on the problem, their success was measured in whole and partial sumo wrestlers. It was pretty cool.

At one point the narrator was introducing the students and was supposed to say, “They declare war on their adult opponents!” but what came out was, “They declare war on their adult components!”

I don’t even want to know what they plan to do to their child components.

Many times, I have sat in the director’s chair and wept as we worked on programs about the horrific events and their aftermath in Tohoku, but for once my tears were of pure joy, the kind produced by laughter that grabs you by the belly and refuses to let go.

That was pretty cool, too.

Murder Is Bad

murder-meme1Peas and Cougars is one of my favorite blogs and the woman who writes it, Rae, pointed out that I would be a bad person and bad things would happen to me if I didn’t share this meme. Just to be safe, I decided it deserved a whole blog post. Allow me to explain.

It’s true that English, especially American English, greedily gobbles up words from other languages, generally mangling the original pronunciation in the process. Excellent examples include kimono, karate and karaoke. I learned the latter here, so the first time I heard it in the States, I had no idea what the person was talking about.

American friend: The place has carry-okie on Thursdays.

Me: Oh, is that some kind of ethnic food?

The other day, we were recording some English lessons for sixth graders and part of one lesson was, ‘I want to be…’ We had ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be a farmer.’ ‘I want to be a patissier.’ The narrator pronounced that last word American style with a hard R at the end. I told the client the correct pronunciation, pointing out that since it was not an English word, we should probably use the proper French pronunciation. Better yet, we could use the perfectly good English equivalent, ‘baker’.

Client: Oh, no. We can’t change the word and we have to use the American pronunciation.

Me: But it’s not an English word. There isn’t an ‘American’ pronunciation. If you say that word to the average American, they won’t know what you’re talking about.

Client: That’s OK. Japanese understand it.

Me: (Carp face.) Uh…OK.

There was a time when such an exchange would send me into a murderous rage, causing my head to explode and raining sticky bits of brain onto the client and anyone else unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby.

But that didn’t happen. I shrugged. I sighed. I let it go.

Meditation Cat says…


Yoga is good. Meditation is good. Not murdering anyone is very good.

Surreal Hiroshima Part 2

The producer had told me a narrator named Hara was coming from Tokyo and that he’d pick us both up at the hotel in the morning. When I got to the lobby….



Producer: “You guys know each other?”

No, actually. We’d never met, but had known each other peripherally, through other connections, for years.

The recording only took a couple of hours. She had made arrangements to spend the night with a friend and I had to stay until the next morning to do the final program check, so we decided to spend the day together. First stop was the peace museum, ’nuff said about that yesterday. Then as we were making our way to the dome, one of us said something funny and we burst into giggles. I said, “Hey, I don’t think we should be laughing here!” And that made us laugh even more.

I was planning to head back to Tokyo the next morning after work but Sachiko asked me to go to Miyajima with her. She  pointed out that it had taken four hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. Or 28 years and four hours in my case, seeing as I’d never been there before. We suddenly found ourselves on an unexpected mini vacation, some time to enjoy and good company to share it with. We both kicked it into silly gear, laughing like little girls who’d run into a clown on roller skates bearing balloons and cotton candy.

Miyajima monument

It took about 40 minutes on a charmingly rattly train and then a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Miyajima, but the journey was worth every minute. It was one of those almost impossibly perfect days. The sun was shining, the sky was clear. Buying my ticket at Hiroshima station, a wondrous feeling of freedom surged through my body. I realized that, for just a few hours, I  could get away with not having a care in the world, which was my oyster and therefore appropriate for lunch, along with some freshwater eel.

I was feeling good.

Breathing the ocean scented water deep into my lungs, I used my superpowers to nearly topple this monument.


Upon landing and monument toppling, one walks past an arcade of restaurants and souvenir stands and an oddly large number of coffee shops, then one is expected to kiss a deer before entering the shrine, a lovely old wooden edifice built over the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide, the complex seems to float on the water, one of the finest examples of Japan’s traditional, elegant architecture.

We were there at low tide. We saw a lot of barnacles.

Sachiko tried and tried to get a good selfie of us with a deer, but most of them were more interested in the contents of my shirt and Sachiko’s purse, which was pretty much covered with deer snot by the time we left the island.

two deerAnd that was that. We took the ferry and train back to the city, then the shinkansen back to Tokyo and the mini vacation was over. But what a treat. I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere just for fun. Thank you, Sachiko, and thank you, world.

Surreal Hiroshima, Part 1

The peace memorial with the A-bomb dome in the background, covered in scaffolding as they’re checking it for structural integrity, which strikes me as kind of surreal.

I just got back from a working trip to Hiroshima. The work didn’t take long, so I spent some time at the peace museum and park. This is not a happy story.

I had been to the Nagasaki peace museum. I’d seen the personal belongings and photos of those innocents who died so horribly. I thought I was prepared for how it was going to feel. But what I didn’t know was that on that August day, over six thousand kids were in downtown Hiroshima doing demolition work to build, ironically, a breakfront against fires. Many of them were incinerated instantly. Some managed to make it back to their homes only to die in agony hours or days later, while their families watched. There was no medicine, no food, no clean water. There was nothing they could do.

The rationale/propaganda I had been fed was that Japan was never, ever going to give up so the bombs were dropped in the name of ending the war and bringing peace. The truth is that Japan was already done; I am told that it is commonly accepted here that the bombs were dropped as an experiment, just to see what would happen. I don’t think I can accept either of those explanations, not completely.

While I was trying to get my head around all of that, and finding it hard to breathe, a woman came up behind me with a grandchild, I assume. I don’t know; I didn’t dare to look because she said, loudly and repeatedly, “You see? America did this. All of this. This is all America’s fault.” She used that word, “America”. I just stood there listening and thinking, “You know, we can’t really blame Canada or Mexico for this, but I don’t really think it’s fair to blame me, either.” You can’t peg me as American just by looking; I’m often mistaken for German. And don’t forget that Japan and Germany were allies at the time.

As all of this rattled through my brain, I decided it would be prudent to walk away. The old lady doesn’t ever need to know that I understood what she said. I wish I could un-know about the kids.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOutside, despite the snow, there was a group of kids standing around the children’s memorial, silently, heads bowed, some holding hands. I can only try to imagine what was going through their heads.

The question that keeps going through my head, though, is this: Did they know? When they decided to drop the bomb, did they know about the kids? Did they?

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know the answer to that.

Love You, Honey

My mother raised me on whole wheat sourdough bread, which she baked in an old juice can so it was round and had a mushroom cap. She would make me round school lunch sandwiches with that bread, homemade mayo, and lettuce from the garden. Naturally, I was jealous of the girls with their Wonder bread/ketchup sandwiches.

Remember that this is the same dope who smoked for nearly 35 years. But I seem to be recovering from all those years of inhaling poison and still have low blood pressure, normal cholesterol, better-than-normal bone density and almost all my own teeth. I wonder how the Wonder bread girls are doing.

I do find myself with some of the normal complaints of someone my age, the worst of which so far has been belly pain. Two internalists found nothing wrong and shrugged it off. Another doctor suggested that it was merely gas. I tried medication but it had unpleasant side effects. So I tried organic coconut oil. The Shamen and Witch Doctors and New Agers and Voodooists were right. The pain is gone and the plumbing works fine.  ♫ Just a spoonful of coconut oil helps…

So while I was allowing myself to indulge in homeopathy, I stumbled across some other left wingers touting the virtues of organic honey. While it is not possible to get a decent cheeseburger in this neighborhood, we do have a shop that specializes in honey.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAWe were told that honey bred from the feathery shoots of the delicate acacia flower produces the best honey in the world. The ones in the middle and left are acacia, from Aomori and Iwate Prefectures, respectively. The one on the right is ordinary supermarket honey. According to the honey lady, the supermarket varieties are 4th tier mixed breeds not worthy of recognition. To be exact, she scoffed, “Hah. That’s mizu ame (sugar water).” To use a car analogy, the first is a Toyota Lexus, the second a Nisan Infiniti, and the third a Suzuki Rice Burner.

If you infuse a bottle of white wine with a handful of parsley, a little wine vinegar and some organic honey, you get Parsley Wine, the world’s healthiest sleeping pill, which also helps the liver do its job and strengthens the respiratory system. Yeah, it’s expensive, but to quote L’Oreal, I’m worth it.

The other night, I was invited to a fine dining experience in celebration of finishing a project.


My colleagues warned me that it is difficult to find the restaurant. It wasn’t, but when I got there, the name was only written in kanji. I didn’t want to walk into the wrong restaurant, so I approached the man at the veggie stand across the street. There was the usual moment of panic on his face when he saw mine, but then I said, “Is that place called Sugata?” Big smile, bobbing head. “Oh, yes. That’s Sugata.” “Thanks,” says me. “I couldn’t read the kanji.” He looked genuinely surprised, which seems so odd. He didn’t expect me to be able to speak Japanese, yet somehow did expect me to be able to read it.

Fine dining doesn’t often cross my path, so I was delighted to accept, but wary. I’m a fairly picky eater and fancy Japanese food generally involves parts of sea critters I am not comfortable with, among other things. I am not a big fan of raw fish and never eat eggplant, but there’s a reason this stuff is so expensive. I ate and truly enjoyed all the sashimi (except for the squid shiokara: Wiki definition: small pieces of meat in a brown viscous paste of the animal’s heavily salted, fermented viscera. Can you blame me?) Other than that, it was dish after dish of the finest, freshest seasonal specialties, lightly seasoned and gently teased into palatal perfection. I honestly loved the octopus; the lumps of eggplant in a crabmeat laced soup even went down fairly smoothly.

My point is, just what is the best? Is it the world’s finest honey? The freshest sashimi? A Toyota Lexus? Or bread with love baked right into its mushroom cap?

P.S. Then there’s this:

Day Five

150204_1027~01Coming down the back stretch of this filming marathon, she’s intent, engaged, fully absorbed in the job. She’s taking this seriously, her professionalism a gleaming example for all who will come after.

She’s not thinking about Candy Crush or constantly checking Facebook. She’s not visiting the snack basket and stuffing herself with almonds swathed in creamy, smooth chocolate. She’s not getting the puppet people to take silly pictures of her and then writing in her blog.

Actually, every “not” in the second paragraph should be moved to the first one. What she’s really doing is all of that plus fake yoga in a fake chair.

150204_1027~01Things are not always what they seem.

But one thing in the first paragraph is true; I am more engaged. I’ve arrived at just about 300 days smoke free and all sorts of things are changing. Instead of dashing outside for a smoke at the first hint of a break, I sit calmly. I talk to people, commiserate, build relationships. I am more a part of the moment. The process of rebuilding my life, rebuilding me, means not only me looking at the world in a different way, but also me finding a different way to fit into it.

The more I learn about smoking, the more I’m coming to understand that the physical craving for nicotine is only a small part of the overall addiction. I am unlearning a whole slew of knee jerk reactions and defense mechanisms that I’ve come to realize I never really needed in the first place.

Doing this kind of work is a lot like quitting smoking. It takes patience, dedication, patience, endurance, patience, patience, patience and patience. I just need coping strategies. For this job, I have to leave my house and ride trains seemingly forever to get to the studio, then turn around and do the reverse, six times each, for a total of 12. Coming here this morning was trip #9; going home tonight, if we ever finish, will be #10. Tomorrow I get to complete the dozen. They say that only 7% of quitters make it through the first year, but 80% of those fabulous people make it through the second. This moment is significant because I am at the same point in the dozen as I am in that first year.

One more day; two more months. See you at the finish line. I know I’m going to make it.

Alone Together


Yesterday was the first of six days of filming. The studio is inconveniently located on the far side of the city, so I continue my lifelong quest for silver linings. Saturday’s trains weren’t too bad; today being Sunday, they were even better. They jolted along, their wheels objecting to the early hour as they screamed against the rails.The cars of the trains were strewn with bodies in various states of consciousness, many lolling in unseemly poses, mouths hanging open, heads thrown back against the windows. Most of us were bundled up in down coats, our necks swaddled in wooly scarves. Two girls in matching sweats clutched lacrosse sticks, stared blankly at the floor. A large man in a suit snored, snorted and woke himself up. I felt an odd sense of unity. Our sleepiness lent us a communal vulnerability; we allowed ourselves to be seen in ways we would normally avoid, averting our bleary eyes, pretending not to see. We were seen but did not see. But at least we had space to breathe.

Tomorrow is Monday.  Dreading, dreading, dreading.