Le Cafe

If you ever find yourself in Yokohama, you will inevitably be dragged to China Town, or Isezakicho (eek!,) Nogeyama Zoo aka the saddest zoo in the world (they moved all the genki animals to ritzy Zoorasia thirty years ago,) or any number of odd museums where the old embassies used to be. Maybe you’ll go to the stadium, too.

Whatever.

The point is that at some point you’ll be pointing from Kannai Station. And everything near Kannai smells like pee. You’ll need a break.

When you do, I suggest to you to rest your feet for a spell at Le Cafe. I kid you not, that is the name. I can only assume that this place is either so old that this was a crazy new name or somebody got really lazy.

Take a deep breath, then hold your nose as you take five giant steps into Isezakicho shopping area. Apparently this was once an outdoor shopping district to rival nearby Motomachi, but it’s lost it’s pinache now.

Le Cafe is completely invisible from the street. It’s behind a Bunmeido castella-cake shop. To make matters more confusing, it’s one of several such shops in Isezakicho.

Walk to the back, pull (don’t push) the door, and step back in time. The tables are small. The seats are plush. There’s a stained glass picture on the back wall, and a spiral staircase, no longer used, swirling upstairs to secret spaces no one remembers.

The menu is succinct. Skip the castella cake and Mikasa dorayaki Bunmeido is famous for, and go straight to the strange page labelled “pastel.” These are the pancake-esque pattycakes that until this moment in your life have been notable only because they provide an instrument for getting that sweet, sticky beany goodness of anko into your mouth. Like an ice cream cone, it is only usually noticed when it is subpar.

But behind a curtain you didn’t notice just before you pulled the magic door stands the man who makes these pastels. And this is one of the only places where you can get them fresh off the griddle.

The waitress will ask which topping you’d like. True Hamakko that you are, you will ask for them all: butter, unsweetened whipped cream, and a curious syrup. At first it seems like maple. Then it seems like caramel sauce. Then you realize it is the taste of a lazy summer afternoon, where the sky hangs heavy and humid and a contented child’s tired sigh is enough to tip the balance of the heavens and set off a thunderstorm, all of that sweetened and boiled down and brought to you in a miniature pitcher.

The coffee is good for Japan. Too acidic for American palettes, but they bring you a real creamer filled to the brim and there is a proper sugar bowl on the table.

Le Cafe is filled, mostly, with other local residents in the know, most over sixty. The only other children there have come with their grandparents, as no doubt the grandparents did themselves once many years ago.

The bathroom has been updated, thank goodness, but not must else.

Come hungry. Leave refreshed and slightly sentimental, as you step back onto the streets who have lost their lustre.

Ballad to Sports Day

I was going to write a post about Sports Day, but I can’t bring myself to do it. So I’ll parody a song instead. Ladies and Gentleman, to the tune of “I Will Survive,” I am pleased to bring you:

Sports Day: I Did Survive (though just barely and it sucked)

At first I was afraid, I was petrified.
Didn’t know how to do Sports Day, though God knows I tried.
I spent, oh, too many nights thinking how last year’s lunch was wrong,
But then I learned not to cut the fries too long

But now it’s time to go back to that place
Where it’s crowded and it’s hot and there’s dust all over the place
I should have changed that stupid lock,
I should have made them leave their key,
But I didn’t, so the in-laws came along with me

Oh I walked out the door
With two liters full of water and a full course lunch for four
We watched races we watched relays, tug of war, a chicken fight
There were close calls, but during kumi taisou no one died

So I, I have survived
As long as I just smile and nod it seems I’ll stay alive
I got all my life to live, I brought all that food to give
And I survived, I did survive

It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
When Jiji ate the last hamburger, which Me First had called.
But I remembered I brought brownies, and I only gave them to the kids
So I hoped Jiji learned not to eat when someone had called dibs.

Later we watched the video
Of the little guy who tried so hard, or at least I thought so
But when we saw it up close, using that damn cursed zoom
I could tell he was goofing off, and making faces to boot

And when I walked in the door
With zero liters of water and all the garbage made by four
We collapsed on the couch, the grown-ups were tuckered out
But the kids were ready for another round!

Oh I, I have survived
It was hot and it was long, but I didn’t see anyone die
There is still life left to live, though no food is left to give
And I survived, to do it again next week

Hey hey

At this point we can all break out in wild disco dance.

But, um, I think I’ll stick to parodies of the Beatles cause that is way easier. This was kind of strained and hard, and if I’ve had to work that hard then it probably won’t be funny. Now I’m in a Bob Dylan phase, which could be fun.

How many times must a little kid run,
Until you give him a rest?
How many times must a big kid chicken fight,
Until you admit her team’s the best?
And how many times does it take till you admit
It’s a waste of time, this whole darn sports fest?
The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answers are blowing in the wind
(like the laundry.)

Undoukai Part 1 (The Prep)

Tomorrow is Me First’s Undoukai, Sports Day. This is a big deal, like the biggest event of the whole school year, right up there with entrance ceremony or graduation-esque big deal. Well, actually here in Japan Undoukai is probably bigger than graduation or entrance ceremony because family from out of town will come, crash, cheer, eat, then leave.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s one of the busiest weekends of the year for moms, except for maybe New Year’s and Obon if you aren’t lucky enough to have an older matriarch to take care of that.

The kids have been practicing for weeks. I can hear them as I type, actually, practicing the cheers they will do tomorrow. (How Japanese, ね, to have even the cheering rehearsed until there is hopefully no sliver of spontaneity left. But these are kids; their enthusiasm will win in the end.)

The school is split into two teams, red and white. Conveniently, every PE hat in this nation is reversible with, you guessed it, red and white sides. The different grades “compete” in races and games. They perform dances and the de rigueur kumi taisou, which is kind of like the pyramid building cheerleaders do, except with little thought put into safety…So I guess it’s like what cheerleaders did in the sixties, but there are no short skirts or pom-poms so….let’s just forget this whole cheerleading bit.

At the end of the day, a winning team will be announced. But absolutely no one will care. This is kind of like the Kohaku music “competition” on New Year’s Eve, where singers are divided into men’s and women’s teams (sometimes without regard to whether the singer is a man or woman,) and then proceed to one-up each other with fabulous costumes and ridiculous props. Makes for a good show.

I should go back on that, though, as the kids in first and second grade do care about which team wins (both at Undoukai and Kohaku.)

So.

I have spent this morning at the store, procuring the foods that will go into our utterly less-than-fabulous giant bento tomorrow. I assume that the in laws will be bringing their own, as usual. MIL will out-do me at every corner, which is fine. She doesn’t pay any attention to what the kids actually like and do not like to eat, so even if her bento is beautiful with bear shaped o-inarisan and carrots cut to look like cherry blossoms, mine is the one the kids will actually eat. I’m packing brownies, after all.

HRH informed me that our picnic sheet from last year was not big enough….this morning….(as if there hasn’t been a whole year to bring this up,) so I have gone off and bought another.

Up until this year, I’ve always had a child, or maybe two since they let them out early the day before Undoukai, hanging around and the prep has been a huge hassle. This year, I’m able to pace myself more. Thus the brownies. But I’ll have to do it twice. Me Too’s sports day is coming up in two weeks.

To Hell and Back

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Today is Children’s Day here in Japan. (Actually, it’s Boys Day but the advertising industry doesn’t want us splitting hairs.) All across the country, the koi nobori, fish shaped flags, are flying, announcing to the neighborhood just how potent daddy is.

Our koi nobori is one fish short, since Me Too wouldn’t let us put her pink fish outside, and it isn’t properly hung up, but whatever.

There will be special mochi wrapped in leaves for the obligatory afternoon snack with grandpa, the big fish. Our local grocery is selling strawberry, caramel, and chocolate flavors as well as the traditional sweet beans.

The kids will take a bath full of weeds tonight. It’s supposed to make them strong.

And any kidtastic theme park, zoo, or aquarium worth their salt is letting kids in today at a discount.

You can imagine what that means, I’m sure: crowds. Needless to say, we’re staying home. Or that was the plan, anyway.

HRH, for reasons incomprehensible to HamakkoMommy, gave the kids their presents a few days early. Brother may have understood this, but all Sister knows is that the morning news is telling her to expect a present TODAY.

(*_*)

I considered trying to reason with her, but let’s face it, I’m not as young as I used to be. So instead I asked her what kind of present it was she was hoping for.

“A telescope,” she said.

I knew immediately exactly what she meant, seeing as how she is currently obsessing in a major way over Tinkerbell, with a minor in pirates. All she wanted was a little telescope to pull out of her pocket and yell, “Land ho!”

This is a toy that doesn’t poo or pee, makes no noise, requires no accessories sold seperately, and doesn’t dress like a hooker. I’m thinking, okay.

HRH thought she wanted the Hubble, though and immediately started to protest.

After some convincing, Sister and I were off to Toysrus, aka Parenting Hell. I girded my loins, practiced The Look and my scary voice.

But it wasn’t that bad. Actually it wasn’t bad at all. I had some other things I needed to buy (nachos) and Me Too was so good I bought her the oft forbidden strawberry milk she likes so much.

So we managed to get to hell and back without much more than a scratch. I don’t know if it’s because I only had one kid with me, or because she’s growing up, or maybe it’s the eclipse, but it was fine.

The kids ate ALL of their lunch (quesadillas with spinach,) and then we took them to a park. Of course they spent the whole time fighting over the telescope, but we knew that would happen, right?

Eventually they found a caterpillar to watch and peace was restored. Until tomorrow, anyway.

Edit:

Stupid HRH really knows how to ruin the whole day. His mom bought Me Too a baby doll bathtub. You put some shampoo in it, pump this little flower pump, and it makes lots of bubbles. Me Too got some of the soap bubbles in the bathtub and it’s like the end of the world because HRH had put those weed things in the bathtub. Now his royal highness our Oldest Son, who it was meant for lest we forget what Children’s Day is really about, can’t have his fancy weed bath.

HRH goes off at me about not preserving tradition. Um, pardon me, but who’s tradition is this, exactly? If it is that important, then do it your damn self. I don’t have him stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey, for chrissake.

And now he’s in there mumbling to my son, who I spent sixty hours in labor giving birth to, about how I screwed this whole day up.

。・°°・(>_<)・°°・。

To hell and back, then back again.

Grrr.

Eastergarten

Yeah, you read that right. I’m just kind of too lazy to type “Easter” and “kindergarten” so I thought it would be convenient to do like Shakespeare and make a new word.

So first, Easter.

The kids were so psyched about the Easter bunny coming that they were up at 5 freaking a.m. I tried explaining to them the night before that the Easter bunny isn’t like Santa. He doesn’t have a whole team of elves working for him making toys and spying on unsuspecting minors. He also doesn’t have anywhere near Santa’s budget, and it is really really inappropriate to start writing him letters the night before Easter asking for toys.

But the kids were excited anyway. Sometime around the break of dawn, Me Too insisted we wake up and that I go check in the kitchen first to make sure the Easter bunny was long gone. We’d done the best we could, really. HRH had picked up some small chocolate bunnies and jelly beans last time he was in the U.S. for work. Me Too has been saying for weeks that she wants a pink stuffed bunny rabbit, but the only one I could find on line was like fifty big ones. So she got a small stuffed Mrs. Rabbit from the Peter Rabbit series. Brother got Peter. They also got a collection of Peter Rabbit stories, a book about rabbits, and a Berenstain Bears book about Easter.

Needless to say, Me First was pissed. What the h-e-double hockey sticks was that Easter bunny thinking?

But after we read some of the Peter Rabbit stories, he changed his tune. They enjoyed acting out the stories with the stuffed animals, not to mention gorging themselves with chocolate.

We went for a picnic with friends to Nogeyama Park. It’s across the street from the saddest zoo in the world and in the second seediest neighborhood in Yokohama (that I know of.) Koganecho has got to be the worst with the “masseuses” from various third-world countries shouting out to “big brother” to come over for a “rest.” Ah, you’re with your wife? No problem, she can come in and watch.

But anyway, once you get past the riff-raff, homeless, and girly bars (I think they’re girls) near Hinodecho station and up the big hill to the park, it’s very nice. There’s a basketball court and a great play area, as well as a large grassy area. And none of those horrible lunchbox stealing hawks that plague most parks in Japan. I guess the hawks are too high class for Nogeyama.

We had a nice picnic until Me Too got overtired and cried the entire way home. This could, of course, have been avoided if the menfolk had listened to me when I told them we needed to go. But anyway, the kids were in bed early. Me Too is still in her jammies (even though it’s now 11am) and we are both trying to recover from all the fun.

On to the “garten” portion then.

I usually use the word preschool to talk about the school Me Too is starting tomorrow, but it really encompasses the years that American kids spend in preschool and kindergarten. Japanese kids don’t set foot in elementary school until they start first grade. The preschool/kindergarten is really a mix of both in some ways. It’s inflexible about who is in which class and start/finish dates like kindy in the states. The kids spend most of their time learning through play like they would in an American preschool. Then there are lots of other features that are totally Japanese: the uniforms, the million different hats (this is only a slight exaggeration,) the endless PTA meetings and strained mommies lunches….

I usually referr to it in my mind as one of several layers of hell. Peculiar Japanese hell. Kind of like tea ceremony. Looks nice from the outside, but once you get in you realize you can’t stretch your legs, express yourself, or eat the sweets until you swallow down the bitter stuff.

Anyhoo-

The kindercrapschool requires lots of preparation. Just a rundown of the stuff I’ve done in the past week:

1) Sewn three different bags. The school says you can buy these, technically, but the sizes are wierd. The one that comes to mind is 26x32cm. I can only imagine they do this to either a) make my life hard or b) identify the slacker moms right away. I refuse to make my slacker status identification that easy! I like to keep them guessing for the first couple of days.
2)Sewn name tags into every uniform item, along with an identifying mark. These kids are too little to read, so we were told to either add a stamp or button or something to the stuff so the kids know it’s theirs. Me Too is going with a Minnie Mouse theme, so all of her uniform items have a Minnie button sewed on them. (Skirt,shirt,necktie,blazer, PE shirts and shorts.)
3)Added name pins to two uniform hats.
4) Sewn on badge and name tag to P.E. hat. See? I wasn’t exaggerating about the hats.
5) Iron-on name tags to socks and undies that are left at school just in case.
6) Sewn class color flag to the emergency cushion hat the kids have in case of an earthquake. Let’s just call it the Oh Sh!t hat.
7) Iron-on name tag to Oh Sh!t hat.
8) Put little name stickers on EVERY item in her supply box. Crayons, scissors, glue, etc.
9) Sewn on name badge to sweaters she will wear to school on cold days.
10) Iron-on white name tags to bags. For some reason the bags have to have big white name tags on them.
11) Added Minnie luggage tag type things to her school issued backpack and shoes bag.
12) Added trim, Minnie badges, and name tags to the winter smock and summer smock.

Whew. Finally finished it all this morning. The end result is that all of the kids look the same in their uniforms, but when you look closely, they are all a little different. It’s a good lesson, actually, that dressing appropriately does not mean losing your individuality. But damn, it was a lot or work for me!

All of this was made much worse because of this swelling in the fingers of my left hand. The left index finger is particularly bad and painful. It looks kind of deformed, with the upper join swollen on the inside, the big knuckle swollen on the other side. Threading a needle and peeling off stickers and stuff was frustrating. I guess I’ll have to go to the doctor (again) as it has been more than the six weeks he told me to wait and see. I have a feeling I know what they’ll say, considering a different doctor found rheumatoid factor in a blood test I had for something else when Me First was a baby. I don’t want to hear it. It’s one thing to be in a bit of pain today and have hope of feeling better tomorrow, it’s something different when they start throwing around words like “inflammation” and “auto-immune disease.” But then again maybe it will be nothing, I’d love a diagnosis that forbids me from washing dishes and taking part in PTA, but let’s me do whatever else I want.

Tomorrow is entrance ceremony. I got out my suit today to make sure it still fits. It did, surprisingly. Need to go buy some control-top pantyhose this afternoon so I don’t scare anyone.

Guess I better get up and at ‘em. Me First will be ticked if he comes home from school for lunch and finds the lady folk still in their jammy jams.

(*^_^*)

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy birthday to me.

If this day is any indicator, thirty five is going to suck. I refuse to have any more birthdays until the prime minister introduces a bill banning bad behavior by children and husbands on special occasions. Oh, and the right to vote and get some representation with my taxation would be nice. Thanks, guys in suits.

Seriously, the badness started two seconds after my alarm went off this morning. Really. Me Too immediately began to whine, as per her custom, that she didn’t want me to get out of bed. It started off as a whine and quickly turned into a siren of sorts. I was hoping that today of all days perhaps beloved husband would get the f out of bed and make his own d breakfast, but alas, that was not to be.

Somehow it just doesn’t taste very good when I’ve been cooking while a child screams and has a fit in the other room. Silly, isn’t it?

Hubby forgot my birthday. Forgivable offense, really. With all the commotion of Girls Day, it’s really my own fault for being born at such an inconvenient time. Though Mom claims that was more of the doctor’s doing than either me or her.

So, back on track, where was I….Ah, yes, forgivable offense. Forgetting birthday, forgivable. Being reminded by four-year-old-daughter, pretending to remember and then cramming a candle in an orange?

アウト

Wrong. For so many reasons.

It’s raining and bitter cold today, so getting the kids off to school was a hassle. Me First refused to get ready, and set about doing a paper craft instead of preparing for his compulsory education. I’d promised myself to turn over a new leaf starting today, yell less, you know, the usual. So I set his clothes out in front of him with a clock on top of them. At 7:55 he finally starts moving.

アウト

Surely he was late for school.

Me Too decided at nine she would lower herself to eating the breakfast I’d prepared for her hours earlier. At this point, my Mom decides to call. I have fifteen minutes to get Me Too ready for school, not to mention myself, so I tell Mom I’ll call back later. To which she replies,
“I want to talk to you NOW.”

(~_~;)

That was awkward.

Needles to say, Me Too was ALSO late for school.

We’ve now consumed the obligatory birthday cake, complete with a three-shaped candle and a five candle. The kids were much more lively singers with an actual cake versus an orange. Go figure. Cute moment until they starting fighting over who would eat the chocolate name plate.

Me Too is riding about the house on her broom. Glad to know she’s taking after me more these days. Me First is arguing with me about homework. He has one of those annoying worksheets where he has to choose which is correct: おねえさん vs おねいさん type problems. Which means I have to keep getting out my cell phone to check because I don’t know either.

But such is life as a gaijin mom in the Hama.

So, things I’d like to do in my thirty fifth year:

yell less
eat better
write that book
clean the Chamber of Secrets in the back of the house
work more with the kids on their English reading/writing
world peace, personal fulfillment, and all the rest of that stuff
Along with some other stuff I have absolutely no control over

And that’s about it.

If last night’s TV is any indication, this whole week is going to be absorbed in earthquake remembrance. I don’t want to remember, dammit. I’ve been trying very hard to forget so I can get on with the rest of my life and be a responsible cog in the gears of society. But that post is imminent, I know, just give me some time to prepare.

Just give us all some more time.

The Paper Theater

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This is a post I wrote over for World Moms Blog. I’ve added some images.

_________________________________________________________________

There is an old man who lives a couple of buildings down. He is in no way remarkable, really. I often see him walking his dog or riding his bike to and from the local supermarket.

On Sunday afternoon, though, he transforms.

He is the Kami Shibai, Paper Theater, man. He changes from his everyday clothes, drab blues and grays, into his yukata(informal kimono) and his geta(wooden sandals), and his newsy cap. He looks as if he walked right out of the Yokohama of the 1930s, the pre-war Japan of his childhood.

He makes the rounds of the supermarket, banging his hyoushigi(bamboo blocks,) that same echoing sound you hear at sumo matches or on winter’s evenings when the volunteers go around the neighborhood, reminding us of hi no yoijin, caution against fire.

He distributes tickets to the children. The Paper Theater starts at four. All good children will receive a present at the end, he says.

And come four o’clock, a gaggle of youngsters have gathered in the corner of the supermarket where he has spread a swatch of carpet. They take their shoes off, placing them just so, before sitting down, tickets in hand.

He gets out the bamboo blocks once more, striking them together slowly at first, then more rapidly until his hands move so fast they are barely more than a blur. He sits seiza, kneeling, then bows deeply to the children. “I am not a good storyteller,” he begins, with typical Japanese humility, “but I hope you enjoy the show.”

Before the children he spreads out four boxes, each containing a different story. These are all old stories. Some are about mythical creatures, others about one (or several) of the myriad Shinto gods that many mistake for folklore. There is even a story about a Buddhist saint. He asks for a show of hands, and allows the children to choose the story.

He rises from his knees, pressing his hand to his lower back. His legs seem weak from age. He inserts the stiff pages of the story into a dark wooden box that sits on a podium. Then he opens the cover to reveal a miniature stage. It is lit from the bottom.

He begins to read, with emphasis on sound effects. I don’t know if these are written into the story or not. The words are written on the back of the page, and he withdraws a finished page to reveal the next, colorful continuation of the tale.

The children sit, mesmerized. This is no small feat; some of them are very small, barely able to walk. I am amazed to see these children, who have grown up with digital TV and video games so graphic they make me feel sick, completely silent, enthralled by the ancient story and the seemingly ancient man who reads it to them.

When the story is finished the children put their shoes back on, line up, and receive their “present,” a lollipop courtesy of the old man.

He cleans up his corner, changes into his street clothes, and goes about his day.

If you saw him in the street you would not think, “Here is a man who is single-handedly preserving an art form for the next generation.”

But I know. He knows I know. We bow slightly to each other as we pass.

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Operation: Setsubun

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Today is February 3rd.

So what, you say?

Well you must not be an oni(demon bad guy boogie monster of Japanese folklore,) or you would know that today is the day you get dried soybeans thrown at you and told to get the heck out of people’s houses.

Setsubunis supposed to be the day that separates winter from spring, but um, well it’s still REALLY cold outside, so that doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

I heard a much more detailed Setsubun description by the Gaijinwife, but around here we do NOT go to that much trouble for something as seemingly harmless as oni. (Somewhere along the line they just became less scary when compared to drunk-salary-man ass grabbers, radiation laced school lunches-yum-, or the imminent “Big One.”)

The kids and I are waiting excitedly for HRH to come home so he can dress up like the oni and we can throw stuff at him.

I’ve been waiting for this day All. Year. Long.

Then we’ll eat ridiculously long sushi rolls. I can never get them to turn out right, and since I’ve been struggling with Auntie Flu, I just ordered them from Aeon this year. The kids are obsessed with Doraemon, this cartoon about a robot cat from the future. (Got that? Then can you explain it to moi?) This things are H-U-G-E, but if I didn’t get two then a robot cat from the future would not be enough to save me.

Betcha they don’t eat them. Not to worry, there’s pizza in the fridge.
(^_−)−☆

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