Taipei, Day Two: Temples and Toilets

This morning we got a leisurely start out the door and headed for Bao’an Temple, a Taoist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wandered and snapped photos, then Mark and Cy sat for several minutes and sketched. Then we headed for Dihua Street, a main shopping street. We haggled for dried mangoes and grabbed a bite. Mark thought that it would be a great idea to task the kids with finding cool things to see in Taipei so they’re not simply getting dragged by their parents from one tourist site to the next. Go on YouTube!, he said. So they did. 

And that’s how we dined at Modern Toilet restaurant for dinner.  The things we do for our children….Dessert? A swirl of “poop” ice cream in a urinal dish. The kids started digging through the ice cream and announced what they found: Hey, it’s corn! And we shut down those jokes quick. 

After dinner we wandered the neighboring Ximen Youth Shopping District, a pedestrian shopping arcade full of neon and eye candy that reminded us of Japan. I later learned that the area was established as the first pedestrian shopping street during the Japanese colonial era. 

The Taipei Eating Tour Begins

We arrived in Taipei today for spring break. Before arriving we heard about the fabulous street food, so after checking in to our hotel we stepped out for a bite. 

We didn’t make it very far. 

The fried chicken with lots of toppings caught Mark and Cy’s attention, so we stopped for our first course. Yes, that’s chicken with chili sauce, cilantro, and slices of raw garlic. Totally, completely raw. And delicious!

Meanwhile, more carts started rolling in. It took no Taiwanese language skills whatsoever to understand the proprietor’s shouts to get the…heck out of the way as she rolled by. Tessa found the chicken on the spicy side, so Mark let her pick the next stop. We ended up in a Japanese place where Tessa had some gyodon  (beef over rice) and Cy had sashimi.  I know. But she was happy, and it gave Mark and I the the chance to try our first local beers. Called Taiwan Beer, because apparently the person tasked with naming said beer called in sick that day. After the Japanese restaurant we headed directly across the street for soup dumplings. Our last stop? A bakery for desserts to eat in our hotel room. So here we sit, eating pastries and watching Comedy Central, a total luxury for us. 

It’s Dress Up Time! Kimono and Tea on a Friday Morning

Last Friday I headed to the kids’ school for the chance to get dressed in a kimono by the pros: the members of the Futaba Girls’ School Tea Ceremony Club. Loyal martayaki readers may recall that last spring I attended a class where these same girls taught kimono dressing using a fellow Futaba student as a model.

This time it was the moms’ turns! The girls brought complete kimono sets for us to wear–but ever the over-achiever, I brought what kimono items I had and borrowed the missing pieces.

Note the pink narrow strap temporarily holding the obi in place while three people do their magic to get this tied properly


We spread out to meet our teams of dressers, and the girls got to work. The downside of getting dressed by three people is that I essentially had no idea how they were tying everything together. I know some basics, like Left over Right, always. The right lapel goes over the left lapel only at a funeral, and only on the deceased. I learned this important point during one of my first onsen visits, when a fellow bather very kindly pointed out my right-over-left faux pas.

Some of the hidden infrastructure items that keep everything in place
Photo credit: Phyllis E.

After about fifteen minutes of fussing and tying, we were ready. The girls brought each of us a tray with a bowl of green tea and a traditional Japanese sweet. While there were several different kinds of sweets, most were variations of sweetened red bean paste inside and rice flour on the outside.


Photo credit: Jenny S.

After the tea it was picture time! We posed with serene smiles. And goofy grins. And selfies, of course.

Photo credit: Jenny S.
Photo credit: Jenny S.
Photo credit: Jenny S.
Photo credit: Phyllis E.
Photo credit: Phyllis E.


Photo credit: Tina S.
Photo credit: Phyllis E.

Then my friend Maria got me going. Maria is Romanian, and a complete nut bar–and I say this with total affection. We ran the Eastern European booth at the school’s Food Fair last spring, and we practice aikido together on Mondays. So when you routinely flip someone down on a mat and try to make them tap out by twisting an arm, bending a wrist back–you have History. It didn’t take much for Maria to convince me to try some aikido moves, restrictive kimono notwithstanding.

What happens when two Eastern European girls get dressed in kimono? Hilarity ensues…


A few minutes later we lined up for this photo, and she and I could not stop laughing and cracking completely juvenile jokes under our breath. If you look closely at the two of us in the photo below, you’ll notice barely hidden smirks that indicate that we’re clearly up to no good.

Photo credit: Phyllis E.

Once we finished the girls set about folding the kimono and accessories in the proper manner. Because of course there’s a correct way to fold everything!


A special thanks to the Tea Ceremony Club of Futaba Gakuen for the experience, and to the many friends who kindly shared their photos with me.

Visiting the Shu Mai Factory

The children attend St. Maur International School, which organizes all kinds of events and outings for parents through its Adult Enrichment program. I decided to join some fellow mothers on one such outing.

Last Friday was St. Patrick’s Day. As a Polish American married into an Irish American family, I decided to celebrate the day by visiting a factory that makes Chinese shu mai dumplings. In Japan. With friends from Japan, Thailand, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. As one does.

Led by our able guides Emi and Noriko, we boarded the train and headed for the Kiyoken Yokohama Factory Tour.

The Kiyoken Shu Mai factory near Shin-Yokohama

Unlike the glitzy Cup Noodles Museum in a fancy part of Yokohama, The Kiyoken factory sits in an industrial area and actually makes the shu mai in question on site. Our enthusiastic tour guide eagerly described the history of the company in Yokohama, when they started making shu mai, how shu mai guys and gals sold boxes through train windows, and so on.

The real deal of Selling Through a Train Window….
…and our re-creation, saying”Shu Mai!” for the camera

But let’s back up a little. What is a shu mai, anyway?

Like gyoza and ramen, shu mai originated in China but were brought to Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the late nineteenth century. Unlike gyoza, ravioli, pierogi, and other filled dumplings with completely sealed edges, shu mai have an open top. The meat filling is exposed on the very top and held in place by the dumpling skin. Shu mai are steamed and not boiled like pierogi or ravioli. The filling can vary, but ground pork is the most common. Shu mai are usually served with hot Japanese mustard called karashi and soy sauce. Yokohama is known for Kiyoken shu mai, and they are a popular choice to eat on long train trips.

A model of a shu mai bento

So back to our factory tour! Our tour guide enthusiastically explained the history behind the soy sauce container tucked into every box of Kiyoken shu mai, a tiny ceramic gourd called Hyo-chan who is also the mascot for Kiyoken shu mai–because every Japanese town, event, and company needs an adorable mascot. Hyo-chan comes in a dizzying array of designs, and collecting them is A Thing.

Emi skillfully translated all of this while holding a gourd like a natural.

Emi and her gourd


After studying many lit cases of Hyo-chan samples, it was time for the main event! We headed out to see the production lines themselves. We started with the packing line, where we observed workers in coveralls, boots, and face masks manning the automated packaging machines. We were expressly forbidden from taking photos, which of course meant I had to sneak one in, because I am such a Rebel. Doesn’t this look like an exposé photo from 60 Minutes or something?

My Totally Forbidden photo, shot from waist high

After watching the packaging operation it was time for more lit cases, including an overview of the manufacturing process…..


….and models of the ingredients. Then with a dramatic flourish our guide unveiled the windows showing the shu mai production line itself. Alas, no sneaky photo this time.

After the tour we enjoyed a snack of complimentary shu mai. Then it was time for a stop in the gift shop before heading home.



Happy Patrick’s Day! Or, Irish Dancing Really Is Everywhere


This past Sunday the kids and I headed down to Motomachi, the fancy shopping street of Yokohama, to check out the local St. Patrick’s Day parade. We staked out our spots on the street and waited for the parade to start, led by St. Patrick himself! The kids recognized St. Pat as their religion teacher. “Hi Mr. Agnew!”, they enthusiastically called out. “Shh,” he said as he handed them candy.


A few actually-Irish-looking people came next, followed by local bands, and lots of green-clad revelers dancing, singing, and playing their way down the street. I loved seeing those Irish bands and dancing groups with all Japanese members. Because who isn’t a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day?




Japanese Culture Day 2.0

Longtime martayaki readers may recall last spring’s preparations for our very first Japanese Culture Day at the kids’ school. Last year I shopped at a used kimono shop, got kimono-dressing lessons from the experts/students at the Japanese school next door, and successfully dressed Tessa the morning of Japanese Culture Day.

Last year’s kimono and hair ornaments get a new, pre-tied obi! Because we’re not proud

The obi silk belt turned out to be the hardest part. Despite my best efforts to tie it correctly, it didn’t really hold up to all-day wearing by a fourth grader. So this year we returned to the used kimono shop to buy a pre-tied obi, which is basically the equivalent of a pre-tied bow tie versus the real thing. I should probably feel bad about using a pre-tied obi, but I don’t. Like, At. All.

So, Take Two!

Here are the kids the morning of our second Japanese Culture Day, which was last Friday. Tessa wears her kimono with poise and dignity. Meanwhile Cy dresses as Mt. Fuji, donning the novelty hat that I bought at the hardware store last fall Just In Case, because you never know when a Mt. Fuji hat will come in handy. The Smart Ass runs deep in him.


The kids fit right in with their classmates. Note that Cy (back row, center-right) never bothers to face the camera during the class photo, instead choosing to attack the onigiri-clad classmate (Nicholas) to his left. So proud!



Now Playing: Ra Ra Rando; Or, My First Visit to the Movie Theater

Living overseas means missing out big chunks of American life. I keep up with news and culture through Internet radio and news websites, but movies and TV shows–not so much. Except for really big stuff like the Star Wars movies, I don’t know much about what’s been playing in U.S. cinemas since we arrived in Japan.

As military we have one nice advantage: the Navy base has two cinemas, and they even show current films. At only $3 USD for adult and $1 USD for kids, the admissions are basically free. Nice! Not so nice are the $30 in round trip tolls, or the 45 minute drive each way. I have taken the kids on weekends or school holidays for kid movies, but I’ve never gone there to see a film just for me.

Sabina, me, Kristi, and Jeannie

Japanese cinemas show some American films, so this week I rounded up a posse of girlfriends and headed out to Yokohama Burg 13 for my first visit to a Japanese cinema. We met up for a matinee of La La Land, or Ra Ra Rando when translated into Japanese. After navigating the automated ticket machines (1800 yen, or about $16 USD) and selecting our assigned seats, we headed for the snack bar.


Since it was my first visit to the cinema I decided to go all in and even have lunch there. I know, crazy! After the shu mai and noodles that I saw at the baseball game, I imagined a wide range of tasty choices, or some unknown-to-me Japanese movie favorites. Instead I saw this.

The utterly uninspiring selection of hot dogs, fries, popcorn, nachos….


OK, so hot dog and fries it is. Note to self: next time, smuggle in a bento lunch. At least it was relatively cheap. My soda, hot dog and fries combo only cost 950 yen ($8.33 USD). After picking up our lackluster snacks we headed for the theater, passing stacks of blankets and booster seats.

Feeling chilled? Grab a blankie!

Once the movie started it was pretty much like any other cinema–only with Japanese subtitles, and not a giggle, clap, or any sound from the almost full audience. After the film ended the credits started rolling with the house lights still dark. No one else in the theater moved at all. So I sat there and scanned the cast list, then lost interested as the crew’s names rolled by. After a few minutes I turned to Kristi and whispered, “When do you think we can leave?”. This prompted us both to explode into a fit of giggles right as the music got very, very quiet. Which got us to giggle louder. After a few more rounds we pulled ourselves together.

We thought the credits were almost done when the lengthy music credits started. Sabina let out very quiet yet exasperated sigh, which set us all off again. After the very final logo rolled by the lights came up and we were finally sprung.

Since planning this first movie outing I learned that Wednesdays are Ladies’ Day, with the usual 1800 yen admission lowered to 1100 yen (about $9 USD). Wednesday Ladies’ Movie Club, anyone?

See you next time, Yokohama Burg 13!