MORI Building Digital Art Museum

Last week my friend Mani and I took our kids to the latest must-see in Tokyo, the MORI Building Digital Art Museum in Odaiba, Tokyo. It’s the newest exhibition from teamLab, and a permanent installation. The museum fills 10,000 square meters (!), projecting trippy light shows onto mostly black surfaces while piping in a Cirque de Soleil soundtrack.

We wandered. We played. It was awesome! The photos and videos speak for themselves, so let’s just go straight to those.

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Some pro tips if you plan to visit the Tokyo exhibition:

  • Buy your tickets ahead of time! You will be turned away if you show up without tickets; we saw it happen. Right now tickets are selling out about two weeks in advance, and they release more tickets every few weeks. So check the website for MORI Digital Museum online tickets sales early and often.
  • Eat before you go in. There is no cafe or gift shop of any kind, and you’ll spend 2-3 hours on your feet in very crowded spaces.
  • Don’t wear a skirt; some exhibits include mirrored floors. There are loaner skirts (ick) outside the exhibitions in case you forget.
  • Don’t wear open toed shoes or you’ll be sent to the rental shoe (BLEEH!!) counter. There are a lot of stairs and uneven surfaces, so solid footing is essential.

teamLab also has exhibitions in Singapore, Paris, Helsinki, and other cities in Japan, so check out the teamLab exhibition listing in case you happen anywhere near those cities.

 

Let’s Make Booze: My First Attempt at Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

When I was a kid in 1980s Chicago, my social world revolved around other Polish-Americans. Yes, I went to Catholic school with “other” Catholic kids–some Italian, and mostly Irish. But outside of school our family did Polish school and scouting on Saturdays, and Polish folk dancing on Wednesdays, and weekend gatherings at home of fellow Polish-Americans scattered all over the suburbs. While the kids got into all kinds of trouble without adult supervision, the adults talked, and laughed, and cried, and drank. Oftentimes the drink included homemade wines from cherry, plum, you name it. I remember adults politely accepting the smallest glass possible while grimacing.

Homemade plum wine did not look very tasty.

So when I heard that making homemade plum wine is A Thing in Japan, my first thought was not exactly, I need me some of that. I lived my first two and half years in Japan while observing jars of murky wine in other people’s kitchens, and I was totally fine with not trying it.

Then last winter Mark and I gathered at our friends’ home for dinner. Our hostess Mani–who is amazing, and funny, and an incredible cook–offered us umeshu, her homemade plum wine. In any other case I would take a polite sip. But with Mani offering, I eagerly took a glass.

Umeshu is delicious.

I made a mental note to find out the recipe the next time ume season rolled around in early summer, then promptly forgot. But. But! Mani put her very easy recipe on Facebook, and I dove in. So here it is!

Basically, you go to any grocery store in June and look for this display:

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A typical umeshu display in any Japanese grocery store in June

You’ll find an assortment of glass jars, a 1 kg bag of green ume plums, a 1.8L container of shochu white liquor (35% alcohol), and a 1kg bag of rock crystal sugar. The basic recipe is–wait for it–put everything in a jar and check in 3-6 months.

So I changed it up a little, of course. Per Mani’s suggestion I sterilized the jars. When I can fruit or jams in pint (about 500ml) or quart (about 1L) jars, sterilizing is easy–I just boil them in water, submerged. This giant, 5L jar didn’t even fit in my oven, so I washed the jars in hot, soapy water and steamed them over a pot of boiling water for several minutes.

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Sterilizing away!

Then I decided to cut the sugar a bit. Online recipes called for either equal amount of sugar and ume by weight, or half as much sugar as ume. I split the middle and did 1 kg ume, 750 grams sugar. I loaded the ume and sugar in layers, then poured my 1.8L of shochu clear liquor over the top. And that’s pretty much it.

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Ingredients assembled? Check!
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Layering my ume and sugar, with a bonus star anise peeking through

Because I’m an overachiever I decided to make one batch plain and a second batch flavored. Thinking of pears poached in red wine with cinnamon and star anise, I decided that star anise would taste lovely with plums. I had no idea of how much star anise to add, so I went with 4-5 stars’ worth.

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Going fancy with star anise

My umeshu is brewing away in the closet under the stairs–the closest I can find to cool and dark in a house with no insulation, never mind a basement.

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Star anise umeshu on the left; plain on the right

I’ll check it in three months’ time, then again in six months. Stay tuned!

The Ocha no Sato Tea Museum, Plus a Detour to Shizuoka’s Questionable District

After exhausting Shizuoka’s offerings, we hit the road for the Ocha no Sato Tea Museum about 40 minutes away.

We paid a typical admission fee of 300 yen (about $2.80 USD) per person. I don’t know how Japanese museums manage, charging so little. The building looked brand new, and there was staff everywhere.

We wandered the exhibits, sampled some tea, strolled the Japanese garden, and of course visited the gift shop. Green tea ice cream is definitely A Thing in Japan, and the gift shop didn’t disappoint.

I expected the museum to overlook sprawling tea plantations, and it sort of did. We saw several adjacent tea fields, but the relatively flat elevation meant few stunning vistas. Apparently the surrounding hills offered such views, but we were content with what we saw on the road.

After leaving the tea museum we headed back to Shizuoka to grab some lunch and wait for the car. Somehow we found ourselves in a highly questionable neighborhood that featured lots of gentlemen’s clubs, bars, and a mind boggling number of karaoke joints. Everything was shuttered, opening late afternoon. Thanks to the magic of The Google we quickly found our way out of there and back to a respectable lunch place.

Here’s the new top! We’re on our way home now.

We hoped that the heavy cloud cover from this morning had lightened up enough to give a Mount Fuji sendoff on our drive home. And we got it!

Until next time, Fuji-san!

We Really Tried to Enjoy the Sites of Shizuoka

So the Miata is at the shop, and we have a loaner car and six hours to kill. The Lonely Planet Japan guidebook doesn’t even list Shizuoka at all, and we quickly learned why. The Toro Ruins looked interesting enough, but alas–closed on Mondays. Same with the Shizuoka City Museum of Art.

So at the recommendation of the repair shop owner, we willed our way to the water.

Ok. So that filled about 15 minutes.

I asked the shop owner about the tea plantation at Kanaya, Ocha no Sato. Japan’s largest tea plantation, the Interwebs tells me! Hm, very far, says Shop Owner-san. Forty minutes!

Considering that we exhausted the charms of Shizuoka city by 10:30AM, we decided to go for it.

Arriving at tea plantation shortly.

Road Trip! Let’s Stop at the Best Rest Area Ever

It’s Memorial Day, a US holiday that is known in Japan as…Monday! That’s right–the kids are at school as usual, and Mark and I are on the road for a quick trip to Shizuoka, a city two hours away.

Two months ago Mark fulfilled his wish for a second car while nipping a looming midlife crisis in the bud: he got a deal on a 2000 Mazda Miata MX-5. Pre-martayaki readers may recall that Mark owned the same car in the same color back in the late 90s. The super low price came with a catch: the original soft top needs replacement.

So we’re on the road to the nearest Mazda shop that can provide the parts and proper installation for a car that old.

A brief glimpse of Mount Fuji on a cloudy day

And road trips mean rest stops! We stopped for a break at a super shiny rest area, possibly the nicest one anywhere.

We found the shop! Now it’s time to grab our loaner and spend the day exploring the greater Shizuoka area.

Our loaner!

Nikko (Mostly) Through the Kids’ Eyes

Last weekend we headed to Nikko, a historic city nestled in the mountains northwest of Tokyo. The kids wrestled the camera away from me a few times, so I decided to showcase our trip mostly through their eyes. Though of course I can’t help but add a few snaps of my own at the end….

But first, the kids’ view.

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And a few of my shots.

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Wisteria 2.0, or A Visit to Ashikaga Flower Park

As loyal martyaki readers may recall, last spring I visited the the famous wisteria in full bloom at Kawachi Fuji-en garden in Kitakyushu, about 1000 km away from my home in Yokohama. This year I decided to check out the wisteria hysteria a little closer to home, heading to Ashikaga Flower Park outside Tokyo. My friend Jeannie joined me, and we lucked out with amazing blooms and perfect weather for our flowery road trip.

We decided to pack a picnic lunch, and I brought a folding table and chairs. As we arrived and parked in a remote parking lot we decided whether or not to bring our food with us. We opted to leave it in the car instead of carrying it around, figuring we would sort out lunch later.

We arrived in the park and saw show-stopping blooms right away.

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Large purple wisteria bloomed and peaked the week before; we arrived in time for the height of white wisteria season. As with Kawachi Fuji-en, Ashikaga left me pretty much speechless. There simply aren’t words to describe the incredible beauty, the intoxicating smell–all of it. While the gorgeous fragrant panicles of white blooms inevitably catch the visitor’s eye first, I found myself drawn to the interiors of the trees’ canopies. The intricate, gnarled vines illuminated by the soft glow of the surrounding flowers…just amazing.

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During our visit we noticed many seating areas of tables and chairs where visitors enjoyed both picnic lunches and food purchased on site. We also saw lockers near the entrance that would have been the perfect place to stash our lunches instead of carrying them during our visit. Live and learn, we mused. Then we headed to car to enjoy our own feast.

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The walk back to the park was far enough that we decided to set up a tailgate right in the parking lot. So Jeannie and I laid out our spread and sat down to enjoy our lunch. The other cars that had completely surrounded ours when we arrived had departed, leaving ours the only car around.

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Within a few minutes a pink-shirted parking attendant arrived. Despite my three years of Japanese lessons I didn’t understand too many of his actual, you know, words. But his body language was pretty hard to miss, especially the crossed forearms that Japanese people tend to display to uncomprehending foreigners. “Cars, do you understand?”, he asked in Japanese. “Yes, I understand,” I replied, also in Japanese. “But there are no cars.” We sat entirely by ourselves, surrounded by empty spots. “We will finish eating in ten minutes,” I added.

He looked utterly flummoxed, then pantomimed for us to eat fast. Clearly he expected us to apologize meekly and start packing up right away. But alas–nothing stands between a hungry gaijin (foreigner) and her sandwich.

My 23andMe Results and a Quick Lesson on European History; Or, Let’s Talk DNA Ancestry with Japanese Senior Citizens

Last Christmas, Mark lovingly gave me the most romantic of gifts: my very own 23andMe ancestry kit! Because nothing quite says I Love You like a vial of spit. So I filled my vial and sent off the sample, eagerly awaiting my results.

Meanwhile, I decided to use a story about the popularity of commercial DNA testing as reading material for the English class I teach twice a month. My students are Japanese seniors who all speak excellent English, and we read and discuss a selection chosen by me or the Japanese moderator of the class. I chose this story from National Geographic, which explains how it’s possible for full siblings with the same parents to have different DNA ancestry.

Before my results came back, I speculated with Mark and the kids about what I would find. Since both of my parents are Polish immigrants, I expected a fairly high Polish percentage–say, 90% or more. And given Poland’s rather non-mountainous east-west borders, unfortunate placement between aggressive neighbors (I’m looking at you, Germany/Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary), and overall turbulent history, I also guessed some German, a touch of Ashkenazi Jewish, and a smattering of Mongolian thanks to galloping invaders across the steppes. The Boy in particular hoped for a trace of Asian heritage to justify his love of sushi–not that Mongolians are particularly known for fish-eating, but whatever…

So anyway! The results came in, and I was shocked. Shocked!! Now most of you Americans out there with a more American-like mix of assorted continents in your family history will look at this think, Wow, what a shocker that she’s 99.9% European. But! Check out the trace results below. Only 78% Polish? Italian? Iberian? Balkan? British-Irish? How did those people get to Poland, and when?!?

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This next view provides at least some clues. The graph below estimates roughly when an ancestor with a given heritage appeared in my family tree.

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So since 1850 or so my ancestors were all Polish-Polish. No surprises there. And around 1850 or a little earlier, there was a French or German (though probably German) ancestor. Also no surprise, since my maternal grandmother’s maiden surname sounds like a Polish version of a German name.

So what happened in 1700-1820 that might have brought Brits, Irish, Balkans, Iberians, and Italians to Poland?

I started by asking one of the smartest people I know for some ideas: my dad.

Ted pointed out that Scots came to Poland in large numbers in the 15th century thanks to the Poland-Lithuanian Union’s religious tolerance. This story by the Krakow Post provides a fascinating account (and who knew that Prince Charles Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, was half Polish?!? I didn’t.). So Ted speculated that perhaps others throughout Europe came to Poland for similar reasons. A solid guess, I think.

The next idea came over beers at the club on a Friday night. My British friend Nic mentioned the Napoleonic Wars and the wide swath of Europeans that ended up all over the continent. Those conflicts lasted from around 1800 to 1815 and involved pretty much every country in Europe, stretching as far east as Russia. There was no Polish state at that point in history; Russia, Prussia (Germany, basically), and Austria-Hungary carved up Polish lands between them in 1795, and there was no Poland at all until 1918 and the end of World War I. To me this seems like the mostly likely explanation of my Italian, Iberian, Serbian, and British-Irish ancestors who might have charged across Polish lands as they marched on Russia.

One last idea came from random Google-ing: the Industrial Revolution, which started in 1750 in Great Britain, then spread to the rest of Europe and the world. So maybe some enterprising Brits set out eastward with their fancy mechanized methods…?

So back to English class! My students buzzed with excitement as I passed around a report with the two images above plus a map of Europe. I presented my three theories as outlined above, which led to great questions about European history. The students had never learned that Poland didn’t exist from 1795 to 1918 and were fascinated to hear that the creation of a Polish state was one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the end of World War I. One student asked what Ashkenazi Jewish meant, so I briefly explained the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish geography, foods, culture, and languages. I told them that The Boy was dismayed to find not even a trace of Asian ancestry, and they all laughed. It’s all of the history of Europe, right on this page!, one student said.

The Japanese class moderator mentioned that she has known many Americans living in Japan who have been fascinated by their roots, especially Americans with Japanese ancestry. She told of a previous teacher of the English class who traveled around Japan to learn more about her Japanese heritage. Then she posed the question to the students that I wanted to ask as well: Would any of you take a DNA test like this?

Silence.

She called on one student, who replied: I know I’m Japanese, but what if I had a little Mongolian ancestry? I would be shocked. We all laughed. While no one stated a desire to take such a test, we started speculating as a group about what other DNA might appear among mostly-Japanese people. Russian in the north. Chinese and Korean, everywhere. Portuguese and Dutch in the west, where both trading enclaves existed for centuries. Then we went on to discuss sub-groups within Japan, such as Okinawans in the south and Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. While the students were happy to discuss these ideas in general terms, no one seemed eager to find out if his or her own family history reflected, say, a smattering of Portuguese trader DNA.

But who knows. Perhaps someday soon the growing popularity of DNA ancestry testing will help knock down some of those taboos. And maybe the Japanese will embrace their inner Portuguese trader after all.

 

The Hazards of Speaking a Little Japanese, Or That Time That I Told Two Strangers That I Wasn’t Wearing Any Underwear

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! A little background on my Mad Japanese Skillz….

Upon arriving in Japan two and a half years ago, I immediately set out to find Japanese language classes. I quickly found one class on Mondays and another on Thursdays, and I still attend both every week. If you asked me at that point how fluent I would expect myself to be in, say, two and a half years time, I would probably answer fluent enough to at least understand basic questions.

I cannot understand basic questions.

IMG_0545I’m a fairly diligent student. I complete any homework assigned, and I open my book to review at least once before every lesson. So at least four times a week I study grammar, and learn new vocabulary, and write out my homework in hiragana and katakana, the two phonetic scripts for writing Japanese. The part that continues to stump me? Comprehension. If I’m in a very controlled setting where I’m always asked the same questions, I do fine. Such as the grocery store. I’m always asked if I have a point card, and if I need a shopping bag. After hearing these questions over a hundred times I’m pretty comfortable with the different variations. No, I don’t have a point card. No thank you, I have my own bags.

The hospital is not the grocery store.

As diligent martayaki readers may recall, last fall I had an MRI at a local hospital. It was a smooth experience, and so cheap! While MRIs in the U.S. cost thousands of dollars, my MRI last fall only cost around $240 USD at the full price. After submitting the claim to my insurance company my out-of-pocket expense ended up at $35 USD. So of course I decided to get pretty much any part of my body MRI’ed as needed, starting with my ever-troublesome left knee.

I have had a bad left knee ever since my lacrosse career in high school. For 30 years it has hurt pretty much non-stop, and every few years I go through physical therapy, orthopedists, MRIs, chiropractors, you name it–generally without relief. It’s been a while since my last MRI so I decided to try again. So I went to the local medical clinic and asked for a referral to an orthopedist.

And that’s how I found myself at Keiyu Hospital last Friday. I’m not sure why I didn’t end up at Red Cross Hospital as for my last MRI. Perhaps Red Cross doesn’t have a large ortho clinic, since another friend with Red Cross experience also went to Keiyu for an ortho issue. Since my Red Cross MRI experience was pretty painless, I expected the same from my second MRI at Keiyu. Because how different could it be?

I think you see where this is going.

Before Friday’s appointment I received a questionnaire with lots of metal related questions. No jewelry, piercings, implants, pacemakers–the M in MRI stands for Magnetic, so metal is a big deal with MRIs. I remembered the many metal warnings before last year’s MRI at Red Cross, so I prepared accordingly. I left all jewelry at home, and I looked up the Japanese word for metal, which is kinzoku. Then I immediately forgot the Japanese word for metal (still kinzoku).

I arrived at the MRI clinic at Keiyu Hospital and heard that first question: Nihongo daijobu desu-ka, or Is Japanese OK? I answered with my standard Sukkoshi wakarimasu, or I understand a little. Generally this means as many instructions in Japanese as I can handle, followed by an eventual transition to broken English or translated cue cards. And so it went. The MRI tech with decent English directed me to the changing room and told me in English to change out of my clothes, put on this gown, only underwear and no other clothes, here’s where to put my clothes and bag, here’s the key to lock the changing room, come out when ready. So I did.

The other MRI tech with no English asked me if [something] arimasu ka, or did I have [something]. In a split second I decided that I vaguely recognized the word, but it had no k’s in it, but I’m sure that he’s asking about metal since that’s such a big deal with MRIs. So I declared loud and proud, Arimasen. I have none. And I showed my bare arms with no watch. And bare earlobes and neck with no earrings or necklace. No metal!

Then the English speaker piped up and clarified, No underwear? Shitagi. That was the word that I sort-of recognized but couldn’t place, because I learned and immediately forgot it in Lesson 17 of Japanese for Everyone, because when would I need to say underwear in Japanese, anyway?

So then the MRI techs called for a crash cart because I literally died of shame on the spot.

Kidding! Actually all three of us pretended that the No Underwear declaration never happened. They were incredibly polite and professional. And they were about 15 years younger than me, and male, and cute, because of course they were.

So the rest of the MRI proceeded fairly uneventfully, until the amazing part. The English speaker asked how long I’ve been in Japan, and I answered in Japanese, two and a half years. He enthusiastically responded Jozu!, which means to be good at something; it’s a compliment Japanese people say whenever I utter anything in Japanese. Which given the No Underwear fiasco of a few minutes earlier, seemed like a stretch. Can you imagine the same scenario in a U.S. hospital? Somehow I don’t picture a U.S. hospital worker praising the incredibly broken English of a patient who has lived in the U.S. for over two years and doesn’t recognize a basic underwear-related question. Yet I’m pretty sure that he meant it, even if he and the other guy likely laughed about it over beers later that day.

I await my results of the scan, returning to the hospital for a consultation with the doctor later this week. He speaks English. But if he asks anything about the presence of my shitagi, I will be ready to answer.

A Weekday Visit to Temples in Kamakura

During our stay in Kyoto two weeks ago Mark and I visited seven different temples and shrines in three days. I loved the time to wander at my own pace, and I made myself a promise to visit similar sites closer to home.

So this morning my day began rather typically–after getting the kids out the door to school, I started laundry and took the dog to the vet for shots. With the basics covered, I hopped in the car and headed for Kamakura, a city 25 km to the south.

IMG_0529Like Kyoto, Kamakura served as Japan’s capital before Tokyo. And like Kyoto, Kamakura features dozens of religious sites, with sixty-five temples and nineteen shrines. Previously I have visited well known places like Hasedera, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu and the giant Buddha at Kotoku-in. For today’s outing I decided to venture out to new temples.

IMG_0511Originally I intended to follow one of the excellent hiking courses recommended by the City of Kamakura website. I mentioned my planned outing to my friend Janet, and she immediately suggested a stop at the Bamboo Temple, Hokokuji. I decided to start my visit there, then see whatever else was nearby. That led to stops at Jomyoji Temple and Sugimotodera, the oldest temple in Kamakura.

While I considered asking a friend or two to join me, I ultimately decided to make it a solo outing for purely selfish reasons. I wanted the chance to wander as I wanted, or linger at different places, or spend ten minutes taking the same photo over and over with slightly different camera settings without worrying about inconveniencing someone else.

IMG_0480Ninety minutes and three temples later, I returned the car and headed home to the afternoon routine of more laundry, homework, instrument practice, and dinner prep.

I hope to visit more new-to-me Kamakura sites on a regular basis. And next time I may even bring a friend or two along.

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