The Other Side of the Ocean

Monday, May 31, 2004


There must be good things that come with all this rain, there must be! I took a walk to Owen Woods soon after YET ANOTHER torrential morning downpour. Owen Woods are close to where I live (5 minute walk from my house), but I need the right mindset to venture out there. It is a brooding kind of forest…

…though it opens up onto lovely prairie fields, the one place where the omnipresent phlox are very welcome…

But all that rain! After five minutes, the wind unleashed water from wet leaves, leaving me looking like I had a very unfortunate experience in the bathroom or at the very least spent a productive morning chasing my shadow through the sprinkler.

Still, there must be something worth reveling in as a result of the rains.
Sure enough, a slightly modified by me sign says it all:

…Because if you look at all the wet puddles around you, you will see this:

...and this:

and this:

When I was a kid at my grandparents’ place in the Polish village, I’d go out after heavy rains and look for puddles to bike through, just for that spray of muddy wetness (especially onto mean mortal enemies passing at the side). And always, always we’d take baskets into the forests in search of mushrooms (Poles are obsessively committed to sautéing, frying and generally cooking with mushrooms). My walk today didn’t bring me any closer to what I’d put in a frying pan, but these were certainly pretty to look at. -->

But I have to say, the singular beauty of wet things notwithstanding, I HAVE HAD IT WITH THE RAIN!! Even the pine trees look depressed with all that moisture weighing them down.

posted by nina, 5/31/2004 01:48:40 PM | link | (0) comments


Say there are four people: A, B, C and F. (Not to be confused with the grading chart. A, B and C are stand-in names put forth by blogger F - see post here - with or without great awareness of his own brilliance as they do indeed correspond to the first initials of last names, forcing me, therefore, to resort to the failing mark ‘F’ as a label for him, at it corresponds to his own name).

Say A knows B and C, B knows A and C, F knows C, but only C knows A, B and F. Though all do read each others’ blogs religiously (corresponding to blogs A, B, C and F). What power to have been the only one in possession of knowledge about all, the translator of blog innuendo, the purveyor of important information (‘yes, his RV does come with a patio large enough to hold a set of patio furniture’ and ‘no, she does NOT have DM posters up and down her office walls’ and ‘she does indeed blog her way through faculty meetings’)!

To be privy to insider-information is, of course, something that many long for and some are now sitting in jail for and I must admit I enjoyed the elevated status that it accorded me for a short period of time (while I can’t say that such insider information was in great demand, I would occasionally be able to show off with an off-hand, person-in-the-know type comment here and there).

All that is in the past. Last night’s dinner brought together all four and any remaining curiosities (Q: ‘is his face really as round as the drawing implies?’) were clarified and put to rest (A: ‘No.’). I must now step down and rejoin the peanut gallery, switch from first class to sardine economy, tear up my ‘informer’ business cards, lose all privilege and become one of the populace.
posted by nina, 5/31/2004 08:00:37 AM | link | (0) comments

Sunday, May 30, 2004


A climbing rose bush (which technically is a misnomer because roses never truly ‘climb’) can make a yard come alive so quickly! So why not just stick these devils in every nook to give life and color to bleak landscapes? Because, like everything else in the growing world (people included) it is an unpredictable little thing. A little disturbance and it will falter, wither and die.

Some, though, are (like humans) hardy and tough and they can stand up to the frost and the animals and the poor soil and the drought and the negligent gardener. It’s good to surround yourself with resilient types (flowers and people) if only because they free up your time to deal with the truly needy among us. Or, for the needy growth spurts of typically hardy plants (or people).
posted by nina, 5/30/2004 05:26:52 PM | link | (0) comments


There are two very real reasons why I cannot get myself to write a chipper post:

1. The pernicious rain did not creep up the un-solarium floor. It did not flood the basement. But it did crack the roof and is currently flooding the house from above. As it’s a holiday week-end, all we can do is run with buckets. Unless someone has a more clever idea?

2. I had been talking to a friend about an article that I’d read on Friday about alternative medicine. It was suggested that I blog about it, though I put it off for a while, what with the rain and the market and all sundry issues.

The study attempted to document how Americans are increasingly turning to alternative medicine for relief from life’s aches and pains. It was a curious study in that it listed a number of “holistic remedies” that I would not myself have thought to include under the rubric of alternative medicine: “prayer,” for example. If you pray for relief, is it really that you regard this as the equivalent to (or a replacement for) popping a pill with medicinal properties? It doesn’t take much to imagine that many pray for any number of convoluted reasons, perhaps too complicated to untangle for the purposes of a simple survey.

Or, another curiosity: “yoga.” A friend asked me to go with her to a yoga class this coming Wednesday. I balked: why invest an hour and a half to stretching? (Truthfully I balked because she is almost 20 years younger than I and the idea of us stretching together was … disheartening.) Ultimately she prevailed and so we’re set to go Wednesday. Which means I probably wont have time for my regular gym and/or walking. There’s only so much time one can invest in body repair in the course of a day. But are any of these “alternative healing?” I didn’t think so. I never hum meditatively when I walk or run, I do not focus on finding an inner sanctum, nor do I seek to eradicate poisons that that have seized control of my body.

But then, yesterday, something terribly sad happened and suddenly writing about all this became hugely more complicated.

I received an email from a very good friend who lives across the ocean. And I am hoping that he does not mind that I include just a fragment of his message. He writes:

My father passed away on the 30th of April, three weeks short of his 83 birthday, 59 years to the day after he was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp…But there is a more tragic side of this story. As I have told you my parents have been Christian Scientists for the last 15 years. Never went to see a doctor (except when my mother broke her leg), did not take any medicines and did not ever want to talk about their health. They believed in spiritual healing, God's ever-present love and harmony. Material world is an illusion. Mind not just over but instead of matter. Beautiful ideas and they do work - as I have witnessed several times. But perhaps not always...

You can tell where this is heading. The old man died even though he should have, could have lived. Here, prayer was indeed used as an alternative form of healing. And it became not an addition to, but a substitute for scientifically-driven medicine.

Perhaps one of the problems is that we have created this dichotomy of ‘alternative’ and ‘conventional.’ We now know that many of the alternative forms ought to have been studied and incorporated into conventional practice, but for any number of economic, social and political reasons they had been pushed to the side. Yoga may well be on that list. Certainly herbs and other non-conventional therapies have medicinal benefits that have been ignored for years. To me, alternative thus simply comes to mean “scientifically untested.”

But insofar as science cannot run tests for all illness and every permutation of every therapy, there appears good reason to try untested cures especially under desperate conditions. This would include conventional medicines used in unconventional ways (who would have thought, for example, that aspirin may decrease the likelihood of breast cancer?). My mother pops some ten or more non-conventional pills every day. She is strong as a horse for her age. She swears by her various remedies, though she also has another ten or so conventional medicines that she takes. She is a walking pill machine.

It becomes complicated when spiritual matters enter into the equation. Science is only now beginning to investigate the relationship between spiritual well-being and the likelihood of healing (the most recent research that I’ve come across does not support a link between positive thoughts and healing: cancer patients who had a better, more hopeful outlook about their prognosis were NOT more likely to overcome their illness; and, those that could not improve their outlook, were doubly burdened by their depression and their guilt for not overcoming their depression).

So, here I am, on this wet, drippy day, thinking about all this and feeling terribly sad for my friend who is so unhappy. And for the roof that is leaking. These two issues are not at the same level of sadness, to be sure, but they coincide to make me want to go out and do some brisk walking right now. Not for spiritual healing purposes, but to distract myself from the realities that are before me.
posted by nina, 5/30/2004 11:46:16 AM | link | (0) comments

Saturday, May 29, 2004


My secret other life shivered through the deluge, then took on a rosy glow from the ovens.

...And it rained and rained and rained. And then it really rained. And then it poured. The wind and rain together caused temperatures to plummet. It was not a fun day to be L’Etoile’s forager, nor was it fun to be a farmer at the Market.

But the colors of the flowers looked so vibrant, even under the gray skies of the day.

The list of foods needed for the restaurant was woefully large on this wet Market day. 8 pounds of sauté spinach, 3 pounds of soup spinach and 6 pounds of salad spinach. 30 pounds of asparagus. 3 pounds of angelica, 2 pounds of tarragon. Cheeses: camembert, Fantome goat (Dane County’s biggest goat advocate is back!), nutty Swiss. 11 quarts of strawberries (pictured here: only Jordan Produce has them because they are lucky enough to have a southern-facing slope), 10 pounds of pea pods, edible flowers, on and on and on. And anything else that is new and exciting. It took five trips around the square (plus one with Odessa) to get it done. In the pouring rain.

But without misery there is no appreciation for the little things: like a hot oven. Odessa asked me to stay on to do some cooking and food prepping and I happily agreed. Toasting fresh breadcrumbs in the oven suddenly brought forth delicious moments of warmth. Typically it is an tedious task because you have to stoop (never bend!) and check for doneness too often. Today? Bliss. So warm!

When I last cooked for L’Etoile (a couple of years back) I had graduated from being a line-cook to being up there with the chef types, hence I now have my own coat. (Though technically, in the hierarchy of the restaurant, there is only one chef and we know who SHE is; to get her attention, you need only call out “Chef!” and it’s clear who is being summoned.)

And a l’Etoile cap, of course. It’s good to be wearing them again.

The most fun thing to make this afternoon? Fennel pesto with Stravecchio cheese. The most tedious? Nothing, even chopping up the spinach and the shallots was a good. To work with the hands, to allow my mind to focus on the task before me, at the same time that I could take in the steady work of my fellow cooks is pretty much equivalent for me to a day at the spa.

Tired now, but in a good way. And the glow from the ovens is still with me.
posted by nina, 5/29/2004 04:56:10 PM | link | (0) comments

Friday, May 28, 2004


Still searching around and testing out different blog functions, I came across this piece of advice today from someone who is perhaps the business traveler par excellence (he spends, I'm told, some 40 nights per year at home; the story was in today's IHT) and so I thought I'd share it with the blogworld of travelers to educate and inform: never, ever leave those little plastic key cards in hotel rooms or other public places after you've checked out. You THINK they are all about entering your hotel room. In reality, most have encrypted information on you as well, including your credit card number.* The advice is to return them to the front desk at check-out.

*I do have to wonder, though, how many potential thieves know this AND are able to access the info AND indeed do make use of that ability, or are even on the prowl for left-behind keys. It seems remote to me, at about the same level of remoteness as someone entering a friends' house I guess. Last year he told me to stop by their place and pick up something while they were away. I protested that I didn't have the key. He answered "Neither do I, I just don't typically lock the door.**"

** Or, the same level of remoteness as having a would-be thief now search for information on my past and present friends after having read this post and having thus found out that one of these people may indeed leave the door unlocked upon occasion. Hmmm. That suddenly doesn't seem that remote. Okay then, that story about the friend and the key? Completely fabricated.
posted by nina, 5/28/2004 04:34:03 PM | link | (0) comments


...of the branches of the tree outside my office window.

How can one not like being up at the wee hours of the morning?

posted by nina, 5/28/2004 10:44:08 AM | link | (0) comments


I have noticed recently that political blog posts, while interesting, are far less provocative than the comments they inspire. Often a discussion (argument) ensues between the poster and an anonymous reader* and the third party, the reader, watches it unfold, tempted to jump in, yet also fascinated by the discourse itself-- a private argument voyeurism of sorts, for it has the appearance of being private, on the margins, accessible only to the committed, the motivated, the impassioned (or the bored).

In one recent round, a reader had responded to Ann’s blog post on the “blatantly partisan blogosphere” thus:
Isn't there really only one kind of centrist, the ideological centrist?

The ideological centrist is one whose beliefs are not driven by a core ideology that being equality vs. liberty. The ideological centrist is more concerned with practical results and will disregard the the liberty vs. equality debate. The centrist, however, will always have an ideological enemy because you can't have both liberty and equality. You will always either have more of one and less of the other.
How could one resist this provocation? For in creating this dichotomy, the Anonymous poster has both taken the steam out of the centrist position by equating it with an extreme pragmatism it doesn’t deserve (Ann’s rebuttal) and expunged the possibility of creating economic or social justice (I assume the Commentator meant economic, but this was not specified) without trampling on personal freedom (to spend? to function without government?) – at which point I had to jump in, of course, because, in my view, categorical pronouncements of this nature have to be discouraged even if they appear only on the margins of a blog post.

And all this is taking place on the side, while the happy blog reader reads on, unaware, looking for the next post, the next quirky blogger observation.

Still, I hold to my previous post’s declaration: I don’t want a “Comment” function here! I am not even sure yet how politicized this blog will be in the future. June 1st – the date for blog transformations – is fast approaching and I have done nothing, NOTHING to puff up the blog sails and head toward the changes that I am determined to make.

* I, too, dislike profoundly the new Blogger comment format which encourages anonymous posts; even I prefer to simply post an anonymous comment (and have done so on numerous blogs) than to go through more elaborate posting procedures called forth by Blogger. As a result, the reader never know whether the anonymous commentator is a new voice or an old voice saying new things. Annoying!
posted by nina, 5/28/2004 10:26:56 AM | link | (0) comments


Since, for one reason or another, I have not had a regular dinner since Saturday, I decided last night to treat myself to a normal evening meal. I went somewhere where I'd not been before, though I certainly know the dining space from its previous restaurant incarnations.

Inside, the transformation to this more trendy-feeling dining room was completely successful. As for the food? I asked them to modify an appetizer – cut out the meats and concentrate on the Napa cabbage, cilantro and sprouts and they did, charged me half the price of the original and produced and exceptional, spicy and substantial appetizer (for $4.95). From the main menu I wanted something ‘standard,’ what anyone would order on a typical night. I opted for the Kung Pao shrimp with brown basmati rice and got a huge dish that was loaded with a fresh spinach sauté and monster (and not overcooked! yes!!) shrimp, priced at $8.95. The wines – their house glass of Chardonnay was under $5. So, an ample meal with fresh ingredients and good use of spices at $20 (before tip). Can you guess where*? P.S. For those who like trendy drinks, I hear their ginger-infused martini is cool – and I thought the bar ambience itself was quite nice.

*Lacking a “Comments” section (I know, I know, I've had many comments about the lack of 'Comments.' My own comment on that? 'Je refuse.') forces me to make up potential reader responses:
(Anonymous): It must be Big Bowl?
(NC): No, not Big Bowl, though there are definite similarities.

(From the East Coast): You’re not in Madison anymore! I’ve been to Madison – there is no good Asian or pan-Asian restaurant in the entire town.
(NC): You East Coast people are all the same. You think things never change here. Just because Imperial Gardens has a menu that looks remarkably identical to the menu I first encountered there some 20+ years ago, does not mean that ALL Asian restaurants are going to follow in its wake.

(A FoodFight Enthusiast): We are better than Lettuce Entertain You! We’ve got Firefly!
(NC): A biased but accurate answer. I am a card-carrying Lettuce Entertain You once-frequent diner and a fan of what they did to the Chicago dining scene (they pumped money into restaurants that they thought could revamp and produce a hefty loyal following and it worked). I am happy that Madison is benefiting from a similar entrepreneurial dining spirit.
posted by nina, 5/28/2004 05:37:51 AM | link | (0) comments

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Or: what I found this morning in a paper that I never otherwise read: numbers, numbers everywhere!

It's rare that I am sitting in a coffee shop early in the morning reading the Wisconsin State Journal, but today was just such a day. I was in my office early today. So early, as a matter of fact, that I witnessed this sunrise out my window (forgive the slant, I am, after all, on a hill):

It is imperative to fill yourself with something that'll really knock your eyes open on such mornings and so I headed to Starbucks for a strong shot of espresso (but greatly diluted by milk so who am I kidding). There I picked up a paper tossed aside by someone else. I am generally dismissive of this paper, taking a position of haughty superiority, perhaps, in flaunting my commitment to the NYT or WashPost or the IHT instead.

But today I actually learned something from our local rag. There were a number of articles that threw out numbers and they were not uninteresting numbers. I'll give you four examples (directly quoting from the paper)of stories that piqued my curiosity, in the order that they appeared in the paper:

1. Only 63% of 4 year college students earn a college degree within 6 years (this is in the entire US)... At UW Madison, the 6 year graduation rate for white students is 76.9%, compared to 52.1% for minorities... America is almost unique among industrialized countries in failing [in recent years] to improve its graduation rate. [Reasons for failure to complete college here: lack of academic preparedness, lack of personal attention given by colleges to the needs of students, and the need to quit and go home to get a job and care for families.]

2. Two-thirds of divorces after age 40 are initiated by wives. The survey found that women over age 40 seemed more aware of problems in their marriage while men were more likely to be caught off-guard by their divorces. 26% of men said they 'never saw it coming' compared with 14% of women.

3. Immigrants who come to the U.S. [that would be me!] live an average of 3 years longer than people born here [oh no, I don't want to usurp the bounty and use it to my own advantage!]. A growing body of evidence indicates the life span difference reflects both immigrants' innate vitality and their reluctance to embrace Americans' drive-through, drive-everywhere mentality (bold added).

4. This year's top 10 finalists (in the 16th annual National Geographic Bee) were all boys. Bo Sun of Ladysmith WI was among them. [N.b. I would say that the winning Q wasn't that hard compared to all Qs preceding it. The Q: Peshawar, in Pakistan, has had strategic importance for centuries because of its location near what historic pass? A: Khyber Pass. Comment: Forgive me for sounding provincial, but do we even know of any other Pass in that area?]

I would have missed all this had I only done a computer scan of my standard press. Of course, I am not going to mention the other stories, the ones that make me convinced that I can never really like the Journal. Let's just give it one moment of glory and not look critically beyond these few interesting pieces.
posted by nina, 5/27/2004 02:36:14 PM | link | (0) comments

WHY SOME BLOG IN THE BATHROOM and other abstruse observations on a hobby 

Rarely have I wanted to parrot a blogger's comments as much as I did Ann's today on the NYT article that gives extensive if rather narrow and banal comments on bloggers who like to blog. I wont say a word more. Read her analysis of the article and just assume it could easily have been mine as well.

Passion for anything -- including work, family, love, food, travel, literature, bird-watching -- anything at all, always irritates the passionless.
posted by nina, 5/27/2004 02:24:47 PM | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 26, 2004


That row of breakfast rolls from today’s breakfast in the previous post? That may have been the highlight of the day. No, wait, I have to do better than that. Other highlights:

- Sitting in a coffee shop and grading exams, I looked up to notice that a colleague was sitting at the table next to mine doing exactly the same thing. It was a good reason to stop grading and start distracting each other. I think she was better at the grading while I was better at the distracting.

- I went to the bank to withdraw all the money and fly off to some distant destination. It just seemed the clever thing to do, an investment in a worry-free existence. Ah, to travel, to see the world and let the rest toil and fret about small things like bills and tuitions and other trivialities. But on the way, I got side-tracked by this sign (on the right here). I happen to know that this particular Fest makes one of my distant readers very happy and so I stood there and contemplated the unfairness of life. Here I am, happy not to be consuming anything from the Brat Fest, while there she is, far away, wanting so much to bite into that greasy little sausage from the Fest grill. By the time I finished with these profound reflections, the bank was closed and so I could not run anywhere at all.

- Because I was being so good about grading, I rewarded myself with not only the delicious junk breakfast but also a delicious junk dinner: MANY handfuls of nuts, a bowl of soup (that part was healthy) and a huge piece of cinnamon something or other. I am also thinking that a further desert is in order. After all, coffee shops have limited menu offerings. If there are only desserts here, what can I do, right?

- A friend sent e-photos of a baby just born to one of my former students. The baby looked like -- a real newborn. There is something predictably newborn-like about freshly born babies. There's little else you can add to that description, unless they also have a huge mass of hair or an usual feature or an odd number of toes.

- I do believe the rest of America is currently watching American Idol. The build up has been tremendous. I know some of the people who voted. To them, I say this: I hope that if you can only have the results fall your way in one election in the next six months that it wont be the elections leading to the selection of the American Idol.
posted by nina, 5/26/2004 07:58:48 PM | link | (0) comments


An early office visit revealed this outside (my window is large and beautiful and looks out on Bascom Mall):

What the heck? Cows on campus? An athletic event? What?

A breakfast break from grading put me in sight of these sweet little things.

The up-side: it reminds me of wonderful vacation breakfasts. I mean, it’s not the type of stuff one has on a daily basis. Still, a reward for grading is in order, right?

The down-side: this is no way to start a ‘healthy eating’ day! After a breakfast of this sort, what does one do, go to Noodles for lunch, like this blogger?
posted by nina, 5/26/2004 09:00:00 AM | link | (0) comments

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


Something I learned today: The blogging lawyer from St. Croix, V.I. wrote the following in an email that responded to an earlier post of mine:

We don't wear tropical shirts or sandals to court, but we DO wear them to the office (I have, in fact, worn sandy flip-flops to work). Most attorneys I know have one suit jacket that they keep in their office for court appearances and that's the extent of their formal, "lawyer" wardrobe.
Comment: I would enjoy wearing sandy flip-flops to work.

Another thing that I learned today: Nuts do not a dinner make.

Comment: if you forget to eat dinner by 9, you should not think that nuts will be a good alternative. You should make or get dinner after you remember.

Yet another thing I learned today: Even when you think your sister is not reading your blog, she may be reading your blog. One of the nice emails I got today came from her and in it she wrote:
“Your travel descriptions were great. You should be doing this for a living -- get paid to travel and write about it.” I include this quote not for any other reason but because I think it was a genuinely sweet thing for her to say and because it can serve as a lesson (see comment).

Comment: I should learn not to make assumptions, jump to conclusions and do all those other awful things one does in the absence of information. I should learn this and I WILL learn this. I PROMISE!!

And one more thing that I learned today: Online translations are amusing in their worthlessness. My new friend in Japan, Masahiko, who speaks almost no English, periodically writes in Japanese and then submits his note to an ‘automatic Net translator.’ Here are portions of his email from today:
Nina looks forward to meeting it by mail from now though it is lonely
because it came back to America.

Do your best, and come to Japan again in the next year though Nina is
thought work to become hard after the return, too.

Be relieved because both Kazumi and I are cheering it up.

Well, it mails it again.
I can only guess what my reply translated to in Japanese.
posted by nina, 5/25/2004 09:40:39 PM | link | (0) comments


Too easy? I know, I know, it's not the one flower, it's the entirety that counts. Still, this is one heck of a pretty little columbine.
posted by nina, 5/25/2004 01:30:53 PM | link | (0) comments


You’re darn right, Tonya, I cling to my private thoughts with true survivor-of-political-dictatorship (that it was communist is irrelevant) paranoia and out of a desperate need for guarded secrecy to ensure self-preservation (see Tonya’s blog here)! Of course I do! You never know, YOU NEVER KNOW who will stab your back today let alone tomorrow. I say ‘favorite this’ or ‘boo-hiss on that’ and it’ll make its way to the slimy hands of some holed-in bureaucrat who is then going to make sure that every employer, politician, and neighbor is aware of my proclivities and inclinations.

Same goes for friends, colleagues, students, loved ones. You tell them what you like or don’t like and you are liable to be smeared, ridiculed, maligned, taken apart limb by limb and given over to the dogs the next day. (I checked the closet and underneath the bed before I wrote that. YOU NEVER KNOW. That I am under the grip of acute paranoia can be evidenced by the fact that I have not moved more than two feet from my spot of 8 hours ago. I just don’t trust the next room, the corridor, they seem full of mechanical contraptions and eerie ghost like-shadows, waiting to NAB me.)

Saying the wrong thing is the biggest fear of anyone raised in troubled times, political and personal, and I belong to that group, yes I do and so no one, NO ONE will ever know what my favorite movie** is. Ever.*

*I was emboldened to mention movies that ruled my life at age 15, 16 and 18 (see Sunday post). That was risky enough. The fallout is just beginning to be felt.
**I also do agree that Blogger is but another marketer of Friendster-like connections. (btw, who are the Olson twins?)
posted by nina, 5/25/2004 01:26:34 PM | link | (0) comments


So went the children’s story (I’m talking about VERY SMALL children) about a bear, who, because of hibernation, almost slept through the holiday. It is an irrelevant little book, with not much of a story line and, as I recall, rather straightforward illustrations.

But the title, for some reason, has stayed with me over the years. It pops up in my mind when I am walking through a day in a stupor brought on by little sleep and who knows what else and I think I need a jolt. Coffee is the substance of first choice, but to get to coffee, one must first arise and move toward a coffee container. And so there must be some motivation.

The book title, bizarrely enough, flashes in my head and there I have it! That jolt, that needed reminder that there is a day through which one must move in some state of alertness. Christmas or not, there is a day out there.

It’s strange what drivel and nonsense come back to either haunt us or help us in moments when the day seems too confusing and never-ending.
posted by nina, 5/25/2004 10:33:03 AM | link | (0) comments


A friend and fellow blogger asked today why I had not posted a single word about my legal work in Japan. This is not the first time I got asked this question. It’s as if the ‘law’ has completely exited from this blog so that it can no longer even hold the title of ‘blawg.’ It cannot be called a bpoliticlog either. What happened?? Has the unbearable lightness of being me pulverized all ideas of any substance? Or at least pushed them aside into a complete state of dormancy? Have I entered into some kind of partnership with mr. Irrelevance and ms. Trivia?

As I said earlier, I am rethinking what this blog should be about. In Japan I was spending quite a lot of time on the non-work postings and it was impossible to imagine that anyone would want to read even more text than I had already included.

But that was then. Perhaps this week-end I’ll take a stab at creating some blogorder and in so doing I’ll allow space for the blawg that is within me. Perhaps I can then revisit this other side of my travels to Japan. Perhaps. Patience, patience, we have many a calm day before us.
posted by nina, 5/25/2004 03:16:39 AM | link | (0) comments

Monday, May 24, 2004


A blogger (here) mentioned an extreme episode of wine snobbery that she experienced while eating at L’Etoile.

It breaks my heart when that happens! (Not literally, but you get the point – I so dislike wine snobbery.) It is no secret to those who know me that I do like wine. I especially like it when it is made by a small family-run operation, from grapes grown on small strips of land. Why? Because while others are imagining pears, lemons, minerals, woodsiness, etc on the palate while sipping wine, I am imagining the hard work, the care, the love that went into the making of it. You cannot be a small producer and not love your work because it is so very tough and extremely unpredictable in its result. One grower told me that he was happy that he had little kids, otherwise for sure he would have committed suicide in years when everything in wine-making failed him.

Wines should never break anyone’s budget. There are so many good inexpensive wines out there! Less than $10 per bottle, yes, of course – so many interesting, enjoyable bottles that complement meals and can be had for small prices. The ones that top $30 per bottle are already over the top – to be enjoyed by those who truly do not know where to lay down their cash. I always think that we in this country are such impatient fools, spending huge sums on wines that have been aged because we are used to instant gratification. Elsewhere, if people truly love the complexity of older, more expensive wines, they buy them young (and cheap) and put them away for a requisite number of years, to be enjoyed later.

Restaurant wines drive me insane: the mark up is two to three times the cost of the wine. Again, this is so unique to our way of dining. Elsewhere, the basic table wine is often the price of bottled water. And no waiter should ever, EVER even bat an eye if you ask for an inexpensive ‘house wine.’ Of course, this category of wine does not exist at l’Etoile… Sigh… L’Etoile’s prices all around are steep. If it’s any consolation, the restaurant doesn’t get fat on its dinner service. The cost of ingredients and the labor-intensive work makes each dish prohibitively pricey to prepare. L’Etoile makes up deficits incurred during slow days by selling croissants at the Market Café!
posted by nina, 5/24/2004 05:06:28 PM | link | (0) comments


In one day I had two encounters with island law types. I received an email from the author of this blog, based in St. Croix of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I had lunch with a friend who spent a year with her husband studying and practicing law in Palau. I’m told that in Palau, there is indeed a law of the indigenous people, supplemented by random suggestive rather than binding case and statutory law from the States. I would assume that in the Virgin Islands the primary law IS the U.S. law.

But what’s it like to be an attorney on the islands? Do people walk to court with sand in their sandals? Do they wear breezy, patterned shirts with palm trees on them? Am I creating images that not only stereotype, but also demonstrate my complete ignorance about island life?

More importantly, how did these law people find such interesting places to apply to for jobs, while my biggest venture into the world Out There after law school was to send inquiry letters to Milwaukee firms? I think I missed the boat on that one. Literally.
posted by nina, 5/24/2004 02:13:43 PM | link | (0) comments


A friend and fellow blogger succumbed to the “favorites” list mania (posting on the topic here, responding to a call for favorites here). In spite of my dire warnings about favoring this or that (see post below), he rolled forth with a listing of top three restaurants (in three separate categories), overall bottom five as well, and explanations justifying placement. Now, as a self-proclaimed foodie, I am going to say that his lists are not bad. Perhaps his rant against Mickey’s is a little odd given his favoring of Hubbard’s, but still, one can forgive – it is a trivial error.

But let’s go back to the top of the top. Where in that little pile is Harvest? I mean, granted, who am I to squabble about the virtues of the place where I choose to lay down my wimpy talents, but still, assuming l’Etoile rules, where, after that, is Harvest?

As for chains, please scratch Macaroni Grill and replace it with Big Bowl. For sure!

Finally, my own personal announcement of the bravery award: that my pal should think he can continue to live, work, and eat and not bear the wrath of not listing Chautara attests to his strong moral fiber and unwillingness to succumb to the PC trend of including it on all lists favoring anything at all in Madison, including ‘favorite place to encounter other favorite place aficionados.’ For this alone, one should trust his listings and give him the reigns to freely expound on the subject of food henceforth. [Though, in all fairness, anyone writing on the topic should right away explain what they do and do not eat. I happen to know that this particular blogger is a semi-vegetarian. Irrelevant? Not really: I may not myself put Smoky’s on a top anything list, but it certainly explains why this blogger blows Smoky’s off without so much as a wink. I have yet to meet anyone who would rank Smoky’s as a superior eating place based on its caraway-laden cottage cheese side-dish, or its iceberg lettuce salad alone, but those who eat beef do swear by the place.]
posted by nina, 5/24/2004 12:27:35 AM | link | (0) comments

Sunday, May 23, 2004


Today marks the first day of the graduation ceremonies on the Yale campus. I understand that every effort was made to keep politics away from the podium. President Bush, though in New Haven, is not going to make an appearance at any of the ceremonial events. His graduating daughter, too, skipped the speeches today.

…And so she failed to hear filmmaker Ken Burns say the following (this from the AP):

Without mentioning Bush by name, Burns drew parallels between today's political leaders and the Iraq war, versus Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which he chronicled in an award-winning film series.

Both wars threatened to tear the country apart, Burns said.

"Steel yourselves. Your generation must repair this damage, and it will not be easy," Burns told the seniors.

Burns quoted famed jurist Learned Hand as saying, "Liberty is never being too sure you're right."

"Somehow recently, though, we have replaced our usual and healthy doubt with an arrogance and belligerence that resembles more the ancient and now fallen empires of our history books than a modern compassionate democracy," Burns said, to applause from the 1,300 graduates and their families and friends.

…But I wonder if she noted the protesters outside the home of the University president (where the Bushes were staying for a while this week-end)? And who exactly was protesting? From the AP release:

The crowd was a mix of students and older Yale graduates.

Anne Tyler Calabresi, 69, of Woodbridge, said she was protesting on behalf of herself and her husband, Federal Appeals Judge Guido Calabresi, a Yale graduate and former dean of the Yale School of Law.

"I'm profoundly worried about the way this country is going," she said. "And I'm furious about the lies George Bush has told to us again and again. He has led us into a war that is destroying our reputation around the world and creating implacable enemies around the world that we didn't have one year ago."

posted by nina, 5/23/2004 08:04:34 PM | link | (0) comments


A message from the local weather radio station (currently appearing on my computer):
While driving tonight... do not enter flooded roads... underpasses and intersections. Stay away from flooded rivers... creeks and culverts. Remember... turn around... don’t drown.

I appreciate the good intention behind this advice. Moreover, I should not be the one to comment, since I am sitting safely home rather than being on a road where creeks and culverts are flooding. Here, the only danger of flooding is in the solarium… Of course, I am at the moment in the solarium… Does the warning thus apply to me as well? Should I turn around and type backwards, with an eye toward avoiding a rush of water from underneath? If they're telling me not to drown, I most certainly want to be a good citizen and do my part to keep my head above any rushing waters.
posted by nina, 5/23/2004 07:29:17 PM | link | (0) comments


Everyone does lists: favorite books, movies, names, favorite everything! Even the new blogger format asks this of you: name this, describe yourself thus. To me, this is an impossibility. My favorites, my personals, they’re always in a state of flux.

Take movies: when I was 15, I saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet 45 times (I counted), paying each time the requisite Polish zloty (I lived in Warsaw then) over and over to sit through it. The colors, that youthful, zesty Juliet, Mercutio’s stunning movements, I could not get enough of it all. [Oh! I see that John McEnery, who played Mercutio, is currently appearing in a very minor role in “Girl with a Pear Earring!” I should see if he still evokes the same rapture, in his, ahem, slightly older countenance.]

But not for long. “R&J” got dumped once I discovered Lelouche’s ‘A Man and a Woman.’ [God, remember when he sings in the background ‘A l’ombre de nous’ – in the shadow of us; or when they come together but neither is ready, each lost in the death of their former love; oh, such a film! It was, btw, the Grand Prize winner at Cannes, in the 1960s… I can see it now, the cinematography is so slow, their love develops through the minutia of small, improvised gestures, glances; nuanced, gentle, hesitant, with exceptional acting; such a brilliantly artful film.]

That lasted until I went through my movies-in-the-shadow-of-WW II phase – especially ‘The Garden of Finzi-Continis,’ a 1971 film that blew me away. I dream about scenes from that movie still. [It was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Even Pauline Kael liked it! Again, a contemplative, initially subtle movie, that takes you through the lush Italian gardens slowly, and then plunges you into the horror of Fascist persecution of Italian Jews.]

And so on. A favorite? No favorite. It doesn’t work that way. A favorite may be defined by the context, or by the state of readiness to be mesmerized, to fall in love, to be driven insane. Often it has more to do with me, than with the movie itself.
posted by nina, 5/23/2004 02:15:09 PM | link | (0) comments


This guy is dinner!-->

The brazenness, the audacity, I mean, come on! That patch of ground is decimated as a result of his shenanigans.

<--I found this rabbit dish on the Net: "Brochettes de lapin au fenouil et aux herbes de Provence." A few cubes of red pepper, cucumber, a dash of olive oil and we're set.

One more leap into the dianthus patch and I am sharpening the knives.
posted by nina, 5/23/2004 10:19:25 AM | link | (0) comments


A week ago I was sitting at terminal 2E at the Paris airport thinking how nice it is that all Air France flights to and from the States arrive and depart from this brand new structure. (To and from Tokyo as well.) It is (was) amazing: all glass and air and space, curved into a hall that muffles sound and creates (created) a feeling of a contained universe: expansive, but not overwhelming.

I have another series of flights coming up this summer and I was looking forward to again being routed through there: 2E, the terminal of choice. But it is no more (see story here).
posted by nina, 5/23/2004 07:00:53 AM | link | (0) comments


The tile floor of the un-solarium has suspiciously dark-looking grout. Normally it is not dark. It is dark on the rare, rare occasions when the ground underneath is so saturated that the water has nowhere to go but up, right through the cement, into the grout, eventually flooding the room. It has happened twice before in the 17 years I have lived here. I am near that stage again. Dark grout = wet grout. I WANT THE RAIN TO STOP! Enough already.
posted by nina, 5/23/2004 06:33:01 AM | link | (0) comments

Saturday, May 22, 2004


Alright, it is official: Michael Moore’s movie picks up the top prize at Cannes. Is it really because (as is suggested in the WashPost article here) no other movie stood out of the pack of contenders? Or because of the popularity of Moore’s political message in Cannes? Or is it the case that movies arousing controversy are almost always more likely to win at Cannes even as they have trouble being distributed in this country?

It took almost fifty years for a documentary to again walk away with a first place finish at the Cannes Festival (the last documentary to do so was, according to WashPost, Cousteau’s “The Silent World’). Are documentaries ever successful if their political message is disfavored?

I find it humorously ironic that insofar as release here will occur anytime soon, it is likely to be around the Fourth of July.
posted by nina, 5/22/2004 03:12:01 PM | link | (0) comments


Is it really possible for a thunderstorm to last for 12 hours? I am waiting for the water to come into the house. One more day of rain and my un-sunny solarium will be flooded for sure.

This is my first day back moonlighting at L’Etoile (see yesterday’s post) and I am sure to get there by 6:30 a.m. (is it still 'moonlighting' if it's such an early morning schedule?). If I am to be a market forager for the restaurant, I need to make a first round of the stalls at the very beginning, just to acquaint myself with all that’s available on this day.

Besides, I WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE BAKERS AT L’ETOILE’S MARKET CAFÉ ARE UP TO! Oh, but to breathe again that familiar wonderful smell of baking croissants and baguettes…

The summer staff for this season is efficient and together (this has not always been the case) and the bakers know what they’re doing. The croissants are even, the gougers are light, the eggs are there as well for those who like that market bun and egg combination.

It is always a balancing act on bad weather days: the L’Etoile Market Café relies on there being no over-production or under-production. The cost of organic ingredients is high and so a surplus is an automatic loss. On the other hand, it’s not good to run out of baked goods by 10 a.m. Today, when the weather changed three times in the course of the morning, the anxiety about getting it right was high.

But my job for today is really to be at the market (here’s the L’Etoile cart that makes the rounds with me-->). Odessa comes along if she’s in town (as in today), otherwise I am on my own. I carry a calculator, a clip board, a menu, and a pocket knife to test for firmness, as well as a sack of croissants to hand out as treats to farmers who have especially good offerings today.

What’s hot right now? Snap peas! Delicious! Asparagus, of course. I spotted the first baskets of strawberries at one stand (gone by 8 am, more to follow next week). Spinach, yes, it’s there, though the winter hoop farmer refuses to grow it anymore: a spinach purist will only eat the cold weather variety. Rhubarb. Oh, and I picked up a half dozen squash blossoms for my own use (sautee, stuff, whatever).

I have to say that I get a charge out of buying large quantities: a whole bucket of honey, a crate of Gourmet Farms cremini mushrooms, 12 bags of Harmony Valley spinach, on and on. The list is huge and each L’Etoile supplier has to be greeted, with a review of what’s there and equally important, what’s coming next week.

Okay, I mustn’t get carried away. I’ll end with the flower basket I get each year for my own back patio. The clay pots still need to be filled. Spring is such a good season!

posted by nina, 5/22/2004 01:53:07 PM | link | (0) comments

Friday, May 21, 2004


I saw Bon Voyage tonight. I’ll not say much here. Everyone who watches it ought to do so with an open mind. They can then let the film unfold. It will unsettle or amuse, or both, or neither.

How the French, especially in Paris, reacted to the invasion of the Nazis would appear to be a topic that could not be treated with anything but utmost seriousness, especially by the French themselves. Not so. But in this farcical chaotic romp of a movie, can’t it be said that there are seeds of something other than humor? At least a small handful of critics thinks so. Newsday comments thus:

And the very real concessions that people are willing to make to keep their peace and their comfort, not just in 1940 France but everywhere, are treated with the contempt they deserve.
I do have to include a note on the acting. My friend asked if I recall seeing any French movie lately that did not have Gerard Depardieu in it. I’m sure I have, I just can’t remember what it might have been. And how about Isabelle Adjani! I remember thinking that she was drop dead gorgeous in ‘the Story of Adele H.’ That would have been almost 30 years ago. As the Village Voice says of her in Bon Voyage: “ The opulent hotel interiors are magnificently Lubitschian, though the best reconstruction by far is Adjani's impossibly youthful visage, a taut, wrinkle-free zone that brings new meaning to the term les arts plastiques.”
posted by nina, 5/21/2004 09:58:32 PM | link | (0) comments


A few years back I went up to Odessa Piper, Madison’s chef extraordinaire (so says the James Beard Foundation award committee) and asked her to hire me to do some cooking at her restaurant, l’Etoile. She did. I worked there several nights a week, for a couple of years, after my law school hours (meaning late in the evening). I was the one that did your desserts and appetizers if you happened to be eating on the night that I was cooking. Why did she hire me? She’s my age and quirky. I suppose we have that in common. And, I was a conversation piece: a law prof who got a kick out of getting her hands burnt in the hot ovens and her fingers dirty mincing vegetables.

Then I got tired of keeping such insane hours and so Odessa agreed to let me switch to something with even more insane hours. I did Saturday market baking (croissants, bread, and gougeres) for a couple of seasons. But at the end of the market term I backed off again. I wanted to reclaim my free days.

Now Odessa has been calling again and so tomorrow I agreed to return to the folds of that cool group of cooks, waiters and crew. It is a different world out there in the tiny kitchen of l’Etoile. I like that. No one has anything important to say. Banter flows freely. Physical dexterity is an asset. So is the ability to tolerate extreme temperatures.

This time I agreed to also do some foraging and basic prepping of some of the acquisitions. I’m willing to give it a shot. Sane hours and a chance to visit with the farmers again AND spend someone else’s money at the Market.

Besides, I’ve missed posting photos of foods, Sir Edwin.
posted by nina, 5/21/2004 04:55:40 PM | link | (0) comments


I have been working at home the past several days. My work space here is seasonal: I am buried in a misguided solarium amidst jasmine trees and hibiscus plants and ferns that have grown unwieldy over the years. (I say the solarium is ‘misguided’ because the architect stuck it onto the northern end of the house; pleasing to the eye, perhaps, but any plant person will tell you that it’s daffy to have a plant room with so little sunshine). I can only work here in 3 seasons because it is too cold in the winter (again: great idea – a solarium without sun!). I could crank up the heat, but in truth, I want to respect the plants that need a bit of cool winter air, as well as my meager collection of wines which definitely would not thank me for a blast of dry warm furnace heat. So I move out instead. It’s not as if there aren’t any other corners in the house where I can work: SUNNY winter corners.

But I have been happy here this spring and see no reason to hike over to the law building which currently is having temperature problems and when it’s not having temperature problems it has other issues. Like for instance the fact that I can’t get up and pace outside without being observed. And there’s the risk of running into the wrong people. Indeed, the place is full of good people that are simply the wrong people to run into, say because I owe them work or time or something that I haven’t been delivering in any respectable fashion. It’s all terribly unsatisfying and so home in the shoulder periods is a good place to be.

But today, temporary grades are due and I have several appointments with students and so in I must go.

Still, the weather! Could it possibly be darker, gloomier, stormier, colder? No, it could not! This is not going to be a day of happy outcomes if things continue in this way. (Note the darkness in the photo, taken 5 minutes ago at 8 a.m. for Pete’s sake!)
posted by nina, 5/21/2004 08:23:01 AM | link | (0) comments


At the moment, I am listening to my Chopin CD and thinking about the blog world. I’m quite attached to this CD. In fact, I had taken it with me to Japan last month. [One of only two; I don’t travel with my favorite music. If I did, I would have never discovered the little song on the plane’s audio system, right? And btw, I DID get in touch with Air France and they are ‘looking into’ my request for the names and songs on their ‘musique francaise’ station – see earlier post this week on falling in love with a song on an airplane.]

Just minutes ago I came across another blog (here) that had oh so kindly mentioned mine back in April, only I didn’t know it at the time. I never really pick up on most of these links because I am rarely aware of them. I hardly ever google or study referrals or do all that is part of a typical blogger’s life. I know I should be more at one with technology, but there isn’t time to become at one with so many things in life and so I split my minutes and become at one with dilettantish inclinations toward scattered places.

Today’s blog discovery underscores for me how little and how much blogs reveal about their authors. Having read most of this particular (extrememly good) blog, I think I know a bit about this person. Except in reality I do not know her at all. In fact I may go through life not knowing who she is, yet I will know even small details about the creative world she inhabits. This happens all the time in the world of weblogs.

I know that without the protection of anonymity, many of my favorite blogs would not be published on the Net. It is sad to note that for so many writers, this form of communication, if traced to its author, produces greater personal risks than benefits. On the other hand, one may say that personal identification is irrelevant to communication. A voice is a voice, whether it comes with a tag, or remains faceless.
posted by nina, 5/21/2004 12:18:09 AM | link | (0) comments

Thursday, May 20, 2004


I was taking a walk minutes ago and I thought that I had hit the tropics. It is steamy hot outside!

Three memorable trains of thought from the walk:

First of all, I thought of a good blog post. It just suddenly hit me that I ought to write about this ‘Y’ topic. I thought of the contours for it and even began to contemplate title ideas. When I got back and sat down to write, something seemed odd and out of place. Only then did it strike me that I had already written about this in January. Conclusion no.1: I am a person of few ideas with a terrible memory who is likely to plagiarize her own writing. Conclusion no. 2: I should force myself occasionally to glance over my own blog. Unlike so many bloggers, I never reread anything of mine that is more than a day or two old.

Secondly, I thought about the email that I got this morning from Kyoto. It is from Mieko (Kazumi’s friend) and it says: “Last Saturday, we had an English Conversation Circle. You became a topic of conversation in the class. 'When Nina will be back again next year, we would like to invite her to our class.' we said.”
I had met at different times a total of four people from the English class at the Cultural Center of the town of Notogawa as they traveled to Kyoto to spend time with me and I had spoken to their teacher over the phone. I consider these “student meetings” no less important than the ones I had with university law students in Kyoto. However, something tells me that my funding source will not pay for me to travel back to Japan next year so that I can make an appearance at the English Conversation Circle of the Notogawa Cultural Center. Which is a shame.

Thirdly, I thought how fortunate it is that I have come to know a very kind soul who is computer savvy (and fellow blogger with a chirpy-looking kind of face; see sketch here) and who is willing to patiently explain to me the basics of the technology that I am using each day to blog with, thereby permitting me some degree of further experimentation with the size, shape and contents of the blog by the self-imposed June 1st deadline. In exchange I have offered to help him establish paternity rights over any nonmarital children that he may have (that is what I did for a number of years in my Legal Clinic). He has thus far not asked for such services, but you never know what the future may bring.
posted by nina, 5/20/2004 11:12:49 AM | link | (0) comments


Yesterday, a friend gave me a copy of Alexander McCall Smith’s new book, ‘The Full Cupboard of Life.” It was an extremely thoughtful gesture for a number of reasons, one of them being that she knows I am a fan of the person who wrote it. I have read numerous interviews with him and I find him irrepressibly funny and so full of zest that it makes me feel like I sleep my way through life by comparison. I have gone so far as to order McCall Smith’s 'Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld' series from England, since it is not available here in the States. His books are gently humorous, and from what I can tell, he himself is even more entertaining in person. I was sorry to miss his appearance at Border’s in Madison and so the gift of a signed book was an especially nice treat for me.

The book also made me think about the titles of novels I have come across just this year and how well suited or ill-suited they are, not only to the story, but to the market that they are attempting to impress. I like the title “The Full Cupboard of Life.” It is evocative and memorable and the publisher does well to include the picture of the ordinary cupboard shelves on the cover.

There are other titles that I am looking at right now that I also consider cool - ‘Global Soul’ (by Iyer), or ‘Ignorance’ (by Kundera) – brief, interesting titles.

Then there are, for me, the drip set: ‘Unless’ (by Shields) – completely forgettable, ‘Oryx and Crake’ (by Atwood) – I can never quite get the title right when I am talking about it, ‘Namesake’ (by Lahiri) – good book ill-served by boring title, ‘Pieces from Berlin’ (by Pye) – tells you absolutely nothing about the troubling Holocaust issues it confronts, ‘Three Junes’ (by Glass) – sounds like it should be about three women by that name, etc etc.

I know that some authors have a title in mind before they even write the first word of a novel. There’s a clever little book about this by André Bernard called "Now All We Need Is A Title," where he notes that mystery writer Raymond Chandler compiled lists of great titles for which he never wrote books, including "The Corpse Came In Person," "The Man with the Shredded Ear," "All Guns Are Loaded," "Too Late to Sleep."

Bernard also tells of titles that were changed at the last minute. Hitler wanted to title "Mein Kampf" ("My Struggle") as "Four-and-a-Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice.” "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," by Sloan Wilson was originally "A Candle at Midnight,” and "Catch-22," by Joseph Heller was all set to be "Catch-18" before the author changed his mind.

When books become famous, the title becomes associated with that work alone, so that you rarely remember that Shakespeare was the source for "Brave New World," "Pale Fire," "The Dogs of War," "The Sound and the Fury," and "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

To me, Kundera (see also ‘Ignorance’ above) struck gold, though, with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” That title comes back to haunt me even more than the book itself. It is sheer genius to have four words play with a reader's psyche in such an enduring way.
posted by nina, 5/20/2004 08:51:58 AM | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


I know I berated my perennial beds yesterday. I was too harsh. This morning, a closer inspection revealed this:

and this:

and this:

As for the weeds? Many are now in this (which is far far larger than it looks!):
posted by nina, 5/19/2004 03:17:11 PM | link | (0) comments


In the International Herald Tribune I read the following today:

And the proper way to begin this crucial project (of repairing damaged relations with EU members) is to use the presidential megaphone to teach Americans an appreciation of the European Union, despite its flaws and idiosyncrasies.

It was a sign of contemporary American myopia that the expansion of the EU from 15 to 25 members on May 1 was greeted in America with little more than polite indifference.

And further into the editorial:

Europe is a zone of peace. The 25 members of the EU, for all their quarrels and anxieties, belong to the biggest and most stable community of liberal democracies history has known.

It is interesting that if one were to poll Americans and ask where in the world could one find the biggest and most stable (liberal) democracy, they would probably not answer “in the EU.” I’m just guessing here.
posted by nina, 5/19/2004 02:47:27 PM | link | (0) comments


Last night I had dinner with a friend. We went to a restaurant expecting a relaxed evening of catching up on the past weeks. The food was fine, but the waiter was awful: he was slow, oh so slow on a relatively quiet evening and he got everything about the order wrong. When he was at our table, he was obtrusive and obsequious. The one thing you could not fault, however, was his effort. He seemed to be trying, it just wasn’t working for him. The result was horrible.

The question arose, how much do you tip on a night like that? The full 20%? It seems a reduction is in order. Or is it? He was, after all trying.

I thought about this later because it seems to me that the issue is ever-present for us only we don’t face it squarely: we are a result-driven lot. We disregard effort and applaud outcome.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Who cares if the cobbler put effort into your shoe if you can’t walk in it? Or, that the doctor exerted great effort to get your appendix out but missed it by a long shot? Wouldn’t you prefer the cobbler, the doctor who showed no effort but got it right nonetheless?

But I am uneasy about this quick response. Because there is, after all, something to be said for effort. I remember observing this equivocation in elementary school, where teachers would say that grades were handed out not based on polished work but on the effort put into the task. This was so as not to discourage those who were clearly trying. Yet at the same time they could not step away from the final product. A good result got the kid an ‘A’ as well, no matter what the effort.

And in Law School, do we not also reward effort in our Socratic teaching? Haven’t we dispensed with the old approach where a student would be humiliated for putting forth a thoughtful yet incorrect answer? When was the last time any of us said: you are so wrong, Ms Smith, just so very wrong!

But in the end, our noblesse is short lived because on the exam we grade strictly according to result. Ms. Smith, no points on that one: that is NOT the proper forum for adjudicating the matter. You clearly got it WRONG!

And so it continues, in every aspect of life: we hesitate, we pretend to equivocate, but in the end, result rules. Even in areas (for example outside the realm of commerce or paid services) where you want to see yourself as saying ‘no, I myself notice the effort. I tip according to how much a person tries.’ Test yourself, after all, on this one: A friend is perfectly amiable, cognizant of your every need, never overbearing, never forgetful, always on time with appropriate responses when you most want them to be there. Another gets it all wrong, clumsily tripping over him or herself, much like my waiter, and getting the order exactly in a mistimed way with all things on the ‘plate’ that you are ‘allergic’ to. Which one do you next turn to in a moment of need?

Last night, I myself under-tipped the guy – giving a cautionary 18%, so I doubt he even noticed. But I walked away thinking maybe I’d done the wrong thing. Maybe I should have handed over 20%.
posted by nina, 5/19/2004 06:14:14 AM | link | (0) comments

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


On the last metro (is this the title of a great movie?) ride from Paris to the airport, two musicians with accordions were going from car to car, playing some and collecting tips from passengers. They were quite good in that they complemented each other in their playing. Obviously they’d rehearsed this a lot.

The metro at this point had emptied out except for the small number of us that were flying out of CDG airport. I was surprised that no one pulled any small change for them. A group of travelers from the States was sitting up front and one of the women looked questioningly at what appeared to be her husband, as in, ‘why didn’t we give anything?’ He said to her “you know, of course, that we’re not supposed to pay. We’re not supposed to encourage them.”

I thought – encourage them in what? Music-making? Reaching out? Providing cheer in a sad and gloomy departure-oriented ride? (I’d never heard them play on the way OUT of the airport.)

Why is it that we must hold back and restrain ourselves from acting in good ways toward one another? Is it that we really have too much cheer and friendship and conviviality in this world? I do not understand.
posted by nina, 5/18/2004 10:16:26 PM | link | (0) comments


SIDEWALKS: I walk over from home to a gas station near Border’s where my disabled car is being looked after. It takes me 50 minutes. I pass not a single person during this walk. I think suburban sidewalks are a waste of taxpayer money. Today I may have been the only person using one. That’s pretty poor considering it isn’t even bad walking weather. A little brisk, but at least it’s dry.

LAW SCHOOL: The temperature inside the law building is hovering around 56 degrees. This has something to do with cleaning the pipes, cooling systems and other mechanical deficiencies that cannot be resolved in the immediate future. Therefore everyone moves quickly and those that can, work at home. I lend my space heater to a person who can’t leave the building, pack up my 45 exams plus 16 seminar papers and go home.

COLLEAGUES: Everyone I run into is looking bedraggled at the prospect of grading exams. I am not yet looking bedraggled because right now I can still set lofty goals and believe that I will meet them. As we get closer to the grading deadline (June 11) I will start looking bedraggled as well.

PHONE MESSAGES: In my office I have several desperate phone calls from people in the community who want free legal advice. I get a sprinkling of these throughout each week, but it is very depressing to get them in one batch. It’s as if the problems get magnified by the number of times they repeat themselves.

GARDEN INSULT: Bad enough to face all the weeds and disarray in the flower beds. But to have to contend also with this (-->) is too much. There’s no chance of winning the battle this year. I should not even try. Monet made slaves of his family in his garden: they had to tote water and pull weeds and generally listen to his authoritative commands. My smaller yard, however, should thrive on my work alone. My failings as a plant person today are so evident that it hurts.

Otherwise, I am very happy to be back.
posted by nina, 5/18/2004 04:09:13 PM | link | (0) comments


I was away for almost a month. I decided that upon returning I would make some blog changes. Complete overhaul, from appearance to content. However, this kind of action takes time and when you come back after a month’s absence the stack of things requiring immediate attention is unreal. So I am giving myself a deadline: June 1st. By June 1st this particular blog renovation will be complete. That gives me two weeks to do nothing about it and one day at the end to madly put in changes.


In the meantime I am still mulling over a comment I heard yesterday on the Van Galder bus from O’Hare. The driver, an extremely outgoing and friendly guy, tells a passenger that she might want to turn on her overhead light to avoid eye strain. It is dusk and she is reading away, inching closer and closer to the window, trying to catch that fading light. “No thank you,” she says. “I prefer to read in natural light.”

Is it a new movement? A self-at-one-with-the-world type of thing? She’s riding the bus from the airport, so two strikes there against thinking that she is technology-averse.

The eyes are peculiar kind of body part: apart from eating lots of carrots when told to do so by 1950s parents who said “Eat carrots or you’ll go blind!” we don’t do much preventively for them. We just patch up the problems as they arise (except for my purist nephew, the Krishna one, who believes that his prescription glasses are a sign of spiritual weakness and so he does eye exercises to improve his vision and get rid of the glasses; jury’s still out on whether there’s progress – he CLAIMS there is, but sometimes his spiritual self preordains a desired result even if science cannot prove it).

Is she onto something? I gave in to 5 minutes of googling on the topic, but ‘light and reading’ led me in all sorts of directions where I didn’t want to go (for instance on ‘seeing the light,’ or on very very ‘unserious’ reading).

[btw, I don’t know about eye-care, but I have decided that sleep is way over-rated and so I continue to view it with scorn and avoid it at all possible times.]


On my very last flight I watched nothing on the nifty little TV monitor by my seat (and, I have to brag that I never once turned on a TV in any of my hotel rooms for the duration of my month away). This was NOT a naturalist thing. It was because I got addicted to the “musique francaise” channel on the audio program and so I listened to that over and over and over again (it was a 9-hour flight). Consequently, one of the songs is wedged in my brain and I WANT IT HERE AND NOW! If I wrote to Air France, would they understand this kind of inquiry: “Dear Madame or Monsieur, On your French Music Program, the one you’ve been running in April and May, there is a female vocalist and a male vocalist. I know the male one – Charles Aznavour. I don’t remember the name of the female. She sings this very pretty in an odd sort of way song that stays in the low range and then jumps into the higher ranges and I have a desperate desire for that little song now! Could you look it up in your files and send me the title? Thank you very much, Your loyal patron – the one who selected YOU as the airline of choice for a flight from Chicago to Tokyo, NC”


My mind is still on the gardens of Japan and Giverny. Inspired, I come home with new resolve to rework and improve my perennial beds. This little sign noted in a Paris café is dancing in my head, and I cannot wait to get to my own little Giverny outside.

But inspiration is a short-lived thing. Especially when you wake up in the morning, go out to take stock, and witness this, which some may call a grassy stretch and others, the more realistically-inclined, may view as an intrepid assault of the weeds:

And how about this mess, where all spring blooms are spent and not a single summer perennial has yet to show signs of budding. My God, what was I thinking? Did I forget to plant for May??

posted by nina, 5/18/2004 06:51:09 AM | link | (0) comments

Sunday, May 16, 2004


In a few hours I leave for the airport to return home. It is a clunky and awkward return because I have to navigate the subway with the suitcase, computer, bag, and now an additional sack because of the repacking that the painting necessitated. All this during morning rush hour on the metro. It can be done!

Last night I ate dinner outside, listening to street music, people watching to the hilt. (The street musician came around for his handout. I thought he deserved it. So did the waiter who called him over to give him some money as well. When I looked on with interest, the waiter explained that these guys rid him of his salary each evening, but he doesn’t have the heart not to pay, they are so good.)

I can’t not post a single food item from my last dinner, so I’ll post the salad for a change (with little crustacean tails thrown in; it did not take long to get used to French food again!).

This morning I get up at dawn and walk endlessly. It is a cliché, but I really do love watching cities wake up on a regular work day. In Paris, I have a perfect vantage point in a café that I know is close to an elementary school. There, I even took a photo of it -- one can see left-over croissant pieces at my table of choice.

I watch the parents walk the kids to school and I try to listen in on the conversation of a handful of women that gather here afterwards. The men routinely stand at the bar for their swig of espresso and a quick friendly exchange, the women stay at the tables, housewives obviously, seemingly privileged, for this is the 6th arondissement. It’s a ‘left bank’ sort of privilege, not quite the ostentatious wealth of the right bank, but everyone certainly is dressed well. And the children! Oh, the clothes on the youngest children are so carefully assembled, so navy, so tailored! The girls and boys are learning early about the aesthetics of appearance. (You can tell there's a parental hand in this because as they get older they lose the dresses and the tailored pants in favor of a toned-down (as in the photo below), though still polished, appearance.)

Just a closing photo of a 'sight,' not just any sight, taken from the vantage of the Place des Invalides, home of my first green ice-cream cone. And now I’m off, to post again, from Madison, on Tuesday.

posted by nina, 5/16/2004 11:17:38 PM | link | (0) comments



Because innocent obsessions can be indulged and my love for the spring garden knows no bounds.

I have always thought that Giverny (Monet’s garden, about an hour away by train from Paris) was overwhelming in its outrageous beauty. But I’d never seen it in spring. Now is my chance. And it follows well on the heels of Japan since, as I wrote earlier, Monet himself was fascinated by Japanese gardens and had them in mind in his design of the lily pond, the ‘second’ half of the Giverny garden.

I leave Paris very early, even before the cafés have poured their first café crème. (I am staying close to the Sorbonne and so the cafés have names with literary pretensions.)

It’s a bit of a hike from the train station in Vernon to the gardens in Giverny (most people take the bus), but I am up for it. The day is brilliant with sunshine and I pass old houses on the river Seine and blooming chestnuts.

But my hiking plans are foiled half-way through by the generosity of an older couple who take pity on me and pull over to offer a ride. I can’t resist such niceness. They take the time to drive me around and show a better route for my return walk later in the day. I sit in the back seat amidst clutter that includes a stack of baguettes. The smell is terrific! The older man tells me I have a good accent. I say that maybe it’s because I am French. He responds – absolutely impossible! Okay, okay, I wasn’t really serious. I can be fluent in one sentence and completely lost in another.

I am at the gates when the gardens open but it is still crowded. Tour groups are the wrost: they move slowly and block paths.

The garden is indeed splendid, really splendid, but I have come too late for the early spring flowers and too early for the later spring ones. I had thought that I would like this version of the garden better than the mid-summer brilliant spill of nasturtium, lavender and climbing roses, but I’m not sure I do. This garden (unlike mine!) seems to improve with each month. Still, it never disappoints. It remains in my mind the champion of all gardens.

And of course, there’s the part with the pond and the Japanese bridge, so favored by Monet in his paintings, even when he was already losing his sight.

Only after I finish walking through the gardens do I search out a place for the morning café and croissant. All good things have to have their right moment.

I have time before the noon train to Paris and so I walk along dirt roads up the hills behind Giverny. Wild poppies and buttercups are everywhere. I feel like I’m inside a Monet painting. The old village houses contribute to this.

Just outside Giverny I find a small house where a woman is displaying some of her own paintings. Her daughters come in and out, sometimes resting on her lap, other times talking to friends outside. I am tempted beyond temptation by one small painting. It is NOT expensive, really! I’m supporting local artists after all. And I’ll frame it when I get back to Madison. You are not allowed to say you don’t really like it!

Outside the little ‘gallery’ I run into my old village pal who gave me a ride this morning. He is out on his bicycle now and pauses to ask about my morning. We talk and then I tell him that I am on my way to find the secret path into town. He asks when my train is and expresses surprise when I say 50 minutes. “Better really hurry” he warns and pedals off.


As I alternate between a jog and a sprint (with the painting, it’s really hard to jog), I begin to think that I cut it too close once again.

But no! At an intersection with the road there stands my village pal! He had gone back to his home, gotten his car and came back to find me and give me a lift to the station.


I learn that he is a retired elementary school teacher. He tells me that a life of teaching in the village has been supremely agreeable. The parents tend to their children, classes are small, and when the weather is good, he’d take the kids for long walks in the woods. What could be easier? He has lived just outside Giverny all his life. His children and grandchildren live here as well. And is there a big family dinner each Sunday, I wonder? But of course! Ah, hence all those fresh baguettes in the car. I tell him it’s like straight out of a movie: time standing still in the village of Giverny.

In Paris, everyone, EVERYONE is flooding to the parks. The little children ride merry-go-rounds and sail boats, an older man feeds the birds. So much good spirit, all because of the gorgeous Sunday weather.

I pass my favorite bookstore. It’s ‘favorite’ status is entirely attributable to the fact that it is on a restaurant path and it stays open late into the night. I often buy a book or two with the resolve to get through it back home, to keep up the language. But I never do get to it and so this time I show great restraint and buy nothing. Even though I was tempted by this title:

It translates to “why don’t the French and Americans understand each other anymore.” It begins with an 1849 quote from Victor Hugo: “Un jour viendra ou l’on verra ces deux groupes immenses, les Etats-Unis d’Amerique et les Etats-Unis d’Europe, se tendre la main par-dessus les mers…” (which, correct me if I’m wrong, seems to mean: ‘A day will come when one will see two immense groups, the United States of America and the United States of Europe, extending a hand over the oceans’; okay, so he was a half visionary). There is a chapter on “la Francophobie Americaine” and “Antiamericanisme” as the author attempts to locate the hostilities each feels toward the other in a historical context. Yes, of course, it’s understandable. But I see the author speculating about a Bush reelection and I know that the vision of a stronger Europe building better relations with the US is suddenly very much in doubt.

I have to pause now. Excessively long posts are disconcerting –even to the writer. Besides, There are still blocks to be walked, cafés to be visited. I’ll end with a sight picture again. On a day like today, the Louvre is competiting with the parks to attract visitors.

posted by nina, 5/16/2004 09:14:13 AM | link | (0) comments

Saturday, May 15, 2004


In retracing my steps from Japan, I am like a movie on rewind: Siberia, the Baltic states, France.

I’m recovering my lost day as well: no longer 14 hours ahead of Madison, just 7.

Ah, Paris… (a 2 night stop-over on my way home). Why do I love it so? There is a less apparent reason: Paris has always been my bridge between home in Warsaw and home in the States. Travel from Warsaw requires a connection in western Europe and since my first crossing of the ocean at age 7, my awed gaze has remained transfixed on Paris. I remember my amazement back then at eating a green ice cream (pistachio) on Place des Invalides. I honestly still recall that sweet taste that hit me 44 years ago. [Today I have a preference for the red flavors; for instance, this one is made from the essence of rose:]

The hotels that I stay in are always the teeny places on the left bank. It is a leap from the big, splashy Japanese hotels. Here, we’re talking about 3 to 4 rooms per floor, a little worn at the seams, but so homey and so charming in an uneven contours and peeling wallpaper sort of way.

My flights were all on time and so I was in downtown Paris by evening. I have been up and traveling for 24 hours, but I cannot sit still. Paris sings!

To me, the very first thing to notice is that French men will always, always help me with my suitcase. I take the subway from the airport to downtown and most station have long flights of steps to maneuver. I have NEVER had to carry my suitcase up. A young man will inevitably come to the rescue. That is a given.

And how is it to be here from Japan? A couple of perhaps obvious points:

People are so much more physical here. Every friend and lover and grandchild is kissing, walking arm in arm, holding hands, massaging the back of another.

People also smoke more:

And write postcards (does anyone elsewhere still write postcards?):

The food is so DIFFERENT that I am actually having adjustment problems. I go to one of my trilogy of repeat restaurant places. They’re homey and full of French people, the waiters are flirtatious and fun, and the food is always very simple and reliable. Here was, for instance, my dessert:

But I am not used to the butter nor the wine! I ask if it’s true what I’d read in the NYTimes – that the French are now doing ‘doggie bags’ with unfinished restaurant wine. Complete puzzlement. Thanks, NYT.

Tonight I walk and walk and I let myself fall in love with the city all over again. I am not abandoning Japan, I am just putting it aside for the moment, just because this is Paris.

Just a few evening shots:

The banks of the Seine, looking like Bascom Mall on a warm day:

How can I not love this bridge at sunset? For one thing, it holds the initial of my name…

Like me, people don’t sleep here. They talk and eat:

Just one ‘sight’ so that you indeed know it’s Paris:

posted by nina, 5/15/2004 05:39:31 PM | link | (0) comments

Friday, May 14, 2004



This then is the last entry with the heading of “Japan.” I almost don’t know how to keep a blog anymore without that introduction. I’m sure I will have to reinvent it once I get back to Madison: I can’t go back to old habits that readily. I’m of the belief that blogs evolve as writers pick up new ideas and approaches.

I leave Fukuoka at a beastly early hour tomorrow (my Saturday, your Friday) morning. I’m not quite heading home yet though. I have a stop over along the way, but not in Japan. Most certainly an attempt at blogging will follow, but it wont be before Sunday U.S. time, since it’ll take me THAT long to get somewhere and have something to blog about that wont be flight-related. Any flight-related blogging I reject as inherently not of general interest. And I have many many hours of flying ahead of me.

In the meantime, let me post a few notes on this day:


Imagine an entire country pondering this as it embarks on this project of constructing new law schools to accommodate some 6000 students in a brand new graduate program in law. That is, indeed, Japan.

So how would a brand new state-of-the-art law school look? Today, I spent a morning visiting and lecturing at one, at Fukuoka University.

As in Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, the smell of fresh paint and new furniture is omnipresent. I think it is an invigorating smell. But it is also a reminder that this is an experiment, the results of which are in question. Exciting as it is to be in the first semester of the first year of a law program, in brand new facilities no less, there is also that frightening reality that you are the first to be in a completely unknown job market.

But that’s a couple of years away. Today one can admire the spiffy new library,

…the computer-wired (for the professor) class room,

…and the students, who successfully got into this first class, hoping now to succeed as the first cadre of graduates to compete for law jobs.


Perhaps I am exaggerating, but this afternoon I am for once searching for stores and so shopping is very much on my mind.

You can’t be away for almost a month and come back empty-handed. People would regard you as completely self-focused. I wish people would regard me as simply not a great shopper. I would PAY them twice over what I would have otherwise spent on them – I dread the shopping event that much.

I dread it because I am so bad at it. Everything looks great until I get back and unpack the suitcase and think – now why did I buy THAT? (I was already thinking this when I was PACKING my suitcase a couple of hours ago, so I know I’m off to a rocky start.) It seems so right in the store. Or maybe I just want to be done and so I MAKE it appear perfect, in the way that one paints happy events as even happier in one’s memory, or convinces oneself that it really IS okay that it’s raining during a mountain hike (hey, it WAS okay, truly).

Of course, no one asks me to go through this grueling shopping nightmare. Quite the contrary, I am told “don’t get me anything” a lot, but to me that only means one of two things: 1. my past history of purchases has been so bad that people truly would prefer not to have to fake enthusiasm anymore, or 2. it means that I don’t HAVE to get anything in general, but if I want to make an exception for them, just to show my true love and devotion, then okay, a small little something will do.

Yes, a small little something that isn’t trashy or expensive or ridiculously unsuitable to the recipient. Very easy.

But hey, on the bright side, I did work my way energetically through some crowded stores. I had a lot of luck, for instance, in this funky one:

…which may be of concern to those thinking that they are the chosen few to receive a little token gift. Yes, indeed, there do appear to be Barbies on a shelf behind the giggly clerks who spoke not a word of English. I SAID it was a funky store.

No more hints. If you haven’t been a recipient of a gift in the past, you wont get one now. I’m not looking to expand my torture circle. If you have gotten some post-travel memorabilia, chances are good that I haven’t dropped you yet. But someday I may and it wont be because I don’t care. I just don’t care for shopping.


The colleague (YA) whose guest I was on campus today invited me to join him and his friends for my last dinner in Japan. YA had introduced me last year to the “man’s world” Japan and I have long been grateful for that in an odd sort of way. He had taken me to the private clubs where professional men hang out after work, and he had shown me how an evening works for them as they are humored and pampered by the wonderfully friendly hostesses at these places. To this day, I can never hear the Elvis song “Falling in love with you” without thinking of that evening, because YA demonstrated how he would sing it in one of his favorite private bars and the super nice hostesses would sway to the music and it would be extraordinarily charming – for him.

YA is an exceptionally good law prof and colleague. He has translated for me and arranged meetings for me and I have been in his classes and he has always attended to my scholarship in a serious and not perfunctory way and I have been grateful for that. In addition, he is genuinely a good host. He will not invite me to dinner because he HAS to, he will do so out of a real concern that I should not eat alone while in Fukuoka. And so, when he realized this was my last night here, he insisted that I come along with him even though he already had dinner plans. I agreed, and was somewhat surprised to see that his two other guests were women associated with the bars I’d visited last year (one was an owner, the other was a hostess on the side – a pharmacist in her day life).

It was a sweet evening in an odd sort of way. But of course, the set up was a bit bizarre and I could not comment without sounding ridiculously nosey. And so I kept to the don’t ask, don’t tell strategy. In fact, all three of them seemed to be having a comfortably good time conducting a conversation that included tons of laughter.

One thing that I can’t help but like about YA is that he doesn’t scrimp when he takes people out to dinner: he goes full force into wonderful Japanese restaurants and he orders the most interesting dishes. Today was no exception and I am going to torture a blogger whose site I read just today (here) by posting lots of photos of foods and commenting on how I COULD HARDLY FINISH IT ALL AND WISH I HAD A DOG TO GIVE LEFTOVERS TO, except that this would have been difficult as we were in one of those Japanese tea rooms where there wasn’t much to the “underneath the table” bit.

For those not interested in food, scroll down. Feeling uplifted by friendly email voices from back home, I took a last brief walk along the side streets of this teeming with life city. The everyday has finally made its way into the blog: the beautiful, the ridiculous, the modern, the odd, the sublime. You can decide which label is appropriate to which scene. To me, what remain most vivid, most tugging at the heart are the encounters with people, the ones I asked for help, for direction, or the ones who sprung to assist without my even asking. That sticks with me, even more than images of the gardens and of the food. But let's not underestimate the natural beauty of this isolated country. And those gardens. Don't let me not mention again the peace encountered in those tiny manicured spaces.



This is a back street??

...On a TV screen in a shop:

... she was watching a fountain show, coordinated with jazz music:

...this was the fountain show: many interesting Tshirt logos. So many.

...And even more clubs for the men:

Do all pedestrian signs look like this, or is this a FUkuoka image?

...and if you can't find the machines, you can try your hand at macing: and nature thus combined...

posted by nina, 5/14/2004 07:41:45 AM | link | (0) comments

Thursday, May 13, 2004



Fukuoka is a nice enough city, but I had done a thorough exploration when I was last here. Now I want to use my still valid golden Japan Rail pass and head out. And so I have the following conversation with my colleague:

NC: Any recommendations?
HU: Go to Nagasaki!

NC: Nagasaki… The atomic bomb pretty much leveled it, didn’t it? [a momentary break in the cloud cover, a pilot seizes the opportunity and seconds later 75,000 are killed. Many, many more die later. A missed target. A mistake of war. The bomb was, after all, not intended for the peaceful community it destroyed.]
Have you ever been there?
HU: No, but I have always wanted to go!

[That clinched it. It reminded me of all the ‘places I’ve been meaning to go to’ back home. Some of them are probably gems. Some of them.]
NC: Yes, well, maybe. And where is it that you do go when you want a break?
HU: I go to the hot springs. Ah! You would not want to do that.

Oh yes I would. I inquire at the hotel and find out that a mere two and a half hours on the comfy JR line will put me in Yufu-in, home to this island’s hot springs.

Concerned about weather issues, I ask the hotel person what one does if it rains (rain is the forecast for Thursday). He tells me “oh, it’s best that way! You will enjoy it!” And finally, I have to force myself to ask this: does one need a swim suit? His response: “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! No.”

By 7 a.m. Thursday, my blogging is done for the night/day and I am on my way, riding the subway with the salary-men to the train station, snatching a coffee and croissant (the aroma of baking croissants is everywhere; stacks of them can be found at all major train stations), boarding a little red train for the hills and hot springs.


It is indeed raining when I arrive at Yufu-in, but I know it will let up. That’s how it works here: drizzle, pour, abate, over and over.

I find the recommended to me older inn that has a reputation for having good hot springs for bathing (‘Musoen’). Now what? Oh, the embarrassing questions that one must ask. ‘Where do I go’ is the easy one. How about ‘what do I do then?’ Unfortunately no one speaks English and so I enter into the realm of trial and error. I shall not go into the error parts. Use your imagination.

Finally, though, I am there, with the women, squatting in a large pond of steaming water, with a view of the valley below.

There is an extended, beamed roof for those who want to stay away from the ‘elements.’ There are also rocks throughout and some take advantage of those, sitting like seals at the oceanfront, waiting for the inspiration to do another dip. The water is too warm to stay in for endless stretches.

For me, the very best, the absolutely very best is to sit half in, half out and to feel the very light rain prickling with its cool but not cold drops, while the warm spring water works its way up the lower limbs. Heaven.

Anywhere from 3 to 10 women are in the hot spring at a time (sometimes in three-generation sets of grandmother, daughter and toddling granddaughter), but there are plenty of corners and spaces so that you can have solitude if that is what you crave. Everyone is at once discreet and open. You learn quickly what is allowed and what is considered shocking.

I want to post a photo of one of the pre-soak shower stalls because I groaned so much about the scrub-down in my earlier Matsushima post. Please do note the number of soaps you have to work with. Is this indicative of obsessive cleanliness, or what?

And I do have a locker secret to reveal: so many of the women here wear firming half-tights under the slacks. I was surprised. They hardly need corset-like additions – for the most part, they are slender. Is it vanity? Is it a long-term firming device? I do not know.

I don’t want to so often write about money issues, but this ‘day at the spa’ was shocking in terms of price. Let me give the low-down (divide by roughly 100 for the dollar amount):
- croissant at station: 150 Y
- coffee at station: 250 Y
- train to and from hot springs: free because of JR pass
- day at the fancy hot spring spa: 600 Y. I might note that this is one fourth the price of a day-guest pass at the Princeton Club in Madison.
Japan is full of surprises.


I had dinner with two of my law colleagues here. I had always thought that they were a bit at odds with each other, but tonight proved me wrong. One of them brought along a friend – a Fukuoka prosecutor who was teaching a class this year at the university. The prosecutor did not speak English well and so much of the time the conversation between the three of them was in Japanese. That was fine. Occasionally someone translated, but more often, all three got lost in the spirit of their talk. It was so animated that it was a pleasure to watch.

We ate at a Chinese place, run by a former student of theirs, a prominent Tokyo international law attorney who had decided that he had had enough of the legal culture. He opened the restaurant and has been successfully in business for a number of years now. I talked to him for a bit – the restaurant world is different in Fukuoka than in the States. For one thing, it is surprisingly more egalitarian here. Cooks from his place routinely travel to Shanghai and come back with ideas for dishes which are then incorporated into the menu. The chefs in the States and in Europe cling fiercely to their hegemonic rule in the kitchen. Even at “Madison-pseudo democratic” l’Etoile, ideas of line cooks are only given token recognition. The chef makes all menu decisions and rarely does she encourage the cooking staff to come forth with suggestions.

The post is getting long. Let me just end on a fiery note: I have never seen a dish of this nature: chicken with chopped hot peppers. It is FIERCELY spicy, demonically so. If you ingest just one sliver of the hot stuff, you will surely gag. One of us did tonight. For once, the error was not mine.

posted by nina, 5/13/2004 09:52:10 AM | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 12, 2004



It’s where I am right now, at the southwestern tip of Japan. However, that sentence implies a greater degree of alertness than I currently feel. So scratch “am right now” and replace with “checked into a hotel today.”

This day (I’m writing this on my Wednesday night/Thursday morning, you guessed it, 3:30 am) never really had a beginning. In my last hours in Kyoto, I was ready to load my post at 3 am (24 hours ago) and found that Blogger was no longer permitting me to do so. No images, no post, no nothing. I spent the next 3 hours trying to appeal to the inner soul of Blogger techies and to the outer souls of colleagues, friends, anyone who had any connections to bloglife. But there was nothing I could do. It seemed that this blog would be discontinued until until – who knows when. Perhaps forever? I mean, it just died. Deleting pictures, scrambling posts, deleting computer files, nothing revived it. Blogger clearly hated me, for no good reason.

On top of it, I was now completely sleep-deprived. I’ll not recount the travel moments where I drifted in and out of doze-dom. It was one big nightmare of speeding trains and voices talking and lecture notes formulating some text or other – oh, it was unsettling.

But once in Fukuoka, up in my hotel room, I find that Blogger is apologizing. It’s not me, it’s them. I wish I had known that in the middle of my last night in Kyoto.


From the minute I step off the train in Fukuoka I am on work mode. I am rushed to do classes and meetings, etc. I can only say that I am in that state of tiredness where it no longer matters. The irony is that my work is going surprisingly well, down to the last late seminar minute. And because what was originally spread to two days got compacted into this one long afternoon and evening, most of tomorrow has opened up to be free of meetings. Intensity can be sustained when relief is in sight.

[Class participation of Japanese law students, undergrads this time: 75% female, 25% male again. I asked my colleague why he thought I was consistently getting more activity from the women. He said bluntly: “People think that in Japan, because men were in dominant positions, they were the stronger sex. It is not true. In Japan, women are stronger. And this shows itself in the classroom as well. They are more serious, less timid, and they almost always lead class discussions.” Though one has to take generalizations of this sort with some degree of lightness, still, I have to say that looking at the faces of the women students here, I am often struck by the feverish intensity with which they listen and take notes. I sometimes imagine that they are literally at the edge of their seats. “Engaged” is an understatement.]


If Kyoto is a village (see post below), Fukuoka is a cosmopolitan hub. In a country known for its ethnic homogeneity, Fukuoka stands out as having a rather large non-Japanese population. It is an oceanic gateway into Japan, with Korea just a stone’s throw across the water.

It is also a commercial mecca. There are more shopping opportunities here per square block than even in Tokyo. At night, the neons blaze and the people stay out. It’s one of those cities that never seems to close.

It is late by the time I am done working – just like a true Japanese! And I do as the locals do after a long day in the office – I go to the food stalls along the river bank in search of good home cooking. It’s mostly me and the so-called ‘salary men’ out there.

The stalls (called Yatai) aren’t like the ones in Madison’s library mall. They are self-contained eating places. They fold out to a tiny 6 inch counter, and they have snug stool-like chairs, cramming some maybe 8 bodies shoulder to shoulder around the eating hut. Behind the counter two people typically grill, slice and otherwise cook foods.

How do you decide which Yatai has the better food? Certainly as an outsider I can only give myself over to the tastes of others. I pick a crowded one (pictured above) that has good smells coming from it. Mom is the main cook, grown son works the grill and pours the beer.

Both seem happy to have an American choose their place. Fukuoka doesn’t see many faces from the States since it is too far from most of the tourist cities of Japan. (Besides, how can you tell your neighbors with a straight face that you are going to Fukuoka. BTW, it’s pronounced F’koo’oh’kah.)

I eat a grilled river fish and Mom’s vegetable tempura. I can’t believe how crisp and flavorful the veggies are. It is a terrific dinner. And the anticipation of sleep, immanent sleep, is almost too much pleasure for one body to take.

Of course, that was then. Now it’s 4 am and I am again blogging.
posted by nina, 5/12/2004 02:39:33 PM | link | (0) comments

Tuesday, May 11, 2004



It is over. All hope is lost. Rosie’s café (see post below and others before it) won not only the croissant battle for the day but also the week-long bakery war. I am defeated.

As you may recall, the goal was to reinstate the elusive apple croissant into my breakfast basket. I had two more days to make it happen and I lost. A brief recap:

After dragging in late last night (morning?) in my post-Karaoke stupor, I slept for an hour and 25 minutes and then got up to work (alternating with blogging) from 3 am until 8:30 am. My appointments at the court house were at 10 and I dared not be late so I decided to skip breakfast and hustle over to do my work there.

In the afternoon, when I still had had no breakfast or lunch for that matter, a brilliant idea came to me: I would visit Rosie’s then. I will have with me two people fluent in Japanese (see section below on the return of Kazumi). How could I possibly fail then to get at the croissant?

We arrive late, late in the afternoon. And wouldn’t you know it, Rosie is out of apple croissants. They do have plenty of plain buns though and so I have one of those. By this time I feel so deprived of sustenance that I may have even considered a ham croissant.

Rosie is at her most charming though. She grills my Japanese friends about me, the returning stranger, and comments that I looked very brainy, which according to me means that I am always wearing my reading glasses and am taking rushed notes, while wearing the clothes of a frumpy American academic.

But I am ready to pounce now with my apple croissant request for tomorrow morning. I tell my friend to tell her in Japanese that I am looking forward to my last visit tomorrow and that delicious apple croissant. My friend does so. But no! It turns out I wont see Rosie tomorrow because Rosie’s is CLOSED tomorrow – their one day off in the week. I almost ask them to reconsider, I am that disappointed.



Late in the afternoon, Kazumi and I are sitting in the theater and watching a rehearsal of the traditional Japanese “Noh” play (as a reult of last night's encounter with one of the actors in this particular show), a feature of which is the use of elaborate costumes and masks.

In one of the scenes, a handful of men recite, while three more provide the background chant (which consists of banging drums, howling, and a rhythmic shouting of ‘yo, hoh, hoh, huh!” uttered at all speeds and noise levels). In the middle of the stage a stern woman moves across and twists and turns her body and a hand-held fan to the rhythm. Just when you’d think they are fading and ready to move on to the next scene, she retraces her steps and is back on center stage while the yohs and huhs resume in intensity and we are right where we started from. Does that give some sense of it? Probably not, but it’s the best I can do. But it’s all in the costumes anyway and the few people who are in full attire (it’s not a full dress rehearsal) can hardly move under the weight of all the fabric, the masks and the props.


After two hours we decide that we should move on. That feels right. Sitting in any one place for long threatens to create dangerous dozing conditions in me – of the type where I do not wake up until I will have missed my return flight home. I ask that we visit just one more garden. Since it is late, I suggest the closest one, at Heian Shrine. We are in luck. It is not yet closed.

The classical garden of Heian makes use of ponds and trees and it also has a number of fields of irises that are beginning to bloom now. There is definitely a connection here to the 19th century garden painted by Monet in France some 150 years ago. Monet grew to love this type of Japanese configuration. Irises and water lilies figure prominently in his spectacular French garden in Giverny as well. Here, at the Heian, the lilies are intensely rich in color. The entire garden is just about at its best now.


It is almost evening and Maseiko (maybe Kazumi's fiancee, maybe not)is rushing to town to join us for one last dinner. We go back to where it all started on my first night here – at Ganko Zushi. This time they treat me to a full parade of classical Japanese cuisine. (Okay, you`d eat grasshoppers if your hosts served them to you. Would you eat the whale, whose catch is in such controversy now, or would you decline?) I feel myself dazed from too much food and too little sleep. By 10 pm I beg off and tell them I must return to the hotel.

It is a sad moment. Kazumi has worked hard to put together an album for me of our adventures together these last three days.

It is sentimental and sweet and very meticulously executed.

CLASSIC ME STAYING UP TOO LATE AND GETTING UP TOO EARLY AND THEREFORE FEELING MYSLEF TO BE TERRIBLY SLEEP DEPRIVED: I hurry back to my hotel. A quick nap and I am up again at 2 to jot down notes for my next lecture and, of course, to blog. My train for my next destination leaves late Wednesday morning.
posted by nina, 5/11/2004 02:53:13 PM | link | (0) comments

Monday, May 10, 2004



Rosie’s (that would be the Rose Café, relabeled by me for purposes of convenience; see earlier Kyoto post) and I have been out of step from day 2 of our first breakfast encounter. Let me explain.

On day 2, she was still closed at 7:30 a.m. when I wanted her to be open already.

Then, on day 3, I came in, ordered the breakfast special (salad, coffee and a basket with 3 bakery items), but told them to just put in 2 bakery items because it is a waste otherwise. I wont eat 3. She brought me a basket with the 2 most boring buns in the entire Café, skipping the lovely apple croissant.

Then, on day 4, I came in and smacked my lips tellingly at the apple croissant so that Rosie could see what was coveted by me. But just as insurance, in case she wasn’t watching or understanding the “smacking lips” concept, I decided NOT to ask for a reduction to 2 bakery items. I was paying the same price and so I might as well get all three and eat my apple favorite. But Rosie, bless her heart, thought she had me figured out and so she only brought two: the same boring bun and a piece of buttered bread.

Then, today (day 5), I had been working on my interview notes and blogging between the hours of 2:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. (yes, my sleep is forever confused) and so I decided to take a brief nap before seeting out for the day. As a result, I did not get to Rosie’s until 10:05 a.m., by which time Rosie’s breakfast special was off the books. Good! I can finally REQUEST whatever I want. I am standing there, searching the display for my apple fantasy as Rosie draws my attention to a tray of freshly baked croissants. Oh fine, fresh is good, I’ll just have one of those with coffee. I sit down, nibble away and come across a thick slice of ham inside. I can eat it, not a problem, but given the choice, I would never ever pick a lunchmeat for any meal and certainly not for one before the evening which means basically never. So there you have it, Rosie flubbed again.

I have 2 more mornings left. Could it be possible that at least on one of them I will get what I have been longing for from day 1? I wont give up on her, but really, I am getting nervous. I may never have that apple croissant again. Is Rosie unforgiving about my misuse of her cafe name?


Many hours. I did it today. I could have taken the subway, but I walked instead. People ask me often why I take the slower routes. Why take the train to Sapporo for 8 or 9 hours when there is a one hour flight? Why walk when there is an excellent system of public transportation? The same reason applies to both examples and it is the obvious reason. I SEE more when I slow down.

Someone recently commented that my blog tends to highlight the spectacular places and moments rather than giving an impression of the daily, the ordinary. This is true and it is deliberate.

Kyoto is 95% visually unspectacular and that’s being kind. I am deeply interested in the street scenes (hence the long walk today), but what tugs at my emotions most are the gems – the temples, gardens, etc –that stand in stark contrast to the eye-sores that are common to virtually every block here. I cannot NOT blog about the sights that often move me so deeply. The other stuff, the street scenes, well, I take them all in and they stay with me, but I don’t know that they would enrich my blog. Or at least they would more than double the post length, because they would have to be in addition to, not instead of what I have already included. I feel I am already taxing reader patience with the number of words and pictures I insert here. And so I make choices and for the most part, the street scenes are eliminated after the first cut.


Ah! Not a shrine! Not a temple! It is the one castle in Kyoto that you don’t have to literally petition the government to gain entry into. It is, perhaps for this reason, swarming with school groups. In Wisconsin, every fourth grader gets to go on a visit to the State Capitol. In Kyoto Prefecture and beyond, every junior high schooler gets to visit Nijo Castle. Or so it seems.

But it is a remarkable building and so I can hardly blame the teachers for wanting the kids to see this historic structure. It has fantastic screens and the ghosts of Tokugawa shoguns and feudal lords and a nightingale floor (built so that when you step on it the boards purposeful emit a warning squeak, sounding very much like the twitter of a nightingale) and a wonderful garden. In short, it is a gem. I wont write a single other detail, but so long as I am garden obsessed I did want to point to the mystical quality of this one. Of course, gardens are so weather dependent. Today, the skies went from cloudy to drizzly to torrential rain to cloudy to drizzly etc etc over and over again. The garden is verdant and the water still manages to beautifully reflect its every detail, but given the cloudiness, the greens become more muted in tone.


So far, I’ve been going for the new. There are so many shrines, gardens, temples – why retrace steps already taken? One reason may be because there is the occasional Temple that impresses so much that I think it deserves a second look (particularly since I now seem to be hitting the beginning of the Japanese iris season). And so, today, I come back to the Golden Pavillion of the Rokuon-ji Temple.

The rain comes down with a vengeance after I leave the Temple grounds. How lucky, again, I am on this trip! As the downpour begins, I find a gem of a tea shop with Japanese cakes and the most soothing, gentle brew of tea I’ve had in a long time. After asking for seconds and thirds, the waitress finally just brings me the whole teapot. And the little cake is delicious. And the check comes to 189 Y. How nice!


I went to the Ninnaji because of the name. Really. It is not a place pushed by the guide books and so I almost had second thoughts myself (it is rather out of the way). But no, I have now that creeping feeling of desperation: one more temple, one more, my time here is almost up, let me just fit in another!

It is raining. I have some difficulty finding the entrance to the Temple. Inside, the grounds are sprawling and there are no western language signs. I walk past cherry trees with branches hanging almost to the ground in an uncharacteristic way – they must be gorgeous during sakura blooming season here. An old pagoda emerges to the right. It is fitting that it looks so old in this rather overgrown garden. There is something solitary and forgotten about the entire place. I amuse myself by thinking of ways to analogize it to me, just because of the name.

I watch the rain pour down the slate roofs of the secondary buildings. It’s all rather sad, really.

I’m ready to leave, puzzling why the doors are closed off everywhere. They should be open, for I read somewhere that this place has lovely temple rooms with well-preserved gold plated screens. I see no screens.

On my way out I study the large landscape map by the entry. It is in Japanese, but I can plainly see that it shows buildings I completely missed. I wonder whether I should go back. It is so lonely here. Last days, last hours, last temple perhaps. I go back.

I enter the forgotten Zen Temple as the rain again starts to turn vicious. What good timing. In the Zen complex of buildings, as you leave your shoes, you follow open corridors that have the smooth wood floors and are covered with roofs. Nowhere is rain less important than in a temple of this sort. In fact, I begin to think that this is as close to experiencing rain without getting wet as you can get. You are outside and yet you are protected.

Here are the screens! The cranes on one are so much like the ones I saw on the Kyoto riverbank the other day (see photos below)! This is only the second place that permits inside photographs and I am happy to be able to capture some of the interiors (I have spared blog readers my clicking nirvana). Oh, and that wood feels so good on sore feet that have walked too much today. A handful of people shuffle by noiselessly, for without shoes, our feet buff the surfaces without a sound. It is so quiet here!

Around the corner I am stunned to see a complicated Zen garden. The gravel and stones are set against a pond flanked by greenery, with the distant pagoda showing its roof above the tree tops. It is breathtakingly beautiful and the rain adds a dimension that I had not anticipated: it’s as if there is more water here than just that in the pond. I sit as so many others have sat, alone again, glad that this Ninnaji got passed over. I am again selfishly enjoying the beauty of a more quiet, contemplative Ninnaji. The place is magic. It is worth looking for.


Kazumi and Masaiko (friends from day one of my Kyoto stay) take me to another favorite food house for dinner (“Muhoumatu”). It is a ma & pa type of eating establishment: the husband and wife do everything, from going out into the hills in the morning in search of weeds to cook and garnish with, to cooking and prepping the food. As far as I can tell, no more than about 8, max 10 people can sit at the counter at the same time, the place is that small.

(FOOD:) My friends are right to praise the food. The chef, a self-taught guy, has a flair for pairing flavors. I am throwing in just one or two photos from this meal below (including wild mountain weeds tempura!), but again, I am too intent on consumption to worry about art too much.

(STARS:) A new couple comes in and sits down. Over time, we come to include them in the evening – it is a small place after all and we find ourselves commenting about the food together. The man, Matsunoto Karu, is an actor and professor of the traditional Japanese Kanze theater. I gather he is quite well-known among the acting circles.

Matsunoto asks if I would like to come and watch them rehearse tomorrow. I tell him that I am working most of the day but would be glad to come over afterwards. Kazumi offers to rearrange her schedule so that she can be in Kyoto one more day and join me for this rather nice honor.

(NATIONALISM:) As Matsunoto talks of his most recent travels to Europe and Canada where he both teaches traditional theater and acts in it, our chef grows increasingly agitated. Finally he can no longer contain his displeasure with the world. He gets our attention and proclaims: “I am not part of international. I am Japanese! I cook Japanese food, I like Japanese ways, I am Japanese! I want to stay Japanese!” He appears angry and he retreats into the back of the kitchen.

Everyone is silent, feeling profoundly embarrassed at the chef’s perceived rudeness toward me. But I am not offended. What, I don’t know that there are people like this in Japan? In the United States? In Poland as well? People who hide behind safe labels of patriotism and loyalty to their country and who resist having the external world encroach upon their safe habits that they regard as somehow superior? The difference here is that the chef expressed with a great deal of emotion something that is concealed in so many others.

I have no great tolerance for nationalism of this sort. I do not forgive it or accept it. But I don’t feel it helps to engage it at the emotional level either. I tell the chef that I admire his desire to preserve traditional Japanese ways of cooking and I let it go at that.

(KARAOKE:) It is well after midnight before my hosts suggest an evening of singing. I agree, but only for a brief hour. So much work awaits me tomorrow that I feel I should end the evening soon.

Karaoke here remains extremely popular. In most instances, it is a private activity that you engage in with your particular group of friends behind closed doors. We are given the key to one out of many rooms. There we select songs and take turns belting out the lyrics, sometimes together, sometimes in solo renditions. There isn’t the public element to it and so the competitiveness or potential humiliation are at once removed. And you can limit your musical options to those that appeal to your particular group.

Finding common ground unfortunately steers my little group to music of the Carpenters (a real favorite among the Japanese), Boz Scaggs, and less unfortunately –the Beatles and Carole King. Masaiko and Kazumi are gutsy singers, but then so am I. By this late hour, any missteps (and there are many) are extremely funny – as are the video clips that accompany each music selection. If I was tired earlier in the evening, by now I am wide awake. The struggle with aligning my internal clock continues. But sanity does lead me to finally call it quits at some beastly unmentionable late (or is it early by now?)hour. Too many miles of walking today to keep me peppy now. And there’s still the blog to attend to back at the hotel.
posted by nina, 5/10/2004 03:53:37 PM | link | (0) comments

Sunday, May 09, 2004



SUNDAY, MAY 9: I was given instruction this morning to search out flowers for the hotel room. Rain had been in the forecast and sure enough, it was raining hard. Nonetheless, am I going to settle for the hotel florist when there may be an open flower shop somewhere in the city? Of course not. The search begins.

An hour later I find one. They are in the midst of preparations for what will surely be a day of great chaos, given that this is Japan and a day to give presents and expectations center around flowers. It is early, they are not open yet, but a few coaxing nonsensical words gain me permission to enter and browse. They humor me as I pick through flower possibilities. Eventually they put together a bouquet of orchids and peonies. The care with which they work on this attests to the preoccupation they have in this country with flowers. In the hotel as well, when I ask for a vase, they bring several to my room to assess which will look better and then insist on a careful arranging of each stalk.

Thank you, and for the cards as well!

Oh-oh. Am I forgetting something? Like the need to finish this quickly and go upstairs to call someone in Berkeley? My mother by now will have told everyone in her senior home that she expects to hear from neither of her daughters. I am certain that stories about daughter inattentiveness figure prominently in her conversations. Sorry to disappoint, Mom, I'm about to call!


I met Kazumi and her boyfriend (is that the correct term for a man who is 42?), Masaiko, on my first night in Kyoto, at a sushi bar (see post below). She is coming in to Kyoto today to take me around to places I am not likely to find on my own (Masaiko is working and will join us for dinner later).

I come down to the hotel lobby and she is there, along with two friends (Mieko and Eiko) from her ‘Cultural Center English class.’ The Japanese are forever studying English in an attempt to improve their speaking skills. Nevertheless, all three barely speak it at this point. I would say that the chances of my simple sentences being understood are at best 50 – 50. Of course, my Japanese skills remain at a level that, when rounded up, comes close to 0.

Kazumi has a plan for today and she is undaunted by the steady rain. She has brought along brochures, maps and booklets, meticulously marked with post-its. I tell her I will follow along and do whatever she suggests.

1. BOX LUNCHES: I associate the term ‘box lunch’ with something you eat on the run (although in Japan this would have to be SITTING DOWN). Obviously I am wrong. We walk to a place that is slow-paced and refined. Two men spend the entire time we are there arranging food for presentation. That is all they do – they bring it in from the kitchen and work to creatively place it in boxes that are then brought to us. I did not want to become too obsessed with my camera during this day (that’s true for the remaining pictures as well: my attention was too much on my hosts and the places we were visiting) and so these basic photos will have to suffice. The use of choice plates and containers is, of course, extremely important to the arrangements. I wont even begin to describe the food itself. Absolutely delicious. And about ten times as much (in quantity) as I would normally eat in the course of the day.

2. TOFUKU-JI: There are Zen temples and then there are Zen temples. There are gardens and then there are lush gardens. We travel by train to Tofuku-Ji, a temple outside of Kyoto that can be described as perhaps the ‘lushest’ of them all.

In part, it is the time of the year. In May, the juxtaposition of various shades of greens is especially pronounced and it serves the Japanese gardens well. A Japanese maple with its delicate pointy leaves looks stunning next to a fir with curved, darker blue-green branches.

And in the Zen creations, where pebbles are raked (with a bamboo pole) into a checkerboard design or into one with circles, the greens again come to play a role, both in the strategically placed bushes in the background and the mosses that figure into the template.

The rain has stopped and miraculously, it does not come back for the rest of the day. Incredible luck.

Kazumi’s leadership is crucial in getting us from one point to another. I am a mere puppy, following along, asking irritating questions, liking the role of the person without a plan, without any idea even as to where we are going and why. I am repeating the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘splendid’ over and over, but it is appropriate and true. (It is also dangerous to try to introduce a new word. At one point I commented on how polite the Japanese people are to each other. Polite? – ask my hosts. What’s that? They look through their dictionaries and say ‘aaaah, kind.” No, not kind, I say. Kind is different. But how do you explain the difference with a “see Spot run” vocabulary? A challenge.)

3. UJI: Several stops further on the train line we come to the town of Uji. Just as Hotaka is known for wasabi and Hoppa is all about soba, Uji has two claims to fame: the Byodoin Temple with its great Phoenix Hall,

…and green tea. Grown, served, consumed in every which way, sold in all imaginable incarnations of jellies, sweets, baked goods, creams and basically anything else that you might think could be improved with a splash of green color and the strong, almost bitter flavor of this uniquely Japanese product.

At a very old tea house we eat green tea deserts (green tea jelly, green tea ice cream, rice balls, and sweet red beans).

I am given presents – packages of the green tea to take back to Madison. My new friends are wonderfully kind to me. Note that I am, of course, the tallest among them (though not the oldest! We span the years from Kazumi’s 38 to Eiko’s 54).

4. KAWAMURA SUMO FOOD SHOP: In the early evening, back in Kyoto, Meiko and Eiko depart. Both are enthusiastically plotting their first trip to America. Suddenly learning English has a concrete purpose.

Kazumi and I meet Masaiko at a tiny tiny Sumo Food Shop for dinner.

I do not associate sumo wrestling with food, but indeed, Sumo cuisine has its own unique features. Masaiko is well known in this particular place and as we sit at the counter, the cooks and staff engage us in one long conversation that orbits around figuring out how to say something in English. I feel like I am eating at someone’s home (it is getting late and we are the only clients – not that there are many seating choices were more people to come); the atmosphere verges on being rambunctious as dish after dish comes to us from behind the counter.

Anything notable? The octopus tempura, the raw squid, the sea urchin, the Kyoto veggies, the spring bamboo noodles, oh, this is getting long.

Mostly I am so FULL of food. Just when I think I cannot, CANNOT eat any more, I see plates of rice in sea weed, and then, oh, here comes a boiling pot with Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, pieces of chicken (chicken! This is my first encounter with meat in Japan!), oh stop, I cannot! What? A shojiu drink after those mugs of beer? What’s a shojiu? A GIN AND TONIC?? You have got to be kidding. How can they take it in and not appear even phased by the voluminous nature of it all? It’s healthy, yes I know, it’s all very healthy, but THERE IS SO MUCH OF IT! [The Food Shop staff gather to watch me eat. I am a source of amusement to them, I'm certain of it.]

It becomes clear that this day is more than just about sights and dishes of food. The desire to show off one’s home, to share it with someone who is just passing through is palpable. Masaiko has made a CD for me from the Kabuki Theater where he was the sound manager (he will be traveling to UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan and Harvard the following year with this troupe; he is very excited – he has never traveled abroad before). He gives me a pack of photos as well, taken by him during the last show. The chef makes up dishes we never even request. The hostess gives me scrolls with sumo titles on them. Kazumi picks up endless post cards for me. They all want me to like it here and they work hard to make this happen. I never even see the bill for the huge meal. They will not accept anything from me. They only know how to give.

I wonder what it is like to work, as Kazumi works, teaching piano lessons in this compulsive nation. Her oldest student is 57. Her youngest is just two. Two? How can you study piano at the age of two? Kazumi says the little girl just sings and sings as she bangs away at the keyboard. Kazumi herself started at the late age of four. Her music friends have gone on to do great piano things – they are currently studying at Julliard and she plans on visiting them in NY next year. But she herself sustained a hand injury while at the university and so her performance days are over. Does she like teaching? Sometimes. Just sometimes. Does she think of doing something else? Of course not. This is her job.

Maseiko and Kazumi want to go out to dinner again tomorrow night. Yes, yes, okay, but really, we have to decrease the number of dishes. I cannot keep up. Karaoke afterwards? That’s intimidating! Kazumi sings jazz on the side. Maseiko is a sound manager. This will take Karaoke to a different level than listening to renditions of “I will survive” at Noah’s Ark as sung by two girls from a Girl Scout troupe. But I am game for anything. I will let them lead. They are so good at it.

All this from a chance encounter at a sushi bar.
posted by nina, 5/09/2004 03:06:01 PM | link

Saturday, May 08, 2004



So said my colleague at the University yesterday. I didn’t understand. To me, Kyoto is the destination of choice for those wishing to see Japan through the prism of history. In the summer it is positively swarming with tourists from all corners of the world. A village?

My colleague explained that he himself was born in Osaka and moved to Kyoto as a young boy during the war. Still, he feels sometimes that he doesn’t belong. People have lived here for generations. They know who’s who. They know each other’s families. They know who is a stranger. The one who moved here from elsewhere is a stranger. This, for him, is village mentality.


I have not been writing thus far about what is in Japanese cities a very evident problem: that of homelessness. Last year, when I was in Nagoya, I asked my hosts about this issue. I got two separate answers. The students told me that it was a national scandal – that not enough was being done, that many people lost their livelihood as a result of the economic downturn. My colleague, on the other hand, suggested that many (though not all) of those living on the streets choose the lifestyle for themselves. I've heard this debate before!

The homeless in every city of Japan share the following: many inhabit miniscule hut-like structures made out of old boards, mats, cardboard and blue sheets of plastic. They construct these under viaducts, oftentimes by rivers. Apparently the city cannot forcibly remove them, as they are in some way settling into public spaces. I don’t really understand the legal complexities here – but there does seem to be a law protecting their right to park wherever they indeed are parking.

How unfortunate that I have become accustomed to seeing these blue huts now in Japan! I expect them as part of the Japanese landscape. In a city like Kyoto, I pass them often because I am always cutting a path by the river and every overhead bridge has a series of homeless huts below. It is impossible, therefore, not to mention them in the blog, because they are so much a part of my everyday walk through this city.

What amazes me, though, is how intricate these set-ups can be: many have makeshift cooking places with pots and pans; some have unique collections. Today I saw one with umbrellas hung over a fence --- dozens of them. Yesterday I saw a collection of computer screens. Computer screens??

Mostly men inhabit the blue boxes, though occasionally I will also see a woman (a spouse maybe?). Today I passed a hut that had a dog on a leash tied to one of the corner posts. The inhabitants were sitting in folding chairs outside, as if at a campsite. Except that it was their box “home.”

I have included a photo of a fairly typical set-up under one of the Kyoto bridges.


Today (Saturday), early in the morning, I took a tiny little train to Kurama, a small (really small) village on the outskirts of Kyoto. My colleague, knowing that I like walking so much, had recommended it as a place for great hiking, wonderful scenery, with a few hillside shrines thrown in to make it culturally worthwhile.

The thing about mountain or hillside shrines is that they require climbing up the hill or mountain to get to them. Having walked on an average some 4 hours per day here, I thought this was not an issue. I’ve done the Japanese Alps, for Pete’s sake! But to take a path straight up, for a handful of kilometers... Oh, the scenery is breathtaking alright. I am posting a photo to give a sense of it. At the base, the wild irises are extravagant. As the path gets steeper, cedars and bamboo trees commingle without effort. But as I climb the steep incline, my feet are just not making enough effort to raise themselves to the next step, and the next, and the next. I start tripping over stupid things, like perhaps air.

I know I’ve had a real workout when I become fodder for Asian flies and insects that can’t wait to taste last night’s dinner, some of which has, by now, made its way up to the surface of my skin.

It is a beastly hike up.

But the forest is nearly empty and it does offer magnificent surprises. There are the exposed cedar roots. And, of course, the old shrines with their drinking troughs and their dangling cords to call forth the gods.

I have to say that the other day’s post on tourists and clothes especially holds true for this day: the Japanese (at most levels of the socio-economic strata) are meticulous dressers. How else would you explain the men who wore slacks and ties and blazers for this hike? I came across at least two. I tell you, next to them, I am from frump-dom.

The village at the base of the ‘mountain’ seemed to be a good base to return to. Except the path I had taken up the mountain actually ended in the next village over. I could have retraced my steps, but I really didn’t know if the trembling muscles in my legs were up for it. Maybe all those Japanese signs I passed along the way gave warnings about not going forth unless you’ve twice ridden the Tour de France. They should have. In any event, I hugged the traffic road below to make it over to the base village.

Q: Do you eat anything at all during the day, or is it that you starve yourself so as to better enjoy dinner?
A: Every afternoon I buy an apple from some small grocer. I pick the small shops because they will always happily wash fruit for me when I ask. Then today, for instance, by about 4, I also stopped at a coffee shop and had this, the anti-Atkins special (note green tea bread):

Q: How about after dinner – do you nibble in the way that you sometimes do back home?
A: Quit giving away dark secrets about my life. Sure, because I blog late at night, my appetite returns after a brief dinner pause. I have a nice little supply from the Japanese convenience stores of cashews and almonds (they are surprisingly cheap here), sesame seed balls, and for the sweet moment -- chocolate covered almonds or red bean sesame buns. Good stuff for midnight cravings.


In the afternoon I walked my shoes to shreds visiting other temples and shrines. I have to say that the Zen temples are the most soothing tourist attraction on earth. Even the mere act of taking off your shoes, to walk on socked feet across polished wooden floors, is extraordinarily revitalizing (especially after your feet have swelled unreasonably due to excessive mountain climbing). Once inside, you see airy rooms with beautifully ornamented screens, and always there is a Zen garden with an artful arrangement of gravel and stone islands.

In the last temple I visited (Shisen Do) I came across a couple, of sorts. Clearly a man was out with his Geisha for a little Saturday outing. Even here, on the temple grounds, the Geisha was elusive. She knew I was lurking with my camera and I doubt that she liked it. She appeared deeply enmeshed in her ‘conversation’ with her man. And she was good at it: she fed him soft-spoken questions constantly. He never had to entertain her – it was all her doing.

Eventually the Geisha went out for a brief walk with her man on the temple grounds. I am certain I ruined that for them. Who could tolerate a stalker who pretends to be shooting trees but instead is discreetly (or not so discreetly) focusing the camera on the Geisha? There are times when hiding behind the ‘oblivious tourist’ shield serves one well.

A Post post scriptum

I think I have cracked the "owl, protector of the forest" puzzle (see post below on the Alpine town of Happo). Today I came across this little board. It implies that the owl is the Japanese version of Smokey the Bear, doesn't it? To the reader who wrote that the bag deserves a proper burial back home, I will admit that I can flip it around and show off its plain gray side in case I get too embarrassed by the owl cuteness. Besides, I saw a preschooler toting a very similar one the other day. Only it didn't have my wonderful owls -- it had some irrelevant goofy cartoon characters. But the style of the bag was identical. My owls would have fit right in at the local kindergarten.
posted by nina, 5/08/2004 10:00:23 AM | link

Friday, May 07, 2004



No gardens or shrines or temples today (Friday) – it is a day of heavy duty teaching in the morning and of taking a closer look at the hub of Kyoto dusk life later in the day.

I mention men and women in the post title because throughout the day this topic has surfaced in one way or another. In general, the subject of gender relations in Japan is a difficult one to take on for any number of reasons. I certainly do not want to address it in this blog at this minute. But there are a few observations that can be made that do have elements of the men – women compartmentalization that takes place here. These I am willing to put forth, though with a strong warning that they are not meant to set the stage for any conclusive argument of any sort. They are random. Completely random.

So, I jotted down a few, just from this day. Interspersed are comments about food. Of course. Total of eight points. Not too bad.

1. This morning it took me more than 90 minutes to walk to Doshisha University where I was to lecture at 9 a.m.. Therefore I had to skip Rosie’s for breakfast (it opens at 8). But in passing it, I noticed that it was not really called Rosie’s. That name came from my imagination. It is called ‘Rose Café.” That sounds more genteel, but Rosie’s felt more appropriate and homey. Anyway, I am glad I didn’t ask the proprietress if her name was, by chance, Rosie.

2. After my lecture, I was to lead a discussion on the topics I’d covered in the presentation. Although the class had 50% men and 50% women, 75% of the hands raised (with questions or comments) were those of women students (I counted). Since this is the first semester ever of a Japanese graduate program in law (up until this April, law had always been exclusively an undergrad major), I had never worked with Japanese grad students before. For me, it was exciting to teach students who were more ambitious and serious about the field. My colleagues here have mixed personal reactions. Some see it as a great burden since they have to create an entire new curriculum. BTW, of the some 12 law profs that I have repeatedly worked with in Japan, only two are women. Interestingly, neither of the two have children. All of the men (as far as I know) have children. A reminder: there’s no science in this, just random observations.

3. I lost my esteemed translator for my work in the courts next week! The law professor who had kindly volunteered to go with me to the court and assist in interpreting got a message from none other than the super esteemed professor Guido Calabresi (from Yale Law School) announcing his imminent arrival here. If Guido Calbresi asks for your personal escort services you don’t say no. So rather than act as my lowly translator, my colleague is off to greener pastures in the next few days. Did he leave me stranded without an interpreter? Definitely not. He volunteered his wife. He told me –“she speaks better English than I do anyway.” I worried that this would be an utter burden for her. He told me – “of course not! She’ll be delighted!” I don’t quite believe him on this, but I accepted the offer nonetheless.

4. I caught this picture of a group of boys heading home from school (late in the day, of course). They were so full of pent-up energy that I thought surely they would demolish everything in sight as they made their way down the street. They banged or knocked or kicked every tempting item in sight. It was interesting walking a few steps behind. Eventually I passed them, but that’s only because they got waylaid by some grimy article of clothing which they found lying on the street. Imagine the possibilities! After stomping on it, tearing it apart, etc, there still remains rubbing each others’ faces in it, etc. Such creativity!

5. On the other hand, I also passed this group of preschool children where all the little girls and the little boys (some wearing pink caps) were docile and sweet through and through. Must be the age.

6. In the afternoon I went to the food market. I inserted a few photos here, but I could sum it up in this way: the market is 80 % fish products, 10% pickle varieties and 10% everything else.

7. In the dusk I spent a while in that part of Kyoto which may be interesting to stroll through but impossible to photograph. Its regulars hate the sight of cameras and often make a point of quickly disappearing behind closed doors if they see you poised and ready to shoot. It is the place where the last remaining Geisha women work their traditional craft. Everyone moves very rapidly and you never know when a photo moment will arise. I wont even admit to how long it took before I could take a photo that could even vaguely identify the subject. I do have a strategically good spot worked out for optimal observation purposes and will sell this information to anyone who asks. It is NOT in the guide books and it almost guarantees a Geisha sighting around 5:45 each evening.

With all respect toward cultural diversity, I cannot admit to being much of a fan of the institution of Geisha. To me, the offense is especially evident in the way the recipients of the Geisha services approach the matter. If you saw the black cars full of the business elite, arriving at these private Geisha houses, if you saw their faces, their confident manner, their evident sense of entitlement, you’d possibly react with similar revulsion toward the entire set-up. Nonetheless, being a first class Geisha is a skill and a craft and it can be beautifully executed – at least at the level of appearance.

8. Dinner at Tagato was too expensive. I am indeed frustrated with the prices here sometimes (am I on a negative roll or what?). Tagato (recommended by any number of newspaper articles on Kyoto) is a very innocuous place with the charming location of a tacky shopping passageway. I ordered the smaller of the two dinner sets and one beer and left with 5,000 fewer Yen on me. TOO EXPENSIVE!

Forgetting about the TOO EXPENSIVE price tag, I would have to say that the food was very good. It was a Kyoto Kaiseki meal – a many part arrangement, with soba, tempura, steamed rice, miso soup and pickles, the typical foods offered in these sets (but TOO EXPENSIVE). One interesting situation to find yourself in is where everyone around you is suddenly eating soba noodles at the same time. The slurping noise completely unsettles you because we so are not used to eating in this way. Japanese people slurp loudly and purposefully. It is a sign of noodle enjoyment. I COUL NOT do it. So ingrained is my resistance to it that I just could not slurp with abandon. But the slurping of others was so deafening that I am sure no one noticed my silent swallowing.

Dinner photos for foodie-type readers:

posted by nina, 5/07/2004 10:35:44 AM | link

Thursday, May 06, 2004



I am still uncertain as to whether I have retained any ability to converse normally, in a language that would be understood, thus throughout today’s blog, I will periodically do a practice dialogue, just to keep in shape. I’ll ask questions of myself that I may well have asked had I been reading my own blog for the first time, if that makes any sense.

RECREATING HOME: So often when I am away I look for creating new routines that stand in for the absence of the ordinary. For instance, today I found a little spot called Rosie’s Café. It had the English words spelled out for imbecile foreigners who don’t speak Japanese. That would include me.

At Rosie’s, you could buy a set breakfast for 600 Y (a touch under $6). Here’s what you got today <-- Notice the little Japanese touch – a nice morning veggie salad. It was the OJ substitute. The entire meal was absolutely delicious –the baked goods were light and the coffee was deeply satisfying. Plus they understood my complicated request for some hot milk on the side for the coffee. Rosie’s became an instant winner and so now Rosie’s is going to be part of my morning routine.

Q: How come you always blog about food?
A: Because I like to read about food. And I like to photograph food. Food is often in my thoughts.

Q: And the weather – how was the weather on this day?
A: It was wondrously perfect: sunny, not too hot, just lovely. Thanks for asking, it is important to the story of this day.


In my morning walk I came across a private traditional Japanese garden. The attendant was selling entrance tickets at a hefty 1000 Y, but what are you going to do, not spend the money after you’ve come all this way to Japan and you enjoy gardens so much? Of course I am going to plunk down the cash, albeit with some reluctance. It is really expensive, even for here. Garden fees run anywhere from 100 to a maximum of 500 Y if there’s a shrine or two thrown in. Here, it’s just a garden.

But it was a pretty decent garden. Like in others here, the emphasis was not on flowers (blooms, if they appear at all, are limited to rhododendrons or irises – each having a short blooming life, and so basically Japanese gardens are flowerless). What was visually striking was the combination of green tones, the careful arrangements, the inclusion of water and the positioning of rocks. The play of all this on the senses was really quite astonishing. I was almost forgiving of the entry fee.


It was still reasonably early as I made my way to the first shrine in a complex of major and minor shrines. This one, the Konchi-In Temple, was off to the side, off the main path.

The attendant saw that I carried the map and brochure from the private garden. He asked if I liked it (in pretty decent, if a little halting, English). I said yes, actually it was nice enough, but I found it a touch expensive (clearly I had not reconciled myself with letting go of the $10 for it). He acknowledged that indeed it was ridiculously overpriced. He himself had never been there, even though it was all of maybe 100 meters away. He asked to see the brochure and map and I told him to keep both. He seemed deeply fascinated by them and for me, after all, it was just another brochure to take back home and forget about. He was so pleased with this! He dug into his desk and came forth with all sorts of booklets and pamphlets on the Konchi-In garden and temple and told me to keep these in exchange. I found these to be lovely and informative and so I accepted and went inside.

Let me put myself in the mood of that moment: I am completely alone there. Why, I wonder? It is the most beautiful place! It is not large, but it has all the elements that make for a magnificent perfection. The temple stands to the side and its rooms have the ornamented gold screens with flowers and cranes -- so typical of these structures. The rooms open out onto a Zen garden. I have read a lot about these and a year ago I visited the Zen of all Zens – a garden reputed to tower over the rest. But here, in this corner, I found my own perfection.

Imagine! To be sitting alone on the steps of the temple, looking out onto the peaceful arrangement of raked stones with an artful backdrop of variously shaped rocks… to be listening to the quiet, so that the history of the place, for the first time for me really, could come through and make an impression…to be transfixed by the utter serenity of the scene (it felt like getting a mind massage to get rid of the knots and toxins)…such peace is so hard to come by, and here, it just fell in my lap. It positively chokes you up when you are experiencing it.

Only one other person is on the premises. An older man is clearing the path – raking, sweeping, moving quietly among the shrubbery. He is close enough that I go up to tell him that this is the most beautiful of places, the most special of moments. He says in English “thank you.”

I find it hard to leave, but eventually I do. I go back to the gate attendant who seems happy to see me again. He asks me in his halting English “You liked it, yes? You met abbot, the famous priest of Nan-ji?” I look puzzled. I met no one. Should I? Is it expected? Does one sign a book or something? The attendant persists: “You met him! He told me. He said to give you present.” And he gives me a collection of pictures from the garden and temple.

I had no idea the sweeper was a man of great stature. He seemed so approachable, even to me.

I don’t know why his gesture meant so much to me. Possibly I was already overwhelmed. That extra touch of generosity and kindness just put me over the top. One more word and I would have burst into tears or had some other uncontrollable emotional reaction, so I just left. But I’ll go back some early morning before I leave Kyoto.


Yes, yes, there were other temples, some more famous than Konchi-In. I am including some photos to compare and contrast. (I can’t resist, though I am mindful of overblogging here.) In some, the Zen raked pebbles approach a complexity that is quite remarkable. The one (pictured right below) in Ginkakuji stands out. And, of course, there is always a water component to the display. But, this not being a travel guide, I wont run through them. I did think that this last garden had terrific moss as part of the composition. Indeed, to the side, I found the following informative little display [it says: “VIP: Very Important Moss.” Cute.]

I didn’t want to clutter the blog with too many photos which have little meaning to the reader and so I skipped putting in ones of the real garden sweepers: they can be found everywhere. Most interesting is, I think, their sweeping of streams. They literally wipe down the stones under the water. Of course, the paths and the gardens themselves, including the forested parts, are immaculate. The sense of order is absolute. Nothing is out of place. Living in the crowded chaos of the world outside, this must be such welcome relief to a Japanese visitor. To me – it is sheer marvel.


I know Kyoto is not the only city with a Philosophers' Path. But the one here is quite wonderful. In a congested city, it manages to quietly meander its way alongside a stream over a significant stretch. Occasional benches offer a chance to contemplate. Of course, I assume that philosophers of the past did not merely sit and think their great thoughts. Most likely they had an ongoing discourse, to be picked up again when next they found themselves here. But this is a different era and so we offer our own style of contemplation. Consider these three examples from my passing walk among those with great thoughts. There was the comfortable thinker:

The one who looked the part:

And the artist:

And where would I fit in? My thoughts, as usual, were all over the place. Perhaps they did not match those of past great minds who have walked this path. On the other hand, they were one step ahead of the first guy.

Q: So is that all the food we’re going to get? Weren’t you hungry?
A: One doesn’t think of food when one is achieving inner peace. I did buy these sesame buns with sweet bean paste. See what I mean? It somehow sounds odd out of context, but I sampled some here and I love them! Dinner hasn’t been eaten yet. Maybe I’ll blog about it, maybe I wont. Depends on the hour – I have work scheduled for early tomorrow.

Q: Do you find yoursefl missing flowers, what with all those trees to look at in the garden?
A: The flowers make an appearance in the flower shops.

And who would not love the trees?

Q: Were you the only foreigner around, sort of like in Nagano and Matsushima?
A: Oh, heavens no! They are not numerous yet (wait until summer!) but foreigners are part of Kyoto – Americans have a significant expat community here (I am recalling my very first posts of the blog where I was reading Pico Iyer’s book on Kyoto). And there are the handfuls of tourists here and there – I’ve heard quite a bit of Russian which just strikes me as odd (I don’t know why, but it does). And then there are the Europeans and Australians.

Q: Do they stand out much? I’m always curious how foreign visitors handle cultural differences when they are visiting…
A: It seems to me that all “westerners” stand out in Japan because, by comparison, they (sorry, WE) are such slobs! The elegance of the average Japanese is striking. Women wear nylons on their walks through these gardens and temples. Men are in slacks and blazers. Americans cannot stop wearing shorts (I am not one of them!). I do feel like a wrinkled mess here and I neglected to bring anything made of silk so there’s a mismatch right then and there. I dutifully do my own laundry every single night and so it’s not the cleanliness that’s at issue, but being in a big Japanese city always makes me feel unkempt.
The bigger question is how much SHOULD one conform to the standards of the host country? One might argue that we all have risen ABOVE the bourgeois concepts of appearance in search of higher virtues, but the argument rings false to me. I think we just don’t care about conforming – we like to assert our individual independence. That’s fine, but to a point. These shorts, especially on cooler days, HAVE to go. They just are WRONG for anywhere but the beach. Urban is urban. One should adjust, it seems. And I do really try to not look frumpy. But next to a Japanese, I am always on the side of frump.
posted by nina, 5/06/2004 05:39:09 AM | link

Wednesday, May 05, 2004



- You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to find an international ATM machine at Tokyo Station (a transfer point for me today) on the busiest travel day of the year (May 5th, end of Golden Week), loaded down with a broken suitcase, a computer and an “owl, protector of the forest” sack, while the country is on a Rail high alert (terrorist fears). Disneyland on the 4th of July could not compare.

- Before leaving Nagano, I watched a small band perform outside in celebration of Children’s Day. It was drizzling steadily so it couldn’t have been fun for them. The kid musicians had an interesting English name plastered over their drums and tubas: the Ducky Marching Band. Made me wonder if they were fashioning themselves after the Bucky Marching Band.

- On the trains that connect major cities, the English-language announcer asks passengers to put their 'moblie phones' on vibrate or silent mode. If you decide to take a call, etiquette demands that you go to the end of the car. Interestingly, on the Van Galder Bus to Chicago’s O’Hare, the driver also asked cell-phone users to please be courteous in phone conversations. He explained that this means talking in a voice that you’d use while conversing with your seat mate. (Do people typically shout without restraint otherwise?)

- Mistakes made by me continue to punctuate each day: Yesterday I hastily drank my coffee and ate my left-over soba cookies (what do you mean ‘that’s not a proper breakfast?’ I call that a good breakfast!) on the run, trying to catch my Highland bus early in the day. I’m sure I caused great consternation and discomfort among those around me. I’d forgotten that eating while walking is a shameful act here (ice-cream is the exception).


I could not tell you on the basis of my stay here thus far, though in this exceptionally confusing city, it helps that it is a return visit for me. Today, I arrived in the late afternoon and spent the next hours trying to understand the computer set up in this particular hotel. It is yet another permutation of technological resources: fast Ethernet service is available, but I have to take my computer down to the business center (a funny description: it is a closet with three computers in it) each time. No matter, at least it’s not dial-up.

Kyoto in the early evening (pictured here along its river bank) is the Kyoto every foreign traveler wants to experience. It is at once charming and seedy and dirty and expensive and colorful and full of the old Japan you’d worried doesn’t exist anymore. (Though should it? For your pleasure alone?) You can see rare glimpses of Geisha women still shuffling stiffly to spend an evening pleasing their sponsoring men. Kyoto during the day is all about temples and shrines (there are hundreds of them here and each is different). In the night, it is about a more sensual pleasure.

DINNER: It is back to the LP guide for food suggestions. And there are many in this town! I pick the wonderful, the fresh and honest Ganko Zushi.

Oh, I feel so fickle! My Nagano chef has been replaced by this Kyoto one (who in addition to being a great cook, has a modest kind of charm that is downright infectious).

I asked that he prepare a small selection of sushi for me and then, for my main course, I chose the crab and vegetable broth dish: I got a pot of hot broth and a plate of raw crab and veggies to cook in it. It sounded easy enough, but of course there are ten thousand tricks involved (for instance, would you know what to do with the little square of tofu in the broth? And how about once you cook a veggie – what then? And, the red peppery horseradish – where does that fit in? on and on…).

At the counter next to me, a couple, Kazumi and Masahiko, were eating their dinner and watching me flub everything in sight. They were, I am certain, amused no end. Ever so discreetly Kazumi would suggest the proper next step (for instance, to avert an imminent disaster, like having the pot boil over because I didn’t know how to regulate the heat). Occasionally, her friend Masahiko would offer tips – at first on the topic of the proper consumption of Japanese food and eventually in other domains as well.

Kazumi and Masahiko aren’t from Kyoto. They live some ways away, though they come to this city frequently. In their ‘real life’ they work, I think, in the arts – she teaches piano, he does sound engineering (there are so many leaps involved in getting to that level of understanding, but an exchange of cards helped in at least professional identification). Masahiko’s English is pretty much non-existent and Kazumi struggles with even basic expressions. Still, in the course of the evening they proved themselves to be sweetly generous. And it seems we have a friendship in the making since on Sunday Kazumi suggested that she and Masahiko come in to Kyoto to take me to places that are their personal favorites here. I’m looking forward to that. Even with all sorts of language issues that are bound to arise, I can tell that spending a day with them will be well worth the communication struggles.

As for the verdict on the food? I have absolutely no complaints. Even about the final bill, which says a lot.
posted by nina, 5/05/2004 10:36:09 AM | link

Tuesday, May 04, 2004



Not surprisingly, the little crispy critters in my last post generated some discussion. I had mentioned to one reader that it could have been worse: for one wild moment I worried that the dish was actually cockroaches rather than grasshoppers. The reader responded thus:

“[The grasshoppers] must actually taste good or people wouldn't keep eating them. Why do we dare to eat lobsters? I think cockroaches are bitter or bad tasting in some way. You never hear about people eating them. They live in filth, but grasshoppers just eat a lot of vegetation, so they are probably very close to the vegetable themselves.”

I wondered, therefore, if vegetarians (the ones that draw the line at meat-eating but will accept fish, etc) would contemplate eating grasshoppers?

Another reader asked if a picture of the half-tanned me is in the offering. Answer: NO!!!

I have had a few of my students taking ‘study breaks’ (the Family Law exam is in two days) with my weblog. I’m all for that (the study breaks I mean). And yes, you can consider fish as ‘brain food.’ Go ahead, take a sushi break as well.


Throughout the country I see wind socks (is that what they’re called?) flying, suspended over rivers and near shrines: colorful carp, blowing in all directions. Much of this is in celebration of the third and last of the Japanese Golden Week holidays: today (May 5) is Children’s Day.

Often, the very young children here eye me with complete suspicion and distrust: I look THAT different to them. Their parents will coax and prod them to smile or wave. Sometimes they comply, but often times they do not (consider the picture of the twin girls at a train station; since the parents were there, I asked for permission to photograph. The parents said yes, but this was the girls’ response-->)

As they get older, their admiration of things (and people) from across the ocean grows. They go out of their way to demonstrate friendliness and curiosity, often wanting to practice their English, or wanting me to say something about my travels to Japan. A simple complement about their town will send them into paroxysms of delight.

Children. We, the travelers, are so drawn to them! Their faces look so lovely, genuine, even when touched by economic disparity, they are still beautiful. It is wonderful to have the entire nation take a day off to celebrate their worth.


Nagano’s flowers recede as I take my various combinations of trains to my next stop, the longest of the trip – in Kyoto.
posted by nina, 5/04/2004 06:32:46 PM | link



The notable thing about today (Tuesday) is that it is supposed to rain. For days now it has been in the forecast. Don’t do anything grand on Tuesday, the Tourist information Center tells me, it is going to rain. The Japan Times is in agreement. Across Japan, Tuesday = rain.

But this morning I look out the window and see this:

It’s not that I proceed to disbelieve the weather people, it’s that I think that perhaps the rain will be an on again, off again kind of thing.

Besides, it is my last day in Nagano. Tomorrow, official holiday time comes to an end and, along with the rest of Japan, I will resume my work-related activities, sprinkled for me with some down time here and there. But today is free completely and so I want to return to the mountains.

The Tourist Information Center suggested that I check out the region called Hakuba: it is where some of the Olympic events took place (the ski jump for one). A 90 minute bus ride will put me in the little town of Happo, which even sounds joyful and upbeat.

There aren’t many people heading for Happo this morning (one, besides me). Everyone else listened to the weather forecast. And here’s the REALLY dumb thing: I decided to not even take my umbrella. My Gap back is showing signs of ripping and I thought one more item may tip it over the edge. So no umbrella.

It remains decentish as we leave Nagano. But as we climb deeper into the highlands, the first drops appear. By the time I get off at Happo, I am not happy to note that that it is raining. Pouring, actually.

Do I get on the next return bus to Nagano? No, I do not. I have had my day of sunshine in the Japanese Alps. This now poses different challenges. Surely in this sleepy Alpine village (Happo is, I am sure, positively hopping in winter, during ski season) there can be good things to discover, even in the rain. [The answer will be yes – so much, YES!]

I NEED AN UMBRELLA: But first, there’s the umbrella issue. I ask at the bus ticket office where I might buy one, fearing that “nowhere” may well be the answer. I never even get an answer. The sweet, sweet agent tells me to borrow hers, resting in the umbrella rack at the side. The happiness starts kicking in (it is THAT kind of a place).

SOBA THIS…:Encouraged, I walk to the mountains. Interestingly, it is a very warm rain and so I never even need the extra sweater. But warm or not, it is still a heavy load of moisture. I decide to hold off on the mountains until the torrential cloud passes (so that we could return to the more steady rain). I walk slowly through the alleys and small streets and I come across a house with a big window. Inside, I see an older woman showing a younger one how to roll out dough. I’ve seen this dough before – it is the soba that is used for noodles here. I watch fascinated. This clearly is a soba noodle-making place. I hover in the doorway and the people from inside ask me to come in and watch.

There is a trick to working with this particular dough, but it is not a difficult trick. I think I can replicated it, though my rolling pin at home is one tenth the length of theirs. But it will work. I make a note to pick up some soba flour to take back home.

I am offered tea – soba tea and it is absolutely sublime. I definitely taste the buckwheat, but it is so mellow and aromatic that I am completely won over. I make a note to bring some of that home as well (anyone who wants to come over for a cup upon my return, email me; the tea is to be shared; after all, it is through someone’s sharing that I learned of it).

As I get ready to leave, I see two other young women arriving, clearly for their soba noodle-making lesson. We chat in the typical incomprehensible way. One of them asks me if I would like to join them in their lesson. In an uncharacteristic move on my part, I decline, though I am ever so touched by the offer. But having watched for a while, I feel comfortable with the technique and in truth, I do want some time to explore. The rain is now just steady, as opposed to torrential.

After buying some soba flour and soba tea, I began to despair. My Gap bag is loosing it’s navyness. It is not only bulging, but the characteristic Gap draw string is ripping the plastic. In short, it is time to find alternate solutions.

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart.. A MIRACLE: just around the corner there is a souvenir shop loaded with pretty old-looking food stuffs (we are definitely in the off season now; no one is buying). And there on the shelf, alongside little trinkets that have the typical nonsensical English slogans, there is a very inexpensive sac on two sturdy cords that you could use in a bag-pack style. It, too, has a slogan. It says: “Forest of Owl --- whatashiwa morino guardman” and it has sweet pictures of owls on it. Precious, maybe a tad too precious for jaded Madison. But a LIFESAVER for me now – it is just what I need and it is cheap!

I do worry about what whatashiwa morino guardman means. I ask the store clerk, which has to be the most ludicrous of questions since he seems to speak all of two words of English, if that. But this being Happo, he understands my gestures and questioning stance and so he gets a dictionary and does a rough translation. I believe it is something about owls being the protectors of the forests. The owl is a mascot of this region and so it makes sense. [Of course, I could have completely misunderstood and he could have been telling me that the owls form a marching army of military activists, but let’s assume not.]

Equipped with something that will even stay dry under the borrowed umbrella, I set off for the forest. The woods in the rain have a fresh, exhilarating smell. It is quiet everywhere. There’s not a single walker out except for me. But I know I wont go far. The rain is, after all, wet.

A WORKING GONDOLA? I notice that at the side of the mountain, where the skiing terrain is located, one of the gondola lifts is in operation. I can’t imagine why. Is it maybe a way to keep the operators on the payroll year-round? Surely no one is riding the gondola in the rain up to a clouded-over summit. And since no one is doing it, I decided I must be the one person to give it a try and see what’s on the top.

To give them credit at the gondola station, no one thinks it weird that I should buy at ticket on this wet wet day. At least their faces hide their questions about my mental state.

As the gondola moves in and out of misty passages I admit I have moments of doubt about my sanity. I find being in dense fog a bit claustrophobic and this is promising to be a trip through very cloudy terrain. But I do notice that I am not the only one using the gondola. A person gets off at the base and he is carrying skis. Skiis???

At the top, I alight to what appears to be the mid-station of a ski area. Oh, it is raining alright, and the air is still warm, but the snow has not melted up here yet – at least not completely – and there are some fanatics who are actually skiing. (The season officially ends here on May 5th –that’s tomorrow).

Am I tempted to join the nuts on the slope? Only a little. Much as I’d like to work my way down that slope, I know that one fall would have me completely drenched in the wetness of the slushy snow. TO SAY NOTHING OF THE CONTINUING RAIN!! I have, after all, never skied with an umbrella before.

But there is another reason not to do it. These people have EQUIPMENT: not only ski gear (which is always easy to rent), but waterproof parkas, gloves, hoods, the works. I, along with my little “Owl, protector of the forest” pack, would definitely feel out of place.

I stand and watch for a while. The mountain goes in and out of cloudcover and I remember how frightening it is to be skiing down and finding yourself in a complete whiteout. You lose your orientation very quickly. Of course, I’ve seen this during snowstorms, never during rain! The most incongruous sight is the one pictured faintly here (these are not optimal photographic conditions): a sakura tree, beginning its bloom, against the backdrop of the wet, snowy ski mountain.

Eventually I take the gondola back down. One attendant has the sole job of wiping down seats in the cabin for future passengers. I’d say that at the rate of one passenger per 1000 cabins, his job seems pretty tame, but then, I am grateful for the dry seat.

P.S.: A break from dinner reflections tonight. You guessed it – I’m back at Gotoku Tei for a final farewell meal there. But tomorrow I am in a completely new locale. Food will be an item once more, I’m sure.

P.P.S. Break from dinner blogging is withdrawn! My hero chef prepared a whole new seasonal menu tonight! Only two of the 11 dishes overlapped from the day before. I’ll spare the descriptions and just roll out a few photos for the foodies among you. EXCEPT, except, well, I have to say that the meal had a problem course. Take a look at the first photo.

If your favorite Japanese chef in Nagano (true, I only know one) went all out for your last night and threw in a delicacy to make you remember this meal forever, would you not eat it? Of course you would. Crispy yummy grasshoppers. What could I do… I’ll still think great thoughts of these last three meals. And if truth be told, the taste of the bugs was quite okay. But oh, those little legs and whiskers and eyes and torsos…So crunchy, too!

posted by nina, 5/04/2004 03:13:03 AM | link

Monday, May 03, 2004



1. Today (Monday) I am tired and not because of all that hiking but because of worrying about blogging between the hours of midnight and 3. Resolve: I will not be so stupid again.

2. Half of me looks like I spent 2 weeks in the Caribbean. For some odd reason the right side of me got very very tanned yesterday (face, neck, arm, the whole bit). It must have been a trail’s positioning, or perhaps the doze by the lake, but I do look odd. I have to give a lecture in two days. I hope I look less odd by then.

3. The Rail Pass is wonderful for a person like me who was raised on train travel (my parents didn’t even own a car until I was in my teens) and would not mind spending a portion of each day in a comfortable train seat. (I include the qualification “comfortable” because there are trains in Poland that I would only recommend to persons whom have caused great harm in this world.) Not surprisingly then, on this day I am again riding the Japan Rail.


My morning today is at Hotaka – a small town, known for its farming of wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Hotaka is at the foot of the high Japanese Alps; it sprawls across a RELATIVELY flat stretch of land. Let me repeat: RELATIVELY.

…So that my idea of borrowing a bike to move around on is only a semi-good one. I say ‘borrow,’ because the woman renting a handful of bikes has this charming way of proceeding: she tells me to pick a bike, writes my name down on a piece of paper and waves me off .

No credit card? No deposit? No lock on the bike for when I park? No gear shift? NO! How did she know I would not abscond with it? Well, you’d have to take one look at the bike and you’d understand: a one-speed squeaky brake special. But it moved and stopped when I asked it to and she charged me 100 Y (about a dollar) per hour. In Japan. Yes. That little.

THE PROBLEM: The wind today is of gale force, I’m sure. Schools would close and people would go down to the basement back in Wisconsin if we had such gusts blowing. Pedaling against the wind, sometimes uphill, on a one-speed bike is----difficult.

THE JOY: Visiting a large scale wasabi farm is cool enough, especially since the producers went ALL OUT to attract visitors. There are paths through various wasabi-growing bogs (irrigated by pure Alpine streams). There is a wasabi store where you can buy ANYTHING wasabi related (gift shops here are 99% about food). And, there is even a wasabi ice-cream stand. It appears I’ve fallen into a rut of sorts: here’s the photo of the cone which, btw, was quite good , with a nice bit of zest to it.

But in spite of all the wasabi thises and thats, my favorite moment was not while in pursuit of the horseradish in this wasabi paradise. Without doubt, my very favorite moment of the day was when I biked on narrow random paths and came across a family tending its rice field. It is planting time now. Three generations were working diligently to speed up the process. Note the youngest member’s hard contribution. Watching them go about the work, knowing that they never had an audience and were enjoying one now, seeing the little one smile and smile as the wind blew her hair about was quite lovely.


So ‘sings’ the station announcer in a welcoming way when you get off in this town. I went there in the afternoon because it is supposed to charm: smaller than Nagano, it too, is a gateway to the mountains and it has several streets of old merchant houses that are pleasant enough to stroll through. It also is a castle town and the Japanese do love their old castles. And, since they are quite into ranking things, I should note that this particular castle is within the top four in the country. Reason enough to enjoy it? Not really.

What makes for a successful visit to these places, I wonder? Perhaps you warm to places where you are able to identify some essential local trait, spirit, character and you encounter it while there. Perhaps you feel drawn to a spot because you meet someone who lives there and for a second you imagine what it must be like to be located there for the better part of your life. Or, maybe you just have to be in the right frame and my frame was somehow deficient this day.

TOGAKUSHI FOOD (or, if the shoe, NOT THE HORSE SHOE, fits, wear it)

I went back to Gotoku Tei for dinner. How can one do better than this basement joint in the “ladies of the night” building, with the wonderfully fresh ingredients and the terrific cook to watch all evening long?

THE LADIES ISSUE: Readers may think that I exaggerate about the ‘ladies of the night’ thing and that I have no basis for drawing my rather inflammatory conclusions. Okay, doubting junipers, just for you, I am including a few photos of what one may find on one of the floors of the shabby old building. Having seen some of these ladies, let me assure you, they are not here to give tutorials in LSAT test taking.

SOY BEAN CHUTNEY: At Gotoku Tei all is calm and I am again in my little counter seat, staring at the cook who moves so skillfully between his grilled fish and pickles with soy bean chutney. [A digression: I bought a jar of this in the mountain village yesterday. Why? Because there was a line and people were buying at a fast pace and it reminded me of my early years in Poland when you would rush to any line that was forming in a store and only then ask what was being thrown onto the empty shelves. Usually it would be toilet paper. People always lined up for extra toilet paper supplies. Here, I did ask those around me what it is that I was buying but no one had the English to explain it adequately. I encountered this ‘relish’ again at the wasabi farm where you could buy a snack of long pickles which you would then dip in a little paper container of this stuff. I was almost going to buy a bright green pickle for munching purposes, but then I saw someone picking through the pickles with their hand, testing this one’s firmness, then that one’s and somehow the taste for it disappeared. I know that they are all washing their hands constantly here, but still, I imagined many hands had picked through the pickle pot and that was rather unsettling.) Now, sure enough, the soy spread is here again, at Gotoku Tei.

AVOIDING DELICACIES: I ordered a different set of dishes on this night– these were under heading of “Togakushi meal” (though the photos make at least one look similar, they are in fact quite different in both taste and presentation). Togakushi is the region I visited yesterday and I would not have even hesitated to pick this menu (being rather a fan of the region) except that the area is known for its fine horsemeat and I worried that a plate of it would be among the parade of eleven dishes that I’d eventually have to work my way through. If forced by circumstances, I could swallow even this ‘delicacy,’ but they would have to be rather extreme circumstances and I would not enjoy it.

You can imagine my attempt at formulating the “is there horsemeat?” question (which I felt compelled to ask before taking the plunge into Togakushi food). In spite of my best efforts at demonstrating what I was referring to, the waitress drew a blank. Luckily my hero chef came to the rescue and said in almost perfect English “Togakushi meal no meat.” I am on a fish roll here!

Again, it was all abundantly delicious, although I did not realize that in this particular grilled fish plate, the crustaceans are supposed to be ingested whole – shells and all. They are grilled to a crisp and I saw patrons crunching away at the entirety. I don’t know about that… (Included are a food photos for the reader who lobbied for them. Your loyalty will be rewarded!)
posted by nina, 5/03/2004 12:50:09 PM | link

Sunday, May 02, 2004



Yes, more food photos are forthcoming! Yes, you saw a sailor suit in the photo of the girl riding the train to school. Older kids wear uniforms; sailor suits for girls are quite common. Yes, yes, yes, I am talking to myself a lot each day.


Today (Sunday), by 3 a.m. I am awake and ready to go. Only the world is lagging behind. I patiently wait until I can catch the 6:30 am local rickety bus up into the mountains.

Here’s the issue: it’s Sunday. Nothing, not the hotel coffee shop, nor even Starbucks open before 7. How desperate do I have to be to enter into the one place that has opened its golden doors to the world (i.e. McDonald’s)? Pretty desperate. I’m not there yet. Who needs food and coffee in the morning anyway? I’ll get something in the mountains.


It was to be a day of questionable weather resolutions. Maybe some sun, maybe some clouds, maybe some sprinkle, maybe not. The typical report that tells you absolutely nothing. But it doesn’t take great meteorological training to recognize that the day has a bite to it and that there are ominous clouds in the distance, hanging over the mountains. What to do? Rain on mountain hikes can take away any elements of fun.

I decide to venture forth anyway. When you’re all clothed in warm layers, you begin to believe that no bad weather can get through to you. Still, as the bus begins its slow climb up the hills I worry. I am already feeling a bit nippy and I haven’t even left the bus. All my extra sweaters slowly make their way from my Gap plastic bag* onto me. And still the bus climbs and the air gets nippier. I begin to see patches of snow outside. I start to study the schedule for a return bus back. Like one that would leave within minutes.

*I have to mention here how foolish one feels hiking with a plastic Gap bag swinging from the side. Japanese people are all about EQUIPMENT. Backpacks, side packs, outerwear, binoculars, fancy cameras (and I mean FANCY) –I saw them all today – me, with my versatile can-go-from-evening-at –a-nice-place to hike-in-the-woods black purse and yes, the Gap bag. I know, the fashion conscious among you are cringing at the moment.

The bus chug chuggs up the hills and I see nothing but dark gray skies. Am I even in the mountains? What mountains?


[Proper lyric identification will reward you with fore-vision as to where this is heading. A digression: when I was a teen I used to look to these (and other similarly situated) lyrics in search of great personal inspiration. Others read Kafka and Shakespeare, I listened to a recording from Carousel. Telling, isn’t it?]

I get off the bus. It is cold. This is a challenge! Even if I wanted to return, buses don’t run that often and there is no shelter nor any place open that would keep me warm. It is, after all, Sunday morning. All wise people are asleep. Foolish hardy souls are out in search of who knows what. (Actually I do know what, at least for some of them: a handful are out and about for bird watching purposes.)

For me, it’s time to institute a BRISK WALK, there’s no other way to feel warm.

My first hike is to a mountain shrine, nestled deep in a forest of redwoods (really: they are tall, they are red). The path is almost empty. There is slushy snow here and there.

I’m climbing now, getting closer, and suddenly (yes, I mean it, quite suddenly) the gray clouds break up and the sky clears (it remains clear for the rest of the day) and the small shrine appears against the backdrop of tall rugged peaks bathed in a faint morning sunshine. The sight is breathtakingly beautiful.


Another trail that I then pick up, takes me through a forest where Japanese skunk cabbage plants are blooming (one of the first of the ‘Alpine blooms’ of the season I gather). After a delightful meander through this wet-from-the-melted-snow woodsy area, the trail ends in an Alpine meadow. That is wonderful enough. But to create an ABSOLUTELY STELLAR MOMENT for me, you’d have to then also have, at a bare minimum, a little family-run café there, with some treats and very good coffee (after all, I have now been hiking for some 3 hours and I have yet to have my morning coffee and breakfast), all set against the backdrop of magnificent mountains. EUREKA: there it is!

This may well be near the top of the top morning coffee moments. The place is small – maybe 5 tables? The entire family is fussing about. The two boys get treats, the dad, upon learning that I am willing to spend the extra 20 Yen (that would some 20 cents) for the “no chemical” coffee, is grinding some beans for me. The mother explains in halting English that the cookies are soba cookies (that would be buckwheat: this is Japan’s soba region). I am in heaven.


My third trail takes me through a mixed forest of bamboo and pine. [All thee trails are basically empty. Even though it’s no longer early and it is the big vacation week, I’ve learned that people basically stick to the shrines in their walks.] My goal is a lake that I have noted on a map.

And here comes the moment of moments: I emerge from the thicket and it’s all there: the still lake, the high mountains in a subtle spring sun, and an occasional blooming sakura to make it completely Japanese. I collapse on the grass and just gaze and gaze. It takes more than an hour to get me up and going again. Who would want to leave a moment like that?


It can’t all be great, after all. Stellar moments have to be off-set by less stellar ones because otherwise how can you tell which are stellar and which are just common, everyday type experiences?

Today, the less stellar is the hike to the village. The hike itself is fine. In fact, in a clearing, I come across a group of Japanese women playing wooden flutes. One of them speaks decent English and as I pause, she explains that they are rehearsing in this way for some gig or other. [The one who spoke to me was actually completely blind. I wondered how on earth she’d made it up there. This path is quite rugged and steep. Even I had trouble with the tree roots and odd stones and places where it was flooded from melting snows. Is it the Japanese perseverance in the face of obstacles?]

But as I emerge in the village, I know that bliss is somewhere back there in the paths and Alpine meadows. The place is packed with day trippers. To sit down somewhere for a snack would require waiting and no one is going to have patience for this one person who can’t read a single menu item anywhere. I settle for soba ice cream (soba this, soba that) and people-watching from the curb.


Perhaps that overstates the case. I was not exactly desperate. But after a good 7+ hours of mountain hiking, I was ready for something more substantial than soba thises and thats. Time to return to Nagano.

I ask someone at the hotel for a dining suggestion. My Lonely Planet is directing me to Italian places and Japanese places that had gone out of business (nice 2004 update!). I want something local and small-scale (meaning, can we keep the cost down PLEASE).

I got the perfect thing (though cheap is not an adjective that can be applied to any Japanese meal, so let’s just say it was comparatively modest in price). In the basement of a building that I do believe housed places where young women entertained older men, there is a spot called Gotoku Tei (I wouldn’t have found it, but one of the young women escorted me to it).

I sit at the counter and watch the young chef, accompanied by a harried apprentice, slice, dice, plate and prepare foods for the handful of customers. I order the “seasonal menu” (so it says in English, explaining nothing else except that it will have 11 little plates of food – as opposed to the bigger or lighter menus which would have one or two more or less). I wont describe it: how boring for the reader to listen to the list of fishes and soups and artful veggies (yes, wonderful veggie tempura and also the crisp raw ferns from the forest which are absolutely delicious—L’Etoile back in Madison, occasionally serves them, but in very limited quantities. Here, they are bright green in their freshness), and to end it all, the soba noodles, swimming in a soy-based broth. A good way to end a Sunday in the mountains.
posted by nina, 5/02/2004 11:56:32 AM | link

Saturday, May 01, 2004



I finally understood why I am seeing so many little children everywhere (especially in Matsushima), but not any big children. For a while I worried that big children had left Japan in pursuit of academic excellence elsewhere. But no, of course they’re here! I saw a train-load in the wee hours of this morning as I caught my little commuter train out of Matsushima. They’re in school right now (including Saturdays). They do not have a Golden Week off. Their parents may have a Golden Week, their little sisters and brothers who are not yet in school have it as well, but bigger kids are in great halls of learning from early in the morning until late into the day. (I’ve included a photo here of a none-too-happy soul riding the train this morning to her school, and a somewhat happier bunch returning home in Nagano.)


Every time I pass through a train station I have a chance to see yet another display (usually more than one) of prettily-wrapped boxes of sweet treats. The Japanese are such gift givers! Wherever they go they take with them a small gift. Sweets rank high on the list of possible presents and on the train many will be carrying bags with boxes of goodies for the person they are going to visit.

I brought some of these treats back to Madison last time I returned from Japan, but somehow I think they got lost in translation. Even for me, back home, I wondered what the charm of sesame paste confections or green tea cakes was, whereas in Japan I thought both were exquisite. (Green tea anything is done well here: my green tea snack from this afternoon is pictured here on the left; it is NOT suspended in the air, I am just an artful balancer of cones.)


I learned recently that it is impolite to blow your nose in public and so I am glad I do not have the sniffles (though delicate sniffling –meaning blowing in rather than out if you have a cold—is acceptable).

On the other hand, I have never heard so many people sneeze so constantly and so loudly as I have here. It’s as if Japan has one big allergy taking hold.

And, so long as I am on this indelicate topic of germs and nasal passages, I do wonder if people here who wear masks in public (and there are a number who do so) are protecting us from them or themselves from the rest of the unsanitary world.


Readers may be wondering by now: a week in Japan and no shrines under my belt? (Most likely not a single person reading this is wondering any such thing, but it is at least a theoretical possibility****.) The short answer is that yes, indeed, I have visited shrines, temples, Buddhas, Jizo statues (that’s the one a step down from Buddha; Jizo is thought to be a protector of small children, hence he is often sporting a bright red bib and cap – note photo).

However, this blog is not a travel journal. “I saw this and I did that” are not words I would typically use here. If I listed every temple that I entered, or Buddha that I passed in Japan I’d be down to a readership of one—me.

It’s hard sometimes to imagine what may be of general interest (and therefore blog-worthy), but I do know that me visiting shrines and temples is NOT of general interest.


Okay, I may be biased, but this town SINGS with color! It’s population is slightly larger than that of Madison (it has about 350,000), just to put it in perspective. It feels at once more urban and yet it has a small-city informality to it. But that isn’t the magic of the place. Its unique loveliness is much helped by the flowers that line the main street. And I don’t mean just hanging baskets or a flower box here and there. Each block has a singular color scheme and flower combination, and the boxes are at times three rows deep in from the curb. Yes, yes, they hit the right person here: flowers definitely are going to win me over. But isn’t it the most clever idea? It positively adds bounce to your step as you walk past rows and rows of blooming bins, boxes and baskets. [The sample of photos doesn’t fully do it justice, but it’s a start.]


Now that the truth is out and I have admitted to visiting shrines, I do want to say a few words on that. I am always surprised by the following:

- That your shoes are exactly where you left them after you are done with the visit inside. True, there aren’t many people in this world who would be tempted by a used shoe, but I can imagine that pranksters would find it amusing to shuffle them around a bit. In Japan in general, you can leave something in a public place and expect it to be there when you return three months later (okay, poetic license here).

- That a Japanese person may both ring the gong to get the attention of the gods in a shrine and cross him or herself in a Christian church. Any other small acts of religious worship? Bring them on, they’ll find acceptance here! Most Japanese do not subscribe to religious exclusivity. Two, three religions? it’s all good. Is it a devout nation? Not according to the books. Most people adhere to these symbolic gestures and let it go at that.

- But oh, there are so many symbols! Just visiting Nagano’s famous Zenkoji temple allowed me to witness people washing their hands and rinsing their mouths at a trough of sorts in front of the temple (to purify the body before entering a sacred place), persons standing in front of billowing incense smoke and rubbing themselves with it, older couples going up to a Buddha statue and massaging the diety’s head and body so that maybe a bit of the good fortune would spill over – on and on, acts of hope, acknowledgements of human frailty and imperfection. But so many of them! Did I mention picking out fortunes in front of a shrine? You read it and either take it home, or, if you don’t like it, you tie it to a special place outside the temple and someone else can worry a bout it. So many symbols! Feel-good acts to help you along with the day.

****Even if I was not able to enter the mind of the average reader with that one, I may still be able to anticipate questions running through reader minds. Here’s a list of some probable ones, along with my answers:

Q: How come you didn’t blog about eating dinner tonight?
A: Because I cheated and jumped the ocean over to China. I have to say that eating Chinese food in Japan is always an eye-opening event which allows me to understand how big our American appetites really are. In a Chinese restaurant here, you can size your own portion. Let me assure you that if you pick the one meant for 1 – 2 people, you’ll walk away hungry. I never have the guts to order the next size up, for 2 – 3 people, but I do compensate by ordering another plate of something, and then going over to the convenience store next door for some munchies to take back to the hotel room. And many will attest to the fact that I am not especially a ravenous eater.

Q: Why don’t you ever write about the things that are not working in Japan? You seem almost to be a Japan-ophile.
A: Is that a word? I am not a fan of publicly criticizing other countries unless I have experienced some deeply-felt aggravation on my own. I carry the weight of many years of listening to travelers to Poland list small grievances of being a tourist there and little of the joy of experiencing a different culture. I’ve always wanted to kick them in places where it hurts. Moreover, I wont mention something about Japan that I myself have not encountered. For example, I know that men grope women in crowded trains and subways here. I know, because I have read about this countless times. Trains and subways have gone so far as to create separate “women only” cars so that women passengers don’t have to tolerate this indecency. But I wont put that into the blog because it has never happened to me.

Q: You just put it in the blog.
A: oops.

Q: Have you ever sat in a bar like in Lost in Translation and experienced a feeling of profound displacement?
A: Not on this trip; though I must admit that the thought has crossed my mind tonight, as I have a coupon for a free drink on the top floor of this hotel. I haven’t decided between wanting to get some sleep because I want to get going early tomorrow, or being the stereotypical Pole who never passes up a free anything.
posted by nina, 5/01/2004 06:34:24 AM | link

I'm Nina Camic. I teach law, but also write (here and elsewhere) on a number of non-legal topics. I often cross the ocean, in the stories I tell and the photos I take. My native Poland is a frequent destination.

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