Category: Topics

Not Cookie Cutters

These are not cookie cutters.

Well, I guess they could be cookie cutters. But they’re not really.

You can  find them in all sorts of Japanese stores. They’re usually sold in sets of four, like this.


So what they are, actually, are vegetable cutters. You use them to cut carrots or daikon radishes or, heck, even sliced cheese into pretty seasonal shapes.

Screenshot 2016-02-06 13.37.28

Then you can add them to soups and stews. Or you can pop them in the microwave to soften them up and put them in your obento to decorate it and make it pretty. Anything your heart desires.

The big mystery for me  was that I always suspected they were seasonal. I mean this is Japan, the country of four distinct seasons. And there are four of them, right?*

I just recently learned I was right! It only took twenty years.

And now I’m slightly confident which flower each represents shape and what season it corresponds to.

Spring was easy: Cherry blossom. You can always tell by the five petals with very slight dimples at the points.

Screenshot 2016-02-06 12.11.49

Winter was easy, too: Plum blossom. Plum blossoms also have five petals, but they are perfectly round and oh-ho cute.

Screenshot 2016-02-06 12.11.10

The other two stumped me.

But I asked a lot of questions and did a lot of searching. Here we go.

Summer is a dhalia. That one was hard, but when you look at the veggie cutter above it kinda looks like a dahlia. (Although, I guess it could be a Chrysanthemum which would work for the season, too. But I like the word dahlia better.)

Screenshot 2016-02-06 12.10.32

Finally, fall is a kikyo or Japanese bellflower. Another one with five petals, but all pointy. And very, very seasonal.

Screenshot 2016-02-06 12.08.36

So if you ever decide to buy the veggie cutters remember to use the right one for the right season. You do that and you’ll certainly impress your Japanese friends and family! If nothing else you can teach them about the bellflower. I don’t think many people know about that one.

*For some reason the above photo has FIVE cutters.

New mystery to solve: Discover what shape that fifth one is.

It never ends…

Monkeys on a Stick!

I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile, and now I’m finally getting around to it. This is what I love about Japan.

Monkeys on a stick.

Before I went into the hospital to get my gall bladder out – um, ages ago (last spring?) –  a good friend gave me this little thing as a protective charm of sorts. Adorable, isn’t it?

Nine monkeys on a stick.


It’s called Kunan wo tori saru, 苦難を取り去る。

It’s a play on words and meanings and what Japan does so well. Kunan (苦難) are two Chinese/Japanese characters that basically both mean distress, suffering, hardship. So it’s hardship doubled, right?


Wo tori saru (を取り去る)  means to take away.

So, basically to take away suffering or distress or hardship from a person. It’s given when someone doesn’t want you to suffer or feel hardship they present you with this stick and voila!

But why monkeys on a stick, you ask? Well, let me tell you.

If you write kunan by different characters you get ku(hiki) (9匹)=nine (animals) and  nan(ten)(南天) = the name of a sacred bamboo stick called nandina in English. The saru part of “wo tori saru” becomes monkey(s)!

I’m not sure how sideways you have to look at it, but I’m guessing those nine little monkeys were there to take away my suffering and distress. They did quite the good job, too, because I don’t remember really being in too much pain after the surgery, I healed up so well they let me go home early, and despite having no more gall bladder, I can basically eat and drink anything I want without any discomfort.

Okay, with that last part I am firmly knocking on wood, or a sacred bamboo stick, maybe!



Skipping Town–Yonige (夜逃げ)

Japanese Word-of-the-Day: Yonige (夜逃げ)–skipping town; literally running away at night.


I was really trying to sleep past three am last night, and I was almost there. That is until sometime around 2:55 when I started dreaming about explosions.

Time to wake up.

It turned out I wasn’t actually in a war zone. Instead, someone was outside my window opening and shutting their car doors over and over again. I might have fallen back asleep except there was something about the *way* these mysterious people were opening and shutting their car doors over and over again. There seemed to be an urgency about it.

Time to grab my glasses, sit up in bed, and watch the show.

First off, you have to know that my neighborhood is mostly a bunch of nondescript houses all lined up smack-dab next to each other. We’re all very close whether we want to be or not. There is also a small, three-story apartment building just across the way from my bedroom window. It’s there, kinda out of nowhere. Plop. Very cheap rooms. Very small rooms. Very shady characters living there.

(Side note: Once I saw a guy get into his car one morning, and he was still sitting there when I got home about six hours later. Seems he couldn’t move for some reason. I suppose that doesn’t mean he’s a shady character. Just, who wouldn’t shout or make a phone call or honk their horn to get a little help? He wasn’t passed out or anything. Just sat there. Dude had patience. …Or was he shady?)

Back to the story.

So what I saw  outside my window at three am on January first was a big white van parked under the streetlight in front of that apartment building. All around it a man and woman ran about like loons, opening doors, throwing boxes in, slamming doors, re-opening doors, tossing in more boxes, and then re-slamming doors.  After doing this for fifteen-twenty minutes and filling up the van, they both hopped in and sped away.

My first thought was: Gee! This must be a real, live, bonafide yonige! Never seen one of these before!

The economy sucks, jobs are lost or money is gambled, maybe a family can’t budget for crap or makes bad buying choices. I don’t know, but the easiest way to borrow money in Japan is something called sara-kin.  Never a good idea. Those guys will come after you. And I *do* know people who have been bullied and threatened by them when they can’t pay back. It’s a whole new kind of hell, I’m told.

So I’m guessing that’s what this was,  a couple skipping town. Sad, actually. But I was happy to see there were no kids involved. That would make it really, really, really sad.

The whole thing doesn’t say much about their intelligence though. Slamming doors at three am when you’re trying to do something clandestine, I don’t know. Because if I was woken up from a deep sleep across the way, and I could see the van and the people under the streetlight rather clearly, I can’t imagine how many eyes all the other windows on the block had.

I don’t know the circumstances, so I can’t root for the couple or not. But the more I think about it the more I kinda want to root for them. I imagine them holed up in that tiny room, sharing a single futon, one pillow, lamenting about debt collectors and wishing for a brighter future. Then one of them has this brilliant idea: Let’s skip town! Let’s leave this all behind! Let’s start anew! We can fall in love all over again in a brand new place.  And let’s do it on January 1st. What a great way to start the year! It’s all rather romantic.

Or they could have been packing and heading out early for a skiing trip up north.



Cha Cha Maru



Dogs get you through things. They teach you about yourself. They’re your little buddies and a part of your family. That said, they’re not your “children”, as I hear so many people say. Your kids will invariably grow up and become their own independent-thinking human creatures. They’ll move away from you. But not dogs. Dogs are there for you, man.

When I returned to Japan after surgery and two rounds (eight months) of chemo, I was a physical and emotional wreck. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on my first day back, my Japanese in-laws immediately warned me that I should in no way tell anyone — family or friends or coworkers — about my breast cancer. The entire thing had been hush-hushed. They explained to me that it was embarrassing to the family. Also, if anyone found out they’d likely treat me as a pariah (*). I didn’t want that, did I?

Okay, I get it. I guess I can keep this secret.

Then it went and got a little worse that that: I soon discovered that my immediate family, the ones who *did* know (in-laws and husband), refused one hundred percent to talk about it. No balloons, slap on the back, must have been rough, everything’s going to be okay, wanna talk about it? Nothing. Life was business as usual. Garbage days are on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you don’t have to put so much rice in my obento, thank you.


Then came the panic attacks, the constant paranoia that any slight pain or tickle was a sign of recurrence. Then came the nerves that wouldn’t let me sit still, and the overwhelming feeling of being so utterly alone.

Then came Cha Cha Maru.

It was the only think I really had the strength to put my foot down about after I got back. I’ve always owned dogs, but never in Japan. So one day I announced that we were getting a dog, and I didn’t let up until we did. Julyan picked him out. He’s just as much Julyan’s dog as mine. Dog’s are there like that. They’re there for you and they can be there for other family members too.

It’s only now that he’s gone, that I realize how much he helped me heal. When nothing and no one seemed to be available to me here, there was Cha. He was there.

He was my walking buddy, my nap buddy. He listened to me sing thousands of songs. We played “tomato-tomato” an insane game we made where we chased each other around with a cherry tomato in our mouths. He had a blanket from the time he came to our house that he carried around with him everywhere. He listened to me read out loud every single story I’ve ever written. His paws smelled like popcorn.


Cha Cha had IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). He had it for several years. It’s been a long, long battle. Just recently, though, the disease took a turn for the worse. He was in the hospital for a week, but wasn’t getting any better, in fact he was getting much worse. The vet said he could come home for a couple days. I slept on the floor downstairs and took care of him.  Emptied his bladder and his bowels and massaged his back.

Julyan hurried home yesterday from university and spent the day with him. Cha was happy to see him. I spent the rest of the time with him, singing our favorite songs, carrying him around the house and yard so he could see and sniff things. He even got to listen to me read a rough draft of this blog post, although he wouldn’t get to hear the finished version.

Cha Cha Maru was always there for me, and I hope just a little bit, at the end, I was there for him.


(Julyan holding his head as he’s sleeping. Yesterday.)

(*) This is my in-laws I’m talking about here, not all Japanese people by any stretch.

Three-Thirty AM Ramen

Here’s a twist on what to do when life gives you lemons. If you’re woken up at three am by a husband being noisy downstairs and you can’t go back to sleep, you go grab some ramen.

There’s this super popular ramen shop one town over that is only open from 3:15 am until 5:30 am (or until the soup runs out) on weekends. It’s called Marugen.  And it’s delicious. The only problem: the opening time. And the lines.

Hard to see, but this is the line. About ten high school kids behind me, too. People arriving all the time. Quite a few see the line and go back home. To sleep probably.


It’s a tiny shack of a place. No parking (you just park anywhere and hope the police to ticket you). Not exactly clean. And I’m guessing maybe ten people can fit inside at once.

Here’s the noren-curtain. Blood splattered by some rogue samurai, I guess. Forty minutes after we arrive and we’re almost in!

Noren 1


Here’s the view from my stool. Chashu-meat, menma-flavored bamboo, stack of bowls.

kitchen dirty

Everyone’s all nom-nom-nom. You can see the big vat of soup, too. It’s amazing how many people get extra noodles after they’ve finished the first bowl.

eating okyakusan


I couldn’t get a photo of the chef slinging the hot water from the noodles. It goes all over the floor which is really cool and gross at the same time. Here he is gently slipping the drained noodles into a bowl of soup.



Here’s the finished product. Marugen-chashu. It’s got loads of garlic in it!




The chef is the only one working. He doesn’t have time to wash dishes (huge stack on the side of his work space). And he doesn’t have time to collect money and give change. That last one’s up to you the customer. Everyone checks the wall to see how much their bowl was and pays by leaving their money on the table. If they need change they take from whatever is laying there. Honor system, FTW.

So if you’re ever in Fujieda and happen to wake up super early, I recommend a visit to Marugen. The customers are whacky, the atmosphere is distinctly blue collar, and the noodles are delicious.

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