A Dog’s Life on Wheels

Pets in Japan are taken very seriously indeed. Just this morning my neighbour across the road took her medium-sized dog for a walk. I only saw this after he had been arranged in an old-fashioned child’s perambulator and covered in blankets.

It only dawned on me that the contents of the buggy were canine when the occupant sat up and barked with wild abandon when two small dogs on different length and coloured leashes crossed its path. The pram-guy did not try to jump out and run an attack on the two nattily-clad poofters (which for me would have been an entirely natural reaction) but barked them out of his field of vision. His pram-pusher did not break her stride, spoke not a word, and quietly carried on.

Now I don’t know. Perhaps the chap in the pram was old and lame, was the quadriplegic victim of a train accident, or a retired Robo-Dog who had worn his paws off digging for people in natural disasters. But upon examining several similar conveyances I have reached he shocking conclusion that there are more dogs than babies in prams. (Human babies are carried in pouches on the fronts of their mothers.)

The pram-dogs are inevitably being pushed about by women of a certain age and have been seen visiting and rubbing noses with other dog-friends. It is not a cause of hilarity, mockery or distain. It is a cultural conundrum, perhaps a Tokyo suburban equivalent of swimming with the dolphins.

The wilder set of dogs that are not installed in prams spend a lot of time at the beauty parlour (the one in the neighbourhood is called Pet Paradise) and come out looking shockingly like brand-new stuffed toys. At their very finest (right after their shampoo and blow-dry session) and if the weather is propitious (neither rainy nor cold) they are allowed to walk proudly naked in all their furry glory.

On pet in pram in pinkall those other days, they wear clothes – raincoats, felt jackets, colour-co-ordinated sweaters and scarves. As it’s cherry blossom season, there is a lot of pink about.

These small orderly pets pee in a very restrained dog-like manner on the ubiquitous electricity poles and their human-slave squirts the spot with a water sprayer. They poop politely on bits of earth between the sidewalk and a tree and one of their staff-members picks up the product in a little plastic bag and squirrels it out of sight.

I don’t know how this works with the pram-dogs, and am looking into the possibility of dog-diapers alongside the Poopy Pickers and the dried-fish Pet Kisses over at the Peacock Department Store.

Fishy Wedding Bells

There is a Glory Church on either side of a large and luxurious hotel on the island of Okinawa.   Both white and gleaming churches look like they are made of plastic and icing sugar and attract a continuous stream of well-heeled clientele for fake weddings.

Like the Ancient Mariner, I stood outside a church anxious to catch a wedding guest with my glittering eye to tell him about my latest very bad trip, the albatross around my neck, and my new appreciation for slimy things from the sea, but there was nothing doing. I think the fake bride and groom and all their family and friends get into the church via a tunnel from the hotel and crawl up through a trap door.alivila_lazor10

This is Japanese discretion at its very best. Wedding dinners also take place in private rooms and the regular hotel guests were not at all disturbed by raucous speeches and bridal youth and beauty.

Now I have nothing against wedding celebrations. I recall my own fondly—Toronto Town Hall, followed by some beers with Injun Joe at Grossman’s Tavern and then dinner at The Three Little Rooms. It was lovely. Four people were involved (not counting Joe) and the town hall man got my husband’s name wrong. After forty years, we still discuss this legal loop-hole with vigour from time to time.

But what I seriously object to are public weddings that suddenly spring up in the middle of a hotel beach and your favourite spot is cordoned off and a wedding platform erected. Tinkling bells. Flower chains. Soppy mindfulness vows. Lovely clothes (compared to your state of splotchy sunburn and irritating sand-rash and unflattering bathing costume and sunhat.) All of it as fake as fake can be.

Today I have just learned that you can have a tourist wedding at an old Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto—the 500-year-old Shunko-in. This strikes me as much more culturally deserving. The young deputy abbot-monk was born inside the temple complex but is American-educated (and married to an American). He is turning his temple into a business as the roof needs fixing. He gives meditation courses which focus on entrepreneurialism, breathing, and Zen updates.

You can order a friendship marriage, gay, lesbian, transgender marriage, and even a normal one. Most of them are fake, of course. You can even stay at the guesthouse, but have to head into the fleshpots of town for food and entertainment (much like in the temple heydays of old Kyoto.)

So, if you are in the market for a useful fake marriage, try Kyoto’s kirk upon the hill, Myoshin-ji Hanazono, and look out for a gentle-faced Buddha-clone called Takafumi Kawakami.

For a price, he can fix you up.


Before I begin, let me make it completely clear, that nothing on this earth can beat the finest and freshest of Japanese food. An artistic sushi with the rice just-so; rigorous rectangles of tuna sashimi on freshly grated radish; the most delicate of green teas. These things are gifts of the gods.

However, to alleviate boredom-due-to-deliciousness, the Japanese have invented some other foods that make one sit up and take notice.

Until he came across Shirako my husband had prided himself on eating anything that Japanese cuisine could throw at him – Hoya (sea pineapple), Namako (sea cucumber), Uni (roe or gonads from sea urchins) were all as nothing. He thrilled to Fugu, (potentially poisonous puffer fish), Sazae (horned turban sea snail) and Kegani (horsehair crab).

shirakoOut for a company dinner a few nights back, he met a dish which he thought could have been either intestines or brains. Nothing so pedestrian. It turns out to have been a popular snack or starter called Shirako which means “white children”. It is fish sperm in its original long and windy sack.

Well, I suppose one could combine a dollop of Shirako with a blob of Mentaiko (marinated cod roe), wait a while, and come up with Shirouo no oodorigui (small dancing fish) that one eats exactly as a whale would–alive.

So, before going out for a regional sake-tasting evening yesterday, I looked up some exotic tasty treats that I thought might make a surprise appearance amongst the sake glasses. On the way there I craftily asked husband’s Japanese colleague if HE ate them, and I am extremely pleased to report that there are some culinary challenges that even the most seasoned of all Japanese diners avoid.

Husband’s colleague is a sprightly older gentleman and no wimp. He quite loves sea cucumber and fermented shrimps; however, he draws the line at Skiokara (salted and fermented fish guts that is served as a heaving smelly orange slime). When questioned about Nankosu (breaded and deep-fried chicken bone cartilage) he said you needed very strong teeth. And he was very firm that Funasushi (made of carp fermented for up to 4 years) was a real stinker.

Well, it turns out I had nothing to fear but fear itself. The sake restaurant menu had pictures of the most pleasant of foods—vegetable tempura, minced chicken grilled on sticks, a slice of pork. For a walk on the wild side we also had a plate full of wieners. And we all know what healthy goodness is inside them.

My sister suggests I never leave the house without a boiled potato in my pocket. That way I can casually whip it out and put it on the plate with the Fugu ovaries pickled in rice bran paste or beside the Tobino (flying fish), spear it with my chopsticks, and ignore all the rest.

We are heading to the island of Okinawa imminently. There, we have been told, the gastronomic specialties include Rafute (pork belly), Mimiga (pig’s ear), Umibudo (seaweed in the shape of grapes) and Yagi Sashimi (raw goat meat).

I have a pan of potatoes on the stove.

Bliss in the Sock Drawer

I quite like books with the word “joy” in the title, so how could I ignore the Japanese author Marie Kondo’s latest book, Spark Joy? A bit disappointingly, it is not about a female pyromaniac or a woman wrestler, but about a method of having an uncluttered living-space and mind.

For some strange reason, I had completely missed her earlier book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) which was a super-hit world-wide a couple of years back. It tells you how to arrange your possessions. Each thing must be held (preferably close to the heart), and if you do not feel a deep orgasmic thrill (i.e., it does not “spark joy”) you must throw it away. You are then left with only cherished possessions and both your outer and inner worlds are greatly enhanced.

Your happiness is a combination of how many garbage bags you can fill and your folding skills. It can actually even reach a level of bliss, as once your house is tidied properly, you can see what is really bothering you, and husbands have been known to be been tidied away by this method.

The philosophy tells you how to fold your underwear into neat rectangles (her new book has illustrations of a little rabbit doing this) and then place them standing up in compartments in your drawer. You do the same with t-shirts and socks. Your drawers become works of art and you dream about them. You can suddenly see everything at once.

sock-storage-ftrA friend came over and I showed her my drawer which I had used the KonMari method to tidy. She gasped and a glint lit her eye. She has since sent me photos of her newly-arranged pyjama drawer.

It is a creeping, possibly addictive, illness.

One problem than I can see emerging is a profound reluctance to change your socks, underwear or t-shirt as the alignment in the drawer compartment is disturbed. Another aspect that is troubling, but of great interest, is that in her first book Marie Kondo does not seem to wash or clean. This is rectified in her sequel, and dirt is classified as “natural”. A special wipe-down towel is necessary for both bathroom and kitchen. (Different one in each place.)

Her latest book also lets up a bit and allows you to keep, for example, the much-loved material of an old never-worn dress. This fabric can be used to wrap ugly electrical wires or drape a plastic water bottle holding flowers (as you have thrown out your real vase). She also suggests taking the garish labels off laundry soap and decorating the bottle with a ribbon. A frying pan can easily be used to pound in nails, so you can discard a little-used hammer. Family photographs can be joyfully used to decorate your clear plastic closet-arrangement-boxes, and all reading material, once read (or left unread) is redundant.

So, urgent message to my poor, dusty much-loved, read, unread, half-read books almost 10,000 km away: do not worry. I am throwing out Marie Kondo’s two books, and I am soon coming back to you all.

The Grandmother Warrior vs the Highway Robber

I almost didn’t make it to Japan. The Geneva countryside holds many surprises–not all of them pleasant.

If you ever are approached by a man suddenly running, then crouching, behind your car breathlessly explaining that he has seen flames shooting out the back of it, don’t believe him for a minute. He is a crook and wants to steal your car, your handbag, and your groceries. He has an evil friend hiding in the bushes. You and your car and your pork chops are all dead ducks.

However, last Saturday, I DID believe him. I grew up watching Cannonball, 12 O’Clock High, Combat! and Highway Patrol. Despite (or because of) extremely restricted TV-time I have retained much crucial information. Based on realistic action TV and Gerry movies in my formative years, I still seriously believe in spontaneously exploding cars, trucks, helicopters and airplanhelicopter explosiones.

I believe in fireballs.

When the man urged me to get back into my car and turn on the ignition while he fixed the problem of the alarming dangling wires, I point-blank refused.

When he insisted that I get some water for him to throw on the smouldering ashes of the car’s undersides, I knew that this was wrong. One needs foam, sand, perhaps a fire-blanket or a thick leather bomber jacket. Not water.

So, secure in my ancient knowledge of 1960s television I held firm. I got my purse, I locked the car, and told the near-hysterical man that I was phoning the Swiss Touring Club, and he’d better get away if he didn’t want to be melted into a red-hot puddle in the middle of the road.

Turns out, this was a well-known sting operation. Lone women pulling into countryside drives are targeted. Lone women in parking lots are targeted. A mechanical problem involving drama and confusion is created. Dangling wires are attached. If all goes well for the villain, the car key is placed in the ignition. The panic-stricken lady runs off to get some water from somewhere. A car and credit cards and a sack of groceries are lost forever.

But, girls, do not fear. Forewarned is forearmed. Snap a photo of the villain as he supposedly fiddles with your car. Lock yourself in and call the cops at 117. If he gets too close grab a finger and snap it back. Run in circles, scream and shout. Be brave. If worse comes to worse, slap him with a pork chop.

Be a red-hot grand-mother warrior.