These days I video-chat with my mother in Yokohama a couple of times a week.  She’s 80-years old but pretty savvy with computer considering.  She can do most basic tasks on her iMac like emailing and doing research on the Internet.  So we’ve been using iChat for quite some time now, but when we connected via video-chat for the first time almost two years ago, it was pretty sensational.  As I use my laptop, I get to walk around my apartment as we chat and show her what’s going on.  The best part is that she gets to talk to the grandkids, the kitties!

Well, the best part just changed last weekend.

I happened to call her on the iChat around my midnight, which was late afternoon for her.  As we started talking, my mother proceeded to exit frame and re-entered with a tea cup and a small tea pot in her hands, followed by a cup of “mizu yokan (水羊羹)“ − a jello-like sweet made with sweet beans.

Whenever I stay with her in Japan, we always have an afternoon snack together.  It’s usually a strong green tea (煎茶) and some type of Japanese sweets (和菓子).  I suppose it is my mother’s routine with or without me. I just caught her during that time the other day. She quite contently showed off the yokan while I drool on the other side of the computer screen.  She grinned and said, “Oh, I wish I could push this thing through the computer screen for you!  Haha…”

That was a sweet little moment I got to share with my mom of a favorite Japanese pastime thanks to video-chat.


So as I wrote previously, Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo had to place a little message card on the bathroom vanity, “Don’t Be Afraid of Our Toilet” to explain to the hotel guests about the sophisticated toilet system.

Lately I’ve spotted the TOTO Washlet or similar product in American homes as well, though it still seems to be a rather exclusive amenity unlike its popularity in Japan.  Besides, I have yet to acquire one myself for my home in Los Angeles.

Then on my last trip to Japan, I noticed something else in public bathrooms:  yet another TOTO bathroom “gadget” or perhaps I should call, an “amenity.”  It’s the “Otohime (音姫),”.the literal translation of which would be, “sound princess.”   I had seen it probably more than a decade ago in bathrooms of some private offices and such.  It is a simple device to create camouflaging noise to cover any natural “sound” that comes with your personal activity in the stall.   The premise, I guess, is that people would flush the toilet unnecessarily to cover the  “sound;”   therefore waste the precious water.  (Either that or rattling the toilet paper roll.) Of course, leave it to Japanese.  They’ll have a solution!

Push the button on Otohime, and it would make some sound as if you’re actually flushing the toilet.  I always thought it was brilliant, but I had not seen it around like the Washlets.  Then on my last visit, I noticed in public places such as department stores and restaurants that their bathrooms were equipped with Otohime.    May be I was just missing it, but I didn’t know it was getting to be a normal fixture in the bathrooms.

I’m sure it’s a lot simpler to install than the Washlet, and I’m sure I can probably get one to use in my own bathroom before I can get the much-coveted Washlet.  Perhaps I can start creating my own private Japan in my bathrooms at home!

I have been away from Japan so long that my “Japanese common sense” must be at least a bit off.

Last time I was in Japan I noticed a big sign at a subway station, “Women Only(女性専用車) “  on the platform indicating where the train car for women only stops.   I figure this is a good thing as apparently those perverts who grope women in sardine packed trains are still prevalent and these “women only” cars are to protect women, right?

Meanwhile, I have also seen parking spots in some parking structure at a department store in Yokohama marked, “Ladies Only”.  The few spots marked as such were wider than others and located near the walkway bride connected to the store building.  Does this mean they (whoever they are) are saying women drivers need more space to park and can’t walk too far?  Shouldn’t these spaces be marked rather as “handicapped” (although “handicapped” is also very P.IC)?  Or are they actually saying “ladies” are synonymous to “handicapped”?  Huh?

Almost 40 Years Later (40年後)

Almost 40 Years Later (40年後)

Every time I go back to Japan at an average rate of once a year, there are new highways, new subway line or new high-rise, etc. and I always have to reorient myself as I navigate the cities.

My hometown, Yokohama, has changed so much since I left in 1982 it looks like a totally different city compared to what it was back then.

Still there are certain places and things still staying the same, which I’m selfishly holding onto for my own nostalgia’s sake.

Yamate Jubankan is a French restaurant on the bluff, opened in 1967.  Together with the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery (外人墓地)across the street, this is one of a popular sight seeing spots in Yokohama, which both signified the historical transformation of a sleepy fishing village into an international port city becoming a gateway for much of the Western culture into Japan after 250 years of isolation from the world.

My grandparents visited the restaurant shortly after its opening and had a picture taken in front. I discovered the photo when I was going through my fathers belongings after he passed away. So almost 40 years after the photo was taken, my husband, Kenny and I went back and got ours taken.  They look strikingly unchanged!

My mother lived most of her life with cats, just like I have, until her last cat, Ojako, died about 17 years ago.   I had suggested they get a kitten or two at that time, but both said, “Nah, they’re going to outlive us…” Well, my dad passed away about seven years later, but my mom is still going pretty strong.  She could have easily had another cat or two well into their full maturity, but she wouldn’t even though she desperately misses having cats around.

Then I heard a while ago, there is this new kind of establishments sprouting around in Japan called, “cat cafes.”   It is where people who love cats but don’t or cannot have them can go to mingle and play with cats while having drinks and food.

On my last trip to Japan, I dragged my mother to check out one of those cat cafes in Yokohama.  It was called, “Café Leon.”  Leon was the name of a cat, who’s supposedly the owner of this café.  He’s a Munchkin, which I had never seen before with short legs and folded ears.

The sign reads, “Healing and Pleasure Cat Café is Leon in Yokohama since 2008.”  The café had a “cast” of thirteen cats, mostly about a year old and of different breeds.  Out of the menu, we chose a lunch special, which consisted of salad, lunch dish (I had a pasta dish, and my mother had a rice dish) , and a coffee or tea with 90-minute of play time with the cats for ¥1,980 (approximately $20).  Of course, they suggested we get a dish of treats for ¥100 each to get the kitties to come to you.  If we go over 90-minutes, it would be ¥200 for every 10 additional minutes.  The package goes from ¥600 for the first 30 minutes of only play time to ¥2,980 for the deluxe package with dinner, drinks, and whopping 120 minutes of kitty time!

It took us a while to figure out our favorites out of the 13 cast members, but by the time we left it was Musashi, the yellow tabby, who stole our hearts.  It was definitely “healing and pleasure” for my mother, I think.  Our tab came to about ¥5,000 ($50) for lunch, play time with kitties and a few postcards my mom bought.

The other day my friend Alexia asked me if I had a Japanese ear cleaner.
“What?  A Japanese ear cleaner?”
She says, “You know, the one made of bamboo.”
Oh, yes, the ear cleaner, the “mimi-kaki.”  Of course I have one.  Alexia’s ears are tickling, and she wants to poke it with the mimi-kaki.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things was to put my head on my grandmother’s lap while she went digging in my ears with one of those bamboo ear cleaners with a little fluffy thing on the other end that sweeps off the residues of ear wax.  Sometimes she would accidentally poke my ear canal, but it mostly felt ticklingly good.  I would be fascinated by the stuff she would excavate from my ear.  I think this ear cleaning ritual had some comforting effect for us Japanese.  Only a few years ago, I heard there were what they called “mimi-kaki cafes” sprouting up in Tokyo, where stressed businessmen go to get their ears cleaned by some yukata- (summer version of Kimono)-clad young women.  They claim, “Nothing more than ear cleaning!”  Ear cleaning for comfort . . .

Rainbow in the valley

Rainbow in the valley

As I was driving back to L.A. from my mountain retreat the other day, a light rain storm was passing through the area.  Driving through the hills on the Interstate 5 in scattered showers, the sun was also shining through the clouds creating a rather magical sight.  I remember how my grandmother used to call this a “foxes wedding”  (きつねの嫁入り) when it’s sunny and raining at the same time. Apparently, the Japanese used to blame the foxes for anything unusual or inexplicable, or foxes were often likened to con artists.  I think this is a bad deal for foxes.