Sunday, May 29, 2005

Singing Subway Praise

My first monthly teachers’ meeting proved to be a lesson in where not to host it. The company office, about the size of my studio, would not seat nine. Instead, we rented a room across the street – in a karaoke parlor. At first, the idea seemed genius. Private booth with seats for all, eighth floor views of the approaching thunderstorm, and a one drink minimum on my employer’s tab.

The only hitch was that our neighbors were using their space for its intended purpose. Blood-curling yelps rivaling those at Abu Ghraib distracted our getting down to business. The language was incomprehensible. Were 1,000 cats dying a slow death, or was it one of Metallica’s greatest hits? The finer points of flash card use went in one ear and out the other.

On the subway ride home, I witnessed a miracle in public transportation. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Subway is a well-oiled machine. A paraplegic boarded with the help of a station attendant who bridged the gap between the train and the platform. The wheelchair glided into a designated section. The point of disembarkation was radioed ahead, whereupon a new attendant waited with another bridge at the exact set of doors closest to the passenger. Not one bump in his ride or ours.

Now let’s imagine you’re a paraplegic riding the MTA. First off, most stations aren’t handicap accessible. Three of the City’s 12,487 taxis are, so here’s to hoping you never have to leave your apartment. But if you do, good luck with figuring out which subway carriage is equipped with a berth for wheelchairs. Weary commuters eyeing your extra seat eject you from it. You’d never get off the car’s floor because rainwater short circuits the signal system installed circa 1090 B.C., stalling the train in the tunnel and plunging the A,C line into un air-conditioned chaos.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Make Way for Mikoshi

I headed for the granddaddy of Tokyo’s three major festivals on May 21. A week after Kanda festival, Sanja festival is larger and more boisterous. Up to one million people visited Senso-ji temple over the weekend, highlighted by an unending parade of mikoshi. Teams of area residents lug these portable shrines around neighborhood streets, and pass in front of Senso-ji temple to pay homage to the goddess of mercy enshrined within.

I arrived early, but the grounds had already swelled with onlookers. Wanting the best view, I muscled my way to just opposite the entrance of this Buddhist temple. There was no room to second-guess my location. I could barely raise my camera without elbowing old ladies in bucket hats. An hour later, thousands of shutters captured the first of 100 mikoshi to reach the temple.

Whistles, drums, and chants heralded their arrival. These gold and black lacquer portable shrines transport local deities, who apparently get restless being confined to their precincts. So, once a year residents air out the mikoshi with a spin around the block to throngs of admirers.

This must feel refreshing for the deities, but grueling for participants who tread for miles barefoot or in thin slippers while shouldering wooden beams on which mikoshi rest. With devotion the bearers press on, clinging to the beams like driftwood. The sun saps their energy as sweat soaks through their bandanas and symbolic happi coats. Chanting helps maintain morale, as do designated team cheerleaders who clap, pump fists, and clear the path ahead.

Mikoshi aren’t just carried. They’re bounced. Legend says that shaking the deities will bestow blessings and prosperity upon the neighborhood and its parishioners for the coming year. As a result, the mikoshi list from side-to-side, sometimes careening into the crowd, which collectively recoils. Elevated above a sea of supporters, shrines bob like buoys. Because of the backbreaking work, a rotating team of two to three dozen carries the shrine. With pained expressions, some must be counting the steps to their next cigarette break.

The festival emphasizes harmony through group unity. Young and old, male and female, shoulder-to-shoulder they balance colorful burdens. Pride and sweat drip from their brow as participants shuffle towards the shrine, saving their last few breaths for this culminating point of their journey.

Popularized during the Edo period (1603-1868), the Sanja festival embraces all generations and aspects of Japanese culture. Children pull special miniature mikoshi while grandparents flank the procession. I spotted legendary geishas and notorious yakuza who use this occasion to brandish their mafia tattoos, which is normally against the law.

Food stalls include the standard festival victuals that make my sweet tooth ache: chocolate covered bananas, cotton candy, crepes, toffee apples, and syrupy shaved ices. Finger food abounds, with grilled squid skewers and tako yaki (barbeque octopus dumpling balls) being my fuel of choice.

Relive my Sanja experience through these pictures.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Week One at Douyoto School

Consisted of only three working days, each of which I wished I were teaching back at Nubata. My first self-introduction went awry when drawing stick figures of my family on the blackboard. I thought it would be clever to redraw my stick really tall, so I erased my head and torso and emphasized my height, which is a constant source of amazement. Facing the class to mention my favorite foods, I detected scattered giggling. Tempura couldn't be this amusing.

My newly acquired teacher instincts sensed something amiss. I spun around to check the board. To my horror, I had sloppily reconnected my stick torso to my stick legs, endowing myself with a stick boner. I casually rubbed away my genitalia, but these being middle school minds, I’m sure they’ll be snickering until March. More skillfully rendered was my map of the continental United States, used to pinpoint where I lived, worked, and attended school.

The D in Douyoto stood for disappointment after my electric week at Nubata. School lunches were less tasty and didn’t include dessert. Also, I received less adulation from my fan club. Exceptions included a boy who offered me his house, and one who spent class creating an origami hornet so lifelike that I feared it might sting me upon accepting the gift.

Douyoto wasn’t totally to blame. One morning I arrived a full five minutes late, and when asking one English teacher about my performance that week, she admitted, “I think the students would like it if you could smile more.” Separation syndrome from Nubata was painfully apparent.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Kanda Festival

I attended one of Tokyo's "three grand festivals" at Kanda Myojin Shrine on Saturday, May 14. I missed the mikoshi (portable shrine) parade, but did enjoy the festive atmosphere and taiko (fat drum) performances.

You can view my Kanda Festival pictures here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Friday the 13th

Started out with a bang. First, another pre-dawn tremor. Later, alighting the subway, I slammed my forehead into the doorframe. Every entry and exit on public transportation turns into a limbo test, and at 7:40 a.m. I didn’t get low enough.

In addition to car dealerships, a police station is on my way to school. Ever since my first night in Japan when stopped at random (see post: Smallness Redefined, 4/17/05), I sweat when passing officials. I feel like a walking bull’s eye in work attire since I’m not yet authorized to do so.

I’m an illegal alien. Although my work visa is processing, currently I hold no documentation beyond my tourist entry stamp that prohibits employment. I risk deportation, fines, and a five-year ban on returning to Japan if nabbed. But such catches are rare, unless you dance topless in a gentleman’s club, which isn’t on my short list of aspirations.

Distracted by an iPod massaging my eardrums, I didn’t notice the five keikan outside the station. When I did, it was too late. One waived his red glow stick at me and blocked the sidewalk. A caged coach bus idled in the parking lot. Were they ridding the streets of violent criminals like jaywalkers, shoe policy violators, and those who eat while walking? I’m guilty on all counts.

A Caucasian wearing dressy clothes in a non-touristy part of town, I imagined “illegal immigrant” stamped in Kanji across my forehead, still smarting from the bump. While I braced for a request to produce working papers, the other officers ran into the street to halt traffic. Lights flashing, the jail bus departed without me.

Relief didn’t last long. In the teacher’s room, a man approached me. I didn’t understand much of his broken English other than that he wasn’t a teacher, but rather some administrator. Chit-chat turned into panic attack when he mentioned “gaijin caardo.” That’s the id registered and employed aliens must carry. Did I have mine? “Ohhhh, yessss [falsely smiling and nodding]. But no here. Gomen-nasi. Home. Yes. [more smiles to conceal growing anxiety].” Would I write my name down in his little book? “Ohhhh, yessss [reluctantly reaching for the pen].” I won’t see him for another month, by which point I should have my papers in order.

Pressure continued in first period, which the principal observed. Fortunately only one eighth grader slept through class, although the rest remained mum when faced with the time-eating game of “Let’s Question the Foreigner.” Mr. Nakamura seemed desperate when asking me to name all 38 countries I have visited. Starting in North America, I swung South before rattling off a European laundry list. By the time I pushed into the Baltics, the teacher’s translation ability faltered and the students lost interest.

Quick, switch gears to Friday the 13th. I chalked up a building and demonstrated how some don’t have a 13th floor, relating it to the Japanese unlucky numbers of four and nine because of their resemblance to the words for death and suffering. Then I did my best Jason impersonation to a few laughs.

Friday the 13th wasn’t all gore. I enjoyed lunch with my favorite seventh grade class. Unlike the group the principal observed, these youngsters once used the entire period to question me. One boy, so interested in visiting New York, asked for my phone number. This class also features Alex the Russian, who stands 6’ tall, but only understands Japanese. We are the only white faces at school, and the two tallest.

I only see this section once a week, so I wanted to have lunch with them. Applause indicated approval. Their sweet homeroom “hand-making” teacher grabbed students to introduce themselves, adding that Hiroko was a brass band member, Ayana was the class leader, and Kato liked volleyball.

I felt honored when the kids, more interested in the crumb cake on their trays, strategically donated green and golden kiwis to me. With the cost of fruit in Japan, I gobbled up extra servings of vitamins A and B9.

Next up: day one at Douyoto, the second of four schools.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

If It’s Pickled Salad, It Must be Thursday

The bell tones at 12:45 p.m. The lunch cart is already waiting outside the classroom. Some students dismantle rows of desks to form clusters while others slip on white robes and plastic gloves and begin dishing out today’s special. I, too, queue for miso. In the absence of a cafeteria, students feed themselves in the same room where they take every class.

As a guest teacher, I choose my dining companions. Most often it’s a rambunctious 6th grade section because of their propensity to blabber with a mouth full of partially chewed bananas and stab one another with chopsticks.

Subsidized school lunches rock! $2.81 buys a well-balanced meal. For example, Monday’s feast featured bland miso soup, tuna potatoes, bread sandwich with microscopic layer of jelly, mini-milk, and last but not least, cinnamon sticky bun.

Like everything else in Japan, eating is regimented. Lunch isn’t a bowl of cherries; it’s a trial in speed eating. Thirty minutes are devoted to this disruption from learning. But by the time students have served one another (officially noted when a designated child stands and delivers the all clear, or maybe it’s grace), no more than 12 minutes remain. Eating to beat the clock, I shovel rice into my mouth with tweezers – I mean, chopsticks. Urgency is audible as classical music crackles over the PA system.

Finishing in time isn’t the only challenge. Refuse must then be sorted. The Japanese are experts ensuring every scrap has its place. Unfinished morsels get deposited back into their original serving containers (perhaps to be recycled for next week’s discounted lunch). Plates, bowls, and utensils are stacked. Milk cartons must be drained, deflated, and folded as detailed in step-by-step pictographs hanging in each classroom. Even the plastic straw wrapper gets recycled.

The 1:15 p.m. bell signals students to stow trays, realign desks, and wheel the organized cart back into the hall. Breakdown is complete, but digestion is not. Fifth period begins as scheduled.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Day Two at Nubata

On the second day, I broke the golden rule. Above all else, never be late in Japan. Punctuality is sacred. In America, chances are the friend you’re meeting is also running five minutes behind. Or, if you’re like me, 10 to 15. You half-heartedly apologize, and move on.

However, here in the land of the time-obsessed, trains calls at stations on the dot. One cause of Japan’s recent rail disaster was that the driver sped to make up for lost time. Had he obeyed the limit and arrived 90 seconds late, 106 passengers would have lived to commute another day.

Nubata J.H.S. is a 20-minute walk from the nearest station. The morning teacher’s meeting begins at 8:15 – you guessed it – on the dot. Still new to the route, I was cutting it close. Perhaps I paused too long outside the car dealerships that line this neighborhood, where all your Japanese favorites are represented, including the all-new Nissan Cube3 (they aren’t kidding).

I entered the foyer as the bell sounded. Bolt upstairs and slide into my seat, right? Wrong. Here in the land of the cleanliness-obsessed, I first had to change into my “indoor shoes.” Black loafers can only take me to my job’s doorstep. Here I switch into sneakers, a virgin pair that have never stepped foot outside. In theory, that is. Outside germs have of course sullied these running shoes, but for Nubata's purpose they serve as my indoor shoes. Anticipating guilt, I bleached the soles at home.

As a result of this switcheroo, I walked in a full 90 seconds tardy. I faced no immediate repercussions because, this being the land of polite, poker-faced people, the Japanese will never tell you what they think to your face. Maybe I’ll be absolved because it was my second day and because white people are expected to screw up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my employer (not the school, which will complain to my employer) mentions it a month from now.

Morning meetings begin with a secretarial bell chime. Discussion is in Japanese, so I while away the minutes by guessing each teacher’s subject based on appearance. The motherly lady who offers me ochai (tea) each morning seems like home economics, but in reality who knew math teachers had a heart? The aggressively dressed woman with a face only a frog could love must be charged with drilling Japan’s revisionist history into these middle school minds. Always in a suit and never wearing a smile, she once scolded the girls I was giggling with outside of the teacher’s room.

Vintage desks crowd this room. You know, the metal kind with rusting drawers dating from the late 60s. This is the extent of the teacher’s office. Veterans cluster in the front of the room where the vice principal reads his newspaper all day while uncertified aliens sit by the back door, convenient for the next time I barge in late.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Foreign Times at Nubata Junior High

I swore I’d never go back. After all, they were the darkest three years of my life. But 11 years and 7,000 miles later, I returned to junior high school. Now, I’m the cool kid. Revenge is sweet.

For my first day of school, I arrived half an hour early. Using my best remedial Japanese on the first adult I saw, I asked the custodian for the head English teacher. I was instead escorted into the principal’s office where I sat on a couch covered in plastic and sipped green tea. Mr. Sasaki, in his double-breasted lab coat, welcomed me in broken English. On the walls hung portraits of head masters who had meted out punishment before him, perhaps back to the Meiji Period judging by their pre-WWI hairdos. As Mr. Sasaki and I struggled to understand each other, I hoped he had miscommunicated because otherwise it sounded like I would address the entire school at this morning's assembly. Had a special session been scheduled just to gawk at the tall foreigner?

Actually, an awards ceremony preceded it, with Nubata Junior High taking home a kendo trophy the size of some 7th graders. Uniformed students sat in neat rows on the gymnasium floor according to gender and sneaker stripe, color-coded by grade. Otherwise it would have been easy to mistake some of the shorter haired girls for boys, who also wore navy uniforms.

Then it was my turn. The gym fell silent. Stairs creaked as I walked up to the stage to face 400 people. I had never addressed an audience this captive or this large. I felt like a neon highlighter in a pencil case full of No. 2s. Stooped over the mic, I s-l-o-w-l-y stated fun facts like my age, hometown, weakness for dark chocolate, and adoration of baseball and basketball. It pained me to lie that the Yankees were my favorite team, but I did so for the NY connection and to be able to proclaim “Hideki Matsui wa ichiban [#1]!” Someone laughed, or maybe coughed. OK, so he’s batting .233, but the season is young.

This would be the first of six self-introductions. After the assembly, the English teachers paraded me from class to class like their show and tell object. And tell I did. Entire 45-minute periods were devoted to my likes and dislikes, which were translated into Japanese for eager ears. I fielded questions from reticent students such as height (185.3 cm), favorite foods (sushi, tempura, Teriyaki McBurger), and marital status (safely single now that gunning for a spousal work visa is no longer necessary). The kids were very curious about the last subject, and also asked the “type of woman” I liked. This scripted curveball came from a worksheet to goad students into probing the foreigner. Unsure of how to word my response, I carefully selected “smart woman” to emphasize the value I'll be placing on their elementary English education.

I flirted with embarrassment during my very first class. In section 3-3, the oldest students goof off, chit-chat, and throw erasers with impunity. In Japan, some teachers won’t disturb you if you sleep. While pronouncing vocabulary on large index cards Mr. Nakamura held up, I nearly stumbled over “a piece of ___.” Of course, I’m thinking “shit,” trying hard not to slip up. The very next card: “clip.” Shit, that was a close one!

Luckily, most of my classes are with the youngest 7th and 8th graders, who still enjoy bingo and role-playing. They are at a magical age where their adorable, round faces light up when I dramatize a word, and are just old enough to absorb pop culture and sports, yet remain wonderfully immature. They “wow” when I enter class, bow when I leave, and brandish bucktooth smiles in between. My height and foreignness are an instant recipe for popularity, something never achieved throughout all of my schooling.

“Herro Mister Jeffree” is my name, and they’re wearing it out. I’m mobbed moving between classes, hugged and tugged while handing out high fives and hellos in return. Having dozens of younger brothers and sisters to pal around with eases the 1-hour commute on a confusing public transportation system.

Despite the job’s repetitiveness, each class is unique, and as the (assistant) teacher I get to play favorites, which I bestow on the little buggers in section 1-3. They provide the greatest incentive for me to learn Japanese because I wish to communicate more than their English permits. And at the rate we’re going, I’m going to catch on to their language a lot faster than they are to Engrish.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Large Men, Little Silken Belts

Speaking of earthquakes, on Sunday I attended shonichi (opening day) of the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament, a 30-minute walk from my apartment. It was the place to be and be seen -- even living legends were in attendance. Ever wonder how sumo retirees make a Yen? Answer: they collect your admissions ticket. Just imagine handing your stub to American Hall of Famers upon entering a stadium. Unlikely, given that American-sized sporting contacts outweigh even these gargantuan athletes.

Sumo is one event where, when it comes to front row seats, buyer beware. The dohyo (ring) is two feet high and only 15 feet in diameter. Unlike boxing, no ropes separate spectators from a piece of the action. In this case, it’s a very large piece.

These guys embody human wrecking balls; sitting ringside seems about as safe as picnicking at a construction site. Averaging between 350-400 lbs., rikishi (competitors) can’t stop on a dime when being forced out of the ring. Sometimes an unlucky kimono-clad gyogi (referee) gets tangled up in the takedown, drawing “ohhs” from the crowd.

For three hours I marveled at the head-on collisions unfolding before me, but from the safety of the cheap seats. Before the belly-bashing begins, however, rituals dating to the 8th century are observed. The chiri-chozu ceremony (hand-clapping while squatting on the toes) attracts the attention of the gods. Sumo originated as a religious ceremony to pray for bountiful harvests. The thigh-slapping and buttocks-smacking must have evolved later on as warm-up scare tactics. Fleshy echoes resonated up to the portraits of past champions hanging in the rafters. Unlike women’s tennis, grunting didn't seem en vogue. My favorite ritual was the shiko (foot-stomping), which at 1.0 on the Richter scale was more than enough to drive evil spirits back underground. Yet, just to be sure, wrestlers scatter 100 lbs. of purification salt into the sand and clay ring over the course of each day.

To see stills from the big guys in battle, click here.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

I Feel The Earth Move

...under my bed, I hear the kitchen utensils clanging around, clanging around.

At 4:52 a.m. Saturday, my first Tokyo tremor shook me from a slumber. A quake registering 4.3 on the Richter scale was no cause for alarm in one of the world's most seismically active regions. At first I wondered who was shaking my bed, only to realize, hey, the whole building was vibrating. No worries. I checked the clock and drifted back to sleep, waking up on my own seven hours later wondering if it had been a dream.

This event surpassed a 4.0 tremor I recall propelling my bath toys into the toilet in suburban New York in 1985. A 5.1 earthquake 130 miles away from Dartmouth rattled campus in 2002, but it occurred early one Saturday morning while I was still under sedation from over-Budweiserification. As long as I'm not in an elevator shaft or a subway carriage, I eagerly await the next plate shift.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Posted by: marmotny.
No, I'm not having stomach problems here in Japan. Although after six straight nights of dining on discount sushi from my local grocery store, I thought it was time to look beyond a raw deal for some nourishment. And what better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than with chili nachos and a Corona at Legend's sports bar? I saw Effi the Israeli again (see post: Dignity Retained), and took in some NBA playoff and MLB action.

Then I moseyed over to the infamous Gaspanic bar. Its unsavory name derives from the original bar's not having any toilets. Its reputation is a cheesy dance club filled with foreigners and their Japanese admirers. I had been advised to steer clear of this sleazy scene with strange rules, but was desperate for some fun, any fun. And for $3.80 all night happy hour drinks, how bad could it be? Although there was no cover, the bouncer almost paid me to go inside.

The vibe was dive disco meets Girls Gone Wild. Late teens in scant attire (not represented in the picture, which I pulled off the web) gyrated on the bar to thumping Top 40 hits. The peppy floor staff ensured that all patrons gripped a drink at all times. House rule #1: “Everyone must be drinking to stay inside Gaspanic.” Basically your hand must be glued to your drink, and as soon as you finish you must reorder or risk flashlights being shined in your eyes. Enforcement of house rule #2, however, seemed less stringent: “No tits, no ass, no service.”

Despite Asspanic’s dodgy reputation and foreigner feel, I felt welcome. Other white faces populated the crowd, I spoke to Japanese people, and enjoyed chart hits from yesteryear. Best of all, Gaspanic is always hiring….

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Training Day

Moving to a non-English speaking country without friends, a job, or visa required to get said job requires courage. But I’m always up for a challenge. Besides, I had everything mapped out in advance: clear customs at Narita, waltz up to nearest newsstand and purchase The Japan Times, drop off bags at pre-arranged apartment, and sit in café with highlighter in hand.

This scenario was not uncommon during the 1980s when the Japanese economy was hotter than the blowtorch sushi chefs use to cook my delicious anago (Conger/saltwater eel). Although that bubble has since popped like orange ikura (salmon roe) against my teeth, I’m pleased to report that this leap of faith remains attainable.

As of May 9, I’ll be an assistant English teacher rotating among four public middle schools in a ward (borough) 40 minutes north of my apartment (see post: 2 for 2 on Interviews). True to my idealistic plan, this was the first (and only) classified I responded to in The Japan Times, highlighted while sipping a Starbucks frappuccino.

Desperate for an employer, any employer, to sponsor my work visa, I accepted. After all, this agency seemed just as desperate for a native English speaker, any speaker, to fill immediate openings. At the interview I noticed their closet of an office decked out in Texas paraphernalia and framed diplomas from Rockford College, Southern Utah University, University of Central Texas, and Central Texas College - apparently not to be confused with the competing university in the same Central region. Are these accredited institutions? Jesus looked at me from inside a fame on a bookshelf. I didn’t think much of it at the time, until I opened the teacher’s policy manual. The first tenet of the company’s mission:

“To glorify God by following the guiding principles set out in the Bible.”

I read it twice, and then a third time. My eyes bulged and nostrils flared, causing my upper lip to curl as if had I sniffed sour milk. Just what kind of company was this? Was I recruited to proselytize Japanese school children? For which testament of the Bible? Wasn’t David Koresh from Texas? One reason I left the U.S. was to separate myself with a large body of water from the religious right. Somehow I had walked into their overseas affiliate. But, I was desperate.

For two days I trained with five other recruited teachers. The cast of characters: Mike, a cool 30s-something Kiwi skateboarder; Reece, another Kiwi who makes South Auckland sound more dangerous than the South Bronx; John, 30, a friendly adopted Korean via Upper Saddle River, NJ; cool, calm, and collected Leon from Montreal; and whimpering Joanna, the lone female from Toronto via Poland.

The development trainer is Ricardo, a Texan in his late 20s, and a former “not gay” Naval sailor now married to a J-national (as are Mike and Jeff). Not me Jeff, but Jeff the company PR head who has taught in Japan for 15 years, and who uncorked some blunt assessments of Japanese women and their bad teeth. Jeff, a middle-aged smoker with a beer gut, is a straight shooter with crooked grammar.

Pluralizing “everyone” is a common pitfall, despite his “boning up” on grammar in order to teach high school students. Good thing “you don’t got to worry about” younger students asking tricky grammar questions, adding that “my daughter and me argue a lot over blue and green.” In Japan both colors are treated the same, so that a blue light means go. Maybe this teacher will receive a blue apple on their first day. I mean, his first day. D’oh!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Funbargainbash in Funabashi

From the street, you'd walk right by this unremarkable shop in Tokyo's Funabashi suburb. But don't judge a building by its edifice. Inside delights even the casual bargain hunter: breathtaking bric-a-brac and household goods stretch as far as the imagination can dream. The seaweed on the rice ball: most items cost a measly 100 Yen. Think 94.4 cents store, but with a classier vibe than its American counterpart. Spanning seven floors makes this shop the largest of its kind in the region. For a coupon clipper like me, this was a plastic paradise found.

I squinted under the fluorescent lights. Multi-colored merchandise swirled before me. J-pop music massaged my eardrums. I lost myself in the impressive selection of neon-colored wastepaper baskets of all shapes and sizes. I flirted with donating a dozen to the municipal sanitation department for placement on street corners. I rode escalators ogling at an endless supply of essential items that on second thought maybe weren't so essential.

A week's salary could be well spent here. Okay, maybe I could live without gardening implements, but I snatched up pink Hello Kitty chopsticks, a Hello Kitty toilet paper roll holder, melon-scented glass cleaner, Kanji magnets of meanings unknown, no parking signs in Japanese, and a soy sauce bowl to prevent future spills onto my keyboard.

What didn't make the cut? Fake sunflowers and palm fronds, pet rodent cages, chicken wire, badminton rackets, beer funnels (maybe it was for gasoline?), plastic eggplants, safari hats, sumo wigs, ceramic tea sets, police vs. bad guyz action hero set, Mr. Shinkansen (bullet train) child scrub mitts, warship bath toys, tall boy cans of Coke, Hello Kitty everything, and pocket ashtrays emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty -- the ultimate accessory for the smoker on the go who has everything. Funabashi, you have not seen the last of me.