The Snowballs of Fuji-san

Some sunny days lately, and longer ones too, but they’ve all been cold. If the weather had volition, I’d say it wanted to make up for the strangely warm days that northern Illinois experienced in mid-February.

After 24 years, I don’t remember exactly where we visited in the environs of Mt. Fuji, though we got fairly close. Considering that it was mid-March, it was effectively still winter. We were able to see the mountain from one vantage point — not as easy as you’d think — and we visited a cave nearby.

We also tossed around some snowballs.

NearFuji1993Either my sister-in-law (to be) or her husband took the shots. I scanned them together for better effect.


I had lunch with an old friend on Friday at the food court of Mitsuwa, a small Japanese-oriented mall anchored by the grocery store of that name in northwest suburban Arlington Heights. We had a good visit. The food is quite good there. I had some katsudon, a Japanese creation with pork cutlet and egg and a small amount of vegetables on rice, and long a favorite of mine among Japanese eats.

There’s a tiny restaurant off an alley in the Namba district of Osaka simply called Katsudon (or rather, カツ丼). It seated maybe eight at a counter looking straight into the small area in which two cooks made katsudon, the only thing on the menu, in gleaming copper-bottomed vessels. It wasn’t especially expensive and it tasted like heaven.

In fact, the place offered up the Platonic Ideal of the katsudon, as far as I’m concerned. All katsudon of the material sphere yearn to be that form. They inch toward it, but never quite make it. In short, the one at Mitsuwa was very good, but not as good as Katsudon, at least as it was 25 years ago. Hope the quality’s been maintained.

I had to look around to make the sure that the restaurant is still in business. I found some pictures, and it even looks like I remember it. Seems like the joint now also offers the related dishes of tonkatsu — cutlet on a bed of chopped lettuce — katsucurry, which is the cutlet on top of curry rice. Bet those are top-drawer, too.

I also noticed that the name of the alley is Hozenjiyokocho. I’m not sure I knew that back then. According to one source, the alley is a “collection of 60 small izakaya, bars and eateries in an alleyway behind Hozenji Temple in Osaka. The street has been filled with nightlife since the 17th century, when the area was a theater district.”

As for the nearby image of the kami Fudo Myo-o, which is covered with moss, I must have seen that. That’s the kind of thing I would notice. But I don’t remember.

What I need now is a specialized Tardis, one that takes you to your favorite restaurants, past or present, closed or still operating. Katsudon in Hozenjiyokocho would be such one place, since my tastes run to the inexpensive.

Off the top of my head, other destinations would include O-Sho, also in Osaka, which made wonderful gyoza; River Kwai in Chicago; Mack’s Country Cooking and Loveless Cafe as they used to be in Nashville; the Daily Catch in Boston; Viet Nam in San Antonio; that place in Apalachicola; that other place in New Orleans; the Cuban place in Tampa; Pizza Rustica and Mario’s in Rome; that fish-and-chips spot on Cleveland Street in London; halbes Hähnchen mit Pommes frites in Lüneburg; and yet other establishments whose names I’ve forgotten in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali and other places.

Kyoeido Import Store, 1992

It occurs to me that if I lived in Japan now as a fairly youthful expat, instead of 25 years ago, I probably could order anything I wanted on Amazon or Alibaba, maybe, though I don’t know how much purchase the latter site has in Japan. It would be expensive, of course, but what isn’t in Japan?

Those online retailers might be one of the marvels of the age, but essential to the experience of being an expatiate is going out and finding things you need or want, by design or chance, using scraps of information from native and non-native sources (gaijin lore, I used to call the latter). Or so I believe. Amazon and Alibaba aside, the hunt for consumer goods among non-Japanese in Japan must also be facilitated by smartphones these days. It must be a wholly different experience, and I’m not persuaded it’s a better one.

I thought of all this looking at bits of letters I wrote in early 1992.

Feb. 1
I went to Kyoeido import store yesterday, a place I discovered by chance about a year ago. It’s a wonderful place. You never know what they’re going to have. Yesterday I notice a bottle of Egri Bikavér in a bin of ¥1000 wines. Good value, that.

[To save a trip to the wine-speak in Wiki: Egri Bikavér, in English Bull’s Blood, “is a red blend produced in Eger. It is the true essence of the red wines of Eger, a terroir wine, which carries the flavour of the soils of local production sites, the mezzo-climate unique to the region and the traditions and mores of local residents, from the selection of varieties to choosing the period and method of grape processing and mellowing.”

I discovered the wine when I lived in Nashville. I probably bought it for the first time because of the novelty of a vintage from still-behind-the-Iron-Curtain Hungary.]

I asked the shopkeeper if he always had Bull’s Blood on hand. Actually I said, “Here, in this place, this thing is always here?” in my rudimentary Japanese. I didn’t fully understand the answer, but caught enough to know that wine imports from Hungary are an iffy proposition. He showed me a second bottle that I hadn’t seen, and I bought that too.

Feb. 20
Like a fool, I went to Kyoeido today. I always drop more money there than I intend. I saw a big stack of big jam jars, maybe containing half a kilo each. On closer inspection, the jam turned out to be from Russia, though labeled from the CIS. (That still sounds like a microchip manufacturer.)

The jam sure was cheap. I had to wonder what was wrong with it. In the end, I bought a slightly more expensive, smaller jar of Bulgarian jam instead, which is reputed to be good, and maybe not too radioactive.

Tsūtenkaku and Billiken

At some point during their recent visit to Osaka, Yuriko and Ann made their way to the Tsūtenkaku, a tower rising above the Shinsekai neighborhood.


I hadn’t thought about the tower in years. I visited it very early during my time in Osaka. The present tower dates from 1956, probably counting as part of the postwar reconstruction. An earlier tower, built in 1912 and which supposedly took inspiration from the Eiffel Tower, stood until a wartime need for steel spelled its end in 1943.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that the current structure is the work of one Tachu Naito (1886-1970), Japan’s “Father of Towers.” He had a talent for designing towers that can withstand earthquakes, so he did a fair number of them.

Tsūtenkaku — fancifully translated as “tower reaching toward heaven” — has a mascot, Billiken. The same charm doll that’s the mascot of Saint Louis University, it seems, a creation and fad item of the very early 20th century in the United States.

How exactly Billiken made the transition to Japan isn’t clear to me, and I refuse to go down the rabbit hole looking for the story right now. Wiki says, without a footnote: “The Billiken made its Japanese debut in 1908. A statue was installed in the uppermost level of the original Tsutenkaku Tower as it was opened to the public in 1912. When the nearby Luna Park was closed in 1925, the tower’s Billiken statue disappeared. In 1980, a replacement statue made its appearance in a new Tsutenkaku Tower that was built in 1956.”

He comes in a number of guises near the tower, too.

Billiken Osakadscn8284I can see the appeal, actually. He looks like something that the Japanese would have created. They didn’t happen to, but no matter. He fits right in. The real question is why is he associated with the tower?

Speaking of Billiken, if you listen to the “Billiken Rag,” you might be the only person you know ever to have hear it.

Nipponese Debris

Yuriko and Ann are back from Japan, no worse for trip except for the usual jet lag. They brought back various things, including some printed items and small packaging material. Japanese aesthetics, known the world over, are present on every surface.

The only request I had for them to bring me some postcards. Here’s an Osaka-specific one.
Osaka postcard 2017Osaka has a sobriquet: The Kitchen of Japan. Specialty regional items include butaman, okonomiyaki, kushikata, and takoyaki. Delicious indeed.

Disposable chopsticks. Or rather, the paper wrapper for the chopsticks.
Disposable chopsticksSometimes even disposable items are too cute for words. Too cute is a running theme in Japanese design.

A nice brochure picked up at Nara Palace (Heijō Palace).
Nara Palace brochureHeijō Palace was the imperial residence in the Japanese capital city Heijō-kyō (Nara) during most of the Nara period, which essentially spans the 8th century AD. Things tend to get lost or kicked around after 12 centuries, so what visitors see on the site now are 21st-century reconstructions. Good ones, Yuriko said. Yet another thing for me to see, since they weren’t there in the 1990s.

Back to food packaging: Sakuma Drops hard candy.
Sakuma Drops Something a bit softer: Morinaga’s Milk Caramels.

Morinaga's Milk CaramelsThat’s the front of the box, plus one side. Each piece is wrapped in a yellow wrapper whose design is the same as the box.

Nata de Coco Thursday

Picked up Lilly last night where the bus from UIUC dropped her off, near a northwest suburban mall. Fortunately I was there more-or-less on time, so she didn’t have to spend much time out in the bitter wind, because the drop-off point is simply a parking lot. Not a good night to be outside.

Driving home, we did have the pleasure of hearing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by chance on the radio. I like to hear that exactly once every Christmas season. No more than that.

Here’s the packaging from Jubes brand nata de coco. Jubes, we figure, is a portmanteau of “juicy cubes.”


To save a trip to Wiki: “Nata de coco is a chewy, translucent, jelly-like food produced by the fermentation of coconut water, which gels through the production of microbial cellulose by Acetobacter xylinum. Originating in the Philippines, nata de coco is most commonly sweetened as a candy or dessert, and can accompany a variety of foods, including pickles, drinks, ice cream, puddings, and fruit mixes.”

It’s a product of Pt. Keong Nusantara Abadi, located in Lampung Selatan, Indonesia. I had to look that up. It’s on the southern end of Sumatra. I can’t think of anything else imported from Sumatra, at least in my house.

The marketing text, especially the last line, has a Japlish flavor. This Grape flavored JUBES is for those who favour gentle & refreshing taste. But for all I know, that’s Bahasa-lish as well.

Nata de coco is popular in Japan. Some years ago, Yuriko was eating some and Ann wanted to try it. Then she wanted the whole bowl. She’s been fond of it since. At some point I tried it too. It isn’t bad, but it’s probably one of those foods best discovered as a child for a deep appreciation.

Short Travels With Ed

Some years ago, Ed Henderson told me that we’d probably travel well together. That is, not get on each other’s nerves too much over the course of a multi-day trip. I took that as a compliment, but not anything we’d actually follow up on. And we never did.

Ed’s passing made me think about the scattering of places we did go, all day trips of one kind or another. In late ’91, for instance, two places on two separate occasions: Ishiyama-dera and Koyasan.

I wrote about Ishiyama-dera: “Warm and sunny day, flawless weather to visit the exquisite Ishiyama-dera. I went with Ed and Lynn, two former fellow teachers, and Americans as it happens, to the temple, which is in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. It’s near the shores of unscenic Lake Biwa, the sludgepot that provides greater Osaka with its drinking water.

“No, that’s not the best way to begin to describe Ishiyama-dera, which is set in the forested hills not far from the lake. You forget about Biwa while visiting the fine old wooden structures, which manage to convey their great age through their smell, somehow, maybe redolent of centuries of incense. This time of year, the temple also has the aesthetic advantage of seasonal reds and yellow. It augments the aura of esoteric objects honoring esoteric gods on remote shores.”

As for Koyasan, I don’t ever seem to have written about it. That surprises me a little, since it was one of my favorite places in Japan, and I went there at least three times (maybe four). Whenever someone was visiting me from the States, I would take them there to marvel — as I always did, each time — at the enormous trees and the ancient shrines and the vast cemetery among the trees and the shrines. Just the way the afternoon sunbeams slipped through the towering tree canopy to touch the grass next to monuments, or dappled mossy statues, was worth the ride into the mountains to get there.

Koyasan, along with two neighboring sites, was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2004, and for good reason. “Set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan – linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, reflect the fusion of Shinto, rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism, which was introduced from China and the Korean Peninsula,” the organization says.

“The sites (495.3 ha) and their surrounding forest landscape reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains over 1,200 years. The area, with its abundance of streams, rivers and waterfalls, is still part of the living culture of Japan and is much visited for ritual purposes and hiking, with up to 15 million visitors annually. Each of the three sites contains shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century.”

My college friend Steve — whom I did travel with once upon a time, in Europe — was visiting Japan that fall, and he and I and Ed went to Koyasan one day. It was there that Ed told me about his medical condition, perhaps (but I can’t remember now) in a discussion of why he, someone not even 30, needed a cane that day.

Here’s a thought: I wonder what a world map would look like with pushpins to mark the all the places all three of us have been, since Steve is fond of travel as well. A porcupine of a map.

As I mentioned yesterday, in May 1997, Ed and Lynn and Yuriko and I went to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, about an hour east of Phoenix on 392 acres in the Sonoran Desert. It was a hot day, as you’d think, but we had an enjoyable walk on the grounds, taking a look at its large variety of desert plants. Not all of which were cacti. But many were.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum 1997Boyce Thompson Arboretum 1997Last August — only 11 months ago — while visiting Ed in Washington state, I suggested we go to Vancouver for a day. It was a city he knew well, but one that I’d bypassed in 1985 to go to Vancouver Island instead. He wanted to go, but had no energy for it. So I went by myself.

During that visit, however, we did go to Bellingham, a much shorter distance from his home, with me driving and him navigating. Among other things, we spent time at two bookstores in downtown Bellingham within walking distance of each other — the excellent and large Village Books and the excellent and small Eclipse Books. Like me, Ed owned and read a lot of books about a lot of different things, and thus spent a lot of time in bookstores.

We also ate gas station pizza. It was a favorite of Ed’s, bought at a Bellingham gas station, which actually had a fairly large shop attached to it. We got our slices to go and went to the Alaska ferry terminal, sitting on one of the benches facing the water to eat the pizza. Since no ship was due to arrive or depart that day, few other people were around. At that moment, he might have suspected he’d never return to Alaska, a place he liked so much; I wondered if I’d ever make it.

Actually, Ed did return, or will eventually. I understand that his ashes have been — or will be — scattered in the Stikine River, which empties into the Pacific just north of Wrangell, Alaska, where he lived for a time.

Otaue Shinji, 1992

On June 14, 1992, I went to Sumiyoshi Taisha (Shrine), not too far from where I lived in Osaka, to see the Otaue Shinji, a rice planting festival held at that time every year.

“Although events associated with this rice planting can be found all over our country, the festival at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine is unique for its reproduction of the rituals in faithful observance of ancient procedures in such a grand ceremonial style,” the Japan National Tourist Organization notes.

I understand oxen till the rice field first, but I missed that part. I did see the ceremonial rice planting, done by women in white robes in the field.
Otaue Shinji, Osaka 1992 If I remember right, those are priests and musicians on the platform next to the rice field, making the appropriate noises.

The event also involved a procession through the shrine complex. With drums.
Otaue Shinji, Osaka 1992Sometimes at such events, you find yourself behind rows of people, mostly with a view of the back of their heads.
Otaue Shinji, Osaka 1992Usually the headgear’s not as interesting as it was that day at the Otaue Shinji.

Miyajima (Itsukushima) During Cherry Blossom Season

Here in northern Illinois, the grass is greening, small buds are budding and birds are making more noise. A few new-generation insects are in view. It’s even warm and sunny on some days, such as today, which followed a miserable, dank, cold Saturday. Such is the seasonal seesaw.

As this map and chart explain, early April is peak cherry blossom season in the Kansai and a few other parts of Japan. That’s when I saw the blossoms in Kyoto — the first year I was there — plus in parts of Osaka, including the crowded National Mint grounds but also the little-known but strikingly beautiful Osaka Gogoku Shrine in Suminoe Ward (which everyone simply called Suminoe Shrine).

In early April 1993, we went to Hiroshima for a weekend, and visited Miyajima (宮島), an island in the Inland Sea near the city. Formally called Itsukushima (厳島), it’s home to a Shinto shrine complex and best known for its monumental torii out in the water, which happened to be behind scaffolding when were were there.

Fortunately, the cherry blossoms were in full, unencumbered view. Temple deer were around, too.

Miyajima - near HimoshinaMiyajima - near Hiroshima 1993I didn’t know until recently that Itsukushima is a World Heritage Site, put on the list after we were there, in 1996. UNESCO notes: “The present shrine dates from the 12th century and the harmoniously arranged buildings reveal great artistic and technical skill. The shrine plays on the contrasts in colour and form between mountains and sea and illustrates the Japanese concept of scenic beauty, which combines nature and human creativity.”

The National Museum of the Pacific War

The National Museum of the Pacific War is a complex of structures at a short distance from each other in Fredericksburg, including the restored Nimitz Hotel, which now houses a museum about Adm. Nimitz; the George H.W. Bush Gallery, which focuses on the war in the Pacific; and more: the Veterans’ Memorial Walk, the Plaza of Presidents, the Japanese Garden of Peace, the Pacific War Combat Zone, and the Center for Pacific War Studies.

The Nimitz Hotel building used to include the war exhibits, but now they’re in the much larger (32,500 square feet) Bush Gallery, open since the 1990s, and expanded in 2009. Outside its entrance is the conning tower of the USS Pintado, a submarine that conducted a number of a patrols against the Japanese.
National Museum of the Pacific WarThe museum, organized chronologically beginning before the war and ending at the USS Missouri, is incredibly detailed, and home to a large array of impressive artifacts. That includes some impressively large artifacts, such as a Ko-hyoteki-class midget submarine that participated on the attack on Pearl Harbor, which actually seems pretty large when you stand next to it.
National Museum of the Pacific WarThe pilot of this particular vessel, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, survived its beaching and became the war’s first Japanese POW, having failed at suicide. According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2002, “When the war ended, he returned to Japan deeply committed to pacifism. There, Sakamaki was not warmly received. He wrote an account of his experience, titled The First Prisoner in Japan and I Attacked Pearl Harbor in the United States, and thereafter refused to speak about the war.” (He died in 1999.)

Also on display were a B-25 — as part of a exhibit about the Doolittle Raid — a Japanese N1K “Rex” floatplane, an F4F Wildcat fighter, and a replica of Fat Man, just to name some of the larger items.
Fat ManThe exhibits also included a lot of smaller weapons, tools, posters, uniforms, model ships and airplanes, military equipment, and sundry gear and items associated with the fighting and the people who were behind the front. Plus a lot to read. Campaigns and incidents both well known and obscure were detailed, such as the effort to salvage the ships in Pearl Harbor in the months after the attack, which was often dangerous work. Other Allied efforts weren’t ignored, such as the Australian advance on Buna-Gona, a campaign that incurred a higher rate of casualties than for the Americans at Guadalcanal.

All in all, a splendid museum. But exhausting. If I’d had time on Sunday as I went from Austin to San Antonio, I would have gone back (the tickets are good for 48 hours). It’ll be worth a return someday.