Star-Crossed Lovers

Tanabata kawaii

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of the Heavens, there lived a beautiful princess named Orihime.  Princess Orihime was not only outwardly lovely, but her heart was full of every virtue, especially filial piety.  She strived to please her father, the Sky King, in everything.  The Sky King especially prized his daughter’s weaving which could be made into the finest garments in the kingdom.  Every day, the princess took her loom to the bank of the Heavenly River and wove her cloth next to the gentle current of its milky white waters.

As time passed, however, Princess Orihime began to grow downcast.  Although she still took great pleasure in weaving for her father, the princess realized that her unceasing diligent work would keep her from falling in love and one day marrying.  The Sky King became concerned about his daughter’s melancholy demeanor, and so arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the shepherd star who dwelt on the other side of the Heavenly River.

When Princess Orihime and Hikoboshi met, they instantly fell in love and married shortly thereafter.  The two lovers were so enamored with each other that the princess gradually forgot her weaving and Hikoboshi neglected his shepherding duties, letting his stars stray all over the galaxy.  The Sky King grew jealous for Princess Orihime and angry at Hikoboshi.  The king forbade the lovers to see each other ever again and ordered that they be separated across the Heavenly River.

Severed from her husband, Orihime became disconsolate and tearfully begged her father to reunite her with Hikoboshi.  The Sky King was moved to pity and leniency by his daughter’s miserable condition.  He decreed that if the princess was loyal to her filial duty and continued her weaving, the kingdom’s magpies would carry her across the Heavenly River once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, so that the lovers could meet.

Every year on July 7, the Japanese celebrate the day Orihime (the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (the star Altair) reunite across the Milky Way with the Tanabata Festival.



Don’t let my grandmother read this.

My grandmother is an avid and gifted quilt maker.  She has dozens gathering dust in her cabinets, although one of her quilts was recently appraised at several thousand dollars.  So for Christmas a few years ago, I gifted her bits of antique kimono fabric.  Even when no longer wearable, Japanese traditional dress is too precious to be thrown away, so the remnants are made into smaller goods—silk purses, hair ornaments, decorative baubles or sometimes quilt pieces.

Japan has one of the strongest and most unique quilting traditions in the world.  Originally an American import, Japanese women have made the craft their own.  In my mind, a kimono fabric gift was an opportunity to interact with that tradition, to create something authentically American and authentically Japanese, so I was a little horrified when my grandmother decided to turn my gift into quilt depicting, in her words, “geisha girls.”

“Geisha girls” might be a common image of Japanese women in the West, but it is far from how the Japanese imagine themselves.  Geisha are a curio from the Edo Era two centuries ago, and even then a geisha was not a typical Japanese women.  Geisha were members of the “floating world”, virtuose of beauty and the arts, removed from the sphere of everyday life.  Today, fewer than a hundred women act as geisha, mostly in a small, historical district of Kyoto.  Geisha are just as exotic and foreign to modern Japanese people as they are to Americans.

As a dutiful granddaughter though, I collected woodblock prints from the Edo Era and photos of modern geisha for my grandmother to base her designs on.  But there was very little in these authentic images that she was willing to use.  The women’s kimono were too flowing, their faces too long.  Even the obi, looped in the traditional Edo style, weren’t tied how she wanted.  In the war between her mind’s eye and real life, there was no way the reality of Japanese women—and thus, their dignity—was going to win.

Not that the Japanese quilting world (or Japanese culture in general) is free of similar debasements.  In the vending booths at the quilt show, fabric labeled “USA” was usually either tacky, garishly-colored prints or quaint florals, country enough to make even a Midwesterner retch.  In the Japanese imagination, American quilting is typified by Tasha Tudor’s quaint, antiquated lifestyle in pastoral Vermont.  Picturesque?  Yes.  Reality?  No.  For those of you who know my grandmother, can you imagine how she would react if a Japanese woman told her she could only be a real American quilter if she lived on a farm and dressed like it was 1918?  Granny would definitely have some words for her, or at least pursed lips and a cold shoulder.

Just to be clear, this rant is not about my grandmother, the Japanese or quilting.  A few weeks ago, I went to dinner with a Chasidic rabbi who used the opportunity to tell me “what’s wrong with Christianity”.  From his seat across the table, he proceeded to tell me what I believe as a Christian.  About 50% of his information was correct.  He also spoke about how Shintoism, the Japanese indigenous religion, is verboten because people worship idols inside Shinto shrines.  When I and the Japanese who were present pointed out that there are no statues inside Shinto shrines, the rabbi told us we were definitely wrong.  There are definitely idols inside shrines, which is why he’s never been to one.

But this rant isn’t about the Lubavitch either.  It’s about mindsets that say, “I want to interact with your culture, but only in the ways it fits my pre-conceived stereotype” or “Be yourself, as long as ‘yourself’ is how I want you to be.”  This is probably the number one thing living abroad teaches a person: ethnocentrism is not a virtue.

Wa Quilts

The Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival is held annually at Tokyo Dome, the indoor baseball stadium that is home to the Tokyo Giants.  Quilts are entered in two categories: traditional (meaning Western-style) and wa quilts.

By itself, wa means something like “balance and harmony that leads to a sense of peacefulness”.  Usually it’s used as a prefix or suffix in compound words.  For example heiwa – meaning “peace” – is a combination of hei (something broad, smooth and even) with wa.  Fu (meaning “not”) plus wa is “friction” or “discord”.  Shinwa (intimacy + wais “friendship” and kyouwa (together + wa) is “cooperation”.

Wa is also a prefix that designates something belongs to native Japanese culture.  Washoku is Japanese food, a washitsu is a room with tatami mat flooring and paper-screen doors, wafuku is clothing like kimono or jimbei, and waji are written characters that originated in Japan as opposed to being borrowed from the Chinese language.

Wa quilts, therefore, use Japanese-style designs that do indeed maintain balance and harmony in a very non-Western way.  The fabric in wa quilts are typically subdued colors, but rarely without a delicate pattern or texture.  Patterns and motifs simultaneously achieve balance and movement.  The daring is in the intricacy of the work.  Most of the wa quilts were pieced entirely from blocks less that one inch square in size.  The Japanese-ness of the quilts is found not only in the colors and design, but also in the precision and patience necessary to such a creation process.  Here are some of my favorite from this year’s show.

In other news

Here is a bunch of random stuff I’ve been meaning to tell you:

This is what a world map looks like in Japan.  Japan is of course in the center, demonstrating that everyone is solipsistic, not just me.

Please notice how Russia is in both Asia and Europe.  Turkey is not.

Please notice how Russia is in both Asia and Europe. Turkey is not.  Disputed territories are in white.

Japanese people peel their grapes before eating.

my housemate, Junko-chan

Scrunchies are still cool.

at the 100 yen shop

Drinking hot water mixed with flavored vinegar is the newest health trend.  Apparently it mimics your stomach’s natural juices and aids digestion.  It’s also a cure for post-alcohol tummy troubles.

vinegar digestif

vinegar shake

Things Japan Is Good At #4: Waiting in Line

This is just a normal day at Baskin Robbins, not even free scoop day (every 31st of the month.)   In other things you should know, Baskin Robbins is called “31” in Japanese (pronounced in Japenglish – saati wan).  Notice how the “BR” logo is in two colors to make the number 31 stand out in the center.  Most Japanese people narrow in on that “31” and don’t even know the ice cream shop has an alternate name.

saati wan

Escalators have a walking side and a standing side, and the Japanese will wait in line to stand on the escalator instead of choosing to walk a completely clear path up the steps.

Kasuga Station

Korakuen Station

Physical affection between guys is not equated with homosexuality.

man love

Recognize this restaurant?  No?  Imagine Uma Thurman killing ninjas in it.  Located a few blocks away in Nishi-Azabu, it was the setting for a fight scene in Kill Bill.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

It’s cherry blossom season!  As silly as it sounds, the blooming of the sakura trees is probably the most important event of the year in Japan.  Although very agnostic as a nation, Japanese people are fanatical in the springtime, devoting as much time as possible to hanami and tree illuminations—first for plum blossoms, then (especially) cherry trees, then peach orchards.  I’ve often wondered if Japan’s a-religiousness is due in part to the strong role natural phenomena play in the cultural consciousness.  First snow, spring equinox, cherry blossoms, summer fireworks festivals, autumn equinox, the fall colors– these extra-religious events mark time and provide alternative annual traditions to ritualize the year and give rhythm to life.

Sakura in Hinokicho Park, across the street from my house.

Hinokicho Park

In case you were wondering, the tallest building in Tokyo is the Midtown Tower, on the other side of the park from my apartment in Roppongi.

Hinokicho Park

Illumination in Roppongi

You might remember these trees from the Christmas illumination.

Illumination in Roppongi

Towards the end of sakura season, the blustery March weather blows little pink petals off the trees en masse.  It’s called 花吹雪 (hanafubuki) which means “flower blizzard”.  The petals blanket the ground and form small drifts, just like snow storm.



Petal Drifts

Hanami in Ueno Park, arguably the most famous cherry blossoms in Japan.

Ueno Koen

Other special cherry blossom vocabulary:

花見酒 (hanamizake) – sake drunk while viewing cherry blossoms

花明かり(hana-akari) – the brilliance of cherry blossoms which illuminate the evening

桜花爛漫 (oukaranman) – the glory of cherry blossoms fully in bloom

花衣 (hanagoromo) – kimono used for cherry blossom viewing

桜前線 (sakura zensen) – cherry blossom front (Like a warm front or cold front.  Japan stretches over 800 miles, so sakura bloom on the warmer southern islands first.  Sakura season moves north little by little as the country warms with spring.  The nightly news keeps everyone informed about when the “cherry blossom front” will arrive in their region.)

Ueno Koen


Ueno Koen

Cherry Blossoms at Sophia University (one more reason to love the Jesuits)

At Sophia University

At Sophia University


Luxury Goods

Today I splurged, indulged in a pricey whim, treated myself to something normally outside my budget.  What was it?  The newly released Samsung Galaxy S4?  A Chanel bag to better fit in with brand-conscious Tokyoites?  The Mikimoto pearl necklace I’ve been coveting for years?

None of the above.  I bought fruit.

Yes, fruit is a luxury good in Japan.  Living in the world’s most expensive city has desensitizing me to most price tags, but when grapes are $15/bunch and ten strawberries cost $6, I still steer clear of the supermarket’s fruit aisle.  In Tokyo, a bowl of fruit on the dining table is not a simple and edible centerpiece, but an ostentatious display of wealth.

1280 yen for grapes!!

Granted, Japanese fruit is perfect.  Perfectly shaped, perfectly colored and packaged to preserve this perfection.  Midsummer peaches are individually wrapped in plastic, cushioned in styrofoam, then sold a wooden and cardboard box.  Even in the orchard, little sunshades are placed on buds before they blossom to make sure the fruit won’t scorch during the upcoming growing season.

Persimmon sun hats

Japan excels at making even the strangest things trendy (and expensive), and fruit is no exception.  Gifting fruit has become a type of status symbol.  Fruit baskets can cost upwards of $100.  Products like a square watermelon or a designer cantaloupe are similarly priced.  When a certain regional product becomes famous, the normally inflated prices skyrocket to near extortion.  A pair of Yubari melons can cost thousands of dollars.

Worth it?

Luxury Fruit Gift Shop

5-piece fruit basket: $110

6-piece fruit basket: $130