Tuesday, April 26, 2005

My Body Hurts

Week 2 of my new yoga regimen and all the muscles under my flab are either screaming or moaning like incoherant hospital patients. I keep telling myself those "duty now for the future" things just to get through the class, when all I really want to do is just collapse into a sweaty heap on my mat, which is more like a slip-n-slide than anything else, and gasp for air like beached whale...sheesh! And I do not "assume" the corpse pose at the end, I AM the corpse pose. That is one asana I have absolutely no problem with. Elective surgery is starting to sound like a lot less work, I tell ya. But who am I kidding? I've never been one to take the easy way out; nope, if something is going to be done, I have to do the hardest way imaginable. So this particular yoga studio certainly fits the bill.

Number One, it's hot as fuck in there. Yes, it's that "hot" yoga you've heard about, the kind where you grunt and sweat in a room that's well over 95 degrees. So I produce buckets, torrents, no - rivers of sweat. I'm literally blinded by it. I drink it. I accidentally breathe it 'cause it's running into my nose. It's all over the mat and becomes something of a hazard when leaping back into plank to do that 40th push up. Those petty little hand towels they give you are mere kleenex in the rain; practically useless except to anchor feet and hands on either end of the mat during the deluge.

Number Two, the "ass-kicking" level of the class entirely depends on who is instructing the it and the kind of day they've had. One day they're nurturing earth mothers, gently coaxing you ju-u-ust a bit deeper into a pose. The next day they're vicious Zen drill sergeants, saying "if you were bad over the weekend" (and yes, I was bad) "then this is your punishment...Happy Monday!"

Number Three, until the fall there will be no more 6:45 classes on Thursdays, which just happened to be the "Getting Back to Basics" class. This sucks on a number of levels: now I'll have to cut out of work early on Thursdays as well as Fridays. And it's not that the "Basics" class was so much easier, because it wasn't, it's just that it was the one class where you wouldn't be expected to go from plank to crow (to CROW for fuckssake, balancing on your hands, with your knees propped up on your elbows). Jeezus, that's just a little advanced for my less-than-primed body.

But I'll get there... I have absolutely no distractions for the entire summer. No Japanese classes, not even tea, really. All I have to worry about is work and yoga. By the end of the summer I may just reduce the percentage of unwearable clothes in my closet from 95 to maybe 50. By Xmas I should be lookin' fine.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Law Blogs?

Who knew law students could be so amusing? Actually, this guy is thoughtful and well-written.

Superbee's Philosophy

It's so unusual to find blogs worth reading, I should certainly add this one:

Barely Legal: The Blog

Nice Foodie Blog - with PICS!

It must have been 2.5 hours and hundreds of casino blogs before I stumbled onto this:

the delicious life


Japanese Name Generator

Got this link from Strawberry~Wink:

your real japanese name generator!

Me? I'm Saruwatari Chiaki

Saruwatari (monkey on a crossing bridge)
Chiaki (very fine in autumn)


Shincha Season Begins!

It's that time again! The time of year every tea lover looks forward to in mouth-watering anticipation: the harvesting of the first flush of leaves from the tea bushes of Japan! First harvest tea, also known as "shincha" is even more special than regular sencha. Even though the particular brand of sencha I am addicted to is very good, the shincha batch is even sweeter and brighter than usual. Along with the grassy, green aroma, there are soft, sweet floral notes. Shincha season lasts for 6-8 weeks, or until the first harvest is sold out, so now is THE time to stock up.

A few (thousand) notes on green tea:
  • Sencha is the loose-leaf variety of tea, as opposed to Matcha, which is the powdered green tea of chanoyu.
  • Really good green tea cannot be found on the shelves of your local grocery shelf; that stuff is shite (believe me, I've tried them all) so don't waste your money. Pay a few extra bucks to get real green tea flavor, straight from Japan.

  • There is a distinct difference between Japanese green tea and green tea from other countries. Among other Japanese tea growing techniques, the tea is not fermented; it is steamed immediately after harvesting, then air-dried and packaged in air-tight foil envelopes or containers. It is then refrigerated until sold to keep the flavor bright and fresh.

  • The highest grade of loose green tea is called "gyokuro". Gyokuro tea bushes are covered with reed screens a few weeks before harvesting. Growing in diluted sunlight, the level of chlorophyll stored in the leaves is increased, producing a mild, sweet taste. Only the top leaf buds are used, which are picked by hand. Lower grades are comprised of the second and third set of leaves and maybe some stems. I don't drink gyokuro on a regular basis, as it's pretty expensive. However, I will be springing for a high-grade gyokuro this year during shincha season!

  • A good medium-priced tea for everyday drinking is sencha (like my Fukamushi cha) and it comes in all grades and varies from deep green to a greenish-yellow in the cup. There are some senchas that are combined with lower-level leaves and stems from gyokuro bushes, but I haven't tried any of those yet.

  • The temperature of the water used to brew green tea is very important (as is the quality of the water itself) and depends on the style of the green tea being used. Suffice it to say, NEVER use boiling water! You'll just scald the leaves and end up with a crappy, bitter cup.

  • Only make as much tea as you can drink; you don't want your tea leaves standing in water and getting bitter while you finish off that first cup. The amount of time the leaves should be steeped depend on the style of tea and can vary from 1 minute to 5; anything longer will result in bitter tea - blech! For the money you'll be paying for quality sencha, you want to be very attentive while brewing. Don't run off and forget it!

  • If you're buying tea from a good tea merchant, you'll receive instructions for proper brewing time and temperature for that particular tea. Use those instructions as a baseline, but try experimenting as well. I like my tea a little stronger than "normal" so I use a little more tea and steep it just a little longer. Remember, it's your money and your tea, so make it how you like it!
  • You should get 2-3 infusions per batch of tea, sometimes more. At each stage, the tea reveals different flavor notes; it's like drinking a different tea each time. My favorite is the second infusion, after the leaves have already been wetted. It's the strongest cup of the batch - oishii!
  • A good way to get aquainted with green tea is to try the green tea sampler at http://www.adagio.com. It's an inexpensive way to try several different styles of green tea from all over the world. Their ingenuiTEA tea pot is the most brilliant and un-fussy tea infuser I've found; I swear by it! Put the tea in, pour the water, let it steep, then place it on the rim of your cup: the tea drains from the bottom, nice, neat, no mess at all. I keep one at work and one a home. There's even a 32 oz version so you can share the love...
  • Traditionally, one does not add cream (gross!) sugar or sugar substitutes to green tea. However, often green tea will be accompanied by a sweet of some sort, to offset the astringency of the tea. But really, it's up to you. You'll get the most health benefits by drinking it sans additives.
  • Other types of sencha to try:

    • Houjicha - roasted green tea, it actually looks like black tea in the cup and has an interesting, smokey taste. I've read that the roasting of the leaves reduces the caffeine present in the green tea leaves, already quite low, compared to coffee, and is good for evening drinking. But don't let that fool ya...this stuff WILL keep you up.

    • Genmai-cha - sencha mixed with puffed rice; another interesting flavor.

Since I transitioned from coffee to tea, my usual tea of choice has been the organic Fukamushi cha from Shizuoka @ http://www.japanesegreenteaonline.com/. It's amazingly fresh and sweet, and a gorgeous jade green color in the cup. I drink roughly 24 ozs of it every day and it keeps me humming all day long, without the jitters or sour stomach that too often results with coffee. Their shincha should be posted soon.

Another great site I have found for tea is http://www.o-cha.com. Lots of good tea, I have found their iced green tea bags make excellent tea for a hot summer day. Good price, too.

Another good site is http://www.zencha.net/. Their selection of shincha is already posted and due to start shipping by the first of May. I'm going to try them out this month. They're a bit expensive: their best sencha is about $35 /100 gm, about twice what I normally pay. We'll see how good it really is!

The number of green tea sellers on ebay have popped up recently:

yansifugel - Tried them for the price, but their tea was just "OK". Not active since Jan 05.
ytcimports - Haven't tried them yet
satisfaction100 - LARGE selection, will try them soon
magosdream - mostly matcha (powdered green tea)

I was lead to believe the the best green tea comes from the areas around Uji and Shizuoka, but my Sensei disabused me of that notion. According to her, the very BEST green tea originates from Kyushu, which just happens to be the area where full-scale tea growing was started back around 800AD. Growers there usually end up selling their harvest to the wholesalers in Shizuoka, who then apply the Shizuoka appellation to the product. Sensei told me to look for Yamaguchi tea from Kyushu. I'll let you know as soon as I find an online source for it.

Why go on and on and on about green tea? Because green tea helps keep you "genki" - healthy & vigorous. It's full of cancer-fighting compounds (catechins & polyphenols) and, in the case of matcha, can actually help with weight loss. It tastes good and makes you feel good. Try it for a week or two in place of your coffee - you may never go back.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Princess Sparkle Pony

FINALLY, after sifting through countless ad blogs, crap blogs and display-my-baby-to-the-world blogs, finally I find an blog worth reading (OK, an unknown blog worth reading...all my friend's blogs are definitely worthwhile). The name is Princess Sparkle Pony and it's good for several laffs: read it here: http://sparklepony.blogspot.com/

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Of Thieves and Tea

As of Wednesday, the aforementioned security problem has been fixed, thanks to the quick work of the "X" Police Department, and their "working-over" of the thief in our midst. After several days of imagining the worst and wondering what my new career was going to be, it turns out that our exposure is relatively low; it could have been MUCH worse. It just goes to show, no matter how tight your security and processes might be, there's nothing to protect you from the heart of a dishonest person. Thankfully, that dishonest person actually admitted their to their crime under some fierce questioning by the Detective in charge, so maybe there's hope for them after all. Maybe...

Today we did a demonstration at the Trammell Crow Museum of Asian Art in Dallas. It went well, despite the remarkably uncooperative efforts of the museum docents and facilities personnel. Sensei had brought her very expensive lacquered miso no dana (tea table) and a large red lacquered umbrella, the one we saw at Hatsugama (New Year's Tea). The room allotted for our demonstration was quite small, even for the Crow, who's square footage doesn't amount to much more than our office, which is just under 6000sqft. The only way we could position the umbrella was to stand it under the rectangular recesses where the halogen lights are mounted. Otherwise, the ceiling was about 5 inches too low. Tanaka-san said the last time they did a demonstration there, he just unscrewed one of the bulbs, so it wouldn't cook the lacquered surface of the umbrella, just 1.5 inches away. The facilities personnel adamantly refused to let him unscrew it, or even point it away from the umbrella, since it had been "professionally positioned" to illuminate some jade pieces displayed in the wall. AS IF it couldn't just be repositioned later or that the bulb was somehow more important than Sensei's tea equipment. They showed very little accomodation to the woman who was, for all purposes, doing the demonstration FOR FREE. It reminded me of one reason I didn't continue my docent training there. Nevermind my krazy schedule or the gossipy culture, it was the snooty attitude that turned me off. It was, however, a little gratifying to come back as the ATTRACTION, rather than as a dilletante and self-satisfied know-it-all. I know that sounds harsh, but I've learned WAY more, spending time with Sensei, actually DOING, rather than reading and theorizing. I'm going to lament once more that this treasure trove of culture and esthetic sensibility is moving to Michigan.

The audience had to pay a $10 admission, $20 if they weren't dues-paying members of the museum. They included the usual fare of well-to-do retirees, although there were several younger people in attendance. They all seemed genuinely interested in the ceremony and had many questions for Melissa, who was giving the "color commentary" as we performed. Some of the questions surprised me in their obvious "goal-oriented" nature: how long does it take to learn chanoyu? How many guests can take part? Is the goal to become a host? I can't say I've never asked those questions before, but after having studied only a few short months, they seemed to miss the point of chanoyu. At first I was all about knowing exactly what to do and when, why it's done that way, and unconsciously setting a bench-mark whereby I would know that I had "attained" a certain level of proficiency. But now I realize that it's not about the mechanics so much, though they are important, but more about the experience and the leaving behind of mundane, daily thoughts. I could always appreciate the tea implements and the atmosphere of the tea room, the history lessons and the language exposure, but what I will really miss is how the practice of chanoyu leaves a clearing in the mind, brushing away all the accumulated effluvia of the past week. I truly hope our little tea circle can maintain that feeling without Sensei.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Sayonnara Sensei

Just got home from Sensei's sendoff. It's been a long day, and there were some unexpected developments...

My boss called just before I was leaving to tell me we may have a security breach at work. Can't give a lot of details at the moment, but suffice it to say that if that is indeed the case, we are in some serious trouble. He asked that I provide him with a report with certain information and to review some particular policies and procedures by EOB today - well, by the end of the day, today is Saturday.

I spent some time querying the DB to check some things out and as a result didn't have time to stop and get some irises for Ichiko-san, the hostess of our little get-together. Damn.

When I got there, only a few people had arrived, including Sensei, Sumiko and Tomiko. I was surprised to see a large bandage on Sensei's neck. Apparently she had some out-patient surgery this week to remove 3 "lumps" from the right side of her neck. I'm not sure if it was the bandage or if she was in some pain, but she moved as if she had a stiff neck. I think they are sending the tissue to be analysed. I'll have to ask Melissa for more details.

Ichiko's house is quite lovely. She has a number of very nice rugs from Turkey, India and Iran, and she seems to be quite the china collector and has a lovely butsudan (shrine) in an adjoining room. It was all-ladies this time; her husband went out to get a haircut this morning and she told him not to come back until the party was over. I guess it's like that after you've been married for 30-odd years.

There was food in abundance. When I arrived Ichiko was cooking a chicken and sesame dish and had a myriad of side dishes, including one that I think was burdock with sesame seeds. There was a clear broth containing vegetables and a couple of peppery green leaves whose stems were tied in a knot - whimsical AND delicious. Melissa brought a green salad with pecans and Mandarin oranges, some baked mushrooms avec frommage and some chocolate cookies. Of course there was the obligatory green tea and sake. Afterwards there were little creme brulees in tiny cups with a tear-off top, a strange mochi pie with black bean paste whose rubbery texture almost prevented me from putting a fork through it and a couple of different types of cake and of course, coffee, from which I abstained.

After the meal, everyone sat in a circle and Sensei stood and addressed us, mostly in Japanese. Since my Japanese is still so very sketchy, I could only pick up every 5th word or so: "here", "there:, "go", "thank you", "don't worry", etc... Then she gave everyone a flat square box with their name on it, with the honorific "sama". You attach "sama" to the end of someone's name who is loftily above you in stature as a sign of respect. So mine was addressed "Carmen-sama", which embarassed the hell out of me...I'm no "sama" to Sensei!! I think everyone mistook my confusion at being addressed this way for not knowing what "sama" means, because then 3 people immediately tried to explain it to me. I get that a lot. When I ask questions re: tea protocol I get the kindergarten explanation, when I'm asking college-level questions. I'm pretty damn ignorant, but not completely ignorant! At any rate, it was an interesting gesture by Sensei, as if to say, as a teacher, she had learned as much from us, her students, as we have learned from her.

At any rate, in the box was a beautiful kobukusa, which is a small square of silk brocade cloth one uses to hold a hot chawan (tea bowl). I could tell right away that it was special. It has a Chinese phoenix and cloud pattern, the preferred pattern of Shoshitsu Sen XV Hounsai, the 15th Grand Master of the Urasenke school of tea, who is like a rock star in the tea world. Only it wasn't purple. Instead it's a pale spring green, so very lovely! Everyone got a different pattern. As we all went around the room comparing and contrasting, I got raised eyebrows and significant looks - like somehow I had been singled out. All of the kobuksa were lovely, and it was interesting to finally see some real-life examples of patterns I've only seen online. But I can't help thinking mine is special - because it is.

We then presented Sensei with the Roseville bowl. I think she really liked it. I was nervous that those who had to pony up their share of the cost of the bowl but had not yet seen it might think it wasn't worth it. But Sensei seemed to like it and everyone handed it around and made much ado over it. Then those of us who had other gifts for Sensei presented them to her. She liked the shobu (iris) pattern of the sashiko pillow and everyone was either impressed or shocked that I really made it. "You made it? Honto???" Melissa brought a little corsage with 3 pale green orchids attached to lavender ribbons, which matched Sensei's twinset perfectly and I think made her feel special. Rhonda's father is a woodworker and she had him copy a chabako (portable tea box) she brought back from her year in Kyoto. Sensei is the now the proud owner of what may well be the world's only mesquite-wood chabako - very cool.

Anyway, it was nice sitting and chatting with everyone without the pressure of having to "perform" a tea ceremony. I had to leave around 5 and drive up to work to do the aforementioned reports and didn't get back home until 8:30 or so. All in all it was a nice day, the frightening scenarios notwithstanding. Still, it's left me a bit melancholy. I hope Sensei's neck heals and there are no "complications" with it, and that her move to Detroit is smooth and uneventful. We are to meet at Sumiko's house in early May for ochakai (tea party), but it won't be the same without the lady who's been so wonderful and kind to me, and with whom it has been my honor and pleasure to learn chanoyu.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Sensei's Pillow

Well, I think I am finally prepared:

Sashiko pillow - check
2 bottles of Nambu Bijin - check
Roseville bowl as kaishi-bachi - check
Boxes and wrapping for said items - check

The pillow turned out "OK", I guess. It wasn't absolutely covered with sashiko like I envisioned; I ran out of time. Didn't even work on it last night, as a post-menstrual headache laid me low around 8PM. But I finished it tonite, washed the chalk lines out and now it's drying. I'll press it tomorrow, take a photo and consign it to it's box. I didn't even intend to do sashiko, but the "jukoh" textile sample turned out have a completely unmatchable shade of black and I couldn't find any suitable backing for it. I never did get Sumiko to translate the bit of calligraphy on it either...so I guess it's just as well. I would have been totally embarrassed if it turned out to be some kind of sutra...

Anyhoo, the Roseville bowl is acceptable, I guess. I really thought the 85 year old Dutch Art Nouveau vase was a home run, but it was vetoed by an older student/friend of Sensei's, so I have to trust that it wouldn't have worked. I did find out that the bowl was designed for Roseville by Ben Seibel, Mr. Mid-Century Modern of tableware, circa 1952. So at least it's got some pedigree. I hope Sensei likes it.

So it's off to Ichiko's house at 1PM tomorrow for Sensei's send-off. I can't wait to dig into that sake...damn near popped a bottle open for myself tonite...a monumental exercise of self-control! If you've ever had Nambu Bijin, you'll know just how hard that was.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Japanese good products

I've noticed a plethora of new Japanese sellers on ebay lately. This is a good thing, since 99% of the sellers on the Yahoo! Japan auctions will not ship internationally. (and there's SOOO many cool things on the Yahoo auctions) Today I discovered uhiro111. This is from their "About Me" page:


I would like to introduce you to Japanese good products.

I would like to show you Japanese nice items.

Because I am Japanese.

I sell items which are made in Japan only.

As you know, Japanese items are high quality but too expensive.

My items are high quality but cheap.

Thank you

"high quality but cheap" - hell yeah!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Vanishing Kimono

Today I finally received the Ichiroya newsletter. I was beginning to worry that something might have happened to the Wadas, some disaster that prevented the weekly newsletter that I love so much from going out on Sunday morning as per usual. No disaster though, just a technical glitch, and the newsletter arrived safe and sound in my inbox.

This week, Ichiro-san touched on a topic that I have been thinking about for some time. About a year ago, it occurred to me: even if Japan is "kimono-land" the supply of antique and vintage kimono is certainly finite. I've only been collecting for about 3.5 years, and already I can see the number of "quality" pieces available (to me) is becoming less and less, nevermind modern kimono. At the same time, prices are going up. All the pseudo-Japanese movies and interest in anime have brought more new bidders to this formerly small collecting niche and they're not going away after one win. As happened with me, once you buy one, you can't stop there. It becomes an obsession.

Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I was bidding on a particularly nice shibori haori from the Taisho period. It had great colors, bright aquamarine on a field of equally bright magenta. The pattern was a tabane arrow design in a fairly large kanoko shibori. The repeat was spaced just right and it was in excellent condition. I haven't seen a good shibori piece like that come up for some time. I estimated about $60-70, but it went for almost $150! Bidding was fierce. I can see that if I am to compete for the better items, I'm will need to adjust my estimates up, WAY UP. And that's just for the comparatively crappy items that end up on ebay. The really pristine pieces are completely unattainable and they'll only increase in price as time goes by. $2000-3000 today is $5000 tomorrow.

I have wondered for a long time if this state of affairs hadn't occurred to the Wadas, who have based their entire business on antique and vintage textiles. Well, sure enough, Ichiro-san was describing how they have to attend twice the number of auctions these days to keep a decent stock on hand. Even the ubudashiya (wholesale kimono buyers who sell at the auctions) are having difficulty locating really fine items to bring to the regional auctions. All this week Ichiroya has featured non-textile items, like wooden bobbins, lacquer and pottery. Yamatoku has been especially affected by the vanishing kimono phenomenon; almost all of their stock these days isn't much older than the 1970s.

In the last year or so I've become much more selective. I've seen thousands of kimono from all time periods. I've seen just about every style and motif out there and am getting fairly educated on the symbolism inherent in the motifs. I've gotten pretty good at dating a kimono by gauging it's construction and design, and I'm less forgiving of stains and holes (at least when it comes to shelling out the bucks for it). So as I've gotten more picky, the supply of good vintage textiles is growing smaller, and so now I find myself in a higher price range without even knowing it.

All this has left me with a vague sense of panic, especially since my self-imposed ban from ebay. Should I watch the (now) relatively inexpensive pieces pass me by, or should I do whatever I can to grab them, lest I pay even more in the future? I used to tell myself, "there will always be more kimono, I can forego this one...." but in the face of rising prices and dwindling supplies...can that really be true? Also, there are some financial goals I should attend to, like buying a house and actually visiting Japan. Ugh! I'm so torn!

Super-nice Taisho Shibori Haori with Tabane Arrow Design Posted by Hello

Monday, April 04, 2005


Today, the postman delivered unto me a happy red Netflix envelope containing the new Criterion Collection DVD release of "Kagemusha" (Shadow Warrior). I cannot wait to watch it. I saw it once, while I was visiting my sister one Christmas in Colorado. Unfortunately, the VHS tape must have been at least 15 years old, possibly even older, and the quality was very bad, with the bottom 1/3 of the picture all skeezey and I seem to remember some problem with the tracking on her video player. But still, I sat through all THREE HOURS of it (alone) and have been longing for the day that it finally becomes available on DVD. I can't wait to watch it, but it's not going to happen tonight. I have until Saturday to knock out a sashiko pillow for Sensei's going-away gift, so I may not get to watch it until next Sunday! But that will be OK, because the second disc of the set should be here by that time. From what I hear it's just loaded with really cool extras.

Speaking of Kurosawa, I watched his 1991 film, "Rhapsody in August" last week. No swords, fighting or costumes, just some modern-day kids whiling away the summer with their bomb-survivor gradmother in the hills outside Nagasaki. I half expected to be bored with this one, since I've been on such a jidai geki (period film) kick lately, but this one was really quite touching. I remember watching some extra on the "Ikuru" DVD where the lady that played the grandmother described how gruff and demanding Kurosawa was with her during the filming of "Rhapsody", but apparently it paid off because her performance was fantastic. I didn't doubt for a moment she really was an ancient old lady who lost her husband to the bomb, lo those many years ago. The tone of the film was tender and, some may say, maudlin, but it wasn't at all blamey or strident in how it dealt with the whole "being defeated" topic. And it was amusing to watch Richard Gere (yes, that Richard Gere) as the Japanese/American cousin, try to "act natural" with the delivery of his Japanese dialogue. It was apparent he didn't have the first clue what he was actually saying, though he got the intonation right. He would smile during scenes that didn't really call for it, as if he were a little self-conscious, but I don't want to get too picky. Those little bits were the only half-false notes in the whole movie. That and the shot of the full moon over the hills looked a little fakey. This one is worth watching and has a definite slot in the permanent collection.