Category Archives: culture

Summer news

Summer fireworks

2016 Fireworks, Ome-shi, Tokyo

The cicadas have started serenading Japan again, signaling the official arrival of summer in the country. Finally, summer has arrived! Actually, summer arrived a month ago. But let me pretend that it has just arrived. I love summer. Nothing best describes summer than “fun”. Of course, dreadful things also happen in summer but somehow the summer season lightens up any misery, at least for me. My best memories were all made in summer. Nothing, not even Bell’s palsy, can ruin my summer 2016. Continue reading

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Kindness of strangers today

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First act of kindness
My hubby and I took our car for its biennial car inspection (shakken) this morning. At the testing center, I could not figure out where to get the forms we needed. Then, out of the blue, a guy wearing greasy overalls with the Nissan name and logo asked me what I was there for and, after I told him my purpose, asked to see my documents. He leafed through the documents, signaled for me to follow him and then led me to the building next door so I can pay the required fees first and get the necessary forms.

While I took my wallet out of my bag, the cashier asked him if I was a client. He shook his head and told her that he was just helping me out because I looked like someone who didn’t know what I was doing (true!). When the cashier told him that he was kind, he casually shrugged his shoulders and said that he just happened to have the time before the first round of inspections. Continue reading

Aizu Wakamatsu: The half marathon and the city (Part 2)

Aizu Wakamatsu

Dinner by the river

Dinner by the river

I, my husband and a couple of friends from Tokyo who accompanied us to the race arrived at our ryokan in the town of Higashiyama Onsen in the late afternoon before the race. The train journey from Tokyo station to Aizu Wakamatsu station consisted of a Shinkansen ride, a local train ride and about half an hour of waiting time in between. From Aizu Wakamatsu station, our inn was a short taxi ride away. The journey was pleasant as I had great company and the May countryside landscapes outside the train window were lovely. We saw not just vibrant green mountains and late spring wild cherry trees (yamazakura), but also snow-capped mountain ranges (Mt. Bandai and the Azuma Mountain Range) in the distance.   Continue reading

Meditation

Shoun Genkei (Buddhist monk)

Shoun Genkei (Buddhist monk)

This afternoon, hubby and I explored, on foot, a part of Tokyo we have not visited previously – a cluster of temples in Meguro, including Gohyaku Rakan Ji (Temple of Five Hundred Rakan). A rakan is a disciple of Buddha who remained on earth to serve as a role model for ordinary people.  Shoun Genki  (pictured above) was a monk and a sculptor who carved 500 rakan figures.

After our afternoon walk and an early dinner afterwards, I checked my blog and found Shannon’s response to a previous post about some of my frustrations with diabetes. She said that meditation helps her with her own frustrations.

An afternoon of learning about an aspect of Japanese Buddhism and meditation – what a coincidence!

Meditation, as described by wikipedia, is “a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.” From my  readings, I understand that different cultures, different times, and different religions (or even lack of religion) have their own way of meditating. My first introductions to meditation were by way of Buddhist chanting after my mother’s father’s death and praying the rosary as part of the Catholic tradition, although I don’t remember which one came first. While I prayed the rosary, and appreciated Buddhist chants as well as Gregorian chants, I came to appreciate them and the power of meditation only about a decade ago.

I’d like to thank Shannon for reminding me of this important tool in dealing with, not just diabetes, but stress in general. Being stressed once in a while is probably good for us, but going through chronic stress is not. The Mayo Clinic article on chronic stress discusses the general effects of stress and stressors on us and different aspects of our health. The short version is that chronic stress is not good for your health, especially when you are diabetic.

Meditation is one way of dealing with the stresses of diabetes. No matter how good our control is, there will be times when diabetes gets the better of us, or things do not work out according to plan, or we fall off the diet or exercise wagon. Meditation is a great way of calmly facing all these unexpected turns of event, resting our minds and recharging our batteries.

If you have not tried meditation, give it a chance. If you are of a particular religious persuasion or are not the religious kind, please do not fear that all forms of meditation are linked to some specific religious beliefs or systems. There are various approaches to meditation, and you should be able to find one that suits you and your personal beliefs. The Mayo Clinic gives a good general introduction to meditation.

I can attest to how vital meditation is in my life. I hope it becomes an integral part of your life, too.

Goodbye Peter

In May, I wrote about people I admired, including Peter, a friend of ours who was battling leukemia. Two weeks ago, he finally succumbed. This is an account of his wake and funeral.

The Wake

We received the news of Peter’s passing on the evening of August 16 (Friday, the night before my recital). My husband had just gotten off his mobile phone after speaking to a friend, when his phone suddenly (ie, by itself) started dialing Peter’s number. My husband quickly ended the call, as he had not intended to call Peter. But he changed his mind and called anyway since he had not spoken to Peter in nearly two weeks. Peter’s widow (whom I shall name Mrs. P) took the call and gave him the sad news. It turned out that Mrs. P had been trying to call my husband but couldn’t get through to him, and my husband’s phone history did not register any call from her. I guess Peter wanted to let my husband know in Peter’s own time.

Thus, right after my recital, my husband and I went straight to Peter’s wake. Like most cultures, Japan has its own traditions in bidding farewell to their dead. In most cases, the Japanese observe Buddhist ceremonies (such as chanting of special prayers by Buddhist priests and the deceased receiving a new name). In Peter’s case, we observed only the secular rituals.

At the funeral home, staff members were on hand to guide everyone on what to do. It’s such a relief not to have to think of what the proper rituals are supposed to be. I should know, as I went through that when my mother passed away nearly 16 years ago and we had to listen to everyone’s idea of a proper ritual for the dead (all based on their own superstitious belief). Here, the staff members take care of that, and they were as unobtrusive as possible. They handed each of those who were present at the wake a white carnation which we placed on a table in front of Peter’s coffin. On another table were placed some of Peter’s favorite things that Mrs. P selected to accompany Peter in the next life. These things included his brushes and paints, a couple of fishing rods, a couple of books, some beret and Japanese bandanas, music CDs and two pair of shoes. After placing the carnation on the table, my husband and I spent a few moments with Peter.

The wake was only for family and very close friends. Peter and Mrs. P had no children, so family consisted of Mrs. P’s brothers and their families, and a niece and a grand-niece (ie, the niece’s daughter) of Peter who flew in from half way across the world. My husband and I felt privileged to have been invited. I learned that evening that Peter was my husband’s very first friend after my husband arrived in Japan some 40 odd years ago.

Peter’s two relatives did not expect to be attending his funeral. They were originally scheduled to visit in October, when Mrs. P, ever hopeful, expected Peter to be in better shape to receive them. But his grand-niece, who was quite close to Peter, couldn’t shake off the feeling that they should not wait and should visit soon. If it weren’t for the fact that flights to Japan were full, they would have left a day earlier and be in Tokyo when Peter took his last breath. But, he died on their way here. Nonetheless, it was providential that they were at least here for Peter’s funeral.

After relatives and friends have had their moments with Peter, we had a simple dinner at the funeral home in his honor. Everyone got to know each other better, as well as spoke about their memories of Peter. The dinner was generally lively, just like Peter and how he would have wanted it to be.

After dinner, we moved to a tatami room that acted as the visiting room. Mrs. P asked my husband and me to join the funeral the next morning. In Japan, it is common to have the funeral the day after the wake (which is usually a one-evening affair). As the funeral and cremation were scheduled for early morning, we stayed the night.

The Funeral

At exactly 8 am the following Sunday morning, the staff led us back to the room where Peter was laid. Mrs. P’s eldest brother delivered an emotional eulogy. Following the eulogy, each person present stood up, walked to the coffin, took a white carnation, silently said his or her goodbyes to Peter, placed the carnation on the table in front of the coffin, and bowed to the rest of the mourners.

After we have paid our respects, the staff moved the coffin to the middle of the room and asked each one to choose something from Peter’s belongings and place it inside the coffin. Mrs. P encouraged us to participate. All the while, she also spoke lovingly to Peter while packing his favorite things with him. After these belongings have been placed inside Peter’s coffin, the staff asked us to place the white carnations inside the coffin. When this was done, we were asked to fill the coffin with flowers from the massive flower arrangement that served as background to Peter’s coffin during the wake. Only Peter’s face remained visible, beautifully and peacefully surrounded by flowers. After Mrs. P’s loving, final farewell to him, the coffin was sealed.

At the ground floor, the ladies were directed outside the funeral home to stand near the hearse, while the men were asked to carry the casket to the hearse. Mrs. P was escorted to sit in the hearse while the rest of us got unto an air-conditioned mini-bus that brought us to the crematorium, which was just a few minutes away from the funeral home.

The Cremation

At the crematorium, each of us was asked to again place a white carnation on a table in front of the coffin. The carnations, together with a bouquet of flowers, were laid on top of the casket.  Also on the table was the urn where his cremated remains will be placed.

We then accompanied the coffin to the furnace. I expected to see fire when the furnace door opened, but there was none. After the furnace door closed, we were escorted to a waiting room on the second floor. Various beverages including beer were served. We spent the time getting to know each other even more. I learned that Peter’s niece is a Type 1 diabetic and that although she generally does not eat a lot of carbs, she partook of the sushi and tempura served at dinner at the wake. I would not have guessed she was diabetic if her daughter did not casually mention her mother’s high FBG. To all nervous Type 1 diabetic would-be moms, I can tell you not to worry so much. Peter’s niece has two beautiful, smart and outgoing teen-agers.

After nearly an hour and a half, the crematorium’s staff asked us to return downstairs. But first they asked Mrs. P to identify Peter’s remains. I guess they meant Peter’s glasses or remains of his fishing rods, and to confirm that he came out of the furnace he went into earlier. They wouldn’t allow Mrs. P’s brother to do it for her, but gently insisted that Mrs. P herself (accompanied by her brother) make the final confirmation.

In the meantime, we were escorted to a small waiting area. I could smell burning. The smell wasn’t offensive at all, just the smell of burning. When Mrs. P and her brother, accompanied by a staff member, appeared, they came with a rolling table with a tray of bones and an empty tray. Yes, bones, not ashes. I was expecting ashes, but my husband told me the Japanese usually do not ask the bones to be ground to dust.

After a few introductory words, a staff member set aside the bones of Peter’s skull on the empty tray, then asked us to line up in twos. We were asked to pick up a bone, two at a time, with chopsticks and transfer it to the urn. I believe that two people were supposed to either pick up the same bone at the same time or pass one bone from one person to the other, in either case using chopsticks. But we did not do either. Rather each one simply picked up a bone and gently placed it inside the urn. I figured that since none of the mourners was Japanese, the staff did not see it necessary to correct what we were doing. It taught me that not all Japanese are punctilious about procedures. By the way, the ritual explains why, in Japan, no two people hold anything (especially food) at the same time with chopsticks or pass anything from chopsticks to chopsticks – this is considered a major social faux pas.

After we all had our turn, a senior staff member carefully placed the remaining bones inside the urn. He identified some of the bones, such as the knee and a neck bone (which I understand is the most important bone). The last bones to go in were Peter’s skull bones. Once the transfer was completed, the staff took out a brush and a small pan, and collected every single speck visibly left on the trays and deposited them into the urn. Then, he covered the urn and handed it to Mrs. P.

Lunch

After the cremation, we went back to the funeral home for lunch. At the head of the dining table were Peter’s self-portrait on an easel and a small table with an offering of food and drinks. Like most Buddhist societies, we offer food and drinks to the deceased so he or she wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty in the afterlife. We ate and drank to Peter’s memory.

Finally, we went home.

Peter’s memory and his last days

Peter was a well-loved man. He was a kind man with an infectious sense of humor. His niece told stories of how, when he visited home, he would regale them with tales of his travels and exotic Japan. He also adjusted quickly to technology and loved to talk to people, including his grand-niece, on skype.

The past seven years of fighting leukemia could not have been easy for Peter and Mrs. P, especially in the last couple of years when his kidneys failed. But both of them managed to find humor in his situation, and was even able to travel to Thailand more than once when his dialysis requirements improved. Mrs. P told us that during one trip, when the airline staff saw Peter’s condition, they were bumped up to first class. They certainly enjoyed it.

Peter’s condition deteriorated in the past few months, although he tried to be upbeat. But his doctor said that the only treatment left for him was either not approved in Japan or was waiting approval (sorry, I can’t remember which). In any case, he could only get the treatment outside Japan, such as the UK. He thought that it was time for him to go and for Mrs. P to move on with her life. He ultimately asked Mrs. P to “finally let him go” (Mrs. P made him promise he can’t go unless it’s with her permission). It was a difficult decision to make, but she did let him go.

One of the last things they did was to visit a fishing tackle shop. Peter used to fish and collected fishing rods and reels. Mrs. P arranged for medical transport and help so he can visit the shop. He spent about half an hour in the shop and was ecstatic to see all the fishing gears and equipment. I’m sure he couldn’t have asked for better last few days in this plane of existence.

Two weeks ago, on my late mother’s birthday, he went peacefully.

Local festival

When I went out for my walk-run late this morning, I ran past the Tamagawa Sengen Jinja and it was filled with excitement. It turned out that the excitement was due to the shrine’s matsuri (festival). Today, they brought out the omikoshi (portable shrine). This jinja takes out its omikoshi, and local volunteers carry it around the neighborhood, once every 3 years, and today marks the third year. They started at around 8:00 am, and were expected to return to the shrine after sundown.

Portable shrine

Portable shrine

Hoping to catch the end of the festivities, my husband and I went over to the shrine at sunset. The steps leading to the shrine were festooned with lanterns with the character 祭 (matsuri) or festival.  People were paying their respects at the shrine. Below, the street was closed to traffic, and was crowded with revellers.

Climbing the stairs to the shrine

Climbing the stairs to the shrine

Jinja

Jinja

Matsuri

Matsuri

Yukata

Yukata

We arrived just in time to catch the omikoshi carriers in a well-deserved break, before they carried the omikoshi back to the shrine. The omikoshi, although it’s portable, is heavy. I carried one years ago, and my shoulders and upper back were black and sore for more than one week. But it was fun to do it, not just for the experience of carrying the portable shrine, but the  camaraderie among neighbors, sharing the weight of the omikoshi for hours under the sun and sharing sake or beer during breaks. Those carrying the omikoshi can get into a frenzy, which can spill over to the crowd. I managed to speak to some of them. Maybe it’s the charged atmosphere or it’s the sake, but they were so excited to talk about the festival. I wish I had a tape recorder with me.

Carrying the portable shrine

Carrying the portable shrineFrenzy

Frenzy

It was an absolutely delightful afternoon and experience. To cap this lovely day, my husband and I enjoyed the rest of the festivities dining outside our favorite cafe. Since I had an active day, with all the walking and some running, I rewarded myself with Baileys with ice cream.

The shrine was still abuzz when we started our walk home.

Night time

Night time

Today’s walk

It was past noon when I went out for my planned walk-run. At the last minute I decided to just walk around my neighborhood with my camera. Like many neighborhoods in Japan, my area is full of short winding roads that usually lead to a dead end, or somewhere you would never expect to appear. Hence, walking and driving here are usually an adventure. I just make sure I don’t give in to the temptation to wander at night, since I am never sure where I am going to arrive.

This afternoon I discovered a small cemetery that I have not noticed before. It was tucked behind a small shrine. My neighborhood has a number of shrines and cemeteries. I’ve walked past this shrine several times, when I take the longer route to the train station. It’s lodged among apartments and houses and is easy to miss. I decide to go in. The ground was really, really small. It’s like someone’s garden. If I wasn’t looking around for a photo subject, I would have missed the narrow pathway which lead to the tiny cemetery.

The cemetery was probably no more than one and a half the size of our apartment. There was no one else there. That gave me the chance to look more closely at the graves and take some photos.

Cemetery

Some graves have offerings. Most of the graves have cups, some turned up, some turned down. I wonder if this reflects a practice of offering sake to the dead. I realize I don’t know much about this aspect of Japanese culture (note to self to find out more).

Speaking of sake, I spotted a grave with a full bottle of sake in a plastic bag. I was tempted to take it home with me, but I will not dare rob a grave. And who knows? Someone could be  watching me.

Sake in a cemetery

At another grave, I spotted an empty can of beer.

Who drank the beer?

I know it’s silly, but it’s tempting to ask – who drank the beer?

Diabetes Haibun


Disclaimer: If anyone reading this is a haibun expert, please do not condemn my poor attempt. I’m learning, maybe badly, but one day I’ll get there. (If you want to know what a haibun is, click this link. For samples of haibun, click this one.) 

One sunny Sunday morning, as the day progressed towards noon, I went out for a long run. Although I was at that time training for a marathon, that run was not in my training schedule. I was into my second week of intensive self-testing, and that morning my BG was running high. I learned first hand how tremendous stress and lack of sleep (blame my neighbor) can raise my BG to high heavens.

          light head, dark mood brewed

          sugars floated in my veins

         the run comforted

I must have run too much because the next thing I remember was weaving across the running path. I saw spots, my skin was damp and cold, and my vision started to dim. I whipped up my OneTouch Ultra Mini. Whoa! It read 50.

          BG dipped too low

          went running without sugar

          cut banana helped

My BG settled to a comfortable level. I monitored how I felt as I ran back. I did not prick my finger again but unscientifically relied on my “feeling” and “sense”. I was lucky to have no more episodes during the run. I tested again when I got home.

          My BG behaved

          Hubby fried eggs and bacon

          Perfect end it was

It’s been a few years since that day. A lot of things have happened to me. But I’m still here, and so is my D.

          Snow melts, flowers bloom

          Leaves fall, nature’s cycle dooms

          While D marches on

My “out of the diabetes closet” day

No diabetes day is more memorable for me (apart from the day I was diagnosed) than the day (or night) I publicly declared “I am diabetic.”

Before that night, no one except my husband, my father and my brothers knew. If anyone noticed that I was no longer a sugar fiend and was leaving rice on my sushi plate, I say “I’m on a diet.” A few non-Japanese friends tried to convince me that I did not need to diet and that the Atkins diet was dangerous (ignoring my assurances that I was not on Atkins). But most people pretty much left me alone.

There was hardly any reason to mention my diabetes to anyone. Being in Tokyo, I do not find it all that challenging to eat. If I go to house parties and expect the host to serve only pasta, pizza and sugar-filled pies (and that has happened only maybe twice), I eat something at home and ask my husband to volunteer a dish. Luckily, my husband is a good cook, so everyone welcomes his contribution. Once at a small dinner party, my husband was asked to cook pasta sauce. We managed to fill my plate with shirataki “pasta” noodles. Hahahaha. No one knew. Aren’t I sneaky?

Eating out is also not a major issue. Almost all restaurants offer something that I can eat. With a few exceptions, the Japanese love their fish, meat and vegetables (not necessarily in that order) as much as they do rice and noodles. Hence, I never worried about going out with friends. That is, until friends decided to celebrate their anniversary at a pizzeria.

Had they selected an Italian restaurant, I would have been fine because there will always be non-pasta and non-pizza dishes I can order. But a pizza place? I did not expect to find anything but pizzas. To add to my worries, everyone was to share dishes. Consequently, before I signed up for the party, I asked whether there will be other food. Yup, pasta. Uh-oh! But one of them is Japanese, so of course salads, sausages and ham (as appetizers) were on the party menu. That was a relief.

At the party, they asked me why this sudden concern for food. Since it was their party and I chose to go, I thought they deserved an explanation. My husband nudged me to just tell them the truth. So, I did.

“I am diabetic.”

Silence. For a few seconds.

Then, our hostess said “Tell me what you can eat.” I had a large plate of appetizers to myself. ☺

My “coming out” was painless. She and the other guests asked me questions, the first of which was “Can we ask you questions?” They wanted to know what type of diabetes I have, whether I use insulin, what I can or cannot eat or drink, how I was doing and feeling, whether I have complications, how long I’ve had it and other things. They were all interested and concerned. Even those I have met that evening for the first time.

No one offered me “expert advice” on diabetes. No one tempted me with “Have a bite of pizza. It won’t hurt you.” No one asked me how I developed diabetes. No one told me stories of their friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s great granddaddy’s diabetes, kidney failure or foot amputation. I could not have chosen a better group to come out to.

“I am diabetic.”

I could not believe I actually said it to non-family members. It was a relief. It was liberating. It was life-changing. Finally, I had accepted my diabetes and was ready to face it head-on.

Now, about three years later, I’m openly writing about my experiences as a T2 diabetic. Who would have thought?

Diabetic-friendly food at Japanese festivals

My husband and I very recently attended two Japanese matsuri (or festival): the Ome City Matsuri and the Tamagawa Genryuu Matsuri in Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture.

IMG_1210 IMG_1249

Like most, if not all, festivals in Japan, food and drinks played a central role in both festivals. After all, what good is a festival if it keeps you starving and thirsty?

Only very picky eaters will have nothing to eat or drink at a matsuri. But what about a diabetic who wants to keep his blood glucose under control, will he have to starve, bring his own food, or settle for a high BG? Nope. A diabetic will have no difficulty finding food that will not send his BG skyrocketing, unless he does not eat meat of any kind.

It is true that most festival food stalls sell high-carb offerings, such as:

  • yaki soba (noodles)
  • grilled corn
  • okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake with various toppings)
  • takoyaki (ball-shaped batter with octopus)
  • choco banana (chocolate-covered banana)
  • cotton candy
  • jaga bata (potatoes with butter)
  • kakigori (shaved ice with colored syrup)
  • crepe
  • taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry with some kind of sweet filling)
  • candy apples, strawberries and other fruits

I ignore them. Well, almost all of them. I sometimes enjoy a small portion of okonomiyaki (that is, I eat the toppings and little of the pancake, and I ask the vendor to put very little sauce), or one or two takoyaki balls. So, what do I eat? Well, plenty.

Japanese festivals are very kind to meat lovers. Among the choices you have are:

  • yakitori (grilled chicken parts on stick)
  • ikayaki (grilled squid)
  • karaage (fried chicken)
  • grilled fish
  • hotateyaki (scallops grilled in butter)
  • sausages and frankfurters

There’s kebab which seems to have increased in popularity over these past few years (I leave the bread untouched). If, like me, you like soup, you can find (during the colder seasons) oden (which consists of various ingredients in soy-flavored broth) and miso tonjiru (miso soup with pork and vegetables). If you are not squirmish squeamish, you can try buta motsu nikomi (simmered pork innards or intestines and vegetables), which I thoroughly enjoyed at the Kosuge festival.

If you are vegetarian, you can always find cucumbers which are widely sold, especially in summer.

See? Japanese festivals offer a lot of delicious diabetic-friendly food. I have never ever left a Japanese festival hungry.

What about drinks? Water and an assortment of teas (by this, I mean unsweetened teas) are always on sale. But alcoholic drinks are a different matter. Beer, in almost limitless supply, is the most popular alcoholic beverage in festivals. You can also find sake but, like beer, it is not low carb. The possible low carb choices are happoshu, a low malt beer, and chu hi, a combination of fizzy lemon or grapefruit juice and shochu. But be careful with chu hi because, depending on which brand and type you pick up, it may not be as low in carbohydrates as you would like it to be. As someone who does not add sugar to her beverages, I find chu hi too sweet for my taste. Do not expect to find whiskey, gin, vodka or good quality shochu. I know because I looked. As I happen not to enjoy happoshu or chu hi, if I want to imbibe, I settle for sake, which I drink slowly and alternate with water or tea. I get the buzz without getting smashed.

So, the next time you stumble upon a Japanese festival, do not despair when you see all the flour- and sugar-based offerings, because you know you will find something suitable.

Enjoy your matsuri.