Saturday, April 21, 2007



I wake to a troubling e-mail this morning telling us that Mizuho, Art’s eldest brother is sick, but not to worry too much. We are taking the Shulmans to Shurijo Castle this morning and we meet them at their hotel as planned. The logistics of sightseeing with two families is proving challenging and we split into two taxis and are dropped off at the bottom of the wide promenade leading up to the castle entrance. Art is a knowledgeable guide and Annya suggests that we get him a flag to hold up for us all to follow. There are many large groups of Japanese tourists following obediently behind their flag waving guides. Helene’s foot is troubling her, making walking painful and our progress slow but we are able to rent a wheelchair when we reach the ticket kiosk at the castle entrance. The weather is overcast and it is drizzling ever so lightly. A small stage is set in the center of the castle courtyard and a traditional Okinawan Dance performance will start shortly. While Art and Michael buy tickets to tour the interior of the castle, I lead Helene to a chair in the courtyard and indicate to her to save the two adjacent seats. I spot another block of three seats elsewhere and hold these for Art and John. I’ve seen this dance performance before, but it’s good to be seated under a canvas tent, off of our feet and out of the rain. From the expression on Michael’s face, I surmise he is enjoying himself. It’s a 40 minute performance and half way into it, Helene leaves and enters a small information and rest center behind the stage. Art follows shortly and when I enter I find Helene reclined on a raised tatami bench, legs elevated and a dosen, formally dressed in a kimono serving her tea and offering her a pillow.

Before entering the formal rooms of Shurijo Castle, Art steps aside to call home and John and I hang back to wait with him. I watch Michael push a smiling Helene, on her rolling throne past the ticket gate into the inner courtyard. Within a minute, Art is connected to Mizuho’s daughter and his expression changes. I immediately know that the situation is serious. The phone call lasts only a few minutes, and I know by the tears in my husband’s eyes that his brother has died. Art disconnects and leans heavily into the stones of the castle walls.

Wondering where we are, Michael calls Art’s cell phone and we are brought back to the present. Art explains the situation, tells them to go on without us, and the three of us walk in a daze to a castle view point overlooking all of Naha. The drizzle has turned to rain and for a long time we stand in the shelter of a stone archway, gazing over the gray city and struggling to make sense of the news we have just received.

It’s long past lunch; we need to eat and we manage to reconnect with our friends. We walk with them through the lush, rain drenched park below the castle, to a traditional Okinawan restaurant that the three of us discovered on Valentines Day. The restaurant is in an old house, the veranda set around a traditional Japanese garden. Shojo screens open out onto the garden and we are seated in a tatami room on low stools around a rough hewn table. The menu is in kanji and Art does his best to translate the few simple options and orders for all of us. Annya, still sick, wants only miso soup and to return to their hotel. We return to our apartment, emotionally exhausted and with much to figure out.

We connect with our friends on Kokusai Street for a late dinner at “Sam’s Anchor Inn” restaurant. Art will be retuning home via L.A. as soon as possible and we promised John a farewell dinner here before returning home. There are many Sam’s Restaurants in greater Naha; each with a slightly different theme but the common dining experience is watching your chefs skillfully slice, prepare and cook your food on a center grill inset into your table. The six of us are seated in captain chairs around our grill table and our experience begins as our waitress, dressed in a sailor outfit presents us with over sized glossy drink menus. For the first time in 2 ½ months I peruse a menu with accurate English translations and pictures of exotic fruit and liquor cocktails’ served in curvaceous glasses, topped with skewered fruits and paper “umbrellas”. John orders a virgin cocktail which is delivered in a “take home” ceramic shark mug, a red plastic mermaid dangling from its jaws. Our shared flask of awamori is presented in a faux ceramic “dochi bin” which at the end of the evening we give to Michael and Helene to keep as a souvenir. We toast and talk about Mizuho.

Art is friends with the manager of Sam’s and has a coupon for “free” Shrimp cocktails. Six “fishbowls” with dry ice mist swirling blue inside the glass, are ceremoniously served to each of us. A shrimp plate sits atop each icy blue bubble sealing off the opening of the bowl. Salad and soup follow the shrimp cocktail, but the shrimp have stolen the show. Two chefs appear beside a rolling cart with our steaks, lobster, scallops and vegetables neatly arranged and ready to be grilled. John and Annya are captivated by the theatrics of their swirling knives as the chefs slice, juggle and flip the various meats and vegetables. The grill sizzles and steams, our mouths water and we are soon served our various orders. Dinner is good and the experience very fun; perhaps just what we needed to lighten our hearts and minds.

Jay Jay and the Top Note Lounge

Jay Jay and the Top Note Lounge

Art assumes that the Schulman’s will wake up early because of the time difference and bicycles up to Shintoshin to meet Michael for breakfast. There is no indication that the family is awake and Art returns to our apartment and crawls back into bed. We connect with Michael mid morning at Starbucks inside the Naha Main Place Mall and after our coffee we stroll Michael through the electronics department, a visual and mental overload to me, but of extreme interest to Michael, a Microsoft colleague of Art’s.

The report from the hotel is that Annya has a high fever and understandably, both Helene and Michael want to stay close by to check on her regularly. We eat a late lunch together at a Japanese restaurant inside the Mall. Each “teishaku” is presented on a lacquered tray arranged with smaller plates and dishes; Michael and Helene are delighted with the meal. Helene returns to the hotel to be with Annya while Art, John and Michael walk over to Kokusai Street and Heiwadori Market. I take this opportunity and return to our apartment, pack up my weekly wax carving and bicycle to the post office to ship them to my casters back home. Later in the afternoon, Michael returns with Art and John and sees our small apartment, meets John’s beetles, and takes a nap in the quiet of John’s room.

We have evening plans to go to a concert at the Top Note CafĂ©, a nightclub lounge adjacent to the Libre Garden Hotel. Jay Jay, a Kubasaki high school alumni and friend of Art’s, is a popular local vocalist with quite a following of adoring women. Weeks ago, he invited us to tonight’s performance and conveniently the club is next door to where the Shulman’s are staying. We hope to eat dinner before the performance, but our time is short and we resort to eating from the limited “snack” menu at the club. The food is expensive and bad however the club is intimate with seating for perhaps 100 people and we choose a table against a back wall. There are quite a few American’s in the audience and Jay Jay entertains to all in a smooth mix of both Japanese and English. He is extremely handsome, a beautiful blend of Okinawan and American with chiseled features and a golden voice. He sits casually on a high stool, microphone grasped in manicured hands and belts out tunes from American Classics. His talented band backs him up flawlessly and I wonder if we have somehow been transported to a Vegas lounge act. This is Michael’s and Helene’s first night in Naha and they are slightly taken aback, but we are all soon under his musical spell and enjoying the evening. Still jet lagged, Helene and Annya return to their rooms before the close of the performance, but Michael stays to the end and Art and I dance to the last few songs.

Friends from Home

Friends from Home

We have been anticipating the arrival of our friends from California for many weeks. On Thursday night, Art, John and I take a taxi to the Naha airport to meet their 10:30 P.M. plane. Art stands along side the taxi drivers and tour guides, holding up a paper sign with the name “Shurman” printed on it. The Japanese L is a combination of an L & an R so the sign is meant to be a joke. They are too exhausted to appreciate the humor, but we are happy that they have arrived safely and I try to clam my excitement and remember that they are in a jet lagged and altered state. Just two months ago, I floated along the brightly lit airport corridors in a timeless dream state and I see the disoriented glaze in their eyes. They have taken our advice and packed lightly and we usher them to the elevator, up to the next level and across to the monorail station. Annya, their 12 year old daughter is flushed with a fever and I know that our touring itinerary will not be as I have planned. We glide in our monorail capsule, above a sleeping city, to the Shinotshin station. The modern station is adjacent to the D.F.S.mall, (duty free shops) and the hotel “Libre Gardens” is illuminated brightly just two blocks away. Art helps with the registration and we escort our friends to their 9th floor rooms on the.

I’m sure Michael is exhausted, but he is jazzed to be here and isn’t ready to end the day. After the “girls’ are tucked into their rooms; the four of us walk out onto the promenade to a familiar restaurant a few blocks away. We glide over glass floors with sand and sea shells recessed beneath the glass, curtained rooms on either side of the narrow hallway. We are seated in a partitioned room at a low table and Art orders a few small plates for us to share. We introduce Michael to awamori. It’s after 1:00 P.M when we are home in our own beds.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Goya Champuru & Hiraya-chi

Goya Champuru & Hiraya-chi

Narumi arrives at 11:00 A.M. for Art’s kanji lesson. She carries a bag of groceries and has her 7 year old son with her. We’re delighted that she has brought her son and in spite of the age difference the two boys have a good time together. John shows off his beetle “Frack” and they play “Mario Brothers” on a Nintendo D.S. game console that he has brought along. Narumi shows John how to play their version of solitaire and the two boys play cards. After the kanji lesson I get a cooking lesson.

I’ve written about the goya in other blog entries. It is a popular Okinawan vegetable. It’s translation in English is “bitter melon” and is thought to be one of the secrets of Okinawan longevity. It is a member of the gourd family, shaped a bit like a large fat ridged cucumber. It has high vitamin C content and a bitter taste. Goya Champuru (stir-fry) is a traditional Okinawan dish that up until now I have done my best to avoid. This funny vegetable has become an Okinawan icon. Every tourist shop sells green plastic goya key rings, costume jewelry and goya printed T shirts with silly slogans. This healthy and unsuspecting vegetable has been given a face and often wears a hat and shoes. Think of it as the Okinawan version of Mr. Potato Head. Today, I meet Mr. Goya on a different level.

After slicing Mr. Goya in half lengthwise, Narumi shows me how to scoop out it’s pithy pulp and seeds. I cut thin slices from both halves and sautĂ© the crescent slices in olive oil over a high heat. Narumi sprinkles salt and brown sugar (to offset the bitterness) into the frying pan and stirs with chopsticks. I mix two eggs in a bowl and when Mr. Goya is too limp to complain, we pour the beaten egg over him and cook a little more.

Next,Narumi shows me how to make “Hiraya-chi”, a savory Okinawan crepe with leeks. The recipe is simple, 2 eggs, 2 cups flower, 2 cups water, diced leeks and a pinch of salt. I mix and she ladles the mixture into a hot oiled skillet. Within a minute the crepe is ready to be flipped, and in another minute it’s ready to be served. She cuts it into quarters, squeezes okonomi sauce onto the crepe, and tops it off with dried mackerel shavings. (Okonomi sauce is a bit like a sweet, thick Worcestershire sauce.) In the interim, Narumi has filled 4 cups with dried mackerel shavings, a tablespoon of Miso and sliced leeks. (Green onions.) I add boiling water to soften the dried fish and we let it steep. We serve the boys on our small coffee table. Her son eats three servings of the Goya Champuru. (I am sure he will live to a very old age.) John is a good sport and eats a small serving of the goya, a quarter of the crepe and all of his fish soup. Narumi and I sit at our kitchen table and eat our lunch. I am surprised how good the goya is. In the past, I found goya very bitter, but with the addition of brown sugar and mixed with egg, it is quite tasty. The savory crepes are wonderful, but I prefer them dressed with just soy sauce rather than the sweet okonomi sauce. (Thank you Narumi, for taking the time to share your recipes; I will look for goya back home and cook both of these dishes for my family and friends!)

It’s Wednesday as I write this blog. We spent Monday and Tuesday mostly at home working. Yesterday, the weather was blustery and rainy, but this afternoon the sun is blazing and after finishing another wax design, I urge John to levitate from the couch and go to the Tsuboya district with me. We decide to walk, not wanting to battle the bicycle helmet issue. We are both in good spirits and wander down the covered Heiwadori market together. John is surprisingly patient as I poke into tiny shops. Our destination is Tsuboya, which begins at the end of the Heiwadori arcade and our first stop is the Tsuboya pottery museum to see a special Shisa exhibit. On our many visits to Okinawa, John and I have grown very fond of the Shisa, a guardian that is neither lion nor dog, but a creature unique to Okinawa. The exhibit has a small but special exhibit of a few very fine and unique Shisa and I am inspired. When we exit, we walk along the historical and picturesque street, stopping into every shop along the three block stretch. We admire the many Shisas, in all sizes and qualities but always in pairs, one male with mouth open, and one female with mouth closed. There are several Shisa studios in this district where you can watch the artisans create these magical creatures or create one of your own. Every artisan and studio has its own unique style of Shisa. We purchase two tiny turtle soy bottles and catch a taxi back home.

At noon today, Art went to a “Spa Symposium” to learn about the spa industry and to promote his website. He is back from his day when John and I return and we make a quick turn around to go out to dinner. (I have been cooking half our meals at home, but our cupboards are empty tonight) I ask Art if he has money, and sling my camera over my neck. I have taken to traveling lightly and seldom carry a purse. It’s nearly 7:00 P.M. and the evening light is magical. We walk towards Kokusai Street, full of energy and with a particular restaurant in mind. We have been walking for 15 minutes when Art suddenly halts, his hand feeling his back pocket. He has forgotten his wallet. We have no money and must walk back to the apartment. This puts a kink in our carefree evening and by the time we have retrieved the wallet our spirits are not as light. It’s nearly dark and we catch a taxi, but don’t know the name of the restaurant. Art directs the taxi driver as best as he can with one eye on the meter but we are driving around in circles and traffic signals and one way streets loom at every intersection. Art asks our confused taxi driver to stop and he lets us out on a dark street, alongside a park and we hoof it from there, past several homeless men, pop out onto the brightly lit street and come upon our restaurant.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Oiwai Celebration


We are invited to attend an oiwai (a celebration) for the birth of Rinta, Tadashi’s and Shoko’s new baby boy. This particular “oiwai” is to welcome a new baby and takes place when the baby is 100 days old. Shigeru and Mika pick us up and drive us to their parent’s home where preparations of a feast are underway. Tadashi’s mother, sister and both daughters in law are in the small kitchen, busily arranging platters of food. Three large plates of various tempuras, pork, and fried tofu are laid on the long low table in the back room. We sit on the tatami floor around a table that accommodates about 14 people. Bottles of sanpin ice tea, orange soda and beer are self serve in the center of the table. The 4 women serve individual plates of sashimi to each guest. Our end of the table is seated first and we are encouraged to begin eating while more tiny plates and bowls are laid before us. In addition to our sashimi octopus and cucumber plate, we each receive a small dish of kombu, kelp, a special bowl of celebratory rice, and a covered lacquered bowl of pork miso stew. We serve ourselves from the large tempura and pork platters. Other guests begin to arrive and are seated at the other end of the table. Every guest, bows at the doorway, greets and holds baby Rinta and sits down to eat. I soon grasp that there is a rotation at the table and after we have finished eating we move away to allow others to sit and feast. I want to help, but know that I will just be a clog in the rhythm that these 4 women have set of preparing, serving and washing up. Shoko is extremely gracious and calm as mother and hostess for her son’s birth party. Tadashi is all smiles and when one of the guests isn’t holding Rinta, he cradles his baby. I see decorated envelopes pass to Shoko and Tadashi as each guest enters and I realize that these are gifts of money for the baby. This all seems much more sensible than our American style “baby shower.” We gave a small gift of clothing to Rinta several weeks back but have come to this “oiwai” without an envelope of money. This baby is a blessing, and I want to honor and gift the new family, and Art and I manage to manifest an “envelope” by the close of the evening.

Relatives, friends and neighbors stop in to greet the baby. Most stay to eat and when each group leaves, the family or individual is presented an elegant shopping bag with a “cake” inside, a gift from Tadashi, Shoko and Rinta. John spends most of his time in the front room with a 7 and 2 year old “nephew.” He seems to be having a good time with the younger boys and they play with blocks and battle plastic beetles together. When one of the three battling beetles looses a leg, there is a serious beetle dispute but overall the kids have a good and easy time together.

As the evening wears on and the table is cleared of food, Tadashi’s father and uncle take out sanshins and play and sing. They play a song that is traditionally the first song sung at every Oiwai celebration. It is an ancient melody that doesn’t seem very celebratory by today’s standards. We learn that the lyrics are about a young mute Prince that eventually talks so that he can become king. I assume that this song was first written hundreds of years ago when the Ryukyus existed as a kingdom. Several bottles of awamori are given to the family tonight and the bottle we bring, aged 7 years from Kumejima is the one opened and served. The music and the conversation become livelier as the bottle empties.

The Good-boy Haircut

The Good-boy Haircut

We will be in Okinawa another month, but much of that time will be spent on Ishigaki and Irimote Island so I need to do some shopping and take care of a few simple things like getting my hair cut.

At home in California, I usually go to the likes of “Super Cuts” for a hair cut. I’ve enjoyed the luxury of upscale salons, but for my simple blunt cut hair style, most anyplace will do. Since our arrival on Okinawa, Art has had two haircuts at “Good-boy” and when we peddle past this salon, I ask if he can make me an appointment? He has raved about this barber shop where a shampoo, head massage, hair cut, shave and a shoulder massage is $15.00. We stop in and the bewildered receptionist writes me down for a 4:00 P.M. appointment. (I look forward to the shoulder massage, and hope to avoid the shave.)

It‘s two hours before my appointment, time enough for lunch and a little shopping. Art and I eat lunch at a soba restaurant and part ways. I head for the Naha Main Place Mall to shop for gifts, but this is a mainstream mall and I don’t find much of interest to me.

The receptionist bows slightly when I enter the “Good-boy Salon” and motions for me to be seated. I sit on a cushioned bench alongside several stone faced men, a wall of magazines in front of me. Absently, I pick up the nearest magazine and flip backwards through the pages of a golf magazine. At 4:15, I am motioned to a seat, and my attending barber, spouts off a flurry of questions? I tell him that I don’t speak Japanese, make a few hand gestures and hope for the best. During my 20 minute wait, I have ascertained that this is strictly a barber shop and women are an oddity. My “barber” lifts stands of my long hair as if it were soba noodles. He cuts one strand at a time, seemingly bewildered with the length, color and texture. The hair washing is pure ecstasy, as he massages and scrubs for 10 intense minutes but the drying becomes another excruciating strand by strand procedure. An hour later, my hair perfectly styled, I exit the salon with all eyes watching in disbelief as I place a bicycle helmet upon my perfectly coiffed hair!