Month: August 2012


Roughly translated…

The literal translation of the Japanese word “gaijin” is “foreigner.”

Traditional Japanese women

Two women stroll through Kyoto in traditional dress.

During my trip to Japan, I learned that many Japanese use it the same way Americans use “gay” to mean “happy” or “bitch” to mean “female dog.” In the older section of Tokyo in particular, which Tim and I encountered one morning searching for a section of the Tokaido Road, gaijin implies “asshole Western tourist.”Old women gave me the evil eye and muttered at me. I found this both disconcerting and dismaying, as I like and respect the elderly. Tim and I were walking quietly along the side of the road. We weren’t doing anything rude or disrespectful. I may have been wearing something that exposed my shoulders, but that’s about as risqué as I got. Still, these women clearly found my presence offensive. In Kyoto, an older man glared and growled at me a we were leaving Starbuck’s. I didn’t cut him off, step in his way, or make any other sort of jerk move to illicit that sort of response. Many Japanese also refused to sit next to us on busses and trains–they’d rather stand in a ridiculously packed car than take a seat next to me or Tim. It was a very surreal experience, realizing that large numbers of people disliked me for factors beyond my control.

Enough on that–the rest of our Japanese experience was lovely and thought-provoking. Plenty of people were really nice to us, and I’m sure I’ll reflect on this trip for years to come.

The women wear an amazing variety of different styles. We saw everything: traditional kimonos, schoolgirl outfits, sundresses, formal workwear, sheer playsuits, mixed-up patterns, tons of layers, and something my cousin calls “the doily look” which is kind of super-prim Laura Ashley ultra lace buttoned up unnaturally high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such diversity in fashion before–even in New York City.

The majority of the Japanese people we saw were very slim. I attributed this to two main factors: 1. They walk everywhere. 2. Tokyo’s heat and humidity in August makes the mere idea of food insane. We ate a lot of lighter fare…mostly yakitori. Who doesn’t love meat on a stick?

Seriously, it’s so hot that most people carry around handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat off periodically. And for drying their hands, because restrooms lack paper towels. Speaking of restrooms, I did encounter a Japanese pit toilet–it was the first restroom I visited in Japan, as soon as we got to the airport. People kept warning me that the Japanese toilets were essentially holes in the floor. The one I visted was actually more like a small-scale urinal, as though you took part of a men’s room wall, shrunk it and made it into the floor. It really wasn’t that bad.

We also saw tons of things with cats on them. Tim and I love cats, so that was cool. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t see any actual cats on our visit. Maybe they were all hiding.

While we visited quite a few temples and shrines, Kiyomizu-dera stood out as the most visually appealing to me. It’s set at the top of a hill over Kyoto–you’re standing in a complex of powerfully spiritual temple buildings, looking down on a sea of skyscrapers. The juxtaposition of old and new really resonated with me. I’ll start the series of random photos here with some pictures of Kiyomizu in an effort to make things somewhat less random. Enjoy.


The view from Kiyomizu.


Some of the buildings at Kiyomizu.

Nijo Castle

Part of Nijo Castle, also in Kyoto.

Paris Madonna

Tim and I walked by this cute little shop on an adventure one morning – I was disappointed they weren’t open!

Soul Food

Interesting variations on Soul Food.


I have no idea what this sign means, but we saw the same image of the cat carrying a kitten all over the place.


The doors to Meiji Shrine, another of my favorites.


Tokyo adventures

We’ve managed to see many different parts of the city so far, which is quite an accomplishment since Tokyo is HUGE. My cousin and her husband live just five minutes from the Shinagawa station, so we have easy access to trains and subways. Rippongi, Harajuku, Ginza, Akihabara…all have very different feels to them. So far, my favorite experience has been the Meiji Jingu shrine: very tranquil, despite its location in a bustling shopping district.

Funny things about Japan

People dress up more than in the U.S. They wear a lot of black and white. And ridiculous heels and lots of matching sets, where the top and skirt match. It’s odd to me. Also, taxi cabs are lined with doilies. For real… I will take photos. Kabuki is awesome. Long, but awesome. Crunky bars rock. More observations in a few days when I’ve had more processing time.

Vintage in an ancient culture?

It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m awake, drinking coffee, doing some last-minute blogging before our trip to Japan. If I don’t say much for the next few days, it’s because I HATE blogging from my phone. Really – I’m too verbose for that.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about: Is there a vintage subculture in Japan? And how different is it from vintage in the U.S.? I imagine there must be, but since the culture there is exponentially older, I’m guessing that the 1940s and ’50s lovers are a smaller subset….just like you’ve got Colonial and Revolutionary War reenactors here, are there similar interests with different eras in Japanese history? Just spread out among a much longer timeline?

We shall see.

Fan-shaped compacts

In honor of our trip to Japan, here’s a post on fan-shaped compacts. In The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, author Jack Tresidder explains that in Japanese ritual, fan symbolism was highly developed “as an analogy for the unfolding of life itself.” Fans have  represented wealth and status, as well as mystery and femininity. They’ve been a prime accessory for flirtation, much like the powder compact.

fan compact

A fan-shaped powder compact, most likely made by Wadsworth or Henriette.

A number of manufacturers produced fan-shaped compacts, but Wadsworth and Henriette were probably most closely associated with this shape. I’ve seen a few from companies called Melissa and Elegance. Pink Lady also created lovely miniature fans in beautiful silk-lined presentation boxes. Though tiny, these compacts have great details, like the pearls at the fan’s handle. This thumb-sized compact is one of my favorites.


Many of the Wadsworth/Henriette creations had gorgeous details (like the one on the homepage of my website)…one of the reasons many collectors find these pieces so appealing.

At this time next week…

Tim and I will be in Japan.


And nervous.

I have never travelled overseas before. We’re going to visit my cousin Becky and her husband, Andrew, who have lived in Japan for the last six or seven years. Becky and I are both only children, born just six months apart. We spent loads of time together when we were really little, and she’s the family member I have the closest relationship with aside from my parents. We were raised like sisters up until she moved to Ohio when I was in fifth grade. After that she lived in Florida. And travelled. She’s been all over the place–it’s one of the things I admire about her. If she wanted to go somewhere, she went–no waiting until she had a boyfriend/husband/tons of money/whatever. She just went. So I completely trust her to guide me through my first international adventure.

Tim has also travelled a decent amount. Aside from time in Okinawa when he was little (his dad was stationed there), he’s been to Germany, France, Spain, and Ireland. Between Becky and Tim, I know I’m in good hands.

Why am I nervous? Mostly because I don’t speak or read Japanese. I’m a writer–the ability to use language effectively is part of my core identity. And now I’m going to be illiterate for more than a week. Intimidating. Also–because Becky is petite and classy and has amazing style and I always feel awkward and geeky and unsophisticated next to her. Which is entirely on me, but still. I need to get over it.

But mostly, I’m excited. I can’t wait to see Tokyo and Kyoto. Thousand year old palaces and shrines. Kabuki. The bullet train. Funky things like the ramen museum.  It’s going to be completely different than anything I’ve ever experienced before.

A timely gift

As I’ve been wondering how to deal with all the extra stuff that’s found its way into my office since my recent book purge, and what to do with my compact collection, which won’t entirely fit in the shelves I’m making, our friend Jack gave me a gift that helps address the situation.

A lovely little glass-topped display case table. Perfect for holding compacts and carryalls.

And our neighbor across the street has given us a ton of cigar boxes…trying to figure out how to make some kind of cool shelf out of those as well.

Now I just have to get rid of more books and figure out how to store my active inventory.