JUKEN; an Intense Middle School entrance examination preparation method accepted in Japan. It might truly be a form of child abuse.

My daughter turned twelve today.  It’s a Sunday, but there will be no watching weekend morning animated television programs, bicycle riding, playing in the park with friends or any of the usual down time activities associated with a family on the last day of a weekend.  Her alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and she went thru her morning rituals and ate a quick breakfast.  She put her books and completed homework in a blue knap sack.  After fastening the top flap that is well embellished with large N of the “Nichinoken” cram school logo, she ran out the door.  She will study Math, Science, Japanese and Social Studies with 15 other children and instructors specialized in teaching methods specific to passing Middle School Entrance Examinations.  Today classes start at 9:00 and finish at 17:00.

If my parents had put me thru the Juken program I would have run away from home.  Amnesty International would have received a letter with documented evidence that I had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.  At the age of 12 it would have been impossible to conceive rhyme or reason for the efforts demanded by my parents and the instructors at the Juku.  The cram school studies are additional to regular school work and can require equal time if not more hourly commitment to class attendance and homework per week.  My daughter spent every day of her summer vacation at the Juku and the program ran from 9:00 to 21:00. (They ate lunch and dinner at the Juku.)   While elementary school is in session, she attends Juku immediately after school until 21:00 , weekends and school holidays.

Yet, there is a justification for the excessive study program  Everyone in Japan must qualify for a High School and even Public High Schools require tuition payments.  Acceptance at a good middle school eliminates the stress and pressure of passing a High School Entrance Examination.  Some schools are affiliated with Universities and the elevator can continue thru to post-secondary education.  The pay forward theory makes sense as does the option to enter a better school.  (I run by the nearest public middle school every morning and the noises and activity at the Government Facility never fail to remind me of feeding time at the zoo.)

There are several good middle school options within a 30 minute commute by train from our home.  Our daughter’s councilors at the Juku identified three schools that meet our criteria and our daughter’s aptitude.  (We’d like our daughter to attend an all-girls school nearby with a good academic reputation and a positive atmosphere.)  Competition is serious for the top schools but we’ve been encouraged by results of weekly and monthly examinations.  These are normally conducted on Saturday mornings and once a month a major “off campus” examination is conducted.  These are open not only to the thirty seven thousand clients of the Nichinoken Juku Franchise but welcome other 12 year olds for a fee.    The venues selected for these monthly trial examinations are often universities or high schools.  A parade of thousands of children, most with blue back packs, march to the auditoriums and write four hours of examinations.  (It’s really quite an impressive sight.)  The results allow for a realistic evaluation of where you place on the bell curve. The experience is Excellent preparation and a confidence booster for the actual exams that will take place next February.  

Our  12 year old daughter has worked diligently and without much complaint.  Her fatigue is obvious and there isn’t much variety in her life.  She’s a great kid and unfortunately has had to demonstrate mental toughness unexpected in someone her age.  All family holidays and weekend activities have been put on hold for the last year to support her efforts.  We look forward to the completion of this phase in our lives. It will be nice to attend her opening ceremony on the first day at her chosen middle school. We project images of a smiling young woman in her new school uniform and ready with all the compulsory accessories.  What I am especially looking forward to is the return of laughter and energy associated with our daughter to breakfast and other family events.  We’re looking forward to getting our little girl back.


Great things a Zombie can do in Tokyo (Kawasaki Halloween 2012)

On Sunday October 28th The 16th Annual Kawasaki Halloween Parade once again attracted huge crowds. The 2012 event centered around the La Cittadella Italian District near Kawasaki Station and was huge fun.  The 3500 extremely well costumed marchers created a sensational spectacle.  All participants in the parade must register on line prior to the event and it fills to the max in just a few days.  This does not negate the opportunity for by-standards to enjoy dressing up.  In fact, my “Walking Dead” inspired costume created unprecedented opportunities from “dawn to dusk”.  Most expatriates (gaijin) will attest that it’s common if not understood to feel different from the crowd in Tokyo.  My day as “zombie” took this isolated social status to another level.
Here are a few great experiences for members of the “walking dead” when visiting Tokyo:

-1-Pay a bill at your local convenience store.  The young cashier wasn’t sure whether it would be appropriate to treat me as a “regular” customer or call an ambulance.
-2-Ride on a JR Train to Kawasaki Station.  Passengers worked hard to pretend that there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary when a “Zombie” took a seat.  Once a brave student asked for a picture the taciturn façade came down and amateur paparazzi emerged. (This was one popular Zombie.)  Even the conductors expressed concern for my “state of health”.

-3-Donating to the Kiwanis Guide Dog Program.  They didn’t enjoy the exercise but the intrepid volunteers on duty at the Kawasaki Station Mall took my donation.

4.Cruising – “Zombies” can have fun hanging out on escalators, walking thru shopping malls and by all means checking out the crowd at the parade.


5.  Making new friends.  My image was recorded by literally thousands of cameras and cell phones.  No complaints – Zombies need love and attention too!



6. Hanging out with a Goat.  There was only one goat in costume at the event.  I met it!

7. Finding Waldo – a bunch of them!


8.  Wining and dining at the bars and restaurants around La Cittadella.  Zombies are guaranteed great service and everyone in costume gets 10% off.




A Japanese Spring Wedding and the Canadian Family Member

Attending a Japanese Wedding is a rare honor for most foreigners living in Japan. The opportunity shouldn’t be lost on any expatriate fortunate to receive an invitation.  The Wedding I attended last Saturday was a glimpse of Japanese Culture well refined with blended tradition. It met the tastes and trends of modern day Tokyo.  It was my first ever chance to join such an important celebration as a family member.  “What a Blast.”


Every major Japanese Event starts with preparatory research.  Not surprisingly a Japanese Wedding requires proper attire, careful selections of gifts and a punctual arrival.  Simple?  There are a few twists.  My wife is a cousin of the Groom and the sum of our gift of fresh, crisp & new bank notes was determined by a well-defined scale found on the internet. The equation involves the venue, her position as a first cousin to the Groom and the fact that my wife was allowed to bring both her husband and daughter.  

Wedding fashion for men has liberalized as black suits with a white tie standard in 1982 are set aside for stylish morning suits with more modern options for neck wear.  Women have the opportunity to dress suitable to the season and young ladies often chose cocktail dresses flashy enough for an evening in Las Vegas.  Most guests rode the train and were pleased to have access to change rooms at the Wedding “Estate”. We arrived in time for wardrobe and make-up finalization and to participate in obligatory family events. 

There was some trepidation about joining the rituals but my wife’s nuclear family circled around me to prevent any serious & memorable faux pas.  In fact the classy charm of my Wife’s Cousin, her Aunt and Uncle and the staff at the “Q.E.D Wedding Estate” made me feel welcome and comfortable.  (They publicly expressed appreciation for my participation in spite of returning just on time from a business trip to Germany.)  The day started for us in a room set aside for the Groom and his “extended” family members where coffee, tea and soft drinks were served.  When the conversation turned to English to accommodate me I excused myself. (It was the Groom’s Day and shouldn’t be deflected by their foreign guest.) It gave me a chance to explore the venue.

Every couple should be fortunate enough to enjoy a Wedding in a place as convenient and sophisticated as the Q.E.D Estate in Ebisu. This is especially true with the complimentary weather of a beautiful and sunny Spring Day.  The Estate was once home to the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo.  The building was designed with ecstatically pleasing architecture, plenty of windows and a large garden suitable to wedding ceremonies.  Paintings, antique furniture and an impressive wine cellar were on display.  

Once explored I returned to the “coffee room” where my wife’s Uncle Teruo introduced our entire family to the Bride’s Relatives in detailed and confident fashion by memory. This was reciprocated by the Father of the Groom. We were then taken to the Garden for a Group Photo of “family members” and you won’t have to hire a private detective to find me in the picture.  When finished both families move to the Garden to be seated up front and witness a Christian Wedding.  

Often Japanese Couples elect a pseudo Christian style wedding even when their religious beliefs are more centered around Buddhist and Shinto Practices.  This was the “real thing”.  Eriko and Tsuneto’s Ceremony involved prayer, a reading of Corinthians 13:4-7,  and the hymns titled “Home” and “What a Friend we have in Jesus”.  The Minister reminded me of someone you might see on television on a Sunday Morning in North America but his passion was appreciated by the guests.  He was well supported by a trio of women with beautiful voices contracted to support the vocal efforts of the 100 guests.  It really was nice. Plenty of smiles, tears and eventually laughter when everyone tossed cherry blossom petals like confetti as the new “Man and Wife” walked thru the crowd to end the ceremony and initiate the party.

Previous weddings in Japan required guests to sit thru the first hour of the reception listening to long speeches without the aid of refreshment.  Everyone was handed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice as they entered the “Banquet Hall”.  The following key note addresses were short and entertaining.  (We’re dealing with an intellectual crowd.  The Groom has a Doctorate in Physics and Graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University.  His Bride has an MBA and is a star at a Fortune 500 company.)  We moved thru to the Toast to the Bride in under 15 minutes and the Sparkling Wine Corks popped marking the beginning of a sumptuous banquet. 


Check out this menu (it was all delicious):
            Caviar with Abalone, Foie-Gras with green asparagus and truffle sauce, Lobster with seasonal vegetables flavored with wine and beet sauce, Iced Sorbet (granite), Filet Mignon and Beef Cheek with Perigueux Sauce.  Each course was complimented by a specific beverage and by the end of the meal everyone was surrounded by glasses of beer, white and red wine.  Add an Excellent piano recital courtesy of The Groom’s Sister and you have a dinner not soon forgotten. It  was all followed by a Dessert Buffet served on the garden lawn in the sunshine.  

 It was a fine setting to complete the day. The Bride and Groom thanked their parents and punctuated their statements with a presentation of flowers. Closing remarks began with speeches by the Fathers of the Bride and Groom. The ceremonies ended with words by the Groom himself who admitted that the Grand Wedding was beyond his expectations and the concept was conceived and executed on behalf of his Bride.  He also stated that he expected to be eternally happy with Eriko. Well done Tsuneto.

There was an underlying sense of humor built into the wedding plan.  The slide show depicting Tsuneto’s impressive career to date ended with his declaration of an ambition to win the Noble Prize and drink away the Award Money.  The Bride and Groom selected up beat music played for effect throughout the banquet and presentations in the Garden.  It included Sting, the Proclaimers, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi and ACDC.  The selection of Sheryl Crow’s Every day is a Winding Road and Stings Every Breath You Take were played in time for emotional entrances and departures. (Tsuneto and Eriko later confirmed that they selected the songs with tongue in cheek.)  Even the young children were rocking (and there were quite a few.)

At every place setting the Bride and Groom left a hand written note for their Guests.  I can remember how incredibly dear time became as I geared up for my own wedding and marvel at this kind gesture.  The two remained at the Estate’s front door to wish a fond good-bye to everyone who attended the wedding and gave each one of us a generous present.  If Eriko and Tsuneto act and care for each other in the same way they treated their friends and relatives at their wedding;  they will have a fine life together indeed.  Good luck to this exciting new couple.  Oh, Tsuneto San,  please remember to give me a call when you Win that Nobel Prize.  (A Million Euros buys a lot of Guinness.)

Q.E.D. Club     http://www.qed.co.jp/english/        


Miura Marathon 2012 - more reasons to join the fun

Miura City produced its 30th Half Marathon today.  In conjunction with the 21 Kilometer Race they also hosted a 10K and 5K Run.  The temperature sat at 5.4 degrees Celsius and the winds blowing off the Pacific chilled runners lining up twenty minutes for each event.  Most contestants dressed for the weather with full coverage.  Elite runners were easy to spot in their light racing gear as they flew by the crowds.  

Parking and basic facilities are limited at the Beach Side Starting Line and the weather for the Miura Event is historically terrible. (Some locals feel the event might even be demonized.)  In spite of these disturbing facts, the Miura Marathon Entry quotas fill quickly every year.  Tent Camps on Miura Beach that resemble Refugee Stations make up for limited facilities and people come ready to battle the weather, crowded field and race course elevations. This was my third run at Miura and we will line up for the 10 K again next year.  

   Here are a few reasons to join the fun:

-Penguins:  the Kanagawa Hakejima Sea Park brought a few of the little ones to attract attention to their booth.  What a great photo opportunity.  Try not to smile when you see a living Penguin up close?
   -Racing:  the Miura Course runs thru narrow streets. Passing runners and achieving targeted times is a challenge.  It’s not just a run or time trial; it’s a race.  Come ready to compete.
  -Q-Chan (Naoko Takahashi):  Q-Chan, the 2000 Sydney Olympic Gold Medal Winner was today’s Marathon MC.  She grabbed the microphone, leaned out from the VIP Tower and screamed greetings and wishes of good luck and other motivational phrases at all runners as we started the event.  Later she posted on the side of the road and gave high fives to thousands of runners as they headed into the final 2K of the run.  She has a Great smile and contagious energy. Q-Chan is an Excellent Celebrity Guest.

-Costumes:  my favorite this year was the human daikon (Giant White Radish)

 -Souvenirs:  this year we received a performance shirt, a fresh daikon, a detailed finisher’s certificate and an embroidered neck muffler. (The muffler is puzzling. We all agreed that it would be useful for skiing but certainly not running. Maybe some runners used it immediately to battle frostbite after today’s run.)
  -Scenery and Challenges:  Four kilometers of the ten kilometer race are run up & down steep inclines.  Views along the way include country houses, the beautiful Miura Beach and the ships, wind surfers and other crafts enjoying the waters next to the Peninsula. It’s a great place to visit and an Excellent location for a run.  The Half Marathon offers scenic and panoramic views of farms, bamboo forests, Japanese Shrines, Temples, Cemeteries in addition to the Ocean on the way out and upon return to the finish line.

-Community Support and Regional Specialties:  food stalls are manned by locals serving Wakame Soup (seaweed broth), Oden (Japanese Hot Pot) and Barbecued Maguro (Tuna). (All specialties of Miura).


Testa-Coda Italian in Shinjuku

When our family is looking for convenience, Excellent Choices from antipasti to dolce and good service at a reasonable price we visit the testa-coda restaurant.  The restaurant is well designed to give a modern and spacious feeling even when every table is full.

Location:  Shinjuku Station:  6th Floor Lumine Building 1  (Phone: 03-5909-1931)

We optioned for the Dinner Set and feel it offers best value. Two set courses were more than enough for my wife, 9 year old daughter and myself.  Our favorite item for the evening was a sautéed pork entre served with a gorgonzola sauce.  It edged out a lovely roast duck, spicy Penne All’arabbiata, and a seafood pasta combination. (No complaints; we’d order all these items again.)  The Penne is our family’s restaurant acid test.  My daughter refuses to eat pasta that isn’t al dente. (Let’s pray for the young man that one day takes her to the “macaroni grill” on a first date.)



 The anti-pasta weren’t bad.  A tempura like “fritto misto” was well received and as usual my daughter loved her Prosciutto (Parma-Ham).  The Bagna Calda (Italian hot anchovy garlic dip for vegetables) was passable as were the yogurt sherbet and tiramisu we shared at dessert.  The wine list has several nice options at varying price levels.  We selected a 2006 Barolo and were not disappointed.  It was our third trip to the testa-coda and we’ve enjoyed quick and energetic service each visit.  The atmosphere is more enthusiastic than professional and some nuisances such as wine etiquette seem to have been lost.  This didn’t stop us from enjoying the evening.  We’ll visit the testa-coda again. Hopefully soon.

Testa-Coda       http://r.gnavi.co.jp/g030049/map/  
Japanese only with coupon - print this page out to get the complimentary offering below:
 1) One complimentary drink with course menu, or 2) 1 complimentary bottle of wine with 4 people’s ordering 3800 yen course each.


The Bangkok Marathon: a Surreal Experience

“Mr. Jooky” is an English Speaking Taxi Driver with a world of experience.  He picked me up at 4:00 a.m. and we traveled to the starting line of the Standard Chartered 21 Kilometer Race. (The Venue has five runs including  a short 2.5 K run and the full 42.195 K Marathon.)  “Mr. Jooky” is quite representative of the people occupying  the “Land of a Thousand Smiles”; positive,  friendly and hard working.  On the way to the Royal Palace where the start and finish lines are located he pointed out a monument erected to the “one thousand” students gunned down by the Thai Army in 1973.  “One hundred thousand marched in protest of the government.  Two of my friends died before my eyes.  Most of us escaped and took refuge in the King’s Palace.”  (This was the Thammasat University Massacre.) His explanation finished as we pulled up to the corner of an intersection.  “Your starting line is just down this street. Have a good run.”

It was a great run.  A very international crowd full of Europeans, North Americans and large numbers of Japanese, Singaporeans, Hong Kong(ers) and other South East Asian Countries.  The local Thais were well represented and thousands of volunteers made everyone feel welcome.  The course was relatively flat but challenges come from the humidity and pollution.  The course is impressively scenic but a large portion of the race is run on one side of the highway and the opposite side of the road was packed with vehicles.  (I started an asthma like wheeze while on the freeway and was very pleased when it diminished once away from the traffic.)

Let me list the things to like and love about the Bangkok Marathon:

-1-  Starting at the Royal Grand Palace a 5:00 a.m. when the weather is most temperate.  The Thai Band entertaining runners lining up for the half marathon was pretty good.  Their rendition of Maroon 5’s Moves like Jagger was terrific.

-2-  Crossing the Rama VIII Bridge lit up and beautiful before sunrise. 

-3- Being saluted by Thai Imperial Guards in full dress uniform as we passed the Ministry of Defense.

-4- Water Stations every 2 K with watermelon venues positioned in two locations along the race route.

-5- Observing the “Elite Runners” mostly from Africa as they warm-upped.  (They float and glide; inspiring.)   Other races isolate the Invited Professionals but at the Bangkok Marathon they were one of the crowd. They had to fight their way to the front of the pack before the starting gun fired.  

-6-  The 25 degree weather. It’s much better to run when it’s warm at my age.  Caveat: temperatures rose noticeably as the race progressed making the last 5 K much more difficult than the first 16 K. (We passed an elite runner as he walked back to the starting gate. He didn’t look happy & I thought this might be a very bad omen.)  Add suspect traffic control & the need to dodge the odd motor bike and you really do have a tougher last half.

-7- Sponsors distributed beverages and burgers as you departed the course.  Once off the Marathon Site, I gave my Filet of Fish and Cheese Burger to a tuk-tuks driver who then ungratefully refused me a ride. (This was after an offer of twice the normal fare. I think he didn’t know the location of my hotel.)  I watched him drive off with the sandwiches and looked for a taxi.

-8- The start was as exciting as any race I’ve ever entered but finishing was probably the most gratifying.  (Did I mention the last 5 K were really tough for this Canadian?)  Finishing also allows me to have some fun discussions with friends who offered advice and concern for the heat, humidity, stomach devastating bacteria and jet lag.  One of my positive “comrades” even offered this tidbit in an email:  I don't want to see you on TV with some Para-Medic over you doing compressions!!!! Ha! Ha!”  Hey Guys! I finished and am still standing.  Thanks for the help.

We’ll recommend the Bangkok Marathon to anyone who can make it to Thailand. On line registration was easy and the race package pick up was straight forward.  The goodies included a pink running shirt, number and time chip, a shoe and tote bag with the race logo and general information.  Would I do the run again next year?  Let’s let the blisters heal and we’ll think about it.  In the mean-time there’s some delicious Thai Curry and a Singha Beer waiting  for me.