Japanese stamps for the centennial of the Washington, DC cherry blossoms

The Japan Post Office has issued commemorative stamps for the centennial of the Washington, DC cherry blossoms. The sheet of ten 80-yen stamps is selling for 800 yen at all post offices in Japan. Notice that it shows five varieties of cherry blossoms (五色桜). That’s what was sent from Adachi Ward, Tokyo in 1912.

The Toilet Goddess song

The song, Toire no Kamisama (The Toilet God or more accurately, The Toilet Goddess トイレの神様) sung by Uemura Kana (植村花奈) is back at No. 1 on the music charts in Japan (as of Jan. 2011). This song debuted in spring 2010, and no doubt, Uemura’s appearance in the NHK Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest Festival) on Dec. 31, 2010 reboosted the song to the top. Not only that, a special 2-hour TV program dramatizing the song aired on January 5, 2011 (sponsored by toilet makers).

I’m not a music critic, but I can tell you, this song is destined to become one of Japan’s all-time classics, to be remembered for generations to come. It’s one of 2010’s defining songs of Japan. Twenty, thirty, or more years from now, people recalling the events of 2010 will bring up this song. Singer Uemura Kana is now inducted in the annals of Japanese music history.

It is a megahit, but it has gone beyond where most megahits can go. This song hits the hearts and souls of many of us in Japan. I haven’t heard such a poignant and tear-jerking song in a long, long time. The folksy melody is simple, and the story-telling lyrics is instantly-striking and easy to understand in Japanese. When you first hear it, your ears become magnetized to the song and you cannot help but listen to the story and get emotional. Many people in the audience (including the judges) were crying as Uemura performed the song at the Kohaku Utagassen.

The song really blows a fresh wind into the Japanese music scene dominated by ubiquitous bubble-gum songs by large, all-girl groups of marginal talent. It has also restored my faith in the Japanese music market which can apparently still recognize and love real songs amid so many artificial, prepackaged, and prefabricated ones. It also goes to show that down-to-earth songs like Toilet no Kamisama can and will always outclass bubble-gum (what I call junk-food) songs.

It’s rare when a hit song appeals to multiple generations. It has struck a deep chord among not only the younger generation, but also among the elderly (especially grandparents). It’s a song coming at a time when family ties are not as close as before in Japan. It has made grandparents in Japan wonder whether they will be remembered as fondly by their grandchildren. And wonder what they should do to leave such lasting impressions on their grandkids. The song also makes the younger folk wonder if we are being (or were) kind enough or worthy enough to our beloved grandparents. The song really spotlights back-to-basics family values, something which we are prone to forget or neglect while we are caught up with the realities and stresses of daily life. That the family is really the nitty-gritty of what’s important in life. The song is really an anthem for family ties.

Needless to say, if you don’t understand Japanese (especially the Kansai dialect), you won’t be able to appreciate the song. It’s definitely a love song (actually a love story), but not a typical one. It’s about the love between a granddaughter and her grandmother sung from the viewpoint of the granddaughter who is the singer Uemura Kana.

The song starts with Kana in the 3rd grade when she began living with her grandmother in a house next door to her parent’s house in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture in 1990. Kana helped out with household chores, but was not good at cleaning the toilet. So her grandmother (obaachan) told her that the toilet actually had a beautiful goddess (megami). If she cleaned the toilet, she would grow up to become as beautiful as the goddess. From that day on, Kana cleaned the toilet spic-and-span (pika-pika) every day, wishing to become a beautiful woman (beppin).

The song then mentions a few family trials and tribulations. Once Kana went with her obaachan to go shopping and eat out, but obaachan had forgotten to videotape a Yoshimoto comedy TV program which Kana wanted to watch after getting back home. Kana got very upset and chided obaachan. Later when Kana was a teenager, she started having arguments with obaachan and couldn’t get along with her own family (mom and three siblings). She didn’t feel at home anywhere so she hung out with her boyfriend and didn’t come home during holidays. She stopped going out to eat and playing board games with her obaachan and they drifted apart. Kana asks herself why people hurt each other like that and keep losing things precious to them.

Kana eventually leaves obaachan and moves to Tokyo to try and make it as a singer. Two years later, obaachan is hospitalized and Kana comes homes to visit and sees her thin and frail. Kana greets her with, “Tadaima!” (I’m home!) as she did in the good old days, but before they hardly talked, obaachan just scolds her to go back to Tokyo and kicks her out of the hospital room. (Obaachan wanted Kana to concentrate on her singing and didn’t want her to return until she succeeded as a singer.) The next morning, obaachan passed away quietly. Obaachan apparently waited for Kana to return before passing away.

Kana then grieves to herself that although obaachan raised her well, she regrets not being able to pay her back as a filial granddaughter. And even though she was not a good grandchild, obaachan still waited for her to return before passing away.

Toward the end of the song, Kana wonders if she really did become a beppin (yes she did), and she pledges to continue cleaning the toilet spic-and-span. At the end of the song, she thanks her grandmother in the Kansai dialect.

I know that just reading this English summary does not make this song sound as impressive as it really is. The story and emotions can only be conveyed by the singer and the song itself to people who can understand Japanese. The Kansai dialect makes the song sound so homely and earthly, the singer’s voice is sweet and easy to listen to, and the melody is simple and infectious. Right on the button. I just wanted to write about it because I haven’t seen any English articles about this song which does it justice. You might ask how or why would there be a goddess in the toilet of all places? Well, in the Shinto religion, a god (kami or kamisama) can be almost anywhere. A toilet is something essential for all of us, aiding our health and well-being, so why not have a god there too?

Also, for people like me who have had Japanese grandmothers fondly remembered, this song can really bring tears. When I moved to Japan, both my Japanese grandmothers (in the Kansai area) were alive and well. They have since passed away well into their 90s and I have many fond memories of them. I wonder too if I did enough for them before they passed on. All I can say is, Obaachan, obaachan, honmani arigato-o.

L&L Hawaiian BBQ in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

L&L Hawaiian BBQ restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

L&L Hawaiian BBQ is a restaurant chain based in Hawaii. They specialize in what we call “plate lunches” which typically consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a main dish such as fish or meat.

They are a local favorite in Hawaii and famous for serving large portions. L&L Hawaiian BBQ finally opened a branch in Japan in early June 2010. They are located in Shibuya, a well-known shopping and entertainment area of Tokyo.

I went to eat there soon after they opened. I went twice. The first time, I had the mahimahi plate lunch. And the second time, I had the huge locomoco (eggs and hamburgers on rice). The food really reminded me of my beloved hometown. People from Hawaii who now live in Japan will like this place.

Locomoco had two large eggs over two large hamburgers. Makes you very full.

Mahimahi plate lunch.

The restaurant is conveniently located in Shibuya, a short walk from Shibuya Station on the way to Tokyu Hands. However, I immediately saw a few problems which may break or blunt their success in Shibuya.

The first problem is the ineffective physical configuration of the restaurant. The restaurant has three floors. The 1st floor is on the street level and it is just a small space to place your order at the ordering counter. It also has a few chairs facing the street. People passing by the street will only see this hole in the wall to order food. They will not notice the main dining area on the 2nd and 3rd floors. On the 1st floor where you order, the existence of upper floors is not apparent because you don’t see any stairs. You have to step outside and enter the building’s elevator or fire escape to go upstairs. You find out about this only when you order and the staff tells you.

If you pass by and peer through the window from the street and don’t see any stairs (like at Starbucks or McDonald’s), you will assume that there’s no real place to sit. This discourages people from entering. The restaurant should put out a big sign saying that there are more tables/chairs upstairs.

2nd floor dining room of L&L in Shibuya. Hawaiian music plays in the background.

2nd floor dining room of L&L in Shibuya, for couples and larger groups.

3rd floor dining room of L&L in Shibuya. Smaller and quieter.

Too bad the people passing by cannot see the dining rooms because they are really nice as you can see above. There are chairs/tables for single people, couples, and larger groups. This is an ideal configuration for a restaurant, but as you can see, customers were sparse during both times that I went. You order and pay for your food on the 1st floor, and you go up to the dining room. (Take-out also available.) They will bring the food to the dining room and announce your receipt No. You raise your hand and they will come.

Another problem is the prices. By being in Shibuya, L&L is targeting the younger generation. However, these teens and early 20s people are used to McDonald’s prices which are well below L&L’s average meal price of 800 to 1000 yen (excluding drinks). L&L’s prices are not unaffordable and they probably see a good lunchtime crowd, but Shibuya’s youth like to hang out at cheaper places. They are also used to meals which include a drink or side order. I think L&L should offer such combo lunches which should be cheaper than ordering a plate lunch, drink, and/or side order separately.

L&L menu includes smaller "mini" portions and "healthy" lunches which include vegetables.

When I went the first time during the first week it opened, I didn’t see picture menus. But they had it the second time I went about a week later. Although the A4-size picture menu was adequate, it looks like a homemade job. I’m not complaining, but in Japan, we’re used to larger, slicker picture menus with large photos of everything. Just go to any family restaurant here and you’ll see what I mean. The food will always look more impressive with larger pictures than with thumbnail images. There are large pictures of plate lunches outside the restaurant, but we need to see them inside as well.

When I went the second time with family members, they had ran out of hamburgers (cheapest meal on the menu). This was shortly after lunchtime at around 1:30 pm. If you want to make a good impression, don’t run out of food at such an early time of day. Especially something as common as the lowly hamburger (another reason to switch to McDonald’s?). Nothing is more frustrating in a restaurant than finding out that what you want to order is no longer available. The staff never tells you what is not available until you mention it. (Also applies to most Japanese restaurants.)

The word “plate lunch” might also be misleading in Japanese. It sounds like they got only a lunch menu, and no dinner. They need to explain what it is. L&L has a Web site, but it has nothing more than the Tokyo restaurant’s address and phone number in English. Like what time do they open/close? What’s on the menu? They need to have their own official Web site in Japanese. All we see now are Japanese bloggers writing mostly incomplete and unofficial announcements about the restaurant.

They’re gonna have to work on these little details to better market and tailor themselves to the Japanese crowd. I hope they are advertising in Japanese hula magazines as well.

I plan to keep eating there until I tried all of their plate lunches. As I do so, I’ll keep updating this blog entry.

The L&L staff are friendly, always saying “Aroha!” There seems to be one or two staff from Hawai’i, mainly in the kitchen. Anyway, I’m glad to see them here. I hope they become as popular as Kua’Aina which is just a hamburger joint.

Of course, what we are really waiting for (those of us from Hawaii living in Japan), is Zippy’s (chili, saimin, etc.) and Ono Hawaiian Foods (for poi, kalua pig, lomilomi, etc.)