Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tokyo DisneySea (November 2012)

There are a lot of great things to see and do in Japan and one of the biggest things the girls were looking forward to was going to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea.  For someone who was born and raised in Southern California, going to Disneyland was like a yearly tradition for me, which I always looked forward to.  So I certainly shared my daughter's anxiousness and anticipation in going to the Tokyo Disney Parks.

"entering DisneySea instantly transports you to a place that mixes the feeling of being in some exotic locale with the wonder of imagination"

As mentioned in my review of the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel, we bought the two day passport tickets, which allowed us to enter one park one day and the other park the following day.  We went to Tokyo Disneyland first and it was a grand experience.  In this post, however, I want to talk about our time at Tokyo DisneySea.

Bottom line:  entering DisneySea instantly transports you to a place that mixes the feeling of being in some exotic locale with the wonder of imagination. It's an exhilarating combination of immersion and interaction, creating a unique and utterly unforgettable experience.

  • We hopped on the Monorail from the Bayshore Station, right in front of our hotel.  It only took us about 4 minutes to get to the Tokyo DisneySea Station.  Upon arriving into the station, looking outside the monorail window, we saw that there were already massive lines of folks waiting patiently to get into the park. It seemed that everyone bought their tickets beforehand so I'm glad that we did the same.  We got there at around 8:30am and stood in line, waiting for the gates to open at 9am.
  • Once we got in, we made a beeline to Toy Story Mania, which had recently opened. Unfortunately, everyone else was thinking the same thing. Once we got close to the attraction, we were surprised to find a sea of black haired heads, waiting in line for both the ride AND the Fastpass tickets.  We decided to walk up to Port Discovery and try out Storm Riders.  Luckily, with everyone stuck at Toy Story Mania, the wait time for Storm Riders was 5 minutes.  The ride was great:  it's like the Weather Channel version of Star Tours.  We got a little wet but overall, a fun-filled adventure.
  • Next stop:  Mysterious Island.  The look and feel of this land was volcanic/terraforming tech meets steampunk.  Very cool and besides, you're IN THE MIDDLE of a volcano. How cool is that?
  • We wanted to ride Journey to the Center of the Earth but there was a line so we got a fast pass which told us to come back in 20 minutes.  While waiting, we were able to walk right into 10000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It's kind of like the Finding Nemo Submarine Ride at Disneyland.  You have a controller to move around a spotlight, which was pretty cool.
  • Came back to Journey and with our Fastpass, we were able to walk right in.  The ride itself was ok ... you ride through these dark tunnels, exploring underground cystalline formations.  Then, you see a bunch of weird insect aliens taking over the earth's core. The ride culminates with the ride going into roller coaster mode, pushing you up a steep grade and then dropping down a nice drop, giving you a sense of freefall.
  • Walked over to Mermaid Lagoon and met Ariel.  She spoke English and so did we.  I'm wonder how she feels about living in a place where the majority of the population eat fish.

  • Entered Mermaid Lagoon.  Very nicely laid out kiddie land.  Made you feel that you were actually "Under the Sea", being an integral part of Ariel's world.  Rode most of the rides in there, including the Tea Cup-like ride called (appropriately enough, Whirlpool).  We even went to the Mermaid Lagoon Theater to watch Ariel and friends battle the evil Ursula in a puppets meet Cirque Du Soleil-esque presentation.
  • Outside of Mermaid Lagoon, we rode Flounder's Flying Fish Coaster twice in a row.
  • Now, we were in search of popcorn.  But, instead of finding popcorn, we ended up at the Magic Lamp Theater.  This presentation was in 3D, which featured Genie and Aladdin.  It was short but a sweet presentation.
  • Met Genie, Aladdin and Jasmine.  Genie didn't say anything but Aladdin and Jasmine spoke to us in English.  They asked us where we were from.  My daughters answered "Seattle".  Aladdin and Jasmine responded by saying that it was very far from Agrabah but their magic carpet could make the trip.  Very cute how they stayed in character the whole time.
  • We had lunch at Sebatian's Calypso Kitchen, which specialized in pizza and sandwiches. 
  • After lunch, the girls played in Ariel's Playground.  Lots of caves to explore and places to climb.
  • After leaving Mermaid Lagoon, we eventually found Strawberry Popcorn in Port Discovery.  The popcorn was great:  there was a nice, lightly sweet strawberry taste that wasn't overpowering.  Mixed in well with the saltiness of the popcorn.
  • Next we checked out Fortress Exploration.
  • We made it back to Mermaid Lagoon and rode Flounder's Flying Fish Coaster twice (again)
  • Had dinner at Vulcania Restaurant.  It was Chinese food, Buffeteria Style, where you select your entries, sides, desserts and drinks from the servers.  They ring you up after making all of our selections.  It was very tasty, especially after a long day of walking around.
  • We went back to Toy Story Mania.  Yup, it was still crowded.  So we walked around the park.  So many beautiful things to see, like the entry into DisneySea and Mermaid Lagoon lit up at night.
Mermaid Lagoon lit up at night.  In the foreground right, we got some popcorn with sea-salt, which was very flavorful.

  • Watched Fantasmic! a water show with fireworks and water.  Impressive.
  • Rode Sinbad Storybook Voyage.  It's just like It's A Small World, only set in the world of Sinbad
  • Also rode Jasmine's Flying Carpet.  It's just like the Dumbo ride.
  • And lastly, before calling it a day and leaving DisneySea, we met up with Minnie and Goofy at the Greeting Trails in Lost River Delta

So, here are some unique aspects about our time at Disneysea that I found intriguing:
  • DisneySea, like California Adventure, is unique to the world.  However, while there are a good number of unique rides, there were some (like the Sinbad and Flying Carpet rides) which had the same, familiar feeling of having ridden a similar version of this ride before. 
  • The layout is different.  Instead of the hub and spoke design of the Disneyland, Disneysea has an inner loop (between Mediterranean Harbor and Mysterious Island) and outer loop that encompasses most of the other lands.  Not sure if this is better than the hub/spoke design but interesting nonetheless.
  • Obvious here, but the whole theme park centers around water (water taxis, boats, rides with water) with the Mediterranean Harbor as the center of the park, which does the Fantasmic Water Show
  • Outside of Mermaid Lagoon, there is a more adult feel with more atmosphere.  Each themed area meticulously recreates places far and away that transports guests to a specific locale, whether it's the tall Mayan ruins found in the jungles of the Lost River Delta or the Spanish influenced architecture of the Fortress Exploration in Mediterranean Harbor.  Tokyo DisneySea definitely does a great job of bringing you there.
  • Food was great.  Good variety of popcorn (Black Pepper, Caramel, Apple Cinnamon, Curry, Strawberry, Sea Salt).  Had the Strawberry and Sea Salt.. both good.  A good variety of restaurants from simple snack shops to sit down restaurants.
  • Souvenir Guide map had tons of information.  Better than the California ones
  • Lots of characters walking around (Elastigirl, Ariel, Genie, Jasmine and Aladdin, Three Amigos, Chip (of Chip and Dale fame), Minnie and Goofy) ... all walking around or a character stations where the wait wasn't long at all

                Left:  Fantasmic!                                                    Right:  Toyville with Toy Story Mania!

We had a great time and look forward to going again.  If you get the chance, it's definitely worth the time to transport yourself to a magical place full of mystery and excitement, tempered with Disney's unique sense of magic.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Main Takeaway:  You watch and then you realize that the attraction to the movie is not a singular aspect but rather the combination of star power, movie making prowess and streamlined storytelling that pulls you in and doesn't let go.

Verdict:  Highly Recommended. 3D definitely, IMAX optional

  • Spectacular, vivid shots of the planet Earth from space
  • Believable sequences of peril, making you wonder what's going to happen next
  • Incredibly long one-take shots; director Alfonso Cuaron's trademark, giving you a sense that you are actually there, in real time, as opposed to an omniscient viewer, watching in movie time
  • Sandra Bullock and George Clooney; makes you want to root for them, even though you may have a hard time thinking of them as actual astronauts
  • Short run time of 91 minutes (this isn't a con since it compresses the movie into a more potent package of storytelling and action sequences
  • Hardly any lens flare

Lost in space. The final frontier.  In space, no one can hear you scream. You've heard all of the movie references and tag line from past science fiction films. The thing about Gravity is that it's less fiction, more science and a tag line isn't really going to sum up this unique movie going experience. It sets a new bar in what a movie that takes place in space is all about. Watching it in 3D, the beginning of the movie really sets the tone: almost first hand experience of floating weightlessly in space, tagging along with the crew of the space shuttle as they are making adjustments to the Hubble space telescope. Some catastrophe happens that then kicks the movie into high gear. You watch and then you almost forget to breathe as our heroes face one dangerous predicament to the next. Cuaron does a phenomenal job of placing the audience in the middle of the action, at times putting the camera straight into the actor's face so that you can see, hear and even feel what they're going through. At times, it's a dizzyingly surreal experience ... something that I can say with confidence has never occured in any other movie going experience. It's that good.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Written By: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Rated PG-13

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya

Up until now, you had to go out of state or out of country to get good ramen.  Yes, there are a number of restaurants in the Seattle area that serve ramen but none of them were considered as "good".  Boom Noodle (which was in Bellevue Square but no longer) was pretty much all style and no taste with their ramen selection.  I read about Kukai opening up late last year to positive reviews and had to try it out to see if this was the best ramen in town.  I'm happy to say that it indeed lives up to that statement.

"... had to try it out to see if this was the best ramen in town"

My friends and I arrived at Kukai at around 1:30pm, missing the lunch crowd.  I heard that at noon, the wait can be pretty long so we were lucky that we were seated within 5 minutes.  The restaurant is long and narrow, with tables and chairs aligned on one side of the restaurant and an open kitchen on the other side. Walking inside, we were greeted with a warm "Irasshaimase" and once seated, we were greeted to a generous selection of appetizers and ramen.  From shio (salt) to shoyu (soy sauce based) to tonkotsu (pork broth), Kukai has the full set of ramen choices, including chicken ramen, spicy and shio yuzu (salt with citrus fruit) ramen.  I was tempted to get the shoyu ramen but saw that they had tsukemen (ramen noodles (either hot or cold) served on a plate with dipping sauce) and had to try it out.  Didn't try any of the appetizers so I'll have to come back to try them out.

My friends had the shoyu ramen.  The presentation of the ramen was ok; the topping were few and scattered around the top.  I was half expecting some bean sprouts and a dash of sesame seed oil but overall, it was serviceable.  I didn't get a taste of it but something to try out next time.

Shoyu Ramen:  soy sauce based broth with spinach, seaweed, bamboo shoots and chashu (pork)

 Tsukemen (noodles with dipping sauce):  wider noodles with spinach, shredded seaweed, bamboo shoots, and chashu (pork).  Delicious.

The tsukemen, on the other hand, was sheer perfection.  The noodles mixed with the shoyu based dipping sauce was super tasty.  The wider noodle lends itself well since there is more surface area to pick up the flavorful broth.  You get a good mix of slurping and chewing that made the eating experiene a pleasure.  The dipping sauce itself was slightly sweet with some tanginess, and mixed with scallions and a little chili powder, it was a welcome variation to the standard issue ramen.  The chashu pork was tender and almost melted in my mouth and elevated an already delicious dish to super yummy goodness.  I really liked it a lot.

Kukai is, without a doubt, the best ramen in town.  It certainly rivals Santoka Ramen in Vancouver, BC and a lot of the other ramen shops in the Los Angeles area.  It's certainly closer so I highly recommend going.

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue 98007

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay (November 2012)

Our family tries to go back to Japan once every three years or so.  Our last trip was in November of 2012 and prior to going, the girls had their heart set on going to both Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disneysea.  And, to be honest, I secretly wanted to go as well.  Since we wanted to be close to both theme parks and also be close to downtown Tokyo, we decided to make the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay in Urayasu our homebase hotel during our second week in Japan.

"... there were so many other services and amenieties that the hotel provided that it really put it over the edge of awesomeness"

We splurged and booked a Club Room, a rather spacious room located on specially designated floors of the building (in the case of the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay, it was the 11th and 12th floor (the top two floors of the hotel) that had a marvelous view of Tokyo Bay.  Hotel rooms in Japan are typically small and for a family of four, it can get cramped really quickly but our room was huge compared to rooms found in other hotels.  It accommodated four beds (two doubles and two singles) which was great since each of us got a bed to call our own. There were free bottles of water, which were replinished daily; a very nice touch since it saved us time from going to the convenience store to buy drinks. Other nice touches include having the toilet separate from the shower/bath room and nice, fluffy bathrobes, which the girls loved.

 Cloudy with a chance of Disney.  View of Tokyo Bay

Looking down into the courtyland

But the best aspect of staying in a Club Room was access to the Club Lounge.  Located on the same floor as ours and limited to guests on the Club Floors was a fairly large lounge room, with plenty of comfortable chairs to relax in, free wireless access and best of all, free snacks and drinks.  On one of the days that we were there, they had thinly sliced smoked ham, various cheeses and crackers, along with a huge bowl of Hershey Kisses.  There was also a drink bar with unlimited access to various soft drinks, including beer and wine.  My daughters had the melon soda and I had a cup of iced Calpico.  Delicious.

There are two buffet restaurants in the Sheraton:  the Grand Cafe is opened all guests so when we went there for lunch on our first day at the hotel, it was very crowded.  But wow, there was a wide variety of foods to choice from, such as rice dishes, pasta, and various meats, along with a wide range of desserts and a build your own sundae station.  It was all very tasty.  

The other buffet restaurant is the Summit, which is located on the top floor (12th floor) of the hotel.  This restaurant, like the Club Lounge, is limited to Club Floor guests so it was never crowded and we were always seated right away with a choice of looking over Tokyo Bay or the Disney theme parks.  We went during breakfast early in the morning and was surprised to see such a vast variety of food.  Yogurts, traditional western style breakfast items (like eggs, bacon, ham, cereal) as well as tasty Japanese items (miso soup, fried fish, pickles) and various vegetables.  We were there for four days and each day, the menu changed slightly but overall, it was always good and always fulfilling.

 Breakfast of champions.  So.Much.Good.Food. Corn Soup in the middle.  Yogurt drink upper right

I love pineapple.  Yogurt drink upper left; berry smoothie upper right

Both the room and the terrific buffet choices alone would have made our stay at the Sheraton a memorable experience but there were so many other services and amenieties that the hotel provided that it really put it over the edge of awesomeness.  Top on the list was location.  Since it located next to both Disney theme parks, it was easy getting from the hotel to the park.  You could walk to the monorail station but you could also wait for the shuttle to drive you there.  When the shuttle wasn't around, we just hiked it to the monorail station (less than five minutes).  When we were heading back to the hotel, there was usually a shuttle waiting for us so we just hopped on and we were back at the hotel in no time.

Along with the location, you can't beat all of the other ameneties the hotel has to offer:
  • Official Disney Store in the hotel - there is a fairly large Disney Store in the hotel, where you can go and buy gifts related to Disney.  From keychains to dolls to cookie tins with Disney characters on it, there is a wide variety to choose from.  You could spend half of your day just looking through everything they have to offer
  • Dedicated Tokyo Disney Resort Ticket Counter - you can buy your Disney theme park tickets ahead of time instead of buying them at the gate.  The person who was working at the counter was a young, bubbly Japanese girl who greeted us with so much enthusiasm, it was kind of scary.  I wondered if she worked for Disney instead of the hotel.  We bought the special 2 day passport, where you can visit one of the parks one day and then other park the following day.  It wasn't a park hopper type of passport, which was fine with us since we wanted spend as much time as possible at each park each day.
  • Dedicated packing service - if you need to have things shipped overseas, you can get packing supplies from the packing service counter and once packed, have them shipped from the same counter.  Really convenient.
  • Game Room and Convenience Store - there is an arcade that you can go to and play video game and UFO Catcher style games to win prizes.  Next to it is a convenience store to pick up snacks and drinks.  Not as complete as a Lawsons but works when you're in a pinch for snacks and stuff
  • Coffee Shop - if you need a coffee fix, the coffee shop in the lobby has you covered.  There is also a fine selection of sandwiches and snacks to choose

We had a great time at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay.  Highly recommended!

Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel
1-9 Maihama
Urayasu, Chiba 279-0031
(81)-(47) 355-5555

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Daniel's Broiler

My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary and my birthday in August.  It was a belated celebration and were fortunate enough to get away from the kids (who were at a sleepover) to enjoy an evening out at Daniel's Broiler.

"What can I say?  14 ounces of beefy goodness"

Situated on the 21st floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Bellevue, it commands an impressive view of Bellevue, Lake Washington and downtown Seattle with the Olympic Mountains in the background.  We arrived a little bit before 6pm and while the restaurant was bustling with folks, we were seated immediately and greeted by our server.  He asked us if we celebrating anything special and after telling him about our belated anniversary and birthday, he congratulated us, which was very nice of him.  He made some fabulous wine and appetizer recommendations and left us to look over the menu.  My wife ordered a glass wine, based on the waiter's recommendation and ordered the Spicy Barbecue Prawns.

Meaty shrimp.  Tangy sauce.  Great way to start a meal.  Oh!, and there was bread!

I was half expecting the shrimp to be on a skewer drenched in thick brown barbecue sauce so I was surprised to see the appetizer look more like Shrimp in Chili Sauce, something similar to what we had at Guu With Garlic.  It had the right amount of barbecue tanginess without being overly sweet and hearty meatiness with each morsel of shrimp that made a great starter dish.  I would have liked to have seen more shrimp.

My wife ordered the Lobster Club Salad, which had a generous serving of lobster meat mixed in with dressing and garnished with avocado and egg on top of mixed greens and tomatoes.  The dressing was a wonderful combination of thousand island, red wine vinegar, soy sauce and lemon juice.  It looked great but alas, I didn't get to try it out since my dish had arrived at the same time. 

Lobster Club Salad ... lobster meat, avocado, egg, mixed greens, and little bacon bits ... yum.

I ordered the rib eye, medium rare with a side of garlic mashed potatoes.  What can I say?  14 ounces of beefy goodness, cooked to tender perfection with loads of flavor.  The garlic mashed potato was very tasty.

It's a steak.  Of course it was good.

We ate slowly, savoring every bite and enjoying the lovely ambiance of the restaurant.  Once we were done with our meal, our waiter brought out the dessert menu.  We spent a good amount of time, pouring over each of the dessert entries and almost came to a decision (I was going to get the cheesecake) when our waiter came over with dessert, compliments of the restaurant.  He again congratulated us on our anniversary, my birthday, our getting away from the kids and brought the following:

Mmmm ... dessert and candles.

This was a pleasant surprise:  his and hers dessert with mini chocolate cake, fruits and a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a candle.  Our waiter said it was on the house, which was a very nice gesture on the part of the restaurant.  We were tempted to still order dessert (I want my cheesecake, dammit) but we were full so this little sampler set was the perfect size and the perfect way to top a wonderful evening.  Highly recommended, whether you're celebrating something or not.

Daniel's Broiler - Bellevue
10500 N.E. 8th, 21st Floor
Bellevue, WA 98004

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Punch Out: Despicable Me 2 versus Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

In This Corner:  in the day-glow yellow trunks, hailing from Gru's Secret Lab ... Despicable Me 2
Main Takeaway:  While not as sweet and heartfelt as the original, this sequel hits all of the right notes in bringing back the gang, introducing new characters and mixing it up with a wacky world of spycraft.  Come for the generic storyline of Gru and new partner in spy Lucy going against bad guy El Macho but definitely stay for the minion mischief.
Verdict:  Matinee.  3D not necessary but nice to have.

  • Great chemistry between Gru and Lucy
  • Good father/son relationship between Gru and Dr. Nefario
  • The girls (Margo, Edith and Agnes) add to the fun, especially the boyfriend angle with Margo
  • Minions (lots of them)
  • The edginess that Gru had in the first film is somewhat neutered in this film.  Responsible dad now?
  • Could use more minion madness

Summary:  Despicable Me was a surprise hit for me.  I didn't see it at the movie theaters nor on rental.  Instead, it was at a school event and my daugthers had a blast watching it.  What surprised me is how much the character Gru (warning:  intended pun) grew on me.  His transformation from evil bad guy and good bad guy, thanks to his relationship with the girls, made the ending of the original movie all the more endearing.  For DM2, we see Gru going from good bad guy to bland good guy.  He's a thoughtful father with a flair for gadgets (what dad doesn't have a flair for gadgets?) but finds himself bored at a hum-dum life of hosting princess birthday parties.  Enter Lucy, a bungling spy who enlists Gru's superbad skills to catch the evil El Macho.  There are lots of action to go around for Lucy and Gru, as well as his minions.  What could have been a potential sequel snoozefest with its generic storyline, Despicable Me 2 elevates itself to fun status by having the minions be part of the overall story arc, pushing the film to a fine level of inspired mayhem and mischief.

In This Corner:  in the tomato sauce stained trunks ... Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Main Takeaway:  It's like going to a buffet restaurant and getting a second helping of something that you kind of liked during the first buffet pass.  It may not be fine cuisine but it hits the spot.  Afterwards, you kind of wonder if that second helping was really necessary.  
Verdict:  Rental.  3D not ncessary but nice to have.

  • Same cheerful bunch from the first movie is back for some more foodie action
  • Good father/son relationship between Flint and his father Tim
  • Interesting choice for the bad guy (some weird fusion between Walt Mossberg and Steve Jobs)
  • Plenty of food puns to keep your pun stomach full
  • Middle section felt bloated.  Could have gone on a diet and lost a couple of minutes
  • Some of the conflict between Flint and the group, especially with Sam, felt needlessly forced.  Could have gone on a diet and lost a couple of minutes
  • The Chester V character (Walt+Steve) didn't seem like an ideal bad guy.  He's evil but more like corporate evil.  Didn't need to go on a diet since he was wafer thin
  • Plenty of food puns to overload your pun stomach
  • Did not make me hungry

Summary:  I saw the first movie at the friend's home and didn't think much about it.  So I was surprised to hear about the sequel.  It kind of popped out of nowhere.  Servicable, with a story that was straightforward but engaging enough to keep me interested.  If anything, the lack of a fleshed out story was made up by sheer spectacle of the food-imals.  Each introduction to a new species of food-imal felt like something out of a Pokemon game.  "Look!  There's a flamango!!!  Oh!  Shrimpanzee!  Oh where oh where is the cocktail sauce?"  All in all, a movie the kids will like but parents may have felt that, in the end, it was nothing more than empty calories.

Judge's Score (higher is better)
Despicable Me 2
Pros:  4
Cons:  2
Summary:  4
Swing:  4
Total:  4

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Pros:  4
Cons:  5
Summary:  3
Swing:  3
Total:  3

Winner:  Descpicable Me 2

Friday, October 4, 2013

Would You Like Cake?

Context:  I mentioned this in a previous post but I thought I'd mention it again.  It's true: before getting into computers and software, before working at some big multinational software company, before becoming wired, I used to teach English conversation in Japan. I lived in a small city called Yonago, in Tottori Prefecture, which is about 3 hours northwest of Osaka by bus, situated along the Sea of Japan. I worked at a small English Conversation school called "Nicenglish" ... that's not a spelling mistake. Nicenglish. The following is a slice of life recollection of my teaching at the local high school.  This was written several years after working in Japan so I had hindsight to help flesh out the details of my time there. Take it for what it's worth (which, as always, isn't that much).

---------------------------------------- o ----------------------------------------

Summer.  I was 23 years old and just started working as an English conversation instructor at a private high school in Japan.  Yonago, the city that I worked in, was no larger than any other small town you would find in any country:  only one train line to the nearest big city (which was three hours away) and only one major department store catering to the needs of an unimpressive-sized population of rice farmers and laborers at a nearby fish-packing facility.  Strangely, there were three overpopulated high schools.  Of the three, I worked at the largest school in the area.

Since the school was rather large by Japanese standards, the teacher's room itself was quite expansive, brimmed wall to wall with grey, metallic desks, uncountable amounts of paper holders and plastic cup holders for pencils, pens, the occasional ruler and paper clips.  Opening the front drawer of my desk exposed a fairly used plastic container with five new, out-of-the-box sticks of chalk.  Two white, two yellow and one red.  Next to my desk sat Ms. Saeka.

Ms. Saeka, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and always wore a skirt to work, taught Japanese to the first year students and did not understand much English.  She would occasionally attempt to greet me with a simple "good morning" or "hello" but most of the time, she kept to herself and answered student's questions and graded her papers in earnest.  She must have been twenty-eight or nine.  As time passed, I got to know her more and more as my Japanese speaking skills improved.  By the end of summer, we were having decent conversations about school, the students, teaching and most importantly, our lunches.

"I never woke up early enough to make myself lunch"

Lunch was a big production for the teachers at school, with everyone looking at everyone else's lunch to see who brought what.  Ms. Saeka, who endeavored to create a fanciful but delicious lunch box, would always bring something that would catch my attention and draw out the same question from me:

"What did you bring today?" I would simply ask, always curious to see what was in Ms. Saeka's lunchbox.

And everyday, I would see a bed of steamed rice with a picked plum in the center,  a grilled slice of smoked salmon, several slices of tangy daikon root and fish cake with accompanying seaweed and cucumber salad, mixed in with a dash of rice vinegar.  If not salmon, then mackerel.  If not mackerel then fried chicken.  For dessert, she would peel open an orange or bake herself small sweet biscuits wrapped in a paper napkin.

Since I never woke up early enough to make myself lunch, I would always venture outside of school on my bike and stop by the nearby McDonalds (and try out their delicious Japan-only Teriyaki Burger) or buy a prepared lunch-box at the nearby 7-11.  I would take it back to the teacher's room, unwrap my lunch, pop open a can of wheat tea and eat my lunch.

At the end of lunch, I would sift those some of the papers I had to grade and look over the lesson plans for the next English class.  For some reason, on one particular day in September, Ms. Saeka scooted her chair next to mine and asked me if I wanted a sweet biscuit-cake.  Since I was thinking about English conversation and with my blood circulating around my stomach, without much thought, I blurted out "I wonder how you would say that in English...." in Japanese, as if asking my students for the correct answer.  With that, Ms. Saeka responded to my question with a puzzled look, then smiled and grabbed a Japanese-English dictionary from my desk.  She vowed to learn how to offer an item to someone in English by the end of autumn.

By the end of October, after spending a good five weeks of studying and practicing her English skills without my help, she returned my dictionary and with a triumphant smile on her face and with her biscuit-cake in hand, she scooted her chair next to mine and simply asked:

"Would you like cake?"

To which with a smile, I gently responded, "No thank you".  There was a flash of anger, bemusement, exhaustion and laughter running through her eyes as she ran her gaze over my face.  But before she could say anything or have the chance to throw the biscuit at me, I quickly held her hands and said, "Yes I would.  Thank you".  With an almost childish giggle, she handed me a sweet biscuit-cake which, as expected, was quite delicious.

. . .

Several months after leaving Japan, I received a package from Ms. Saeka.  Enclosed in the package was a letter, telling me how exciting it was for her to gain that joy of learning and involving herself in English study, something she never did when she was in high school.  Also in the package, wrapped in a paper napkin were two of her baked sweet biscuit-cakes.  Tucked in the paper napkin was a small note that read "Would you like cake?"  Before I could whisper "Yes I would, Thank You" to myself, I saw written on the back of the note, "I insist!"