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Friday, 24 October 2014

The monument to dead insects at Kan'ei-ji

I'm suffering from a Calvinist guilt complex, which, I contend, is exponentially worse than a Jewish guilt complex or a Catholic guilt complex.

The cause of my religious angst is a heathen country called Japan. You see, I've been ranting a bit – about English as she is spoke and mosquitoes as they are feared on these fair safety isles – and I feel some penance is required. Or abject groveling. Or at least a post about …

Well, how about death and insects? That's cheerful enough, isn't it?, and if you think neither creepy-crawlies nor biting the dust, hopping the twig, counting worms and pushing up daisies can be cute, oh, you really don't know Japan very well, do you?

Saying bye-bye to bugs can be both charming and heart-warming.

Japanese insects don't just join the choir invisible or shuffle off the mortal coil or go gentle into that good night. Oh no. They go out in style, with their very own monument.

The monument to dead insects at Kan'ei-ji

It's called the Mushizuka, and it was erected in 1821 to console the spirits of goggas (see sidebar) that had been killed in the production of a scientific text called Chūchijō (虫豸).

Both the book and subsequent tomb were commissioned by an aristocrat known as 増山 正賢I've seen different transcriptions of his name, including Mashiyama Sessai (on the plaque next to the monument) and Mashiyama Masakata (in the Japanese Wikipedia). Shall we just refer to him as Bug Boy?

Mashiyama Sessai. Source: Wikipedia

Anyway, he was the head of the Ise Nagashima clan, and he's famous for the above-mentioned four-volume book about insects. Apparently Mashiyama was plagued by guilt because he'd caused the death of so many living creatures; hence this monument.

The Mushizuka can be seen at Tōeizan Kan'ei-ji Endon-in (東叡山寛永寺円頓院), to give it its glorious full name, in Ueno. I'm in the process of writing a complete post about this temple, one of my infamous "complete guide to" sagas, but meantime, regard this as an apology for my rants.

Kan'ei-ji seen from the monument

Kan'ei-ji seen from the othe side

This post was brought to you thanks to a collective Buddhist/Protestant guilt fest.



The monument is so quirky that it's mentioned in Atlas Obscura, one of  my all-time favourite reference works (link).

Read more about
Chūchijō here (J).

The monument is behind that giant lantern.

This reads, from right to left, 蟲塚 or mushizuka (insect grave or insect mound).

The plaque next to the monument

Page from Mashiyama's book

Page from Mashiyama's book

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Rant 2: The attack of the monster mosquitoes

I was going to turn this into another rant – I'm on a roll! – but decided to go for funpokery instead, i.e. let's apply a razor rather than necklacing, but can I use a blunt razor, please?

Please note that I'm not saying this has anything to do with the current dengue fever scare in Tokyo [x] [x]. The signs themselves remain coy and chastely mute. I would like to confirm, however, that it's the first time I've seen these signs during my shitamachi walks, and, as you well know, I resemble a certain Scotch whisky. See video below.

It's not quite as bad as the American media's panic about Ebola, but admittedly the latter is a slightly different kettle of fish Petri dish of virological taxons. Or taxa. Once a copy-editor, always a copy-editor.

This African – veteran observer and in some cases victim of malaria, AIDS, guns, South Africa's national sportthe Hôtel des Mille Collinesblack mambas, matatusminibus taxi driversMurtala Muhammed International Airport and assorted megalomaniac leaders  is observing the effect of both viruses and …

Interesting that there is no known plural for this word, which means poison or venom, in Classical Latin.  It's always been a mass noun. Hence viruses, not viri, in English. Doncha love words?

Oh. Wait. I was kvetching.

This African is observing the effect of the viruses on Tokyo's population and the American media, and grimacing cynically. What can I say? I'm jaded.

Look, kids, it's like this. I was a journalist in Africa. My first beat was science, followed by education, (again) followed by science, eventually followed by politics. My students' predictable reaction when they hear I did political reporting: "Eeeh, hontō? Sugoi!" If I'd been a man, it would've elicited no response, the implication being OMG you’re a woman and you did politics?! Sweetikums, you'd be gobsmacked to know what I got up to on the Dark Continent, but let's return to the main story. I've been to more African countries than I can count on all fingers and toes. Throw in ears as well. I visited West Africa regularly. Especially Nigeria. So regularly that my visa-festooned passport threw customs at Narita Airport into a tizzy whenever I tried to enter Japan. Nigeria = drugs, virulent viruses and corruption. Open your suitcase.

I now have a new passport with only South African and Japanese stamps, and I'm waved through every time.


Tokyo, you need to chill. Exotic tropical diseases my foot. Heck, tell a South African that she's entering an area patrolled by vampire vultures and she'll stare at you blankly, yawn and say, "Ja? So?" I did get bitten yesterday morning. Meh. I always get bitten. If there's one mosquito in the surrounding 71 square kilometers, it will find me. Apparently my bitter and twisted soul is ensconced in a body bursting with sweet blood.

What I'm trying to say in my usual meandering way is that I've been around the block. You're going to have to do better than a mozzie in Yoyogi Park. Which, incidentally, is a few kilometers west of Ueno. 

Ebola is wreaking havoc in West Africa, but does the USA have to prepare for the apocalypse? Dengue fever is unpleasant, but is its mortality more than 1%?

You decide. 

You're welcome to tell me I'm stupid, reckless and insensitive. I'm certainly all of that. However, do be careful with your mosquitoes. Treat them gently, feed them regularly, and don't scare them with your big bare feet.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Rant 1: Buy yourself a virgin

This is a rant. It's a rant about sex and the marketing of virginity. NB, female virginity. It’s mostly a rant about one of the stupidest ads I've seen in my life, and Amaterasu help me, I've seen many.

What's going on here? What's the unspoken – or should that be unpoked? – message?

You can have your very own virgin to love, but you have to buy her virginity with a diamond. Once you've proved your devotion, she'll garb herself in a white frock and marry you at Disneyland, whereupon you may break the shell of innocence. You'll be allowed, hallelujah, to penetrate, infiltrate and fertilize. Lovely scrambled eggs shall ensue.

Not sure what the feathers imply. Feather bed? Fox in hen house and flying feathers? Could be ugly virgin duckling to beautiful married swan, but I think it's supposed to be the other way around: beautiful virgin swan princess to marabou stork (NB reference to babies duly delivered).

You, the buyer, are of course male, and you don't have to be a virgin. As a matter of fact, that's highly undesirable. You should be a master egg beater who can froth up a meringue with an artist's (artits?) touch. Alternatively, just be rich.*

Or fake it.

* According to the Nomura Research Institute, 83.9 percent of single Japanese men under the age of 50 earn an annual income of less than 4 million JPY (43 000 USD), whereas single women look for partners making between 5 and 7 million JPY (54 000 to 75 000 USD), which accounts only for 4.9 percent of single men in the same group. Sources here, here and here.

PS: Don't worry. I did take photos of shrines and temples during this walk. That story shall be written, but every time I walk past this particular sign I start scowling. I need to vent. Rant 2 to follow.

Monday, 13 October 2014

When Engrish isn't Engrish but Rocklish

I almost made a fool of myself.

Not that that's anything new. I almost make a fool of myself at least 21 times per day, and at least 11 of my attempts succeed in eliminating the "almost". I can be remarkably efficient when I put my mind to it, despite hailing from the chaos that is the dark continent.

This time I almost became a victim of Engrish myself. That is, I ascribed a phrase to Engrish when, in fact, it exists in the real world, whatever your definition of that may be, but let's not get sidetracked into ontology and epistemology. Ornithology, however, might be appropriate.

Photo from Wikipedia. There's a reason for this photo. Keep reading.

Most of my Engrish adventures take place at my eikaiwa, since my university students are generally speaking more proficient.

Breathe/teach/observe life from the sidelines long enough, and you learn to assess a student within a few seconds. This particular young man walked in with artfully tousled hair, neatly trimmed eyebrows and a T-shirt that read "we sell you tits and glory".

Do not, incidentally, make any assumptions based on gender + trimmed eyebrows in Japan. I've accepted that it's a man thing, just like man bags. (What can I say? I'm from South Africa. Men stand at least 6 feet in their flip-flops, play rugby and have 4 pm stubble. They don't need bags because a real man doesn't carry anything except a gun in his pocket, and anyway, that's what servants are for.) [To carry things, not to shoot at.]

I beheld the T-shirt and opened my mouth to ask my student whether he knew what it meant. Then my thoughts proceeded roughly thus:

1) Tits. Male student. I'mfromAfrica i.e. I have no manners i.e. I'm happy to talk about tits and pricks and whatnot, but this might not be regarded as appropriate.
2) He's upper intermediate level. He might be cognizant of the various meanings of the word.
3) Hair. Necklace of Christian crosses. Unusual designer silver ring.
4) Something's making you hesitate, Ru. Don't be facetious. Shut up. Think.

Breathe/teach/observe life from the sidelines long enough; read enough; study language enough; eventually learn to listen to your intuition; and that's when you …

Google frantically in the break between lessons, and triumphantly exclaim "yappari" (I thought so!) when "we sell you tits and glory" comes up as a hit for, what?, it's a song? Da Sign & The Opposite? That sounds like a rap band. No? No. German? Sie sind eine vierköpfige Schweizer Elektro-Rock-Band aus Bern. (They're a four-man Swiss electric rock band from Bern.)

I walk back to my classroom, ready to discuss rock and rebellion, boobs and knobs.

"You like rock?"
"Rock. Your T-shirt. Da Sign & The Opposite?"
"What's that?"
"It's a rock band. Your T-shirt? It's one of their songs."
"We sell you tits and glory."
"The line on your T-shirt. We sell you tits and glory. It's the title of a song."
"I don't know."
"Oh. Ah. I see. No, I don't. Why did you buy that T-shirt?"
"I like the design. Maybe."
"You know what it means?"
"What it means?"
"Tits. You know what tits means?"
"Oh. Ah. Well, understandable, you live in Japan. Shall we continue? Page 32, point 4."

Irrelevant autumn photo because ... autumn.

If you teach English in Japan, none of this would surprise you, but if you don't, here's a translation:

  • English phrases on T-shirts, or anywhere, for that matter, aren't supposed to mean anything. They're decoration. A design element. God herself doesn't know who comes up with them. However, judge not, that ye be not judged. 
  • Students cannot explain their own motivations beyond "it was convenient".
  • If a student has no clue what's going on, he (it's inevitably a he in a business environment or at the university where I teach) will either stare at you silently or parrot what you said. If you don't respond, he'll look down at his book, North America and Europe will drift 4 m closer to each other, and the sun will burn up a quarter of its remaining hydrogen supply.
  • DD-cup bras aren't bestsellers in Japan.

So. There you have it. I almost made a fool of myself, because what I thought was Engrish wasn't, but the student didn't know what it meant anyway. I misread my student, who wasn't as clued-up as I thought he might be, but I correctly interpreted my own linguistic sixth sense, which was operating spiffingly.

All is not lost.


1) If you're wondering about the photo of the bird, it's called Parus minor. Yes, I have the emotional maturity of a toddler. If you don't understand what's going on, I recommend There's another option, but let's not unravel completely. We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

2) Now I want Hysteric Glamour and We Sell You Tits and Glory to meet, marry and have babies.

3) I accept no responsibility for my recent teaching posts. Think of them as my lightning conductor.

4) Comments have been re-enabled, but Gondwana might be reunited by the time I respond.

Friday, 10 October 2014

How to reschedule a meeting with a corpse

Sometimes I try to explain to students that the Japanese way is neither the only way nor – heresy, blasphemy and high treason! – the best way, and some other times I simply go "aw fuggit" and make it work for me.

Earlier this week I was doing an eikaiwa lesson about making, rescheduling and cancelling appointments: pretty basic fare in any textbook. The book asks the students to list reasons why they would cancel or reschedule a business meeting. After a decade on these fair isles, this instruction fills me with depthless ennui and boundless cynicism. I've yet to encounter a student who can think of any reason except "train delay".

Quake? You walk. Family emergency? Irrelevant. The sun goes supernova? You ganbare.

My group consisted of a doctor, a sales manager and a university admin person. They're reasonably fluent, and I'm from Africa, and that's a combination that allows … well … somewhat unusual role-playing.

The photos have nothing to do with the text, but it's early autumn in Tokyo, and I know you won't mind.

Thus we proceeded:

"I don't cancel business meetings," pronounced the sales manager.
"Never?" I checked.
"I cannot cancel."
"What if you're very sick?"
"I put on mask and go."
"What if you're in a car accident?"
"I must go."
"What if you break your legs?!" Don't judge me. Eikaiwa lessons get slightly surreal at times.
"I fall out and run." He was, at least, laughing while he said that.
"What if your mother is very sick?" That was cruel. That was hitting a Japanese man where it hurts the most.
"I must go to my meeting."
"What if … " I shut up. Mothers are sacred. Best not ask "what if" questions about a maternal demise.

I observed my group, and did that "aww fuggit" thing. "Right," I said, mentally crossing myself and muttering in nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spiritus Sancti, "you, Mr Sales Manager, you died, you have to reschedule your meeting with Mr Doctor."
"I died?"
"Yes, you died, umm, last Monday."
"I'm dead?"
"Yes. You're dead. Like Monty Python's parrot."
"Never mind. You're dead. You can't meet Mr Doctor on Friday, as previously agreed. Your ghost has to call him to reschedule."
"My ghost?"
"Yes! Your ghost! It's Halloween. Arrange a new meeting in the morgue."
"Morgue. Corpses. Skeletons."
They didn't know any of those last three words, but they were already rolling about laughing at their crazy teacher from Africa.

We spent a pleasant ten minutes learning macabre new words related to death. (I didn't show them Monty Python's dead parrot. They could never geddit.)

Then we did role-playing. I was a corpse, because I kept quiet throughout. (It's very nice to play a corpse in class. My students often do that, but this time I beat them to it.) They arranged to meet on Friday 31 October at midnight in the morgue of St Luke's International Hospital.

"See you Friday," said Mr Sales Manager."OK," said Mr Doctor. "Don't forget your pumpkin."

That was a remarkably successful lesson. The end, says I, justifies the means, but please don't tell my school. I'll get fired.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Meet Akiyama, the god of haemorrhoids

"Hello! Can I help you?" the Buddhist priest asked in flawless English.

"Err," I responded intelligently.

"Are you lost?" He sounded perplexed. A reasonable reaction, given that I was in the depths of one of the poorest areas in Taitō, where blue-eyed barbarians are a scarce commodity.

"Umm," I muttered at my brilliant best. How do you tell a priest that you're hunting haemorrhoids? That, as a matter of fact, you've come to meet the god of haemorrhoids?

Yes, gentle reader, of course there's a god of haemorrhoids!

Because Japan.

Honshō-ji, where you can pray for relief from haemorrhoids

Where wôs I? How do you tell a priest that you're pursuing piles without sounding decidedly weird? Never mind the fact that he's the priest at the temple that's supposed to cure the affliction. There are certain things you just don't discuss with strangers, and I'd put any anal anecdotes pretty near the top of my list.

"Your English is very good," I continued wittily. He looked as disgruntled as I usually feel when complimented on my dexterous use of chopsticks. "I'm just visiting temples," I offered as an explanation.

I received a dubious glance.

"It's my hobby. Look, I've got a camera," I babbled.

"There are many temples in this area," he said.

"Yes, I know, I live here. Well, near here. That is, within a two-hour wa … " I trailed off.

"We have many visitors today. It's a public holiday."

"Yes, I noticed." I didn't add that all the visitors had clearly also noticed us. They were staring at this strange apparition – stately black-robed priest and disheveled, pony-tailed, flustered female – with 51% fascination and 49% alarm. "I'm sorry that you have to work on a holiday!" I prattled on. "I hope you can go home, oh, you live here, too, don't you? Well, I mean, I hope it's all over very quickly, I mean, that is, thankyousomuchforyourkindness, must rush, temples to see and shrines to conquer, goodbye!"

I'm not very ept when it comes to social niceties.

Why can you be inept but not ept?

English is silly.

The entrance to Honshō-ji

Anyway. The point of the story is …

Think of me what you will, but I'd gone on a two-hour walk to find a temple that allegedly cures haemorrhoids. Not for myself. I'm a vegetarian; we get plenty of fibre. No, because I love quirky temples, and … a temple for piles? Seriously? Doesn't get quirkier than that!

(I still think my best find is the pubic hair shrine, but never mind that now.)

It's called Honshō-ji (本性寺), and the god of haemorrhoids, who was originally a mere mortal called Okada Magoemon (岡田孫右衛), was buried here.

He was a sake merchant in Edo, and he suffered so horribly from haemorrhoids that he became a priest in an attempt to cure himself. He didn't succeed, and on his deathbed a few years later he vowed to become a god and help others with the same affliction.

His spirit was enshrined at this temple, and soon rumours of miraculous cures spread. Eventually Magoemon, now known as Akiyama Jiun Reijin (秋山自雲霊), was worshipped at several temples in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Most of these have disappeared, but you can still visit Honshō-ji and Magoemon's grave in Kiyokawa in Taitō. (See two photos below.)

Incidentally, there's another haemorrhoids temple in Ikenohata in Ueno, called Sōken-ji (宗賢寺). I didn't go there, because it's really nondescript, but you can see a photo here and its address is 池之端 2-1-15. If you pray at this temple during full moon, you have a better chance to recover. Allegedly.

May I add, at this juncture, that it's a dangerous topic to research, especially when you have a congenital inability to ignore hyperlinks? I got curious about the incidence of haemorrhoids in Japan. Japanese people have an unusually high rate of gastric cancer (source and source) due to their high salt intake as well as the lack of fibre in their diet …

Ah. Yes. The reality of Japan's contemporary eating habits isn't as pretty as the myth. The country's diet is relatively healthy thanks to limited fat, limited sugar and small portions, but whether it truly justifies religious rapture is another matter altogether.

To return to our main theme, I wondered about the incidence of haemorrhoids, given the lack of fibre. I wish I could provide conclusive evidence, but … I have enough metaphorical assholes in my life, and I got tired of medical articles with lots of pictures of the other type. Some images, once seen, cannot easily be erased.

Estimates of the prevalence rate in the USA range from 4,4% to 12,8% (source), but it might be lower in Japan thanks to that phenomenon loathed by so many foreigners: the squat toilet. Mind you, squat toilets are becoming increasingly rare, and every single Japanese woman I know prefers a Western toilet with, NB, a Sound Princess (artificial flushing sounds to hide the real sounds) (don't ask). So who knows.

I end with this gem that Google delivered when I was searching for "the prevalence of
haemorrhoids in Japan":
Feb 24, 2014 - 'Hemorrhoids occur more commonly in young and middle-aged adults than in older adults. The prevalence of hemorrhoids increases with age, with a peak in .... Mount Ontake eruption: Volcano eruption in Japan caught on ...

Piles and volcanic eruptions.

Let's end there, shall we? 

Tree detail at Honshō-ji

Higanbana, the flower of the dead, on a pavement in Asakusa

I stopped at Imado Jinja, where you can pray for love, along the way. Read more about the shrine here.

Imado Jinja always has mountains of ema. I guess love is more popular than haemorrhoids.

I also stopped at Matsuchiyama Shōden, the temple of the naughty daikon. 

Jizō at Matsuchiyama Shōden

Higanbana in the riverside park in Asakusa

My favourite phallic symbol

Sky Tree reflected in the HQ of Asahi Beer in Asakusa

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

The enchanted red forest of Sokō-in

In September 2011 I had my first close encounter with the flower of the dead, also known as higanbana or red spider lily. In September 2012 I wrote a post about higanbana (red spider lily) entitled "flower of loss and longing". In September 2013, while the red flowers bloomed at graves, my mother passed away. In September 2014 I went for a walk in yet another enchanted red forest, partly for myself, partly for my mother. She loved flowers.

The higanbana forest at Sokō-in in Matsudo, Chiba

I was too busy to go as far as what is arguably the best higanbana spot in Japan, Kinchakuda in Saitama, but Sokō-in (祖光院), a temple in Matsudo in Chiba, provides a more than adequate alternative.

I've written so many posts about higanbana that there isn't much more to say, and Sokō-in itself is a small temple that doesn’t offer any tempting historical titbits; just its small but magnificent forest.

The flowers are already past full bloom, but you could still catch their last gasp.

Take the Joban Line from Ueno, change at Matsudo to the Shin-Keisei Line and get off at Tokiwadaira Station. The temple is an easy ten-minute walk (at normal speed) from the station (five minutes at a Ru gallop).

The temple itself is ... well ...

If I may paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, it's a country for old men ...

Two of the seven lucky gods: Ebisu (left) and Daikokuten

I forgot to check who this is. Could be Daikokuten (bag of rice, mice), or simply a cute Buddha.

I will always associate this beautiful flower with graves.

Eyelashes or whiskers? You decide.

First time I see a pink higanbana. (You also get white and yellow varieties.)

This house in Tokiwadaira had a beautiful green curtain of morning glories.

Morning glory or asagao in Japanese

Bonus Sky Tree and red sunrise

Personal note

I'm still on semi-hiatus. I've also disabled comments, mostly due to continuing problems with spambots, but also because I don't have enough time to respond to everybody … and I think it's rather rude to ignore comments. I'll continue blogging sporadically, but within parameters controlled by my current work schedule. Thank you, as always, for visiting; and my sincerest apologies for this one-sided communication!

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