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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Seven Stages of Gaijinhood Redux

Years ago there was a blog called The Westerner's Fear of the Neonsign. It was one of the best blogs ever written about Japan, but it's been taken down. His seminal post was The Seven Stages of Gaijinhood. Here's the graph:

You can read more about it, as well as comments from other old-timers, on, yet another excellent blog that's gone quiet. It happens. You find yourself with nothing new to write about anymore, or perhaps blogs -- well-considered, well-researched, well-written -- have been replaced by easier, faster, transient social media such as Twitter and Instagram.

So, using the lingo of short-form social media, here's my version of the 5 stages. Yup, only 5.

WTF Japan?
FFS Japan!
Meh ...

Step 5 can go in three directions: "it's not perfect, but it's home, and I've got to make it work" or "I'm going home to my own country, which isn't perfect, but I've got to make it work" or "let's go try a different country, which isn't perfect, but at least it's a new mess".

I miss those old blogs. Those were the days ...

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Cherry blossoms 2016: fourth report from Meguro

This has been a rather blah cherry blossom season. I should use the past tense – it was disappointing – because it's over now in Tokyo. A few tenacious blossoms remain, and late-blooming varieties might still surprise us, but the main act has finished.

As I've mentioned before,  I stubbornly completed two walks despite the bad weather: a grey day in Kamakura, which I've already written about, and an early-morning sopping wet walk along the Meguro River. My new camera, Mycroft, still hasn't entirely forgiven me for the latter.

This river walk is one of Tokyo's most famous cherry blossom spots, but I avoided it in the past because it looked even more crowded than Chidorigafuchi. This year, when the weekend of peak bloom (満開 mankai) was accompanied by rain, I thought I'd take a chance because it would probably be less frantic. I arrived early and walked from Meguro Station along the river to Ikejiriohashi Station. Despite the rain, the last part of the river in Aobadai – the bit lined with restaurants – was getting pretty congested by the time I left at 9 am. Pancakes sold out. (See below.)

Does the river deserve its reputation? Well …

Ah, come on, you didn't really expect an unqualified yes from perpetually disgruntled me, did you?

Yes, it's beautiful, but I'd hate to be there in good weather during cherry blossom season. You wouldn't be able to breathe. There are far better alternatives in Tokyo's less glamorous suburbs: no hype and no chichi restaurants, but you can listen to uguisu, Japanese bush warblers, singing their hearts out and you can walk in cherry blossom rain in blessed solitude.

The longer I live in overcrowded Tokyo, the more misanthropic I become, and I was never exactly gregarious to start with. Sigh.

Here's Megurogawa:

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Cherry blossoms 2016: third report from Kamakura

The weather gods, or Mother Nature, or fate: they're all in a bad mood due to global warming or possibly Japan's obsession with concrete …

It's been estimated that Japan pours 490 cubic meters of concrete per square kilometer, compared with 40 cubic meters in the USA and 310 in China. Not for nothing is Japan known as the construction state.*

Anyway. Whatever the reason, the 2016 cherry blossom season has been one of the worst since I arrived in this mortared matrix ten years ago: it remains overcast, chilly and drizzly. Early April is seldom perfect, but this year's been extra dismal.

While others might bewail a lost opportunity to get blotto under the blossoms, I'm in a strop because it's nigh impossible to take decent photos when soft pink blossoms disappear against a grey sky.

Most of my plans were scuppered, but I stubbornly followed two: to go to Kamakura (which I did last Friday) and to walk along the Meguro River (this morning), both for the first time in cherry blossom season.

Kamakura's blossoms don't rival Tokyo's, methinks, but it was good to revisit the town after a long absence and to go hiking in its hills again. I also discovered, purely by chance, the prettiest peony garden I've yet seen. Sometimes when you take off in a panic to escape tourist hordes, you end up in a tiny paradise.

Dear gods. I don't mind tourists per se, but when they're disgorged from hundreds of package tour buses, that's when I develop anthropophobia, claustrophobia and enochlophobia. I got a fairly bad attack at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū (鶴岡八幡宮), fled down a flight of steps and along the perimeter of the complex, and saw a sign that said "peony garden". It promised a refuge. I paid ¥500, which is slightly expensive but worth every yen. Once I was inside, where it was blessedly quiet compared to the main shrine, I remembered that I'd read about this garden. I can now confirm that it's justifiably famous. What makes it extra beautiful is the backdrop of cherry blossoms, which I haven't seen in any other peony garden.

My main reason for choosing Tsurugaoka Hachimangū was to see the avenue of cherry trees leading up to the shrine, but that was a blah anti-climax. The avenue has recently been reconstructed and planted with new trees, and I'm afraid it's lost its ambience. It will be more beautiful when the trees are bigger, but right now it's cold grey concrete, very neat, very precise, very artificial. Also hopelessly crowded. I arrived early, as per usual; heaven or rather hell knows what it's like during peak times. Not to worry, though: the peony garden and the hike in Kamakura's hills were compensation for all other trials, tribulations and ill tempers.

I also popped into Kenchō-ji (建長寺), an old Zen temple that has a short avenue of cherry trees. Short but very pretty. Photos below.

PS: I went for an early-morning walk along the famous Meguro River this morning. I thought it would be quiet because it was raining, but it was getting quite busy towards 9 am. I ran away again. More later.

* Windows on Japan: A Walk Through Place and Perception by Bruce Roscoe, page 103

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Cherry blossoms 2016: second report

There's a bit more colour, but we're still a few days from full bloom. I took these photos at Zōjō-ji this morning. The temple is clearly preparing for big crowds this coming weekend: they're putting up food stalls and what looks like a platform (tea ceremony? dances? AKB-forty-whatnot? who knows) around the main temple building.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Cherry blossoms 2016: first report

The first report is that ... nothing's happening yet. Or, to be more precise, very little is happening. Or to add further detail (for science, John!), very little is happening in Ueno Park.

I noticed one or two early-blooming trees that are always first, every year, but there's not much colour to be seen. The only entertainment, as a matter of fact, is watching the swan boats get into trouble. It's vastly amusing to watch a young swain trying to keep his cool in front of his coiffed, coutured, manicured inamorata while the swan boat is moving in the wrong direction, stuck in a corner, refuses to be manoeuvered and generally speaking is doing everything possible to turn the lover and the poet into a fool and a lunatic. Meanwhile young kids are merrily peddling away, completely in control.

I could watch it for hours.

I've included a few photos. This is what it looks like right now. Full bloom next week.


Friday, 11 March 2016

Plummy pleasures at Kairakuen

Japan has a thing about lists: the three views of Japan, the three major night views, thirty-six special places of scenic beauty, one hundred soundscapes (this list does not include slurping or sniffing, which means it's a fake) and the four cheapest vending machines in Dokonimomachi 4-9-4.

It also has a list of The Three Great Gardens of Japan (日本三名園 Nihon Sanmeien) please-note-capital-letters: Kenrokuen or "garden which combines six characteristics", Korakuen or "garden of pleasure after" (that would be after visiting the four cheapest vending machines in Dokonimomachi 4-9-4) and Kairakuen or "a garden to enjoy with people".

So when an opportunity arose to visit the garden to enjoy with 701 233 septuagenarians during plum blossom season, I was understandably happy. Or, to paraphrase my students, "I am excite. It is very fun."

Off I went, and ...

Look, no kidding, the plum orchard in Kairakuen is beautiful: hundreds of trees, many different species, an explosion of pink ranging from almost white to almost crimson, a lovely excuse to sit down and partake of the fruit of the plum tree in liquid form. However. That's that. That's all there is. Why it's one of the three great … sorry … The Three Great Gardens of Japan remains a mystery that has not been solved by aforementioned infusion of potable plums. Despite that, I'm glad I went. I had great company – regular walkpedition partner Cecilia – and konbini umeshu. Hey. I'm from Africa. She's from Australia. Sophisticated we're not.

I'm going to be lazy for the rest of the post, and mainly quote from the park's … it's a park, really, not a garden … from the park's excellent English brochure.

The park, which was started by Nariaki Tokugawa, opened in 1842. The name comes from a saying within The Book of Mencius which states, "The ancients would share the pleasures with people, so their pleasures would be hearty and deep."

The park wasn't created for feudal lords, but for commoners, and that's apparently why it incorporates characteristics from modern parks as well as formal Japanese gardens. Presumably hordes of commoners require open spaces rather than raked gravel, moss and koi so that we can riot instead of compose haiku.

Apart from the plum trees, the park also has a bamboo forest (which you can't enter), a cedar forest (ditto), a historic three-story house called Kōbuntei (好文亭) and a school for feudal lords' children called Kōdōkan (弘道館). The old house is truly beautiful; I can't comment on the school since we didn't go there.


There were lots of old people and lots of babies and a grand total of four foreigners.

It's relatively easy albeit slightly expensive (¥3820 one way) to get there if you catch the Limited Express Hitachi that runs on the Jōban Line and takes you non-stop from Ueno Station to Mito Station in just over an hour. You can then walk to the park (it takes about half an hour) or catch a bus from Mito Station (which also takes about half an hour in heavy traffic).

Cecilia understands about maps and buses and special train tickets. I don't. I usually run around like a headless guinea fowl while she sorts things out in her usual no worries way. She got us there. Then I freaked out when I saw the crowds and started galloping off in a panic. Then she calmed me down with umeshu.

Final verdict? The pleasure of the umeshu was hearty and deep, and, well, that's enough, innit?

PS: If you do go to Kairakuen during plum blossom season, do yourself a favour and walk from the main park across the road to the other side: also lots of trees, but almost no people. Benches where you can sit down. Tranquility. You're welcome.

PPS: I feel obliged to point out that "Dokonimomachi" could be translated as Nowhereville.

Torii leading to Tokiwa Jinja, a shrine in the park. I didn't take photos of the shrine itself.
It was almost invisible behind food stalls.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A shrine for MIA and AWOL cats

Your cat's gone missing? Went walkabout and hasn't returned? Copycatted Tao in The Incredible Journey or perhaps Kunkush aka Dias?

Fear not. Japan has a shrine for you. If you pray at Tachikawa Suitengū (立川水天宮), your errant moggy will return to you unharmed. That explains the shrine's nickname, Nekogaeshi Jinja (猫返し神社) or "Cat Returns Shrine".

It all started with jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita (山下洋輔), whose cat disappeared. Yamashita walked all over the neighbourhood in search of the animal, but no success. During his wanderings he stopped at Tachikawa Suitengū, several kilometers from his home, and prayed for his cat’s return.

The next day … guess who turned up? Since then, cat lovers visit this shrine to ask for their cats’ protection, and people who’ve lost a cat pray that their pet will come back home.

The cat statue at Tachikawa Suitengū

The shrine, also known as Azusami Tenjinsha (阿豆佐味天神社), is  in Tachikawa, a 20-minute walk from either Musashi-Sunagawa Station on the Seibu Haijima Line or Sunagawa-Nanaban Station on the Tama Toshi Monorail Line. I chose the former because I spotted a river on the map and thought it might be a nicer walk.

Tachikawa Suitengū

The main building at Tachikawa Suitengū

It was, and as a bonus it was a crystal clear day, which meant Fuji-san was a constant companion. I've mentioned before that Fuji-san always acts coy with me – I never see the damn mountain because it's either hazy or cloudy or rainy whenever I'm in its vicinity – so this rare glimpse was rather nice.



The shrine's main purpose isn’t cats, but babies. Suitengū shrines are associated with Suiten (水天) or Suijin (水神), the Shinto deity of water, the sea, fishing folk, fertility, easy delivery, motherhood and children. If you visit one, be prepared for women, fertility, lots of babies and weird baby-related rituals.

When a baby is 100 days old, for example …

You realize it pains me to write about babies? I mean, really, me?!, but OK, I guess Japan needs babies to grow up strong and become salarymen who can work hard to provide pension money for all the old people.

We try again. When a baby is 100 days old, you're supposed to do all kinds of rituals and make special food and give it a teething stone. Apparently you select a small smooth stone at an appropriate shrine and give it to your baby so that the odiferous brat little tike can gnaw on it. Read more here and here.

This stone is called a hagatame no ishi (歯固めの石) or teething stone. The Tachikawa shrine has a whole pile of it. I took a picture and fled back to the cat statue, which is to the right of the main shrine (if you're facing it).

Teething stones. I'm not sure that it's a good idea to give a baby a stone to eat,
but ignore me, I know nothing.

You can pray here for your cat, and if you wish to add oomph to your prayers, you can attach a photo of your cat to the ema you've bought.

Last bit of trivia. If you want to hear Yamashita play, here you go.

That's the end of the cat story. I'm still a bit surprised that I've finally resumed my shrine hunts after such a long time – 2015 was a bit not good – but here I am, like a missing cat, reporting for duty again. Die kat kom altyd weer, al is dit net sy gees.


Another cute cat decoration at the shrine, and above, the cat statue from various angles.


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