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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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Friday, 5 September 2014


Dear everyone

I'm going to put this blog on hiatus for a while due to a demanding work schedule. I will probably maintain a presence on Google+, but Blogger and Twitter will have to take a break, and I won't be able to visit your blogs as I used to do.

Continue writing, be happy, eat chocolate every day! I'm not going to launch into a goodbye-and-thanks speech, because the nomad will probably come traipsing over your horizon one day when you don't expect it, and we'll go for a walk through those red torii ...


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three letters

Dear customer

Your Skype Credit will become inactive in 7 days. You don't seem to have used any of your Skype Credit in a while. It becomes inactive if you haven't used it in 180 days. But don't worry - once it becomes inactive, you can reactivate it whenever you're ready to use it. Simply sign into your account online and follow the option to Reactivate credit.
- Call any phone (landline or mobile) - even if the call lasts for just one second.
- Send an SMS message direct from Skype.
- Purchase a personal Skype Number, subscription or voice messages using your Skype Credit.

Best regards,


Dear Skype

I'm aware of the fact that I no longer use my account. Unfortunately I can't reactivate the only reason why I ever had one: to call my mother. It's her birthday today. Or rather, it would have been her birthday if she'd been at home in Kleinmond, waiting for my call.

Would you like me to call her retirement home and hang up as soon as reception answers? That should take one second?

Kind regards,
Your customer


Dear Mom

I prefer British English, but I've always used the American mom instead of the British mum. Not sure why, but I've never changed my spelling. I'm stubborn that way. "You get it from your father," you always said.

Happy birthday, Mom. I'm sending you out-of-season cherry blossoms because they were your favourite Japanese flower. You had dozens of my cherry blossom photos on your wall. Remember?

I miss you.

Your youngest daughter

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The real-life shrines of Sailor Moon, Part 2

This is an update of a Sailor Moon post I wrote two years ago. I'm resurrecting it, because as all true fans would know, a new series called Sailor Moon Crystal was released last month. (I've repeated some of my original content, but I've included new photos.)

I quote from Den of Geek: "Sailor Moon Crystal is the long awaited reboot of the Sailor Moon anime franchise. The 26-episode series is a retelling of the Dark Kingdom arc, the first and most iconic storyline of the metaseries, in which Sailor Moon and the four Guardian Senshi (Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus) fight the evil forces of Queen Beryl, who seeks to claim the Earth in the name of her master, the powerful demonic entity known as Metalia."

I'm not going to do an in-depth analysis of the series, since I'm not a manga expert at all, but I can share the real-life locations that play such a big part in this massive hit. (I've read only one manga in my entire life, and if you know me well, you'll know why: SHERLOCK ピンク色の研究, Sherlock Study in Pink, published by Kadokawa.)

The entrance to Hikawa Jinja in Azabu-Juban

Here's some additional background: 美少女戦士セーラームーン (Bishōjo Senshi Sērā Mūn) is the story of "Usagi Tsukino, an ordinary, ditzy, 14-year-old girl" who is actually a special warrior whose destiny is to save Earth and later the entire galaxy.

It was written by Takeuchi Naoko, and both the manga and subsequent anime were major hits. Wikipedia says its media franchise is one of the most successful Japan has ever had, reaching a total of $1,5 billion in merchandise sales during the first three years.

One of the main characters is Sailor Mars, also known as Rei Hino, who's a schoolgirl and a Shinto princess at Hikawa Jinja. The manga shrine was modelled on a real shrine called Hikawa Jinja (氷川神社) in Azabu-Jūban; the anime shrine was modelled on another Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka. Both are branch shrines of the main Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya, Saitama.

The shrine is written 火川 in the manga, but it's 氷川 in real life. Interesting difference:  is fire,  is ice, both can be pronounced hi. The kanji , kawa, is river. Sailor Mars's element is fire, hence that change.

My favourite character in the series – apart from the cat, that is – is Haruka, or Sailor Uranus: we not only share an astrological planet, but she's also more boyish (or androgynous, if you prefer), stubborn and aggressive. I like that.

Let's go for a visit to Sailor Moon's real-life shrines.

Hikawa Jinja Azabu-Juban:

Hikawa Jinja Akasaka:

Compare the photo above with the photo below. They were taken a few years apart. Somebody decided
to take mercy on the koma-inu, who was clearly getting a branch-induced migraine.

Sacred ginkgo

Smaller Inari shrine at Hikawa Jinja Akasaka

Compare the closed and open mouths of the koma-inu above and below.
I wrote an explanation here.

Above and below: side entrance and detail at Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka

Hikawa Jinja Ōmiya:

You walk through this torii if you approach the shrine from a neighbouring park.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A ribbishing adventure in Nagano

"It's my destiny," I thought as I tumbled down. "It's my fate to be felled by a parasol."

My second thought was about my camera. "Protect it! Hold it up! Raise your arms!"

Then I hit the ground a meter and a half below me, ribs first. Grunted inelegantly. Checked that my camera was OK. Wriggled my toes. Realized I couldn't breathe, gritted my teeth, muttered "I'mfromAfrica", scrambled up and scowled at the parasol bearer who was now having hysterics above me.

I kept walking, because that's what barbarians do: we keep going. It wasn't until four hours later that I finally admitted that something was wrong.

Final verdict: two cracked ribs, booked off for a few days, will return to normal my pre-fall condition in three to possibly six weeks.

Ru and her two cracked ribs in Nagano

That's the short version. Here's the longer one, also known as The Chronicles of Ribbish: The Lioness, The Twitch and the Rib Cage, written by Ms Ribbet McRib.

Last week I went hiking and horse-riding with friends in Nagano. We stayed in a cottage near Chino, and travelled on the Venus Line (that's a road, not a railroad) to Yashimagahara Shitsugen (八島ヶ原湿). 

This area, centred around Lake Suwa, is rife with history and legend. The Suwa basin was formed by the movement of the Median Tectonic Line, the longest fault line in Japan that runs for 1000 km from the Kantō plain to Kyūshū, between 700 000 and 150 000 years ago. The lake is famous for its winter ice, which cracks and creaks and is known as Omiwatari (God Passage).

The area to the northeast of the lake is called Kirigamine Kōgen, and this was our final destination. This was a center of obsidian culture …

Dunno what that is? Neither did I. Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was highly valued for its effectiveness as a stone tool during the Paleolithic Age 30 000 years ago, in other words, a bit before the bullet train.

Kirigamine Kōgen was a center of the obsidian culture in Japan, it was a popular hunting spot for the Genji warlords, and it became famous for its wild flowers in the Meiji period. Yashimagahara Shitsugen, where a somewhat more modern barbarian tried to turn her ribs into rock-shattering tools, was designated as a national natural treasure in 1939 because it is a very rare high moor in Japan.

I have a flair for choosing unusual spots for my misadventures. You can't deny that.


Yashimagahara is not as big as the more famous Oze marshland in Gunma, but at 12 000 years it's much older.

It takes about 90 minutes to walk around the marshland, and a fair length of that is on a narrow elevated boardwalk. All parks are busy in the summer holiday, but this one was reasonably organized: people kept to the left, and bird photographers with their massive lenses politely moved out of the way when other visitors got close.

The exception to politeness in Japan is, of course, obachan. Middle-aged women. The chattering female crowds in Yashimagahara had arrived in their full summer regalia: big parasols, hats, sun visors, long sleeves, long black gloves. Most of them tilted their parasols out of my way when they passed me.

One did not.

The problem. The path is half this width in many places.
(No, this is not the woman who brought Ru to her knees.
That woman's parasol was twice this size.)

This shows you how narrow the path is. I fell not far from here.

Now, when I replay the event in slow motion, I realize my fate was written in the stars. I've always loathed parasols; of course I would be decapitated by one.

I was standing on a slight curve, filming an uguisu who was singing his heart out. I've embedded a video of the bird below (not mine!), so that you can understand why I was riveted. I spotted – in my peripheral vision – a parasol moving towards me, stepped forward to make sure the woman would have enough room to walk past me, and refocused my attention on the little bird.

That was mistake number 1.

I realize now that she was carrying a thick black parasol tilted in such a way that it obscured her forward vision, and she was looking at her feet on the narrow boardwalk rather than at the beauty around her. She was almost on top of me before she noticed me, and that’s when we both overreacted.

That was mistake number 2.

I turned around, realized she was about to walk into me and shouted … I can’t remember what … perhaps "hey", possibly "gochūi" (be careful), probably %$£!

That was mistake number 3.

She jerked her parasol upwards. I realized she was about to hit me in my face, ducked, overbalanced and fell.

My friends didn’t see me fall, but heard the commotion and noticed I was involved. I would be, wouldn't I? They helped me to clamber up again, and the simple fact that they weren't laughing was proof enough that they thought I'd hurt myself.

Ah well. My camera wasn't damaged, I didn't seem to have any major injuries except scratches on my hand, and my jeans could be dusted off fairly easily since I was clever enough to fall on a rock rather than in the water.

So we walked on, with La Diva Obachan squealing in a panic. I don't think her adult diapers survived the encounter.

I have no idea what flower this is, but it's pretty, isn't it?

I thought I was merely bruised, but a few hours later I was short of breath and it felt as if my ribs were connected to a live socket. I changed my return plan from highway bus (cheaper but bumpier) to Azuma Super Express (expensive but smooth train). (My friends stayed another day; I had to return to work.)

Halfway home I was beginning to think "ooh shit"; and by the time I stumbled into my apartment, carrying my rucksack across one shoulder, I was making very odd noises and my upper body was going into involuntary spasms. It was not a pleasant night. The next day X-rays confirmed two cracked ribs. Recovery period: three to six weeks depending on the severity of the injury.

Was it my own fault? Yes, I'm partly to blame. I know what I should've done. I should've kept an eye on her. I should've called a warning while she was still two meters away. I should've held out my hand; softly taken hold of her parasol; gently forced her to a stop.

That's what I should've done and that's what I didn't do, because I still haven't accepted that some obachan have no common sense. You decide whether I'm referring to myself or my foe.

And that's how Ru fell thanks to a parasol.

It was worth it, though, because I could enjoy the most perfect weather in the most glorious surroundings for one and a half days, and I saw a lily that blooms for only two weeks in the high mountains. This specific period, late July, is called tsuyuake tooka (梅雨明け十日), the ten days after rainy season ends, and it's said to be the most perfect, stable weather possible in the mountains.

The Nikko-kisuge (日光黄菅) or zenteika (禅庭花) (Hemerocallis dumortieri var. esculenta) is a yellow alpine lily that grow naturally all over Japan except in Hokkaido. However, it's rare to see the flowers covering an entire field; as a matter of fact, there are only three places in Japan famous for this sight: Kirifuri Kōgen in Tochigi, Oze in Gunma and two neighbouring fields in Nagano, Kurumayama Kōgen and Kirigamine Kōgen in Nagano. (I count the latter two as one.) [I teach English, not maths. Now you expect me to be able to count? Don't be silly.] {Don't necessarily believe two ribs either.}

Kōgen, incidentally, means highland.


The flower blooms for only two weeks in late July, and visitors flock to these highlands. So do deer. Deer have become such a menace to the lily that fences surround the fields to keep 'em out.

Can't we have obachan fences, too?

The sign says you should close the gate to keep deer out.


1) Shitsugen is marshland; kōgen is highland.

2) I wish I could show you better flower photos, but by the time we got to these hills, my framework was creaking and my camera was very heavy.
3) It wasn't irresponsible to continue walking after I'd fallen. I Googled my symptoms. I’d clearly hurt my ribs, but wasn't bleeding and obviously hadn't punctured a lung or any other organs. I'm OK now, as long as I don't laugh, cough or yawn. May the gods prevent any sneezing for the next two weeks.

4) I also went horse-riding and went on a few other walks, but more about that later.

5) Cracked ribs have one major advantage: you can legitimately ignore housework.

6) If you have a parasol, that's your privilege, but don't ever mention it in my presence. More than ribs will be pulverized.

How to get there

We went to Chino by train (it takes two to four hours from Shinjuku Station depending on the train), and rented a car. You don't have many other options. If you don't have a driver's licence, you can take a package tour (various options available on Nagano's tourist websites).

More information 

Read more about the geography of the Suwa basin here.

Read more about the lily here (Japanese link, but very little is available in English).

Read more about obsidian culture here (PDF).

Nagano scenery

Nagano scenery

Nagano scenery

Natural hurdles: obachan and bird photographers

This cicada's scientific name is Tibicen japonicus, but I call it the McMushi. The yellow M reminds me
of the McDonalds logo, and mushi is Japanese for bug.

These pines reminded me of Matsukawaura's pine of hope.

Look what I spotted in the forest: twins!

Wild iris, the granddaddy of the Japanese iris.

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