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Showing posts from June, 2011

Purple profusion at Sawara

Last weekend I went to Sawara, an old Edo era town on the border between Chiba and Ibaraki, mostly to visit the iris garden at the Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden (水郷佐原水生植物園 Suigō Sawara Suiseishokubutsuen). Here's a sneak preview of a truly magnificent garden.

What, exactly, is Cool Biz for women?

It's tricky to decide what to wear to work this summer.
Men at my company have fairly clear guidelines: formal shirt, suit pants and dress shoes are required, but jacket and tie aren't necessary. Women? Ha. Management would undoubtedly prefer us to dress in standard OL garb – sober-coloured suit with pencil skirt and jacket, combined with low-heeled court shoes – but they seem to have relinquished all efforts to straiten our laces. (When I say "our", I mean Western wenches. The local staff is not as obstreperous.) We tend to be too take-your-pick: stubborn, selfish, free-spirited, independent, fat, slovenly, assertive, aggressive, the list goes on. Whatever the reason may be, it's difficult to force us into OL outfits.
My standard uniform is a long black skirt with knife pleats …
Yes, long. I don't want to think about covering Jerusalem whenever I sit down. "Jerusalem" – the holiest of holies – is my mother's wickedly tongue-in-cheek word for a wom…

The colour of an elegant mouse

The latest blog colour is sabinezu (錆鼠), one of my favourite traditional Japanese colours. Nezu is mouse, i.e. gray. Sabi can mean rusty, lonely or "elegant simplicity".

The sun makes a U-turn

My personal planetarium tells me this is as far north as the sun will go. The top photo was taken on 22 June, summer solstice, which means the sun has made a U-turn and is travelling south again.

Japan has more fatties and they’re all sitting next to me

What happened to hara hachi bu (腹八分), that old Japanese wisdom that advises us to eat until we're 80% full?

I thought it was just my imagination that Japan was getting fatter, but a quick Google search confirmed my suspicions. A slender country is growing hefty. Not young women, who are actually getting thinner, but men. A total of 3.2% of Japanese people are obese and 24% are overweight, but among men in their 40s, obesity increases to 34%.

I can confirm that this is true. They're all sitting next to me on the train.

Perhaps I'm simply more aware of it because it's summer, but it's not pleasant when a big … enough already with these euphemisms. It’s ghastly when a fat person sits down next to you and smothers you in damp, squishy and unfortunately often malodorous flesh. Yes, you're right, a skinny person can also pong to high heaven, but at least he's not halfway on your lap. (Your average citizen in Japan has a fraction of the body odour of your average …

Now starts the summer of our discontent

Google's summer solstice doodle is a drawing by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (He's also done the winter solstice doodle for the southern hemisphere.) Today's temperature in Tokyo will be 30. If I'm not mistaken, it's the first time this year that we hit the 30s. Now starts the summer of our discontent, made inglorious by these sons of Tepco, here in eastern Japan. Since the quake I haven't used air conditioning at home, but I wonder how much longer my gaman will go on.

Fancy Tokyo Sky Tree on your obi?

The cranes are coming down, and the blue nets around the second pod are disappearing.

While the critics say it's ugly and the perpetually disgruntled say it will be too expensive (¥3000 to the second pod), others are using the opportunity to make money. I don't think I'd ever wear this obi, but I grinned when I saw it advertised. Silly? Maybe. An insult to classic kimono design? Possibly. It still made me smile. The obi is advertised here on Rakuten.

Khotso, pula, nala - rainy season is great!

I've mentioned before that I love rainy season, possibly because I grew up in a rather dry part of the world. I should've become more blasé by now, but I'm still shocked when people express irritation with rain. Granted, too much water can wreak havoc, but not enough of the stuff is a pretty bleak prospect. Southern Africa's appreciation of rain is aptly expressed in Lesotho's national motto: khotso, pula, nala, which is Sesotho (the language of Lesotho) for peace, rain, prosperity. When there is rain, there is prosperity, and prosperity brings peace.

A cute critter with big balls at Yanagimori Jinja

A tanuki (狸) is both a real animal, the Japanese raccoon dog, and a creature from Japanese folklore. The mythical animal is jolly, mischievous, a shapeshifter and the owner of a pair of very big balls. Allegedly the real animal is well endowed, too, because he's a bit of a Casanova. You often see tanuki statues in front of restaurants, depicted with a big belly, a straw hat, a flask of sake, a promissory note that is never settled and, of course, those kintama (金玉 or golden jewels, i.e. testicles). It is said that a tanuki's testicles can stretch to cover eight tatami mats. The testicles don't have an overt sexual meaning; rather, they're a reminder to customers not to be stingy, and they're a symbol of good luck.
You can read more about tanuki here, at the excellent Onmark Productions website.
There's a shrine in Kanda that showcases this cute creature: Yanagimori Jinja (柳森神社) in Kanda Sudachou. The full address is 東京都千代田区神田須田町2丁目25. It was built in 1458 and mov…


This banner can been seen at Ameyoko (アメ横), the shopping street than runs from Ueno to Okachimachi. The banner, an encouragement after the big quake, reads みんなでがんばろう日本 (minna de ganbarou Nippon), which roughly means "don't give up, Japan". Underneath, in much smaller letters, is written けっぱれ!東北 (keppare! Tōhoku), the same message for Tōhoku in that region's dialect.
Incidentally, The Big Picture has excellent photos of the clean-up operation after the quake. It's a staggering job, but Japan is doing it, bit by bit, day by day.

You got what?

Conversation 1
A student is talking about a part-time job in Australia while he was at university.
"I worked on apple farm for summer. I worked with three girls. Then I got sucked off." I take refuge in silence. "That was first time I got sucked off," he continues. "I was very young, only 20." My silence, accompanied by rapid blinking, intensifies.
"My job was never quit again." "Oh! Sacked! You got sacked!"
Conversation 2
This is a role play between two students about illness, complaints and advice.
"You look very bad. What's wrong?"
"I have a sore hip hole."
"Oh. What happen?"
"I ate a hot curry last night. What's your advice?"
"You should go to hospital."
"I can't go to hospital for a sore hip hole! What's your another advice?"
"You shouldn't eat hot curry."
"I know that!"
"You should insert medicine in your hip hole."
"Thank yo…

The best blue in the world

Hydrangea blue in its countless shades is the most beautiful colour in the world. The current blog colour is kakitsubatairo (杜若色). I've seen it translated as "iris colour", but to me it represents a hydrangea blue that manages to be soft and brilliant at the same time.

Japan's customer service causes PTSD!

I'm from Africa. Efficiency makes me nervous. Friendly efficiency exhausts my emotional reserves. Right now I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by Japan's customer service.
Perhaps I'm too easily pleased because my standards are too low, but I'm frequently flabbergasted when foreigners in Japan start whingeing about rights, racism, bad customer service, inefficient unsympathetic bureaucracy, oh, the list is endless. People, you have no idea, you so have no idea. You should live in Africa. It will provide a new insight into various horrors, and it will help you to appreciate the little things, like excellent customer service at an optician in Okachimachi.
It all started when I stepped on my glasses. That's what happens when you put it on the floor next to your zabuton. The frame was badly bent and one lens, though undamaged, had fallen out. It wasn't a serious setback because it was my spare pair, but I wanted to have it repaired. I was wo…

Excellent advice for students

It is the duty of the student
Without exception to be prudent.
If smarter than his teacher, tact
Demands that he conceal the fact.

I read it here on the website Language Log. (The post contains a series of Frazz cartoons about the correct use of the word "penultimate".)

Purple passion at Hondoji in Chiba

One of the best iris gardens near Tokyo is hidden in Chiba, at Hondoji near Kita-Kogane Station. Every time I go there, I'm astonished anew that this temple isn't better known. It also has a superb hydrangea forest, a suitably mysterious moss garden and a pagoda that – according to the English brochure – houses "one of only a few pieces of Buddha's bone in Japan". I can't vouch for the bone bit, but I certainly enjoy the flowers and smaller shrines in the complex.
Roppongi types would be plunged into a deep depression if they had to visit these suburban wastelands, but if you love gardens, oh, you should go. It's easy to get there: take the Joban Line from Ueno and get off at Kita-Kogane. Just remember that if you're on an express train, you'll have to change to a local train at Matsudo. Alternatively, catch a Chiyoda Line train that provides a through service to Toride, and get off at Kita-Kogane. The train ride is about 40 minutes, and the temple…

Learn how to spell, damn it/damnit/dammit!

I know that a) most teachers in eikaiwa are not remotely qualified to be teachers, b) a teaching qualification does not necessarily a good teacher make and c) spelling might not be that important in a conversation class. I know all that, but I still cringe when I see "supersticians" written on a whiteboard in a classroom.
Incidentally, if bad spelling is a pet peeve, you'll enjoy these websites dedicated to the apostrophe s:

A hydrangea shade of purple

This afternoon I went to Asukayama in Ōji to look at the hydrangeas. It was stuffy and soggy. I'm quite sure the bugs were delirious with joy.

Muggy weather, happy bugs

When I first heard the Japanese word for humid, mushi-atsui, I assumed it meant "bug hot". Mushi = insect and atsui = hot, and the concept of muggy weather → happy bugs made perfect sense to me. Africa has some pretty mean 6-legged monstrosities, and I was familiar with the colossal creepy-crawlies in subtropical Mpumalanga as well as the cockroaches – armoured vehicles might be a better description – in countries like Uganda: the wetter the weather, the bigger the bugs.
This assumption was strengthened when I had my first encounter with the dreaded gokiburi, cockroach, during my first rainy season in Japan. Tokyo is surprisingly clean, given its size and population density, but when you have a humid summer in a city with miles of rivers, sewers, subterranean passages, millions of tiny restaurants in small alleys and piles of garbage collected three times per week … you also have gokiburi.
I added all that information and simply accepted that mushi-atsui meant bug hot. I was d…

More murasaki

The Japanese word for purple is murasaki (紫). Here's more murasaki at Hondoji (本土寺) in Chiba.

The colour of a Japanese iris

New blog colour in honour of one of the most beautiful flowers in Japan, the Japanese iris (花菖蒲, hanashōbu). The colour is called, natch, iris colour (菖蒲色, shōbu-iro). I think it might look better on a flower than on a blog, but let's use it for a few days. PS: There's another traditional colour written with the same kanji but pronounced ayase-iro. It's pinker.

The exquisite torture of wearing a kimono

I'm very grateful for a man called Levi Strauss, but a part of me regrets the loss of elegance in our clothes. That might be why I find kimono so beautiful. I've already written about my konbini kimono, but today I'll tell you how to put on a multi-layered formal kimono and what it's like to wear the garment for a few hours. Caveat lector! I'm not a kimono expert! Continue at your own peril!
The first time I wore a formal kimono was for hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of a new year. I spent that New Year's weekend with a Japanese family. Okaasan, the mother of the family, is an expert in several old customs – kimono, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony – and she offered to dress me in a family kimono.
She selected a so-called hōmongi from her collection. Hōmongi means "visiting" or "paying a call", and it's a formal style worn by adult women to formal events like hatsumōde. This hōmongi was made awase-style, in other words it was lined,…

The colour of a dull respite

I've changed the blog colour again. It's now 鈍色 (nibi-iro, dull gray). It's to provide a neutral respite before I go wild with iris and hydrangea colours. They will soon be in full bloom. Hey, I'm a woman, I'm supposed to be fickle.

The nomad remembers her first kimono

The square sheet of silk is gentle against your skin, as soft as a breeze, so light that it almost feels as though you're wearing nothing. Then the woman who's helping you - it's possible, but difficult for an expert and impossible for a beginner to put on a kimono by yourself - starts wrapping you in the obi, the broad, stiff sash that goes around your middle and covers you from your armpits to your hip bones, and with that every sensation of freedom disappears. The obi is like a carapace that changes not only the way in which you move, but your very posture itself. It snaps your spine straight, throws your shoulders back, beats your tummy into submission.
When you're wearing a kimono, you can't walk with the long-legged gait of a nomad who's striding towards the horizon. You glide in short steps, sliding one foot in front of the other, barely lifting them from the ground. When you sit down in the seiza position, on your knees with your feet tucked under your b…

When danger isn't dangerous

Last week I had a discussion with a group of university students about "dangerous situations". They interviewed each other to find out who'd been in the most dangerous situation, and then reported their findings to the class.
The best the group could offer? One student fell off his skateboard and had to scramble up a snowy hill. Another student was woken by a fire alarm at night. He thought his building was on fire, but then realized it was another building nearby. When he went outside to check, he managed to lock himself out of his apartment, and had to ask the building supervisor to let him back in. It was a dangerous situation because he was in his pyjamas and it was winter.
As I listened to them, I hovered between envy and amusement. Clearly "danger" is defined differently in this blessed land.
I was born in South Africa. South Africans murder one another with abandon; they are killed in road accidents; they die of Aids (25,5% of all deaths), low birth weight,…

The colour of water

The new background colour is 水色 (mizuiro, water colour) in honour of rainy season. The blog title and "gadgets" (in Blogger parlance) are written in 青碧 (seiheki, blue-green).

Don't be afraid of samurai and lice

Tokyo used to be called Edo, and the commoners who resided in the shitamachi (the low-lying eastern area) were called chōnin (townspeople). It is said that the spirit of old Edo still lingers in the shitamachi, where I live, so what are its residents like? Here we go: Edo chōnin wish to be rude; showing respect seems to them a shame. The worst offenders are those of the lowest rank. Some Edo people even make malicious remarks that one mustn't be afraid of samurai and lice. Such people lack all discretion.I found that wisdom in a delightful book called Edo Culture, Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868 by Nishiyama Matsunosuke. The quote comes from Kyōkun zoku heta dangi (Didactic Clumsy Sermons, Continued) written by Jōkanbō Kōa in 1753. Here's another beautiful description by another Edo writer: An Edokko chōnin has these typical characteristics:He receives his first bath in the water of the city's aqueduct; he grows up in sight of Edo castle. He is not stingy…