Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: May 2011

Monday, 30 May 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree, minus one crane

As Songda flees over the horizon, scowling in black clouds, Tokyo Sky Tree is visible again. They're currently disassembling the giant cranes, allowing us to see the tower's slender silhouette with fewer construction props. More photos here.

I need you, knee! Don't act up!

A recent development is frightening me: my right knee, which got hurt in a car accident yonks ago, is making its presence known. It's not misbehaving. Yet. It's not refusing to cooperate. Yet. It just regularly gives a tiny squeak that turns into a proper yelp when I'm going down stairs. This is not good. I love walking. I need that knee. 

Talking about aches and pains, Tokyo's old-timers have been given a break. Certain vital services, including hospitals and Tokyo's train network, have now been exempted from compulsory power cuts. That means that most station escalators are operating again, and the silver brigade can travel a bit more easily. The rest of us, too. I got stuck behind a nonagenarian on a stairway in rush hour a few times. Herd of wildebeest encounters tortoise. Tortoise wins.

Since my daily commute is mostly on the Toei Ōedo Line, the newly energetic escalators fill me with deep (literally) gratitude. The Ōedo Line is one of the deepest lines in Tokyo - its Roppongi Station is 42 m underground, making it the deepest station in the city - and it requires a fair number of steps to descend from the bowels of the earth. If you have a rickety knee, it gets a bit mendokusai.

The other group that battled during the escalator hiatus was the young mommy gang, but I don't have as much sympathy with them. What did you expect when you bought a stroller as big as a Hummer: that you'd travel everywhere like Moses through the Red Sea? These monstrosities have multiple wheels, 33¾ trunk-sized containers, a built-in nuclear-powered nappy incinerator for all I know and a suspension system that would put magnetic levitation to shame. Fat lot of good that does you if you have to carry it up stairs. Here's a suggestion: why don't you abba your child?

Yikes. I hope I won't need abba-ing. Hang in there, knee!

Chapu-chapu, teru teru bozu!

Please allow me to repeat myself: I could live in Japan for ten thousand years and I would never stop marvelling at all this water. It's been pouring non-stop for several days thanks to typhoon Songda. Or rather, tropical depression Songda, since it's not strong enough to qualify as a typhoon anymore. Isn't that a perfect expression? Tropical depression. The tropics are feeling so down in the dumps that they've collapsed in a flood of tears.

It certainly causes depression. Tokyoites mope, mutter and mumble about heat, dampness and inconvenience. Me? I go for walks.

I did that yesterday, hoping to spot a teru teru bozu so that I could take a photo, but it's perhaps too early in the squishy season for that. A teru teru bozu (てるてる坊, shiny shiny Buddhist priest) is a traditional hand-made doll that supposedly has magic powers that ensure good weather. Years ago they were made by farmers; now kids make them the day before an excursion, for instance, when good weather is desired. Before you think it's stupid for a farmer to want to stop rain, woa, you can request rain too: you just hang the teru teru bozu upside down.

There's a Japanese nursery song (童歌, warabe uta) about teru teru bozu. You can read the full lyrics here, but I've heard that nowadays only the first verse is sung. (The last verse threatens to cut off the doll's head if he doesn't bring sunny weather.)

Here's another delightful children's song about rain. I like this one. It asks for more rain!

Ame ame fure fure kaasan ga
janome de omukae ureshii na
pichi-pichi chapu-chapu ran-ran-ran

Rough translation: Rain rain fall fall, mom meets me with a janome (a kind of umbrella), that's fun, pichi-pichi chapu-chapu (sound of stepping in puddles), ran-ran-ran (sound that indicates a "happy feeling").

The song uses onomatopoeia, which Japanese does better than any other language. I include just a few examples:

light rain       para-para
heavy rain     zaa-zaa
thunder         goro-goro
muttering      butsu-butsu
snoring         guu-guu
excitement   doki-doki (that's the sound of your heart beating)
fear              gaku-gaku (that's your knees knocking together)

Then there's poka-poka, which is described as "the state of being nice and warm", and wai-wai which is "noisy exuberance".

PS: Afrikaans loves doubling words, too: gou-gou (quickly), nou-nou (soon), bietjie-bietjie (bit by bit), eina-eina (cautiously, painfully).

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Happiness is rain, ivory towers, jam and power cuts

Happiness is ...

Rain. I've mentioned before that I love rainy season. It hasn't officially started yet (in Tokyo) because the Japan Meteorological Agency hasn't officially announced it yet. This is Japan. Rules are important and being on time is of the essence and never mind that it's bucketing down rainy season shall follow the rules and shall arrive on time according to said rules so there. I love this place. Where wos I? Rainy season hasn't officially started yet, but typhoon Songda is approaching. It's raining softly, relentlessly, gloriously.

*** Correction added 30 May: Oh dear. I got that wrong. It officially started on 27 May. Naughty naughty rainy season: it's 12 days early!

Teaching at university. Universities in Japan usually start their new academic year in April, but this year, due to the big quake, several postponed the start of the new semester to May. It's good to be on campus again.

Setsuden! I will undoubtedly change my mind when August hits us, but right now there are moments when I really enjoy Tokyo's reduced electricity usage. A few days ago I travelled on the Seibu Shinjuku Line. Windows were open, letting in a pleasant breeze. It was immeasurably nicer than train air conditioning that always seems to be set at zero Kelvin. Lights were turned off, which made reading tricky when the dark train entered a dark station, but the lack of a constant neon assault was wonderfully soothing.

Hanepoot jam on German rye bread. Hanepoot is what you call Muscat of Alexandria grapes in Afrikaans. It means cockerel's foot, referring to the leaves' shape, but I've also read that it's a form of hanekloot, cockerel's testicles, based on the grapes' shape. You can't easily find it in supermarkets, but it's available directly from farmers or road stalls in the Western Cape. It's harvested late in the season, in March, and you can capture its flavour in the yummiest jam ever. The best is when you bite into a pip, which has a nutty cinnamon flavour. A South-African-in-Japan friend who recently went on holiday down south brought me a jar of hanepoot jam. It doesn't matter that we're having a week of non-stop showers: one apartment in the shitamachi is radiant with South African sunshine.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The colour of smoke

I've just realized that I can apply traditional Japanese colours to my blog. I simply have to use the correchex triplet. My current background colour is susuiro (煤色). Susu means soot, but I've also seen susuiro described as "the colour of smoke". Isn't it a beautiful, quiet shade? You can read more about Japan's traditional colours here.

Friday, 27 May 2011

'n Storie in Afrikaans: Rugmurgsieldiep Japannees

Toe ek op skool was, was diensplig 'n moet in Suid-Afrika: alle jong (aanvanklik slegs wit) mans moes ná skoolvoltooiing by die weermag aansluit vir twee jaar.

Dit was die era van die bosoorlog, toe Suid-Afrika in 'n stryd met Angola gewikkel was. As jy nou vir my vra waaroor dit gegaan het, kan ek nie regtig vir jou 'n goeie antwoord gee nie – dit was 'n bakleiery tussen wit nasionaliste in Suid-Afrika en swart kommuniste (met die ondersteuning van Kuba en Rusland) in Angola en Suidwes-Afrika oor …

Wel, waaroor? Onafhanklikheid vir Suidwes? Ideologie? 
Die oorlog is in 1989 beëindig, en Suidwes, of dan Namibië, het in 1990 onafhanklik geword.

Wat ek die beste onthou, is P.W. Botha en sy Wysvinger van Beterweterigheid (en sy dik, nat onderlip), en soldate in uniforms by treinstasies en lughawens. Ook aankondigings tydens skoolsaalbyeenkoms: "Ons het kennis ontvang dat Koos van der Merwe, wat in 19xx hier gematrikuleer het, op die grens omgekom het. Ons sal 'n minuut van stilte hê ter wille van sy nagedagtenis."

Ek moet byvoeg dat ek deurentyd onbetrokke was. As vrou was diensplig vrywillig, nie verpligtend nie; en die mans wat ek op universiteit en by die werkplek leer ken het, het reeds hul diensplig voltooi. Hulle het gemengde gevoelens oor hul ervaring gehad: hulle was teensinnig om grens toe te gaan, ja, maar dit was ook goeie tye van vriendskap, lewenservaring en gek manewales. Daar was gewetensbeswaardes, maar ek vermoed hulle is meestal uitgejou as slapgatte en papbroeke.

Ek twyfel nogtans of veel jong mans vrywillig by die weermag aangesluit het, en in die nuwe Suid-Afrika van vandag sou die meerderheid jou waarskynlik uitlag as jy so-iets sou voorstel. "Ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe, ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika" het die ou volkslied gelui, maar daar is nou soveel ontnugtering, sinisme en wantroue in Suid-Afrika (vir my as buitestaander voel dit veel erger as tien jaar gelede). Ek wonder hoeveel bereid sou wees om vir Suid-Afrika te sterf.

Ek weet ek sou nie. Daar is net geen manier om my te oorreed om my lewe op te offer vir Suid-Afrika nie. Sou ek sterf vir Japan? Wel, ek het nie weggehol na die aardbewing en kernramp nie, het ek? Sou ek padgee as sênoumaar China ons aanval? Nee, hier bly ek, kom wat wil. My hart is hier, hier in die land van grou bergmis en blink neon. Ek sê dit nie sommer net nie; dis iets waaroor 'n mens moet dink voordat jy die land waar jy gebore is vir 'n ander ene verruil.


Die "militêre" situasie in Japan is kompleks, en ek het nie naastenby genoeg kennis om die knoop van Wêreldoorlog II, atoombom, Artikel 9, pasifisme, voortslepende Amerikaanse besetting, Okinawa en die hele gedoente te ontrafel nie. (Ek skryf "militêre" doelbewus in aanhalingstekens, want Japan het streng gesproke nie 'n weermag nie, net 'n selfverdedigingsmag, soos bepaal deur Artikel 9.) Ek kry die indruk dat Japan, net soos die ander WWII verloorder Duitsland, pasifisties geword het, maar ek is nie seker hoe diep dit lê nie. Wat ek wel vermoed, is dat nie alle Japanners hul eie weermag ondersteun nie, maar dat die weermag 'n veel positiewer beeld het na hul nooddienswerk in Tohoku.

Die beeldmateriaal het ingestroom: 'n soldaat wat 'n tannietjie abba oor 'n pad wat oorstroom is, 'n groepie soldate wat hul hande saamvou in 'n stil gebed by 'n massagraf, 'n soldaat met 'n moddergesig  wat 'n grappie maak met 'n jong seuntjie, soldate wat lyke soek – 'n vuil, aaklige, ondankbare, gevaarlike werk wat soos soveel ander vuil, aaklige, ondankbare, gevaarlike take deur soldate gedoen moet word. Dalk is 'n weermag onnodig omdat oorlog onwenslik is, aldus party, maar daar is een waarheid wat niemand kan ontken nie: die army-outjies was onmisbaar in Tohoku en Fukushima.

Die aardbewing het almal emosioneel geruk, en een effek hiervan is dat veel meer mans by die reserwemag wil aansluit. Japan-kritici beweer soms die hele land is 'n nes van jingoïsme wat net wil oorlog maak. Ummm, nee, toe nou nie. Ek gee wel toe dat Japanners baie patrioties kan wees. Dis dalk subtiel – ek praat nie van die uyoku dantai nie – maar dit het na vore getree na die aardskudding. Tōhoku het hulp nodig, en daar is heelparty gewilliges.

Die Geliefde het ook aansoek gedoen vir die reserwemag, maar hy is nie goedgekeur nie. Ek kan sien sy teleurstelling lê rugmurgsieldiep. Ons is nie seker hoekom hy nie een van die uitverkorenes is nie; ons weet net dat baie aansoek gedoen het vir min poste. Die Geliefde meen hy is dalk raakgesien tydens 'n protesoptog of twee waar hy miskien nie moes wees nie. Hy is ewe fel in sy liefde vir Japan en sy kritiek teen die Japannese regering, Amerikaanse aggressie en Wall Street-kapitalisme. Ek dink soms wat hom sal pas, is 'n gaisensha wat bloedkommunistiesrooi geverf is. So iets. Ek sal maar agterna karring in my donkiewa.

Terloops, hy het reeds voorheen by die weermag aangeklop. Toe hy byvoorbeeld op universiteit was, het hy 'n aansoekvorm aangevra, maar, in sy woorde, "my ma het dit weggedonder en 'n werwingsersant weggejaag wat my huis kom besoek het en my uitgekak oor my voorneme".

Dis vir my nogal 'n kontras: die dikbek gemor of andersyds die yskoue logika van beswaardes wat anti-oorlog is, en die vrywillige opoffering van soveel mans wat wil quid pro quo vir hul land. Lojaliteit teenoor jou land is 'n vloekwoord in party geledere. Hoe langer ek hierdie man en sy land ken, hoe meer besef ek dat dit nog 'n skande nog 'n sonde is om jou land lief te hê en te beskerm. Of jy nou 'n beroepsoldaat of 'n vrywilliger is, 'n landsburger of net 'n swerfling wat onverwags wortelgeskiet het.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Tokyo glimpses 4

She was walking in front of me down a narrow alley in Taitō, pulling an obaasan cart: those lightweight trolleys that old women use for their purchases and probably as a walking aid, too. She was bent forwards, with one hand supporting her lower back. Every time she shuffled past flowers in pot plants, she stopped to look at them. Occasionally she touched the petals with a soft, brief caress. I saw my future self in her, and I wondered about the special relationship between older women and flowers.

One of my neighbours, fussing over his plants, dressed in pyjama pants and too small geta. I'm never quite sure what the dynamic is: either the shitamachi alleys belong to everybody, so anything goes; or the alley surrounding a particular house belongs to that house, so the owner can do what he wants. When I go on my early-morning walks, I see some very bleary-eyed individuals in some very unflattering outfits, watering plants or hanging up washing. I always get a cheerful smile when I greet them, though.

Ojiisan wearing slippers, pyjama pants (another one!) (what's with shitamachi men and pyjama pants?) and short coat, taking his equally doddering corgi for a walk in a neighbourhood alley at 9 pm. Operation Pooch Poop amuses me vastly. The dog lover watches intently as the mutt squats, then lingeringly wipes the animal's butt, picks up the precious deposit, inserts it into a specially designed faecal fanny pack and continues walking with a crappy happy burden. You've noticed, haven't you? I'm not a dog person. Cats? Now that's a different story.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree photo blogs

You may have noticed that I'm rather fond of Tokyo Sky Tree. "I'm a helpless victim, m'lud. I plead coercion. It's clearly visibly from this apartment. Whenever I look up, I see it. I've been indoctrinated."

I've included a few shots on my photo blog, Sanpokatagata, but I'm just a bumbling amateur. My favourite Sky Tree blogs are these three:

512colors (great photos of Tokyo)
Smell of oldies (photos of old, and sometimes a bit run-down, Tokyo)
Sky Tree and trains (photos that combine Sky Tree with my other passion, trains)

All three are Japanese blogs, but photos speak an international language. Enjoy!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

A riot of roses along the Toden Arakawa Line

I love trains. Preferably not during rush hour, but at all other times I'm besotted with these iron beasts. I have no idea where this interest comes from, unless it was awoken by what a train represents: travel, history, romantic journeys, technology, unknown destinations. Why then trains, not cars or planes? I don't know. I just love travelling by train, listening to its hisses and groans, swaying with its movements.

I'm equally entranced by streetcars: they meander through backwater neighbourhoods, amble past kitchen windows, trundle through gardens, stop for pedestrians; and they do it at such a leisurely pace that a human could probably outrun it. There are only two streetcar lines in Tokyo: the Toden Arakawa Line from Minowabashi in Arakawa to Waseda in Shinjuku, a 12 km journey that takes about 50 minutes; and the Tōkyū Setagaya Line in western Tokyo.

The Toden Arakawa Line is famous for an attraction that has nothing to with trains: roses! The section of the line in Arakawa is lined with 140 species and 13 000 rose bushes, under the care of the Arakawa Rose Society. Read more on their website.

The final stop, Minowabashi, is to the north-west of a run-down but fascinating part of Tokyo where you could find the old red-light district Yoshiwara, as well as the Kozukappara execution grounds where criminals were executed in the Edo period. You can still see remnants of Yoshiwara, but Kozukappara has been covered by railway tracks. The notorious Sanya, where burakumin lived in the Edo period, was also in this area. You won't find Sanya on any map, since all references have been removed from official sources, but it was in the vicinity of the Namidabashi intersection. Nowadays it's a neighbourhood where day labourers eke out a living.

When you get off at Minowabashi Station, however, it's easy to forget this sad history as you're greeted by the sight and fragrance of thousands of roses. The station is a riot of colour that continues along the streetcar track, all the way to Machiya Station and beyond. I set off on foot, stopping to take photos at the Arakawa Natural Park. Nothing special in this park, but I enjoyed watching old-timers teaching young children how to plant rice. You can see photos here.

Arakawa is very far off the beaten tourist track, and it's not remotely glamorous in anybody's wildest dreams, but I had a thoroughly delightful time.

PS: The only decidedly unpleasant part of today's excursion was travelling on the Chiyoda Line. Zero air-conditioning. Absolutely nothing, and the train was packed. It looks as if setsuden (, energy conservation) is applied rather arbitrarily: this morning the Yamanote Line had air con,  the Toei Ōedo Line and the Namboku Line both had mild air con, the Chiyoda Line had zip zero nada nothing niks. Wakaranai. I don't geddit.

May, the swampy month with the darkest nights

When Japan was still using its old lunar calendar, May was called Satsuki (皐月). That first kanji is obsolete, but it means swamp or shore. Nowadays March is rather prosaically called Gogatsu (五月, fifth month). Spring rain is still called satsuki-ame (五月雨, fifth month rain), also pronounced samidare. Then there's fine weather during rainy season, satsukibare (五月晴), and a dark night in the rainy season, satsukiyami (五月闇). It's allegedly darker than any other night. Why? I have no idea. To me, a dark night in rainy season is lush and voluptuous.

This morning we had satsukibare, but this afternoon it's raining heavily. I think tonight might be satsukiyami.

Incidentally, rainy season officially starts in June. These days the Japan Meteorological Society announces when the season has started, and the day varies a bit each year; but according to the old lunar calendar, the first day of rainy season was on 11 June, and it was called nyūbai (入梅, the rainy season enters). It can also be called tsuyu-iri (梅雨入り). Same meaning. 

Don't get confused by the discrepancy between rainy season in the 5th month (lunar) and rainy season in the 6th month (Gregorian). The two calendars only sync up every 19 years or thereabouts, and what used to be the 5th month is now the 6th month. That should be as clear as a misty muggy murky soggy swampy squashy rainy day. Suffice it to say rainy season starts a bit after the azaleas, and coincides with the irises and the hydrangeas.

The best shawarma in Tokyo

The afternoon started with a short scooter ride to Ameyoko to eat shawarma at Moses Kebab. Well, I call it shawarma, Moses calls it kebab. It doesn't matter. It's delicious. Moses comes from Ghana – we established our shared continental roots during our first meeting – and he makes the best whatsamicallits in Tokyo. He has three stores in the Ameyoko area, but my favourite is on the Western side of the Yamanote Line towards Ueno, opposite the Oriental Passage. If you want to Google for more information, it's written モーゼスさんのケバブ in Japanese. Alternatively, try these sites.

(Edit added 2 December 2011: This post has received so many hits that I've written an updated version with more information here.)

The Hero and I sat on a bench on the pavement, ate a messy lunch and watched the world go by. The world is particularly quirky around Ameyoko. You could spend a few millennia in that area without getting bored.

"Where do you want to go now?" The Hero asked, wiping his mouth with a tissue. Elegant dining it's not. "Sky Tree!" I responded like Pavlov's dog, and obediently awaited my instruction to stop being stupid. What I got instead was a nonchalant OK. So we zoomed off on his scooter, through Ueno and Asakusa, across the Sumida River, through Mukojima. We stopped right underneath Sky Tree. "Jeez," The Hero said. It was the first time he got that close to Sky Tree, because he doesn't accompany me on my frequent rambles around the tower. Jeez indeed. It's big.

As we travelled back through a mellow summer evening, zigzagging through the shitamachi's old alleys, it occurred to me that happiness hides in ordinary moments.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The hopeless quest to find a nice bra in Japan

Many Western women complain that clothes in Japan are too small for them. I don't have that problem. I'm 1.58 m, the average length of women in this country, and I'd have to consume a lot of chankonabe to tip the scale at 50 kg, but that doesn't mean clothes fit me. My body shape is all wrong. Japanese women tend to have longer upper bodies and shorter legs, Western women vice versa. It's also my perception that Western lasses have a bigger waist-hip ratio, regardless of their total body weight.

I'm small, even boyish, but it's not that easy to find clothes in Japan. When I try on a dress or a coat, the waist sits on my hips, and pants look very awkward. It's a joy to buy skirts that are small enough, shirts with short enough sleeves and shoes that don't fall off … but pants are a lost cause.

My main frustration, though, is bras. Why do all bras have to be padded, underwired heavily enough to support Japan's national debt, padded a bit more, beribboned and be-laced, and festooned with Hello Kitty or some allegedly cute creature? Come on, sisters, most of us can't claim the mammary magnificence of Aki Hoshino. It's not as though we need all that support, and a padded bra doesn't fool any man who's worth it. What's wrong with minimum support plain white cotton?

Actually, I know what the problem is: Japanese women are mortified by nipples. Cleavage is acceptable, and it's apparently OK to display your fanny to all and sundry, but women should not have nipples. Thus heavily padded bras not only boost limited natural assets, but also effectively hide any embarrassing bits. You can even buy special nipple pads to force the offending flesh into further submission if you were to walk into an air-conditioned room. Not that we'll have any air conditioning this summer. Thank you, Tepco! Which brings me back to my original question: What's wrong with minimum support plain white cotton?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Eskimo snow words vs Japan's rain words – Japan wins!

There's an enduring belief that Eskimos, or Inuit if you prefer, have hundreds of words for snow. That supposedly indicates that they have a different world view. They don't simply see generic snow; they see a vast difference between "snow that falls at night" and "snow that is 50% sleet and falls in forests" and "snow that sneaks under my fur collar and is icky against my skin". Their verbal promiscuity, in turn, allegedly proves that language determines thought. This belief is called linguistic relativism, as proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the early 1900s. It fell out of favour for many years, but it flares up again and again.

The theory has to ignore the fact that English isn't exactly niggardly with snowy words, either. See here. If you would like to read more about the Eskimo snow meme, I recommend thisthis and this.

The Japanese could claim a few linguistic records themselves. Look up "rain" in a Japanese dictionary, and you'll find words or expressions for the following:

gentle spring rain
long spell of rain in early spring
the first rain to fall between late autumn and early winter
rain falling at a time of sadness
sudden rain from a blue sky
streaks of pouring rain
sudden evening shower
refreshing rain once in ten days
prolonged rain that damages crops
fine weather during the rainy season
dark night in the rainy season
sunny spell during the rainy season
overcast sky in the rainy season
unusually dry rainy season
rain that starts to fall as though trying to prevent a guest from leaving (遣らずの雨, yarazu no ame)

I think Japan wins ...

Tokyo questions 2

Why is Japan so infatuated with sound trucks? I'm not even talking about the gaisensha of the far right movement. The black vans are limited to specific areas/events and it's relatively easy to avoid them. No, I'm spewing vitriol about the little trucks with loudspeakers that travel around the neighbourhood in an endless loop, announcing that they will fix your pasokon or terebi, or collect your sodai gomi. Please, for pity's sake, are there so many broken computers and old televisions in Taitō that daily announcements for several hours are justified? Shut up and go away! Last weekend we had two trucks competing against each other. One had announcements in a syrupy burikko (AARGH!) voice; another used a bored man to persuade us to part with our possessions. It gets even worse during local elections, when candidates use these sound trucks to tell us their names yoroshiku onegai shimasu, ad nauseam, from 8 am till 8 pm. AARGH!

Why have I had a dull, persistent headache for almost a week? Heat, humidity, hormones, what? Sound trucks?!

Monday, 16 May 2011

'n Storie in Afrikaans 2

Die Held raak iesegrimmig omdat ek nie genoeg in Afrikaans skryf nie. Dus, nog 'n storie in Afrikaans, en hierdie keer is hy die onderwerp van die storie. (Ja, jy wil mos!)

Ek het onlangs 'n hele paar keer oor taal geskryf, onder meer na aanleiding van twee taalboeke wat ek gelees het: I Never Knew There Was A Word For It en The UnDutchables. Dit het my weer laat dink aan uitdrukkings wat Die Held laat struikel. Hy het 'n slag met taal wat ek nog nooit voorheen raakgeloop het nie. Veral nie in Japan nie, want veeltaligheid is nie die sterk punt van hierdie land nie. Ek ken individue wat meer tale verstaan as hy, maar ek ken niemand anders wat die allemanstaal van vier nasies – Japannees, Engels, Duits, Afrikaans – so lekker onder die knie gekry het nie. Diesulkes bestaan wel, maar nie in my wêreldjie nie.

Dalk moet ek dit vyf nasies maak, want hy is Nederlands veel beter magtig as ek.

Hy praat Afrikaans soos 'n Boer, maar om een of ander rede laat "vyfgang-ratkas" hom sukkel. As hy dit herhaal terwyl hy telkens oor die konsonant-opeenhoping val, glimlag ek onwillekeurig.

Japannees het 'n komplekse grammatika, maar 'n relatief eenvoudige uitspraak wat 'n patroon van konsonant, klinker, konsonant, klinker volg. Die enigste uitsondering is 'n nasale n wat deur 'n ander konsonant gevolg word. Dis hoekom sy Japannese tong knoop wanneer hy met 'n Afrikaanse konsonant-boskasie te doen kry.

Die ander uitdrukkings wat hy gereeld herhaal, sommer vir die lag en die lekkerkry, is "stiller as Stellenbosch" en "die Rus rus rustig in Rusland". Lawwe mansmens.

Tokyo, you're a spoilt brat

Dear Tokyo

This summer's buzz word is setsuden () or energy conservation. Due to all the disasters that have hit us – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, governmental ineptness and big business bungling – we don't have enough electricity in Tōden's supply area, and consumers have been asked to save as much as possible. I've been pondering this dilemma for two months since the quake struck, and here's my conclusion:

Tokyo, you're a spoilt brat. You have a long history of recovering from destruction, whether it was earthquakes or American bombers. You have a great spirit of ganbaru (perseverance) and jishuku (self-restraint). Yet right now, in the summer of 2011, you're a spoilt brat.

Yesterday I travelled to Akasaka on the Ginza Line. There was no air-conditioning on the train, only ventilation. It was hot. After I'd arrived in Akasaka, I walked past a pachinko parlour. Migraine-inducing noise and arctic air typhooned from open front doors. I've read that the 4 000 pachinko parlours in greater Tokyo use 840 MW during peak hours, compared to 320 MW used by the city's two subway systems combined. (To put things in perspective: the output at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant was 460 MW.) I admit that pachinko is a cultural phenomenon that I will never understand, but still, I'd rather travel in an air-conditioned train than play pachinko. I know it's a complex issue: the pachinko industry employs thousands; and if the consumer isn't getting frostbite in a pachinko parlour, he might be attempting it at home, which won't necessarily reduce total electricity consumption. However. I submit that pachinko parlours could be reconsidered.

I went to Excelsior Caffé in Akasaka. Despite the fact that the outdoor temperature was a comfortable 22 degrees, the coffee shop's air-conditioning was so cold that I got goose bumps as soon as I walked in. Customers were wearing sweaters or jackets. No, Excelsior Caffé. I don't want to use hot coffee to defrost my hands in summer.

I walked past many vending machines. I like vending machines. Very handy. However. Do we really need so many, and do we really need vending machines outside convenience stores? I've heard the explanation that many consumers don't like face-to-face transactions with a shop assistant, but prefer dealing with a machine. Oh, get a grip.

While I'm ranting, here's my next point. Toilets. Switch off your toilets! Do you really need a warm bum in summer? Do you really need to use the Sound Princess to hide the fact that you're peeing? We know what you're doing. We're doing it ourselves. It's OK.

Finally, Tokyo, you have to dress to de-stress. I understand that appearance is crucial in Japan, but here's a lesson from an old Africa hand who's done business in the deserts and the jungles of the Dark Continent. That's about as hot as it gets. Want to stay cool? The answer is loose white cotton, loose khaki clothes and leather sandals. Cotton is cool, white and khaki don't show sweat marks, and leather sandals allow your feet to breathe. I'm not saying you have to wear a safaripak, but you may want to take it a few steps beyond your current Cool Biz campaign.

With love from your ichiban fan –
The Nomad

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Dutch and Afrikaans: laughing at each other

I'm reading a hilarious book called The UnDutchables, an observation of the Netherlands, its culture and its inhabitants. It has its own website. I'm not Dutch, but I have Dutch ancestors, hence my interest in the country.

Dutch and Afrikaans speakers understand each other, sort of, but we usually end up laughing our heads off and switching to English. To the Dutch, Afrikaans sounds like a child learning to speak; to the Afrikaners, Dutch sounds like a quaint relic spoken by men in breeches and periwigs. Dis geen probleem om Nederlands te lees nie, maar dis 'n bietjie lastig om daarna te luister. It's easy to read Dutch, but it's a bother to listen to it. I find it much easier to follow Flemish.

Dutch and its younger sibling Afrikaans share several characteristics: both love diminutives (Is jy lus vir 'n ou koppietjie teetjies? Do you feel like a little cup of little tea?), and both sound like a throat disease thanks to their fondness for gutturals. If I want to reduce my Japanese friends to peals of laughter, I simply ask them to pronounce an Afrikaans word like kaggelrak (mantelpiece) or grillerig (creepy, weird). The gutturals combined with the l/r combination flummox them. I just have to be ready to apply the Heimlich Maneuver, since non-Netherlandic speakers tend to choke during pronunciation attempts.

The UnDutchables says during World War II, there was a secret test to identify suspected infiltrators. They were made to utter this sentence: Achtentachtig schitterende Haagse grachten met Schevenings prikkeldraadIt has eight gutturals. English translation: "88 beautiful Hague canals with a Schevening barbed wire." I started laughing aloud when I read that. Dare I mention that one to my friends in Japan?

PS: That sentence in Afrikaans: Agt en tagtig skitterende Haagse gragte met doringdraad van Schevening. It loses one guttural, because ch in schitterende becomes a hard k in Afrikaans.

Gogatsubyo: feeling blah in spring

"April is the cruellest month," said T.S. Eliot, "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain."

Here in Japan the cruelty arrives one month later. It's called gogatsubyo (五月病) or May sickness.

All over the world, spring is responsible for more suicides than any other season. If you're unhappy, it's easier to cope in winter when everything is gray and wretched, and everybody around you is moping and feeling miserable. Then spring arrives, and the contrast between your own numbness and the vitality around you becomes too much.

Gogatsubyo is a well-known phenomenon in Japan, a country where many activities start on 1 April: the new financial year, the new academic year, new recruits, new promotions, reshuffling in companies. The theory is that in April, everybody's adapting to new circumstances as well as looking forward to Golden Week. Then May arrives. Your daily routine resumes. You realize that you hate your new job, or that your much-desired promotion has taken over your life like a parasite, or that you have to cope with your stupid boss or professor or neighbours for yet another year. That's when you're seized by sadness without reason. It's a delayed shock that makes you feel moya-moya (もやもや, gloomy) and yarukinashi (やる気なし, no energy, demotivated). You feel even worse when you glance outside: the days are a luminous blue, laughter floats through your open windows, the world is bursting with growth and energy.

Several years ago, when I had to travel on the Keihin-Tōhoku Line almost daily, I was particularly aware of this phenomenon because the line has a fairly high suicide rate. Delays increased noticeably in May. Nowadays I tend to forget about spring's dark side and simply enjoy its fresh mornings, higher humidity without crippling heat, perfect walking weather, abundant flowers, fresh green leaves and the arrival of summer fruit.

I'll have a very busy working schedule in the next few months, but I'll worry about that later. It's a perfect day that's just begging for a walk. Ja ne!

PS: I love that expression, ja ne. In Japanese it means "see you later". In Afrikaans, with a slightly different pronunciation (it's /dʒ/ in Japanese, /j/ in Afrikaans), it means "such is life and that's the way it is and isn't that just so". Then there's the infamous Afrikaans  ja-nee, literally yes-no, which can mean anything in any situation, but mostly means "that's a fact". Why are you looking puzzled? It makes perfect sense that yes + no = fact. So then. Ja-nee, it's a gorgeous day, and what can a woman do but go for a walk? Ja ne!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Rainy season, barley tea and blue flowers

Japan's rainy season (梅雨, tsuyu) is the result of the cold Siberian winds that float over the warm Pacific - an encounter that produces overcast skies and light but constant rain. It usually begins in June, but the humidity starts increasing in May.

I can't wait for tsuyu to arrive in its full glory. I'm probably the only person in this city of millions who's not perpetually petulant about the heat and humidity, but I love the soft yet relentless downpour. You could say that tsuyu rain walks very softly but carries a very big stick. It creates a wonderful ambience: secrets in shadows, will-o'-the-wisps on flowers, a mirage in every puddle.

Make no mistake: rainy season drains your energy. I reserve the right to start bellyaching about the selfsame humidity I've just praised to high heaven. It gets a bit much towards the end of June, when Tokyo turns into a foul fetid festering oozing sweating sweltering swamp.

I read this bit on a tourism website: "The main problem during tsuyu is the humidity. People tend to become irritated by it. Taking a bath or shower often helps you keep comfortable. Please try to relax." I couldn't help grinning. "Take a bath and please try to relax" is pretty much Japan's general advice for everything, just like a cuppa tea is England's universal solution. America's ecumenical rule, on the other hands, seems to be to shoot it or to buy it on credit.

My solution is a cold shower in the morning, a hot bath at night and a steady supply of mugicha (麦茶) or barley tea. Mugicha is traditionally made by simmering roasted barley grains. It has a slightly bitter undertone and it's very refreshing. Here in Japan it's associated with summer, and it's believed to purify your blood and to reduce stress. I don't care much about clean blood. I just love its taste.

Rainy season has two great advantages. Firstly, my skin, tortured by Africa's fierce sun for many years, soaks up the moisture. Secondly, it's hydrangea (あじさい, ajisai) season. I contend that a blue hydrangea has the most beautiful colour in the entire universe. Look!

Japan's wealth of water

There's an Afrikaans word, "dorsland", that means "thirsty country". It's an apt description for South Africa with its large, arid interior. Water is scarce, and I grew up with water restrictions that meant we couldn't wash cars or water gardens. Perhaps that is why I love tsuyu (梅雨), rainy season, a sopping wet period that is often detested or, at best, grudgingly tolerated by Tokyoites.

Japan's wealth of water remains a miracle to me. I will never forget – not even when I'm an old woman with a faded, frayed memory – my first sight of Yuzawa's water-covered rice paddies (水田, suiden). Every flat surface is a mirror that reflects the clouds, mountains and houses. Niigata turns into a water world.

My Japanese friends often refer to Japan as a poor country, referring to its lack of natural resources, but they usually add "except water and people".

Water is taken for granted. Although I've lived here for several years, it still unnerves me that kitchen sinks don't have plugs, because you wash dirty dishes under running water. One of the first fights I had with The Hero was over water. He was making food. (He's an excellent cook. I'm a culinary disaster.) Throughout the preparation process, the tap was running. I kept closing it and he kept opening it until he snapped at me, "Ii kara! That's enough! Leave it!" I launched into a DNA-programmed, automatically kick-started South African sermon about saving precious water; he retaliated with a stern lecture about respecting Japan's way of doing things.

Typhoon rain

Earlier this week it was bucketing down, since typhoon Aere was moving past Japan. It must be one of the sounds I love the most in Tokyo: rain pouring from a million rooftops and galloping down a million tiny alleys.

Harbour city

Unexpected moments remind you that Tokyo is a harbour city: when the air is heavy with moisture and a sluggish breeze crawls from the right direction, you catch a whiff of the sea. It's that harbour smell that's so difficult to describe: fresh and dank at the same time, salty and frisky with an underlying suggestion of decay.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

A riverside ramble in Kōtō-ku

Tokyo has historically been divided into two main parts: the eastern shitamachi or low town where merchants, artisans and the hoi polloi lived; and the western side where the samurai, aristocracy and upper classes resided. That distinction continues to this day: eastern Tokyo is poorer and never appears on the list of most sought-after suburbs, yet it is generally agreed that this is where the spirit of old Edo lingers. The eastern side has history, traditional customs and "hard-headed but sentimental characters who are fast to anger but first to laugh about it", in the words of Donald Richie. Western Tokyo, on the other hand, is wealthy, upmarket and cosmopolitan.

No prizes for guessing which side I prefer. I love the shitamachi, and my only frustration is that even if I could live in this area for a thousand years, I would never be able to explore all its alleys and secret places.

Different sources draw different borders around the shitamachi, but it usually includes the physically low part of the city east of Sumidagawa: Taitō, Sumida, Kōtō, Edogawa, parts of Bunkyō, parts of Chiyoda, parts of Chūō. Some sources also mention Adachi and Arakawa.

My frequent walks focus on the heart of the shitamachi, Taitō, but I also stray into the surrounding areas. I'm particularly fond of Kōtō, because the area is criss-crossed by rivers and canals. I come from a dry country, and Japan's bountiful water supply remains a miracle to me. That's also why I love tsuyu, rainy season, despite the fact that it exasperates most Tokyoites, but that's another story for another day.

I discovered the best walk in Kōtō purely by chance. Several months ago I was looking at a map to find Umibebashi, a bridge across Sendaiborigawa, where the haiku poet Bashō set off on his famous journey to the north. I noticed that Sendaiborigawa continues in a very straight line - in other words, the river has been forced into submission between concrete walls - until it reaches Kiba Park, and then a few blocks further it starts squiggling all over the map in a rather interesting way until it joins another wriggly river that veers north to run into Kitajukkengawa, which happens to be the river next to my beloved Tokyo Sky Tree. "Oooh," I thought. "Oooh."

A while ago I finally had a chance to follow this watery trial. I started off at Kiyosumi Teien, and walked along Sendaiborigawa underneath cherry trees with fresh green leaves until I got to Kiba Park. It's not a particularly attractive park, but it's clearly a haven for families in that area – a flea market, a barbecue area, lots of picnic spots – and it boasts the Kiba Koen Ohashi Bridge, which connects the south side and the north side of the park. I fail to see the attraction of the bridge, but I did discover a charming field of poppies next to it.

The squiggly part of the river starts a few blocks further on. This is my Tokyo: nothing famous, nothing ostentatious, no shopping, no neon; just green trees, wild birds, a clean river, ordinary families having fun.

It gets even better when you turn north to walk along Yokojukkengawa (横十間川). It's a bit far from train stations, but I wouldn't mind living here. It's tranquil and beautiful. The river, or rather canal, dates from 1659. It isn't very deep, but kappa statues along its banks warn children to be careful. A kappa is a mischievous water sprite, and the well-known expression 河童の川流 (kappa no kawa nagare, a drowning kappa) means that anyone can make a mistake.

It was an unusually hot spring day. I underestimated both the temperature and the distance, and by the time I got to Clover Bridge, an X-shaped footbridge across the intersection of Onagigawa and Yokojukkengawa, this particular kappa was drowning in her own sweat. The river from that bridge to the next landmark, Sarue Onshi Park, isn't as beautiful, although it has nice boardwalks (spoilt by mamacharis doing their usual oblivious-to-pedestrians demolition derby).

Sarue Onshi Park used to be a lumberyard, but it was opened as a public park in 1981. It has so many cherry trees that I'm surprised it's not better known as a cherry blossom spot, but perhaps it's simply a well-kept local secret. I will return here in 2012 for hanami; as a matter of fact, I'd like to redo the entire walk from Kiba Park when it's cherry blossom time. The rivers are lined with trees.

Meantime, it's a great excursion on summery day.

Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重), from 100 Famous Views of Edo (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei). This drawing depicts the spot where the Yokojukkengawa (横十間川 ) joins the Kitajukkengawa (北十間川 ).

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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Songs of Africa

A rare occurrence: feeling homesick. Listening to Mali musicians Ali Ibrahim "Farka" Touré performing Diaraby and Salif Keita singing Folon. Outside tropical storm Aere is approaching in a downpour; I'm listening to the music of Africa's vast deserts. Here's a video of Folon, but be warned that the audio inexplicably disappears towards the end. That's Africa. Tonight I'm so homesick, I'm even missing the usual muddles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The unfortunate traveller

"A traveller must have the back of an ass to bear all, a tongue like the tail of a dog to flatter all, the mouth of a hog to eat what is set before him, the ear of a merchant to hear all and say nothing."
– Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

Tokyo glimpses 3

I saw her as I walked into Tokyo Station. She'd made her home just outside the Marunouchi South Exit, in a corner formed by a wall and a pillar: she had stacked carton boxes around her, was sitting in a sleeping bag on a flattened box, and was serenely rubbing lotion into her hands. She was in her 60s or older, not dirty or unkept, not obviously batty, sublimely indifferent to the crowds surging around her. Tokyo has its homeless people, but most are men. This woman looked as though she'd be at home in Mitsukoshi, a luxury department store that makes Harrods look like Pep Stores. What is her story?

Young girl standing in front of me on a train: chubby, heavy make-up, short pink skirt, purple sheepskin boots (it was a bright sunny day), curling her eyelashes with a medieval torture instrument. How she managed to avoid permanent disablement, only she will know.

Young couple sitting opposite me on train: in their 20s, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, both reading thick books, but then the girl lightly shoves the boy with her elbow, he shoves back, she bumps her head on his shoulder, he bumps back, both laugh, share a few quiet sentences, carry on reading. They made me smile.

Summer is coming. Coffee shop customers have started ordering aisu instead of hotto.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Untōan: the Yeah Thank Sauce Temple

My favourite temple in Japan is the Yeah Thank Sauce Temple.

I first visited this delightful place during a fish- and pixpedition to Niigata. The Hero loves catching trout, I enjoy fiddling with cameras. Fishing and photography are good hobbies to share: both practitioners are exceptionally keen to go traipsing up mountains and wading in rivers while lugging along a few kilos of equipment.

Early summer is a great time in Niigata: not too hot, not too cold, beautifully green, every flat surface covered in water-filled rice paddies that reflect the handkerchief mountains and white-clouds-sky. (The mountains look like a handkerchief that's been dropped - all soft tree-covered curves rather than the sharp granite angles of the mountains in the Western Cape, where I was born.)

As we were driving through the Uonuma area, where Japan's best rice is grown, The Hero mentioned in passing, "There's a big temple near here. I'll take you if you want to go."
"You will? You can fish at the temple?!"
"Don't be stupid. I'll take you. If you pay me."
"Pay you? What's your fee?"
"Buy me coffee."

Thus it came to pass that I went to Untōan in Minami-Uonuma for the price of a can of coffee from a vending machine. Untōan is the biggest Zen temple in Echigo, as Niigata was known in old times. It's tucked away in a forest in the mountains - hidden so well that even The Hero, who's very much a local in that area, drove past it on his first attempt to find it - which means it's wonderfully tranquil. If you enter 新潟県南魚沼市雲洞660 in Google Maps, you'll see that it's not exactly at the centre of a thousand roads.

When you arrive at the main gate, called Aka-mon or Red Gate, you first see a pair of giant straw sandals, which indicates that it's a pilgrimage temple. The sandals are covered with ema, small wooden plates, on which pilgrims write their wishes. Aka-mon also has a sign that reads 雲洞庵の土踏んだか / Untōan no tsuchi funda ka / Have you tread on the soil of Untōan?

It refers to the stone-paved approach from the Red Gate to the Main Hall. The Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular Mahāyāna sutras, is inscribed on stones, one character per stone, which are embedded at a depth of 1 meter beneath this path. Legend has it that walking down the path will erase your sins and bring you happiness. Since I wandered up and down several times, taking pictures, I assume I'm now rid of all my bad habits and blessed with bliss.

So where do I get the name Yeah Thank Sauce Temple? After I'd returned to Tokyo, I tried to find more information about Untōan on the internet. I can find my way around some Japanese websites, but esoteric Buddhist terms are beyond my capabilities, so I used Chrome's automatic translation facility. It helps, but it remains a computer translation, in other words: inaccurate, at times unintelligible and frequently hilarious. When I translated the Untōan website via Chrome into English, this is what I got:

越後一 の禅寺 日本一の庵寺
A small temple of the Zen temple in Japan Echigo
雲洞 temple (yeah Thank sauce)

Possible explanation: うん un can mean yes, あん can mean sauce, but the とう "thank" baffles me a bit. The Japanese word for thank you is ありがとう arigatou, which ends with とう tou, so maybe that's where it comes from?

Being a simple-minded, childlike creature, I think this is the funniest thing I've seen in years. I shall always think of this as the Yeah Thank Sauce Temple.


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