Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: June 2011

Tuesday, 28 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.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The earth lay green under the summer sky

The opening line of Yasunari Kawabata's famous novel Snow Country reads: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky." Not in June: then the earth in Niigata, where the novel takes place, lies green under the bright blue summer sky. More photos of a summer fishing trip to Niigata here.

We were in bear country, deep in the mountains surrounding Minami-Uonuma (南魚沼). I've invested in rubber boots so that I can follow The Hero through rice paddies and mountain streams when he goes fly fishing. "Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy god my god." Even if it's the god of fishing. Please observe stains on left knee - the result of a few tumbles. I'm usually so spellbound by the scenery in Niigata that I don't always watch where I put my feet. I may even have stumbled over a bear but I wouldn't swear to it ...

Friday, 24 June 2011

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 woman's crotch. She raised me in an old-fashioned way to believe that Jerusalem should not be a public park with unlimited access, but admittedly my preference for long skirts has more to do with comfort than virtue.

So my standard uniform is a long black skirt with knife pleats, which immediately pigeonholes me as an "old woman" in Japan, or a pair of black pants, combined with a loose top. I don't like tucking in my shirt. It makes me claustrophobic. A long skirt also means you can wear knee-high socks instead of pantyhose. If I dislike tucked-in shirts, I positively loathe pantyhose. (I know Japanese women wear knee-high socks with everything, even hot pants, but I could live here for a thousand years and you would not persuade me that knee-highs look good on any female older than ten. If you have to wear them, hide your knees, for pity's sake.)

We're not allowed to wear sandals at my company, so I force my grumpy flat nomad's feet into ballet slippers. Which, incidentally, are also frowned upon.

Today I only taught university classes, and the dress code in academia is more relaxed. I took a chance and wore a soft cotton dress with a daisy pattern in blue, white and yellow. It has a 6-panel flared skirt that almost forms a full circle and skims my ankles. I bought it years ago in Egypt, where you can buy excellent Egyptian cotton products at very low prices, and it's remained a firm favourite ever since. I added a white cotton jacket to make it a bit more formal. If I'd worn this to work in South Africa, my colleagues would've asked me, "Are you going to a job interview?" (I used to work in the media, many lifetimes ago, and we didn't go gallivanting in Ouagadougou dressed in bijou OL numbers. We wore khaki.) Here in Japan this same outfit is probably regarded as way too way-out.

I seldom get homesick, but I do miss Africa's relaxed style, bright colours and bare feet. Sigh.

Cool Biz? Too informal for a work outfit?

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".

Photo credit:

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.

Sunrise on 22 June 2011

Sunrise in November 2010, a month before the winter solstice

Thursday, 23 June 2011

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 person in my neck of the woods armpit of the savanna, but individuals with less than perfect hygiene are found everywhere.)

It causes a certain amount of existentialist angst. Do I sit down and risk being buried by a behemoth, or do I stand on tired feet so that I can escape more easily – or at least more politely – when the situation demands?

It's even more horrendous on planes. I once had a very fat person in an economy seat in front of me on a flight from Singapore to Tokyo. He reclined his seat as far as it could go, but his weight pushed it down at least another 30 cm. I could not move. To add insult to injury, he folded his arms above his head with his hands dangling in my face. He had long, dirty fingernails. Ugh.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

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.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

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.

Monday, 20 June 2011

A cute critter with big balls at Yanagimori Jinja

A tanuki () 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 moved to its present location in 1659. It's associated with a woman called Keisho-in, who started life as the daughter of a greengrocer but eventually became a concubine of the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, and gave birth to the fifth shōgun, Tsunayoshi. She was a religious woman who restored many temples and shrines in her lifetime. The fact that she was a commoner who bore a shōgun contributes to the belief that a prayer at this shrine can improve your fortune.

Yanagimori is a small, mossy, shadowy complex on the bank of the Kanda River, and it's a bit of a hotchpotch: it houses several small shrines, including an Inari shrine, but instead of the komainu (狛犬, lion dogs) or kitsune (狐, foxes) that often guard the entrance of a shrine, this one has two tanuki. The complex also includes a collection of stones that were used by sumo wrestlers during weight training, and it has friendly bobtail cats and swarms of mosquitoes. Just to add to the quirkiness of the place, you can stand under a big cherry tree, surrounded by silent statues with big family jewels, and watch as a sleek shinkansen sizzles across a bridge just behind the shrine.

I love Tokyo. Have I mentioned that before? Grin.

You can see more photos here.

That's a small sakaki branch next to the tanuki. Sakaki () or Cleyera japonica is an evergreen that's regarded as a sacred tree in Shinto. You often see small branches or bundles of leaves at Shinto shrines. The kanji for sakaki is a combination of ki 木 (tree) and kami (god or spirit).

Sunday, 19 June 2011


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 you very much. I try it."

Conversation 3

One of my favourite students is more outspoken than most and has a wicked sense of humour. I've learned to expect the unexpected, but that sometimes makes me over-interpret his beginner's English. We're talking about health.

"What should we do to stay healthy?" I ask.
"We should sleep!" he responds. (This is every salaryman's greatest fantasy.)
"Good idea. What else?"
"We should drink!" (Declared gleefully.)
"Hmmm. Sleep and drink. And?"
"We must have rubber."
"Rubber?" (I'm thinking, "Rubbers? Condoms? Safe sex? What?")
"Hai, rubber."
"Uh …"
"Hai, hai, rub affair."
"Oh! Love affair! Lover!"
"Hai. Rubber. Rubber very important for health."

Who can deny that wisdom? "Hai," his teacher solemnly agreed, "rubber very important."

It's not all Engrish

I write about amusing classroom events, but it should be stated for the record that not all students are awkward beginners. I also teach at a good university with students who want to learn. When you push the right button (but isn't that true of all classes?), you can sit back as if at a tennis match and watch as the opponents lob, volley, drop shot and overhead smash each other's arguments. The most successful discussions I've had so far, in a class with only male students, were about Wikipedia's credibility as a source and iPhone vs Android. The group was divided exactly 50/50 about the latter. The teacher would've swung the vote, but she circumspectly remained neutral. Sorry, Android, but a judge has gotta do what a judge has gotta do.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

How to buy cows in Tokyo

Ora Tokyo sa iguda (俺ら東京さ行ぐだ, I'm going to Tokyo) is a golden oldie from 1984, written and performed by Yoshi Ikuzo (吉幾三). The Hero cracks up each time he hears it, and since he's explained the song's Aomori dialect to me, I love it as well. I identify with this singer. I, too, am a country bumpkin overawed by the megalopolis in which I find myself, and clueless about complex phenomena like buying cows in the city. The singer says, "My village has no television, radio, piano or bars. No telephone, no gas, one bus a day. I wake up in the morning, and then I have to walk for hours with my cow. I hate this village! I really hate this village! I want to go to Tokyo! Once I'm there, I will have lots of money and I can buy many cows …  in Tokyo."

Here's a more mature Yoshi in a more contemplative mood in Sake Yo (酒よ):

Fun with Afrikaans

The other day, while I was cleaning up and reorganizing a desk drawer crammed full of receipts, notices and accumulated notes made to myself, I came across two sentences I'd scribbled on scraps of paper: Afrikaans expressions containing a profusion of "r" and "g" for the amusement of The Hero. He's fluent in the language, but when he has to repeat certain sounds in quick succession, he starts stuttering and then he erupts in peals of laughter.

Gert het geweet sy niggie het gisteraand 'n grillerige gogga op die kaggelrak van die groot herberg gesien. (Gert knew his niece had seen a creepy bug on the fireplace mantel in the big inn last night.)

My regterarm wil nie beweeg nie aangesien ek my rugwerwels in 'n grusame ongeluk vergruis het. (My right arm won't move because I crushed my vertebrae in a gruesome accident.)

I think these two specimens would defeat any speaker who wasn't breastfed on the sounds. They might even rival the test for true Dutchness.

Friday, 17 June 2011

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.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

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 worried about technical optical terms, which are beyond my capabilities, so The Hero accompanied me to a neighbourhood optician. I was prepared to fork out a fortune or to accept that it couldn't be fixed.

As soon as we walked in, a friendly woman asked us if we needed help.

"The frame is broken, but the lenses are OK. Can you repair it?" asked The Hero.

"Could you possibly leave it here, so that we can investigate?" she replied.

"OK," I answered, thinking it would take a week.

"Would you be willing to wait 20 minutes?" she asked. Whereupon I almost choked. The Hero, insouciant as always, said we'd have coffee and come back.

"I'm not sure that we can fix it," the shop assistant warned us with a worried look. "Perhaps we'll have to find another frame that fits these lenses. I'm so sorry I can't answer your question immediately. I apologize that we have to keep you waiting."

My jaw was on the floor. She's apologizing that we have to wait 20 minutes?! The Hero dragged a stupefied barbarian out of the shop and, predictably, made her buy him a Moses shawarma as compensation for translation services. He's quite cheap. A shawarma is ¥500.

About half an hour later we returned.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," the shop assistant said as she approached us. My heart slithered down my knees into my shoes. It's a write-off, I told myself, forget it. "I'm really sorry," the shop assistant continued, "but we couldn't find another frame that fits these lenses." That's it, I continued my conversation with myself, no spare anymore, just be ultra-careful with your remaining pair. "I'm terribly sorry," the shop assistant apologized for the third time, "that we couldn't replace the frame. We had to repair it. Could you try it on to see if it's acceptable?" She handed over a pair of glasses. I glanced at it. It looked brand-new. I put it on. It was my old pair, and it was perfect. I was so dumbfounded by this quick fix that I simply goggled at her.

"How much do we owe you?" The Hero asked.

"Oh, no," she replied, looking utterly shocked, "it's a free service that we provide to customers. You don't owe us anything."

"Eeeeh?" I squeaked. "It's free?!"

"Yes," she replied with determination.

I felt almost too embarrassed to take my glasses. I wanted to pay them for their great service. I felt like kissing the shop assistant's feet.

An over-reaction? It's my right as a customer? Ah, if you think that, you've never been to Africa. You might find good service, but chances are it will be either indifferent or non-existent, and you'll have to wait a heck of a lot longer than 20 minutes. Make that 20 days. If you're lucky. Your glasses might be repaired, but it will probably be done shoddily, or it might be stolen for scrap metal. Don't laugh. Where I come from, manhole covers are swiped for scrap metal and telephone lines are purloined for their copper.

If you live in Eastern Tokyo and you're in need of a great optician, I recommend Megane Drug (メガネドラッグ), Ueno 6-1-1. It's on the corner of Showa-dori and Kasuga-dori. They also have a big selection of very nice frames, as you can see on their website. I need new sunglasses. I guess I'll have to go back. I have to find a way to force them to accept my money!

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 is a 10-minute walk from the station's north exit.

You can see my photos here.

Hondoji used to be a residence that belonged to the Genji family. It was renamed Hondoji by the famous Nichiren, founding father of Nichiren Buddhism, which believes that all people have an inborn Buddha nature and can therefore achieve enlightenment in their current life. You could call it the commoner's Buddhism, as opposed to the elitist Zen or esoteric Shingon schools.

The complex has various places of interest, including a Jizō shrine, an Inari shrine and a Benzaiten temple, but its crowning glory is the iris pond and hydrangea forest. (It's really a forest rather than a garden.) Go on a weekend and be surrounded by screaming toddlers. Go on a Monday afternoon and the noise level rises even higher as gangs of senior citizens descend – they hunt in packs – and bossily order their friends to pose for group photos. The flowers are immaterial. All I want is proof that I was there ...

You can read more about Hondoji at these two (Japanese) websites, and here's another great video by AQUA Geo Graphic:

Monday, 13 June 2011

The eccentricities of fishermen and photographers

I owe The Hero an apology. I used to grin at his fishing quirks, especially two phenomena that I refer to as Pocket Proliferation and Equipment Acquisitions.

It seems that a fisherman can never have enough pockets. When The Hero wades into a river to catch his prey, he wears a wet suit with pockets as well as a short sleeveless vest thingy that consists mostly of pockets, ánd he carries a shoulder bag with pockets. He stuffs further containers with dozens of divisions/compartments into the shoulder bag's biggest pocket. Apparently a different pocket is required for lures, pliers, flies, cigarettes, extra lures, lighter, extra flies, insect repellent stick, more lures, more flies, gadgets that defy my comprehension and mysterious tools without which fishing would be impossible. A fisherman also needs further pockets for car keys and house keys and hotel room keys and train pass/es and mobile phone and glasses and face cloth and fishing licence and maps of the district and discount tickets for Doutor coffee shops and an empty can with a screw top for cigarette butts (he would never throw butts into his beloved rivers).

I used to think this was very funny. Beautifully eccentric. Just too cute.

Then I exchanged my compact camera for a DSLR. Oh dear. I need pockets. I need pockets for lenses and pockets for extra batteries and pockets for extra memory cards and pockets for lens caps and a bigger pocket for my compact camera, which functions as a back-up. I bought a rucksack - it's easier to carry heavy camera equipment in a rucksack than in a camera bag slung over one shoulder - but I still don't have enough pockets.

Then there's Equipment Acquisitions. The Hero started with a lure fishing rod, which soon multiplied into two. Then he progressed to a basic fly fishing rod, which was supplemented with a top-quality Sage rod, which was followed by a second Sage. Then he started making flies. Different lines with different sink rates were added to the collection. Bags, boxes, boots, nets, fold-up chairs, hats for summer and gloves for winter piled up.

I watched this process over the years, vastly amused and feeling smugly superior that I didn't have this odd compulsion. I conveniently forgot that I have a selfsame hoarding habit with books.

Then I bought that Canon EOS camera. Oh dear. I want more lenses and lens hoods and lens filters and a tripod and an LCD protector and a cleaning cloth and a brush. I will, or course, also need pockets for all these accessories.

So, Beloved, I apologize. I didn't understand. Now I do. Pockets are a physical necessity and extra equipment is an emotional obsession. Sigh.

Fishing trip equipment

A beautiful rainbow trout caught near Yuzawa in Niigata

Sunday, 12 June 2011

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:

Friday, 10 June 2011

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 dreadfully disappointed when I realized my mistake. That particular mushi doesn’t mean insect (), but steamy or sultry (). Now I know the real meaning, but I still think of Tokyo as goggawarm, Afrikaans for bug hot, in summer. It's more descriptive, isn't it?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

More murasaki

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

Monday, 6 June 2011

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.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

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, so that it can be worn in winter. It was a pale sea-green colour with a pattern along the hem and on the left shoulder, and short sleeves. (Mature women wear short sleeves; young women wear sleeves that reach the floor.) It was handmade.

It's a heck of a process to get dressed.

First Okaasan told me to put on my tabi or split-toe socks. You have to do this early in the process, because after you start adding those layers, there's no way you can reach your toes.  Then Okaasan took a thin cotton strip, about 5 cm in width and a few meters in length, and started winding it around my waist. It hides your waist and gives you a square shape.

This is followed by a pure silk half-slip, a susoyoke, that's tied around your waist, and a fairly tight-fitting undergarment called a hadajuban. Next you put on a nagajuban, also called an under-kimono in English. It's an undergarment, but its collar, often beautifully embroidered, is visible underneath the kimono's collar and provides both contrast and definition. A datejime, a waistband or undersash, is used to tie the nagajuban in place. Padding around your middle and in the curve of your back is worn both under the hadajuban and the nagajuban.

Finally the kimono itself. The garment is much too long, which means it has to be folded double so that its hem is just above your zori (sandals). This is a complex process, further complicated by the fact that the collar of the kimono has to bare your neck, which is regarded as highly erotic in Japan. Young unmarried women are not permitted to wear the back collar of the kimono lower than the distance of a fist away from the nape of the neck. Older women are permitted a slightly deeper gap. Geisha wear the back of the collar gapped deeply away from the nape of the neck, almost between the shoulder blades.

The kimono is tied by various other sashes which probably all have their own names, but I can't remember everything.

Finally, the pièce de résistance, the obi. It might interest you to know that the obi is more expensive than the kimono itself. It's 5 m in length and sumptuously embroidered. When I lifted the thick, heavy, stiff material, I couldn't believe it could be folded, tied and knotted, but that's exactly what Okaasan did. She put one end over my shoulder – that would eventually be used to tie the knot – and then started wrapping the obi around me.

It's a work of art, and it's held in place by various bits and pieces. 
  • Obi-ita: a piece of thin but stiff cardboard, about 10 cm wide and 30-60 cm long, which is placed around your waist.
  • Obi-makura or odaiko: a pad used to support the huge "pillow" (or bow) of the obi.
  • Obi-age: a sash that's tucked into the obi at the top. This scarf is worn prominently by a young unmarried woman. As you age the scarf is tucked deeper beneath the obi, until you're a nenpai no kata, an "aged person", when the obi-age barely peeps above the obi.
  • Obi-jime: a thin cord that's tied around the obi, right at the end of the process. The obi-jime is tied in the upper third of the obi for an unmarried woman, in the center for a married woman and in the lower third for an older woman.

Finally you put kanzashi (ornaments) in your hair, which must be worn up; slip on your zori; take a tiny handbag … and off you go. It was very cold on that New Year's day, so I also wore a fur stole.

How does it feel? You find yourself automatically adjusting your movements. You're not so much restricted as, ummm, what's the word?, gently controlled by the kimono. The obi forces you to maintain a perfect posture – spine straight, shoulders back, chest out, tummy tucked in – and my used-to-jeans body started protesting after three hours. My back was hurting, my tummy felt claustrophobic and I got impatient with the short steps you're forced to give when wearing a kimono. It really helps if you walk pigeon-toed.

I also learned that it's painful to walk downhill in zori, because your feet slide forward and press against the strap between your big toe and other toes.

It only occurred to me much later: what do you do if you want to go to the toilet? My Japanese friends have told me it's difficult to go to a Western toilet, easier if you use a Japanese squat toilet. I still can't imagine the logistics. That applies to European styles of yesteryear, too. How do you piddle in a bustle or a hoop dress covered by yards of crinoline?

Anyway, I walked to the local shrine with the family to pray for a happy new year. It's quite an experience, traipsing through a sleepy Japanese countryside town dressed to kill. Suffice it to say I generated a certain amount of attention.

When we got back, I thought I'd be able to take off the kimono and relax into my usual round-shouldered slump, but Okaasan had a special request: she wanted me to put on her kuro-tomesode, because she wanted to see what I'd look like. A kuro-tomesode is an ultra-formal black kimono patterned only below the waistline, and it has five kamon (heraldic symbol) printed on the sleeves, chest and back. It's worn to weddings by a close relative of the bridal couple, such as the mother or adult sister; or to an opening night at the Noh theater or an evening gala at an embassy. It's also worn to funerals, but then it's all black with no decorative design except the kamon.

I didn't go out with that kimono, but oh, it was gorgeous! I'm just very grateful that I don't have to wear it every day. May the gods have mercy on my back!

As I've already mentioned, I'm not a kimono expert. If you're interested in kimono, I suggest Kidorakujapan.

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.

Fukushima is safer than Germany?

So far nobody has died of radio-active vegetables, dried tea leaves or any other food from Fukushima, but an E coli outbreak that originated in Germany and spread via vegetables has killed 18 people and infected more than 1800 others across Europe. そうねえ。

Friday, 3 June 2011

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 bum, you have to maintain that erect position. It's impossible to relax or slump. You feel surprisingly feminine, partly because you're forced to move gracefully, partly because a kimono makes any woman beautiful - even the plainest nerd like myself mirrors the exotic character of the lusciously embroidered silk. 

The first time I tried on a kimono it wasn't even a "real" kimono, but the "instant" version or, as I call it, a konbini kimono.

A "real" kimono consists of many layers. The outer garment comes in one standard size and one standard length, and is folded double underneath the obi according to the wearer's height. A formal obi is 60 cm broad and 4 m in length, and it requires an expert dresser to wrap it around a woman and to tie the elaborate bow at the back. (There are more than 300 ways to tie an obi.) A genuine kimono is a handmade work of art that is often regarded as an heirloom and is handed down several generations. It costs hundreds of thousands of yen.

A konbini kimono is a much simplified version. The kimono itself is pre-shortened to fit a woman who's 1.6 m tall. The white collar that peeps out from behind the outer layer is not attached to a half-length white jacket, but is just a collar that is tied around your body with a string. The obi is a broad, padded, stiffened belt that is already "pre-tied" with a very simple bow or knot. It fastens with Velcro, and it has only three extra bits: a narrow silk sash that is tied around the kimono before the obi is put on, a broad silk cloth that is fastened after the obi has been put on and is tucked into the top of the obi, and the obi-jime, a braided cord that is placed over the obi.

I had a chance to put on a kimono in my first year in Japan, when I visited a kimono shop with a Japanese friend. The shop staff must've noticed my awe, because they asked whether I wanted to try one on. The conversation, mostly aimed at my friend, went something like this:

"Would your friend like to try one on?"
"Oh no no no, thank you, it's too expensive!" I rudely interrupted.
"Oh, it's OK, just try it on."
"Oh! Oh, thank you! OK!"
The shop assistant turned to my friend. "Is your friend American? She's very small." (What was implied, but not said, was "for a foreigner".)
"No, she's South African."
"Eeeh! Minami Afurika? So desu ka?"

So the shop assistant started to dress me. Before long a small crowd of women had gathered, all going "eeeh!" The eeeh-ing intensified when they realised the kimono was a tad too long, and reached fever pitch when the standard-sized obi was fastened and proved to be a bit loose. "Kawaii!" everybody cooed while I blushed and preened.

I realised one thing as I stood there in my Oriental armour of seduction: it will be difficult for a curvaceous woman to wear a kimono. An obi has no mercy with boobs, tummy or hips. There is no space, nowhere to go, for any protruding bits. Ha! Finally I've found the perfect garment for my scrawny skinny 12-year-old-boy body: a kimono!

kimono is very interesting. Instead of a garment that's made to fit the figure, the figure in this case has to adjust to the garment. If you don't have a kimono figure, it requires yet more layers of padding that are placed around your middle and hips to remove the curves! Not a corset that cracks your ribs and makes your boobs pop out, but padding to remove the curves. Now do you understand why I love this garment?

The second time I wore a kimono was for hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the new year. It was a beautiful hōmongi, a formal style for adult women, in a fairly subdued colour with an embroidered pattern on the skirt as well as on the left shoulder. That was the real McCoy, or real Suzuki, and it took more than an hour to get dressed, but that's another story for another day.

This was the first kimono I ever wore.

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, diarrhea, malnutrition. I lived in Johannesburg, the murder capital of the world, for several years. My car was stolen, my house was broken into, money was taken from my office. Friends and family members were mugged, robbed or shot. During the 1990s, I travelled all over Africa on horrendously bad roads and in dilapidated old planes that were held together with sticky tape and prayers. I got very bad food poisoning in Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt. I was in Rwanda during the civil war. 

Africa has poisonous spiders, scorpions and snakes; dangerous animals such as hippos, elephants, buffaloes and crocodiles; awful tropical diseases caused by the Ebola, Lassa or Marburg virus. Incidentally, it is generally claimed that hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other animal, but when you start looking for statistics, there's nothing! The best I could find was this bit on Wikipedia: "Known as the 'widowmaker' in Africa, the African buffalo is widely regarded as a very dangerous animal, as it gores and kills over 200 people every year. Buffalo are sometimes reported to kill more people in Africa than any other animal, although the same claim is also made of hippos and crocodiles."

Actually, the mosquito is the dark continent's champion killer. Or does that honour belong to man?

Life in Africa.

It only occurred to me after our discussion that nobody – and that includes yours truly – had thought of the big earthquake or the subsequent nuclear meltdown. That doesn't count as "dangerous". Quakes happen, shōganai, and Fukushima is too far away to be a threat.

Life in Tokyo.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

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. His funds do not cover the night's lodgings.
He is quite unlike either warriors or country bumpkins.
He is a man of Nihonbashi (the downtown area) to the bone.
He has iki (refinement) and hari (strength of character).
The second quote is from Tsūgen sō-magaki (Grand Brothel of Connoisseur Language) by Santō Kyōden (1761-1816).


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