Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: July 2011

Sunday, 31 July 2011

So here I am, trying to use words

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years – 
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres 
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate 
– but there is no competition – 
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

– From East Coker (Four Quartets) by T.S. Eliot


Happiness is a summer morning cool enough for a light sweater. Dare one ask the gods, very humbly, to continue in this meteorological mode? (I should add "in Tokyo". The current situation in Niigata is not so pleasant. The clouds that are bringing relief to Tokyo have caused massive floods in The Hero's home prefecture.)

Random photo of a river near Yuzawa where The Hero loves to fish. Right now it wouldn't be possible to stand on a rock in the middle of the river ...

Friday, 29 July 2011

Kita-in's 540 rakan ... one of them looks just like you

It is said that you should visit the statues at night and touch all 540. They will be cold and mute, but one – just one – will be warm under your fingers. That is the one that resembles you the most.

I didn't go at night and I didn't touch each statue, but I found one that resembles me nevertheless. He sits at the end of a row, with his back turned to his closest neighbour, fully absorbed in the open book on his knee. His world consists entirely of his book: he is reading through the centuries, unaware of his surroundings, his companions or the curious visitors who stare at him and sometimes, like I did, leave a coin in his lap for good luck.

Rakan at Kita-in

He is one of the 540 rakan at Kita-in Temple (喜多院) in Kawagoe, Saitama, about an hour from Tokyo. Rakan (arhat in Sanskrit) is a Buddhist term for "worthy one", and is used as an epithet of the Buddha himself as well as his enlightened disciples. These statues were carved by a priest between 1782 and 1825. They sit outside Kita-in in their own walled courtyard. No two are alike: it is a wonderful collection of different human postures and expressions. One is digging in his nose, two are drinking sake, others are enjoying a massage and two sit whispering to each other, on and on through the ages, and not once have they revealed their secret.

Kita-in is a Tendai temple. (Tendai and Pure Land are the two biggest Buddhist movements in modern Japan.) The temple was founded in 830, or thereabouts, by a priest called Ennin, who brought Buddhism to northern Japan. It was destroyed twice, first in a fire and then during civil wars, but the version that we see today was built in the late 1500s and early 1600s under the patronage of the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The temple would retain its connection with this powerful clan for several centuries.

The temple is in Kawagoe, an old Edo era town. This era covers the period from 1603 to 1868, when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawas. It coincides with the 250 years of sakoku, isolation, when foreigners were forbidden to enter Japan. (Except my forefathers, the Dutch, who were allowed to continue their trade from Dejima, a small island off Nagasaki. They were probably tolerated because they were more interested in raking in guilder than souls, unlike Francis Xavier and his ilk.)

Nowadays Kawagoe is a popular tourist spot and many old buildings have been turned into shops that sell everything from beautiful traditional crafts to modern plastic rubbish and sweet potato products. Kawagoe is famous for its sweet potatoes, and you can buy delicious roast sweet potato, cookies, chips, candy, noodles and ice cream. If you think sweet potato ice cream is weird, rest assured it's delicious, especially when you're wilting in a humidity that liquefies both body and brain. I love summer in Japan, but I really must stop this mad habit of going walkabout – like mad dogs and Englishmen! – in the hot midsummer sun.

The temple's full name is Seiya-san Muryōshuji Kita-in (星野山無量寿寺喜多院).  Read more about it at its official website here.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Katsunuma, the heart of Japan's wine industry

Katsunuma in Yamanashi is the heart of Japan's wine industry. I visited the town to attend a wine tasting at Katsunuma Winery, and discovered that there's one thing that South Africa does better than Japan: wine. Look, Hugh Johnson I'm not, but I grew up with wine and I lived in Stellenbosch, which arguably makes South Africa's best wines, for many years. I'm not an expert, but Japan has some catching up to do.

Winemaking in Japan

Grapes have been grown in Yamanashi for many centuries, but the first attempt to produce local wine was in the 1800s. It remains a very small industry. The winemaker at Katsunuma Winery told us that wine is enjoyed regularly (at least once a week) by only 3% of Japan's population, and Japanese wines make up only 35% of that 3%. Wine know-how increased in the 1980s, and Yamanashi recently started a trend of "Japanese wine using Japanese grape cultivars". There's increasing interest amongst French winemakers in Japanese wineries, and you often read of cooperation between the two nations.

Wine bottles and tatami at Katsunuma Winery

What I found interesting about Yamanashi is how humid it is. Vines are a desert plant: they need lots of heat and sunlight, but not too much water. Yamanashi is so humid that winemakers use a special elevated hedging technique that keeps the fruit 2 to 3 meters above the ground to allow ventilation. You can walk almost upright underneath this roof of grapes.

I noticed that everything was very green and that even the spaces between the vineyards were covered in green grass, but I couldn't see any evidence of irrigation: no drip irrigation, no steel pipes and sprayers that swish-swish lazy streams of water through the torpid air. (That is the sound of my childhood: swish-swish, swish-swish, on the park in front of our house, on rugby fields, in vineyards, swish-swish, swish-swish.) So I asked, and I was told that they don’t irrigate at all in summer. They use ground water.

Here's another vineyard fact: Yamanashi is actually too hot for grapes, but thanks to its geography – high altitude surrounded by mountains - cool winds blow at night and lower the temperature. Grapes like that.


We spent most of the day in a small town called Katsunuma, including a few hours at its best-known winery which is called, rather prosaically, Katsunuma Winery. The town is surrounded by beautiful mountains: Fuji-san to the south; Japan's second highest peak, Kitadake, and the Japan Alps to the west; and the eight peaks of Yatsugatake to the north.

When we arrived in the town, I was enveloped in almost painful déjà vu. A wide green valley shimmering in white-hot sunlight, mountains growing fainter towards the horizon, brooding summer heat, a chorus of cicadas, small sleepy town, haphazard patchwork of residential houses, arbitrary shops, flowers, fruit orchards, tiny tractors pottering down deserted streets, and everywhere, everywhere, vineyards with rows of trellises and fat bunches of voluptuous grapes. It looked exactly like Worcester (where I was born) and Robertson and Franschhoek. Well. Almost. No churches and no Cape-Dutch gables.

I noticed that most wineries in Katsunuma are fairly small family-owned businesses. You do get giants, like the Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery (also in Yamanashi), but generally the wineries are small. Katsunuma Winery, for instance, produces 300 000 bottles per year.

We attended a wine tasting, as already mentioned. I was the only foreigner, of course, and also the most vocal visitor, of course. Right at the start of the lecture, the winemaker asked us where we came from. The Japanese visitors, being Japanese, remained quiet. "Minami-Afurika kara!" I announced loudly, shattering the deep, cool silence in the wine cellar. "Eeeeh!" everybody responded in that characteristic rising pitch. "Hontō ni?" the winemaker replied. "So desu ne. South Africa has many wines. Eto ne, KWV? I know KWV."

"KWV?! No no no, we have much better wine than that," I wanted to sputter, but discretion prevailed and the audience was spared a diatribe. I shut up and listened to a very long, very detailed lecture about wine. That, too, is rather Japanese: when it comes to information, they're not interested in sound bites, PowerPoint presentations or punchy summaries. Uh-huh. They want an encyclopaedia. Thus it came to pass that we got an encyclopaedia, unabridged version, on a hothothot lazy listless summer afternoon, and it was difficult to stay awake even in that cool cellar.

Finally we did a blind wine tasting, and once again the foreigner was the only one who disrupted group harmony and boldly expressed her opinion. "Which one do you like best?" the winemaker asked. Nobody whispered a word. "This one!" I pronounced, tapping the glass in question. It turned out I'd chosen the most expensive wine, Aruga Branca Pipa, and that Japan Airlines had also selected Pipa for its first class passengers. It's a soft but fruity, subtle but complex oak-matured white.

So I'm happy to announce that I did my Heimat proud by choosing the best wine at Katsunuma Winery. You can take the girl out of Stellenbosch, but you can't take the wine out of her blood.

We tasted only white wines during the wine tasting, which we had to book three months upfront and pay a fortune for, but afterwards I also tried a red wine in the wine shop. Yamanashi's white wines are good, but their reds? No. Even Tassies is better. (Tassies, or Tassenberg, is South Africa's best-selling red wine, but that simple fact should tell you that it's not the best. Suffice it to say it tastes better when mixed with Coca-Cola or chucked into potjiekos.)

Then we went to Budō no Oka, or Wine Hill, a government-sponsored hotel complex perched high above the vineyards. Wine Hill has a hotel, a barbecue spot, a dinkum farm stall that sells the most perfect delicious juicy sensual peaches in the history of the world and a wine shop that also has handmade grape jam. Not hanepoot jam, drat, but one that's called "obasan jamu". That means "jam made by middle-aged women". Who can resist that? So I bought a little pot.

The view from Budō no Oka 

Then we walked – walked! – in 35 degrees! – through the town. It was so hot I almost collapsed, but it was absolutely worth it. It's beautiful, and I chortled gleefully every time I saw hydrangea and sunflowers and vegetable gardens. I'm such a country bumpkin.

The day ended with a dinner of hōtō udon in Kōfu, Yamanashi's main city. Hōtō udon is made with thick, wide, chewy noodles and lots of vegetables simmered in a miso-based broth. It's served very hot in a clay pot. It's not ideal summer food, but it's delicious. After dinner we walked to Kōfu Castle, built in 1583. We sat on the lawn, watched the moon and cooled off in the night breeze. Then we went home. Hot, sticky, hot, tired, hot, happy.
Katsunuma is an easy day-trip from Tokyo. I recommend it wholeheartedly. If you want to read more about the town and the wine industry, I suggest this website by a French photographer and wine lover, and this article in The Japan Times.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Lotus flowers: when Buddha danced on Shinobazu Pond

It is said that wherever Buddha stepped, lotus flowers bloomed. If that is true, he's certainly spending this summer tap-dancing on Shinobazu Pond.

According to Buddhism, the lotus is the symbol of purity, since the flower remains pristine although the plant itself grows in mud. It has a luminescence that I haven't seen in any other flower: even in early-morning shadows the flowers glow with an inner light.

Its beauty has in interesting effect on people, especially photographers. I've photographed all of Japan's famous seasonal flora in various locations – plum blossoms, camellia, cherry blossoms, peony, azalea, wisteria, iris, hydrangea, morning glory, chrysanthemum, autumn leaves - and photographers usually do their own thing, ignoring each other but surreptitiously competing for the best spot. Then it's lotus time, and the rules change: random people call me or walk over to tell me to follow them, because look, over here, here's a beautiful open flower glowing in the sun, in a perfect spot for a perfect photograph.

A few days ago I was photographing lotus flowers at Shinobazu Pond when an old guy on a bike stopped next to me. "Kirei desu ne!" he grinned. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Then he parked his bike, took a huge camera out of its basket and started taking pictures. We wandered off in our own directions, but about ten minutes later he came barreling up the footpath, singing what I've dubbed The Kite Mite Song (The Come Look Song). He was chattering up a storm, directing me to photograph this one and that one and that one; and before I could blink he'd brought over an album of his photographs from previous years and insisted on showing me every photo. Oh, I didn't mind. He shared many anecdotes about Ueno Park. True or not, doesn't matter, it was an interesting chat.

A bit later, on the other side of the pond, I was again peering through my lens when I became aware of a figure hovering in my peripheral vision. As soon as I glanced at him, he beckoned me urgently. "Chotto, kite, kite!" ("Come here a little bit.") He was bouncing in excitement as he led me to a spot further down the pond, and there it was: a solo ballerina delivering a breathtaking performance, perfectly spot-lit in a ray of early-morning sunshine. I gasped audibly when I saw it, and for a few seconds two strangers were united in worship in front of a perfect white-pink flower glowing serenely in the early-morning light. Then I was rewarded with a beaming smile before my benefactor scurried away to join his friends, and I was left alone to stare in awe at Buddha's very own flower.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Lotus flowers bloom between mid July and mid August. The best viewing spot in Tokyo is Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park, but these three places outside central Tokyo are also excellent:
You can see more photos taken at Shinobazu Pond here at my photo blog.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A bellyful of barium at my annual health check

Before my first annual health check in Japan, many years ago, I was happy and healthy. Afterwards I was miserable and as sick as a dog. Blame the barium.

The health check itself – required and paid for by my company – was conducted with meticulous Japanese precision at a clinic in Shinjuku. I was warned about it, and had to confirm a suitable date, four months before I had to go. Two months before my appointment, I received a full kit consisting of a booklet that explained the health check, a long form to complete and mail to the clinic at least two weeks before my appointment, and two mysterious plastic tubes. Everything was in Japanese, but with my Japanese teacher's help, I completed the form and its comprehensive questions about health, diet and exercise. (The Hero took one look at the form and shoved it back at me. "This is woman's stuff." Then he did a double-take, read the section about the barium test and started chuckling evilly.)

Warning: If you're squeamish, you should avoid the rest of this post. I'm going to talk about basic, very basic, bodily functions.

When I arrived at the clinic, everything was ready: my file, as well as various paper cups and test tubes ready to receive various liquids. The other two tubes, which I'd received a few months before, I'd brought with me. What was it for? Unchi-kun

You should know that these two tubes plus the accompanying leaflet had me paralytic with laughter for several days. The two tubes were meant for faeces samples, which had to be taken two days and one day before the health check, preferably in the morning. How very Japanese. You shall produce a perfect specimen as demanded on time, not a day before, not a day after, but as instructed.

The brochure itself was also endearingly Japanese: it took a rather mortifying topic like faeces and cutified it with a cartoon character called Unchi-kun. That roughly means "dear little poo-poo". The brochure earnestly instructed me to keep my samples in a cool, dark place like a refrigerator, but to make sure that nobody ate it. It was at this particular point during the translation, provided with charming solemnity by my teacher, that I lost it and started laughing uncontrollably.

However, I obediently followed instructions and on the day of my health check I travelled to the clinic in a packed train with my two precious samples hidden in my handbag. (To this day I'm unable to look at anybody's bag without wondering what, exactly, is inside?) When I arrived at the clinic, that was the first thing they asked for. "It's like putting down a deposit," a colleague guffawed.

When the tests start, you are briskly whisked from one room to the next. Finally, the infamous barium test. First you swallow fizzy stuff that makes your tummy balloon alarmingly. Next is a cupful of barium sulphate, a contrast medium that is visible to X-rays. It coats the oesophagus and stomach with a thin layer of barium, and this enables the hollow structure to be imaged. It's done as a standard test in Japan because this country has a very high incidence of stomach cancer, possibly caused by the high salt content of the Japanese diet …

You thought their diet was so healthy? Yes, it is, with one exception: it's very high in salt. Salt, stress, smoking, possible diathesis to the disease as well as a low-ish consumption of fruit and vegetables all contribute to stomach cancer problem. So never mind that your Afrikaner genes predispose you to heart attacks, if you're in Japan, you get a bellyful of barium. Regardless of the fact that

1)    it tastes awful, like glutinous cement, and
2)    it causes benpi.

Now that's another cute word for a decidedly uncute symptom: constipation. It's written 便秘 in JapaneseThe first part, ben, means stool, excreta or evacuation. (It can also mean convenient, but in this context it means stool. There is nothing whatsoever convenient about this condition.) The second part, pi, means secret. Aha. So your body is keeping its contents secret instead of revealing it. See? Cute! The biggest advantage of my first health check was that my vocabulary expanded exponentially. Almost as much as my tummy did after I swallowed the barium.

The clinic gave me medicine for benpi before I left. It was useless. After a few days of agony I dragged my abused self off to a pharmacy to Get Help Now! I memorized the kanji for benpi so that I wouldn't, for instance, buy headache pills for a slightly less elevated problem, but when I stood in front of the shelves, I was struck as usual by another serious syndrome: Purchase Panic Paralysis. It's caused 20% by illiteracy, 80% by the overwhelming choice of products.

Many medicines use English brand names, which are written in katakana. As I painfully spelled out the names, I realized what I was mumbling (it always takes a while for that "aha!" moment when you're translating Engrish into English): Mi-ru-ku Ma-gu-ne-ji-a. Suddenly my mind was hijacked by memories of my mother coaxing a spoonful of milky, yucky liquid down my reluctant 6-year-old throat. Ah well. If it's good enough for mom, it's good enough for me.

The bottle said take five tables before you go to bed. I took ten. Baibai barium.

PS: Does this make me a southern barbarium?

This scatological adventure happened many years ago. After that first blah barium burden, I got wise. I now go to the Tokyo Midtown Clinic, which does a much abbreviated health check: height, weight, draw blood, test eyes and ears, do an ECG and chest X-ray and that's that. I went for this year's health check earlier this week. It was over, done, finished in half an hour. You have to take a urine sample with you, but no deposits are required, no barium is administered and you remain blessedly benpi-less.


Typhoon Ma-on was a non-event in Tokyo. After that anti-climax, the only remaining question is, 
"Aaksurulauqsimajjaajunniirasugittailigitsi?" That's Inuktitut. It means, “When will the next change (of weather) be?” If only, oh, if only it could stay as cool as it is today. I've decided the perfect temperature is anything between 22 and 26 °C. Anyway, I found that Inuktitut expression in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley.

PS: And I thought agglutination was a headache in Japanese ...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Miscommunicating in Iwate dialect

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend's father, who's from Iwate. He's in his 80s and he speaks a fairly thick Iwate dialect, which is very different from standard Japanese. I was aware of this difference; so aware, in fact, that I ended up over-compensating with some unexpected results.

Iwate is known for folk songs called min'yō. After lunch I asked the old-timer to sing me a song. Which he did. When he tried to explain it to me, we had a severe cultural misunderstanding. I understood it was a song about farmers who travel to the sea to collect salt, but one word stumped me. He kept saying /kaʊ/. First I thought he meant kau, Japanese for "to buy", as in "to buy salt", but then I wondered if he was using an unusual regional word. Here's our conversation:

Me: Hai, wakarimashita, shio o kaimashita. (Yes, I understand, they bought salt.)
Otōsan: Iie, iie, /kaʊ/.  (No, no, /kaʊ/. This was followed by a rapid-fire explanation that escaped me.)
Me: Kau? Kaimasu? Nani? (Buy? What?)
Otōsan: Iie, iie. /Kaʊ/. Mooooo!
Me: Oh! Cow! Gyū! Cow! Mooooo!

The salt was transported by ox (gyū) carts, and the drivers sang this song to their oxen to encourage them. Not kau. Cow. He tried to use English to help me, but I thought he was using an obscure, impenetrable Iwate term. My brain simply didn't expect English, so it didn't hear English. Ah, the joys of intercultural communication.

Incidentally, the word for milk, gyūnyū, reduces me to giggles whenever I pronounce it. I can't say that word without pulling a face like a chimpanzee.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Typhoon Ma-on is coming. Hide your belly button.

It really is quiet before a storm: a deep, breathless, all-encompassing silence that is so thick you could float a feather – an ostrich feather – on it. It's so still that it sets your teeth on edge. The scientific explanation probably has to do with electricity and barometric pressure, but it really feels as though the sky is lower and heavier. The primordial nether regions of your brain are screaming non-stop warnings that this is Bad Stuff.

It's difficult to understand this stillness if you've never experienced a typhoon, or more specifically, the few hours before it hits. You know all hell will break loose. You can see it approaching in the thickening black clouds. You can sense it in the first soft breeze, or was it your imagination?, that feels like an ant crawling across the hairs on your forearm. A single leaf trembles briefly, and then … it arrives. Raijin (), god of thunder, cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of celestial war.

Raijin is also called Kaminari-sama or Raiden-sama. According to folklore, he eats the belly buttons of children. When there's thunder, parents tell their kids to hide their navels so that Raijin cannot kidnap them.

Today Tokyo is waiting for Typhoon Ma-on. When it swept through Kōchi in Shikoku, it deposited 50 to 70 mm of rain per hour. That's not raining. It's not even pouring. It's liquefying air. You need gills. So we wait, and wait, and wait … but I bet nothing will happen. The typhoon will veer off into the Pacific, and we'll be left with nary a whimper. I shouldn't complain, since typhoons can be nasty creatures, but I wish it would rain. I love rain!

PS: Have you noticed that thunder and lightning are written with similar kanji? Rai  is thunder. Den  is lightning (it can also mean electricity). Almost the same, but den has a little tail, like a lightning bolt. Cute!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The lavender fields of Tanbara Kōgen

I was in the ski lift halfway up the hill when it struck me: visitors weren't holding onto skis, but parasols; and instead of huddling behind thick scarves, they were wiping sweat off with limp face cloths.

What was I doing in a ski lift in the fierce July sun? Chasing lavender, that's what. I was risking this despite the big warning at the bottom of the hill: "The uneasy one please make a bet of a roar on a person in charge for a ride." We decided it probably means if you're nervous about riding on the contraption, you should definitely tell the supervisor.

The Hero was kind enough to interrupt his fishing to take me to the Tanbara plateau in Gunma: in winter a popular skiing spot, in summer a beautiful park covered in 50 000 lavender bushes. It's called the Tanbara Kōgen Lavender Park (玉原高原 ラベンダーパーク), and it's the biggest lavender field in the Kanto region. Read more at their website here.

I'm not sure what's the best – the sight or the fragrance.  As much as I love Tokyo, it's good to escape to the countryside. It's a beautiful area, but you need a car to get there. Drive to Niigata on the Kan-Etsu Expressway, turn left at Numata and get onto National Route 145. That will eventually take you to Tanbara Kōgen.

Rice paddies in Numata in Gunma

Tanbara Kōgen has lavender and many other flowers.

Picking lavender

You can take a ski lift to the lavender fields at the top of the hill.

It says, "The uneasy one please make a bet of a roar on a person in charge for a ride." 

I took this photo in Kawaba. I have absolutely no idea why the plant is wearing a plastic umbrella.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A foreigner's biggest fear

It's what I've always feared the most: a call from my sister in South Africa. "Mom is in hospital. Congestive heart failure. She's in ICU now, undergoing tests, but her doctor said she should be able to go home in a few days."

Heart failure? Some quick Googling reassured me that failure doesn't mean stop, it means weaken, but still …

Now starts what I call the foreigner's dance: forwards, backwards, sideways, spin. Go or stay, run or wait, buy a ticket or don't overreact. Jump whenever an email arrives on your mobile phone. Realize that this could continue for a while or end in a wink. Know that you can't respond to every alarm and go home every time – neither your bank account nor your employer would allow that. Worry about expenses and feel guilty about your selfish concerns. Pile on more guilt because your sister has to cope with the logistics of transport, doctors, medicine and caretaking. Accept that whatever you do, it might be the wrong decision.

Memories. The day I told her I was moving to Japan permanently.
"Mom, there's something I have to tell you."
A long, searching look. "You're going back to Japan."
"How did you … Yes."
"I'm happy that you've met someone, even if he's so far away."
"I'm sorry, Mom. I worry about you."
"Go, child, go. I've had my life. Now it's your turn."

The evening I said goodbye. A last hug around fragile shoulders, feeling them shaking in my arms. She was the one who ended the embrace and walked away, stooped, shuffling a bit, crying into an old-fashioned lacy handkerchief. The handkerchief was pink.

There have been other goodbyes after holidays in South Africa, but it's that first one that I remember.

The curse of the foreign resident: you're always saying goodbye, forever leaving others behind, halfway between loved ones and their emotional hold on you. Even this concept of "bad news from home" is confusing. I don't think of South Africa as "home" anymore. I've moved to Japan. Home is here. Yet no other word makes sense in this context.

The advertising industry and the women's magazines got it wrong. You can not have it all.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A gokiburi ghost story

Once upon a time a spirit followed me home. I'm not entirely sure that it was benevolent, but I suspect we gave each other an equally big fright.

Last year I went to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park for tōrō nagashi, when lanterns are lit and floated on rivers, lakes or the ocean to guide the spirits home during Obon. It’s one of the most beautiful ceremonies I've seen in Japan: simple yet powerful. It's impossible to remain emotionally detached, not if you have a shred of imagination. While priests chanted, the lanterns were released and soon hundreds of lights were dancing across the black water of the pond, with Tokyo's neon-lit skyscrapers in the background.

After the event, still filled with thoughts of spirits and other worlds, I walked home through Taitō. The night was alive with energy and whispers and the gentlest of breezes. You may laugh at me, but there there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The boundary behind the real and the spiritual world is hazy in a country with animist beliefs, and I was – at least in my imagination – slipping between the many realms.

Then a black cat ran over the road in front of me, and old superstitions and new experiences experienced a head-on collision. As far as I know there is no indigenous superstition regarding black cats in Japan, but my imagination was operating in Technicolor and Dolby Digital. Ghosts! Bad luck! Calamity and catastrophe! I tiptoed through the night, trying to walk very softly so that the spirits wouldn't hear me.

When I got home, I was completely hyped up, and in this rather vulnerable condition I walked into the bathroom … and there it was. A ghost. A creature. A yōkai. It was definitely an evil spirit, because it was black and wriggly and ugly, and it scurried across the floor in a weird undulating movement, and then it disappeared under the bathroom cupboard. I'm not the screaming type, but I did utter words that shall not be repeated lest they offend.

Insect? Perhaps, but then it was an insect I'd never seen before. It might have been a gokiburi, a cockroach, but its movements were wrong. If I'd been in South Africa, I would've said gecko. There are geckos in Tokyo, too, but I think it was a yōkai (ghost or demon). Or yūrei (dim spirit) or bōrei (ruined spirit) or shirei (departed soul). Or maybe it was an obake (shapeshifter)?

I think all that chanting opened up a few doors between this world and all the other worlds we don't know about, and then a little evil spirit slipped through. Well, maybe it wasn't really evil. Perhaps it was just as scared as I was, and it just wanted a safe home.

Before you think I've lost my marbles, rest assured that I bought gokiburi repellant and vigorously sprayed it under the bathroom cupboard in a desperate exorcism. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be effective. I was too scared to start poking into dark corners and peering through the tiny gap between the floor and the cupboard to check what was really there.

The Hero was no use. Instead of galloping to my rescue, he gave me his usual instruction – don't be silly – and then informed me that he was hungry. I was left to my own devices to grapple with my Obon apparition.

I never saw it again. It probably was a gokiburi, since they're common in Tokyo's humid summers, but what if it really was a summoned-by-a-black-cat otherworldly yōkai?

And ... what if it comes back tonight, when I return from this year's tōrō nagashi?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Summer's sullen silence

Heat has settled on the city in sullen silence. It slithers off the glass walls and sulks angrily in the narrow alleys. It scowls from rooftops and coils into corners and wraps itself around damp bodies. It clings. It sticks. It suffocates. It isn't even August yet ...

I recently learned two new words that will probably haunt me throughout this summer. An extremely hot day of 35+ degrees is called mōshobi (猛暑日). The three kanji mean fierce/strong/wild, hot and day. So it's a furiously hot day. Then there's entenka (炎天下). The kanji mean fire, heaven and under; in other words, under a blazing sun.

I wonder if there are any job openings at the University of Iceland. Average July temperature in Reykjavík is 11 degrees. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Tōrō nagashi: the lights that guide the spirits home

Japan is a place that creates memories, and the best ones are not mega-massive extraordinary oh-wow-awesome, but brief intervals that bring a quiet smile. This week I had such a moment as I watched paper lanterns floating down the Chidorigafuchi moat, bobbing on black water underneath a full moon, small flames calling the spirits home for Obon.

There, for a few minutes, I could forget that I live in the middle of a megalopolis, offspring of a cynical rational post-modern deconstructed world. The tectonic plates between realities shifted, and the night was filled with energies that we cannot, and should never attempt to, explain.

Tokyo is currently celebrating Obon (), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits. It is believed that the dead return to their birthplaces in this week. Family members clean graves and light fires or paper lanterns to help the spirits to find their way home. The fires that guide the spirits from the graves are called mukaebi, and those that are lit to accompany them back to their graves are called okuribi. Another practice is to place food at the family tomb or butsudan. The offer is usually a combination of hōzuki, grapes, sweet potato, eggplant and cucumber; but it can also include somen (thin wheat noodles), shiratama (small rice cakes), shiruko (sweet bean paste) and kanpyō (white gourd).

My favourite Obon custom is tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し), a ceremony during which lanterns are floated on a river, lake or ocean. This, too, illuminates the way for the spirits. Earlier this week I attended the ceremony at Chidorigafuchi, and tomorrow night I want to go to the much bigger one at Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. I prefer the latter because it's more old-fashioned with chanting Buddhist priests and the whole caboodle. (Chidorigafuchi, on the other hand, had a songstress, with the emphasis on stress, who warbled popular ballads and a rather off-key rendition of Amazing Grace.) If you're interested, Shinobazu's tōrō nagashi starts on Sunday 17 July at 7 pm. It's part of the Ueno Summer Festival.

I've included photos of this year's ceremony at Chidorigafuchi and last year's one at Shinobazu. I even uploaded a video, my first!, to YouTube, but if I'm an amateur photographer, then I'm a total idiot when it comes to videos. BAFTA quality it's not.

Incidentally, I'm never sure how to transcribe . O-Bon, O-bon, Obon? Drat. It's enough to drive a former copy-editor, publisher and book retailer to distraction. Wikipedia uses Obon. Encyclopædia Britannica veers off in a different direction and refers to it as "Bon, also called Bon Matsuri, or Urabon".

PS: Would only a copy-editor write encyclopædia with a ligature digraph instead of a separate a and e or, heaven help us, just an e? Grin.





Shinobazu Pond 2010. You write the name of your ancestor/s on the lantern.

Buddhist priests row the lanterns to the middle of Shinobazu Pond.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Shrine

It's O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, in Tokyo this week. Other parts of Japan celebrate O-Bon in August. Blame the change from the lunar to the solar calendar during the Meiji era for this confusion.

One of the biggest O-Bon festivals in Tokyo is the Mitama Matsuri, Festival of Lights, at Yasukuni Shrine. The festival was inaugurated in 1947 for the consolation of the souls of the nation's war dead, who are invited to celebrate with the living on these evenings. (Mitama 御魂 is an honorific title for the soul of a dead person. The name of the festival is written in hiragana, not kanji, as みたままつり.)

It's a magnificent sight: 30 000 chōchin or paper lanterns line the broad road leading towards the shrine. The name of the person or company who donated a lantern is written on it, and the lanterns form a wall of light in the blue-black sky.

The lower part of the road, where the food stalls are, is usually packed beyond capacity with a Shibuya crowd high on beer and summer heat. Hang in there and battle forth bravely. The closer you get to the main shrine itself, the quieter and the more beautiful it gets. If the congestion in the shrine area is too much for you, too, turn right when you stand in front of the main shrine, walk around it and go to the pond at the back. Blessed silence.

The Mitama Matsuri continues until Saturday, 16 July. (Note added on 2 July 2012 for all Google searchers: the 2012 festival is from 13 to 16 July.)

A side entrance

Walking towards the main shrine from the side entrance

A quiet path towards the back of the shrine complex

The main road leading towards the shrine. The food stalls are further down.

Smaller lanterns inside the shrine complex itself

Yukata and hot pants

Full moon above a shrine building

Monday, 11 July 2011

Awa-odori at the Kappabashi Tanabata Festival

This Japanese guy is hot! I mean that literally. Mind you, he does have rather sexy legs, so I'm not complaining, but I'm actually referring to real body temperature.

When I saw him for the first time in 2010, I dubbed him The Karate Kid for his ability to balance on one leg. He did it a lot more gracefully than Ralph Macchio ever did (can't comment on Jaden Smith; don't want to see the remake). One year later, and I'm happy to report that he hasn't lost his moves. Neither has the rest of his ren or dance troup: they danced up a sweat storm at the Kappabashi Tanabata Festival despite a blazing heat that turned festival-goers into limp, soggy, sluggish wrecks.

This street dance, performed throughout Japan in summer, is called awa-odori. Its origin is the Bon-odori, a dance performed during Obon or the Festival of the Dead, but awa-odori is a lot more energetic. It differs from other traditional dances in one important aspect: dancers keep their hands above their shoulders, whereas other dance forms tend to stress downward movements.

Awa-odori looks simple, but I suspect it's a killer. Men dance slightly crouched, which must give their leg muscles a heck of a work-out. Women dance on their toes. That means they probably have calluses between their big and second toes, as their feet would constantly slide forward against the geta's fabric strap. Ouch. Incidentally, awa-odori allegedly started in 1586 when a feudal lord in Awa (currently Tokushima) opened his new castle with a big celebration. Copious amounts of sake were consumed, things got a wee bit rowdy and eventually the whole crowd was kicking up its heels. Read more here.

Although awa-odori isn't the main point of a Tanabata Festival, that's the part I enjoy the most at the Kappabashi event. Many articles have been written about Tanabata and Wikipedia has a good explanation, so let me keep this very short: Tanabata (七夕), which means the evening of the seventh, is a Japanese festival that celebrates the meeting of Orihime (Weaving Princess, the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (Cow Herder Star, the star Altair). According to legend, the Amanogawa (heavenly river, i.e. Milky Way) separates these two lovers, and they're only allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. It's a very romantic story, yet it's become a children's festival in Japan: kids write their wishes on strips of paper called tanzaku in the hope that they will come true.

Writing his Tanabata wish

There are many Tanabata celebrations in Japan – the two biggest are in Hiratsuka and Sendai – but I always toddle along to the one that is held in Kappabashi-dori, a street between Ueno and Asakusa. It consists entirely of shops supplying the restaurant trade. Want anything kitchen-related? Come here. It sells everything from mass-produced crockery and collector's items to razor-sharp knives and gadgets that would perplex you as to their purpose.

Kappabashi is written 合羽橋 in Japanese, and its mascot is the kappa (, river child), legendary water sprites that are full of mischief: they love farting loudly or looking up women's kimono, but they can also get nasty and kidnap children. As you can see from the kanji, the street and the sprite have nothing to with each other except that they're homophones. Japan does love its homophones! The street's name possibly refers to the raincoats (合羽, kappa) that residents used to hang on the bridge (, bashi). I was a bit disappointed when I read that. Before I was disillusioned, I'd had visions of giggling little creatures stealing food from human residents and escaping flatulently to the river, but never mind, the kitchen street has a cute mascot and that's all that counts.

That, and watching hot men with nice legs.

I've included photos, but for the sake of journalistic integrity – not that there's much of that left in the world – I have to add that I've published shots from last year as well as this year. (Incidentally, you may notice the watermark sanpokatagata on the photos. That's from an old blog that's no longer active. I've moved my photo blog here.)


Everybody dances. Old ...

... and young.

Taking a break. It was very hot.

My favourite festival food: tōmorokoshi. It's delicious with some soy sauce.

Tokyo Sky Tree dominates the shitamachi.

Just to compare: a photo of Tokyo Sky Tree taken at last year's festival.

Street magician

This has to be the cutest kid I've ever seen at a festival.


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