Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: August 2011

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

If the gods can't save you, try the AED ...

What in Amaterasu-ōmikami's name is an automated external defibrillator doing at a tiny neighbourhood shrine? I know there are many old people around here, but ... huh? I haven't seen an AED at any of the other shrines and temples – and there are dozens – in this area. The irony is that this particular shrine is locked most of the time to prevent Taitō's homeless from gatecrashing the gods. It's only open for an hour in the morning and on special Shinto dates. If you're planning a heart attack, may I therefore suggest that you coordinate it with the shrine's schedule?

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Is it possible to lose your mother tongue?

If you stop speaking your mother tongue, do you lose that ability completely?

I was chatting via the internet with my friend Vox, who lives in Stellenbosch in South Africa, about Hurricane Irene.

"What is hurricane in Afrikaans?" I wondered.
"Orkaan," answered Vox.
"What? What a silly word. Never heard of it," I replied.
"It's orkaan," repeated Vox patiently. Then he continued: "Do you realize that the phrase 'my penis is in my hand' is written exactly the same in both English and Afrikaans?" (I have strange friends. That's why I love them.)

He succeeded in distracting my attention from hurricanes to a somewhat smaller topic, and I forgot that I'd forgotten the word, but a few hours later a thought suddenly popped into my head: Die Held laat 'n kamer gou-gou lyk asof 'n orkaan dit getref het. (When The Hero enters a room, it soon looks as if a hurricane has hit it.) I did know the word; I simply hadn't remembered it. The longer I stay in Japan, the more often that happens. I still speak Afrikaans with The Hero and via the internet with my friends in South Africa, but many days can go by without one Afrikaans word passing my lips. As a result, my vocabulary is decreasing noticeably.

Or maybe it's just old age?

To return to my original question: the answer is that you never lose your ability to speak your mother tongue, provided you stop speaking it as an adult. (If you do it as a child, it's a different story.) The loss of your mother tongue is called language attrition. Here's a more complete answer from Wikipedia: 
While attriters are reliably outperformed by native speakers on a range of tasks measuring overall proficiency there is an astonishingly small range of variability and low incidence of non-targetlike use in data even from speakers who claim not to have used their L1 for many decades (in some cases upwards of 60 years, e.g. de Bot & Clyne 1994, Schmid 2002), provided they emigrated after puberty: the most strongly attrited speakers still tend to compare favourably to very advanced L2 learners (Schmid 2009). If, on the other hand, environmental exposure to the L1 ceases before puberty, the L1 system can deteriorate radically.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The colour of sooty bamboo with a wisp of willow

The current blog colours are "willow sooty bamboo" ( 柳煤竹, yanagi-susu-take) for the background and "black green" (黒緑, kuro-midori) for the titles. Still greenish for summer, but I'm gradually returning to my beloved blue-grays. Though, come to think of it, I'll have to try yellow, red and brown in autumn. A brown blog?  Hmmm. 

Willow sooty bamboo at

Willow sooty bamboo at

Black green at

Black green at

Gon, the Little Fox (ごんぎつね)

I wrote about a recent visit to the Jinbōchō Book House here, but I've decided there's a book that justifies its own post. If you only buy one Japanese children's book in your life, buy Nankichi Niimi's Gon, the Little Fox (ごんぎつ, Gongitsune), but be warned that unlike most Western children's books, this one doesn't have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, if it doesn't make you bawl like a baby, you're an evil human being.

It's the story of a little fox that causes all kinds of mischief, steals food from a farmer, feels guilty about it, returns with a gift of food, and … is shot by the farmer. It was also made into a movie. The video I've embedded is the last part of the movie, but if I were you, I'd watch it all. It's in Japanese but you'll follow it easily if you read this English summary on Wikipedia. I've also chosen the last part because it contains the beautiful theme song by Yuki Katsuragi. It's called 心からイエスタディ (Kokoro kara yesterday), which can roughly be translated as "yesterday's heart".

Edit added on 26 February 2013: Drat. That video has been removed due to copyright issues. Here's Katsuragi's song without anime visuals:

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Tokyo's fireworks festivals

Is it my imagination or was last night's Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai an anti-climax? I watched it from home – this apartment is on the 11th floor and it gives you a good view of both venues – but I was dreadfully disappointed. Last year it was a spectacular 90-minute display of non-stop light, colour and noise; this year it was a sporadic, half-hearted attempt. It started late. We had to sit through several long interruptions. There was no dramatic finale.

This photo was taken in August 2010, when Sky Tree was still under construction.

Every year many shitamachi residents watch from their balconies and rooftops. Usually you can hear a collective "aaah!" floating upwards when there's a particularly dazzling display, and occasionally the entire neighbourhood bursts into spontaneous applause. This year? Nothing. I caught myself watching the helicopters circling in the sky instead of the fireworks. I also noticed that many neighbours left their observation posts halfway through the event, as if they'd lost interest.

I think the best fireworks festival in Tokyo is the Edogawa Hanabi Taikai near Koiwa. This year's event was cancelled, but here's a story I wrote about the event a few years ago.

Edogawa Hanabi Taikai

It requires a major kerfuffle to get there: the trains to the event were so crowded I cracked at least three ribs. We got off at Koiwa Station. Policemen were shouting instructions – "keep moving, please be patient, come this way" – though if ever I saw redundancy in action, that was it. You don't have to control a Japanese crowd: crowd control is a built-in genetic feature. Everybody was so well-behaved that even I, emphatically not the world's most patient or courteous creature, controlled myself and shuffled along obediently.

Then we started walking towards the Edo River, down streets lined with shops selling festival food, with yukata flitting like butterflies in the deepening dusk around us. You have to walk over a kind of earth wall to get to the flat stretches next to the river, and when we reached the top of that wall, I involuntarily stopped dead in my tracks despite the inexorable forward pressure of thousands of bodies behind me. I knew that one million people attend the event each year, but I still wasn't prepared for the sight. You've seen the battle scenes from The Lord of the Rings, when the plains of Middle Earth are covered by scores of computer-generated graphic figures? It looked just like that, except that these were real people, spread out as far as the eye could see. 

Finally we reached the river. We were early-ish so we found an empty spot close to the water. Everybody used blue plastic sheets except yours truly: I had brought a cheerful red, yellow and purple kikoy from Kenya. There on the banks of the Edo River, amid a sea of blue, a red cloth of Africa flaunted itself proudly.

We talked, laughed, ate, drank, sweated, sweated and sweated as the dusk deepened and cicada sang their u ke ke ke ke ke song in the reeds. Suddenly the world went silent. Even the insects respectfully paused. It was as though every living creature, through a collective unconsciousness, realized the moment had arrived. One million people and one squintillion cicada, enveloped in a deep hush, with anticipation turning the sluggish air into a sizzling electric field. The crowd began chanting a countdown. Instinct? A signal given by the organizers? Jū, kyu, hachi, nana, roku, go, yon, san, ni, ichi … and the sky exploded in a supernova of shimmering, dancing, sparkling colours. Photographs cannot capture the enchantment or the magnitude of the spectacle. It was designed very cleverly, with an occasional fortissimo and crescendo that lit the night with a thousand shooting stars and had the crowd gasp involuntarily. That gasp from a million throats was a soul-wrenching sound, as though the very earth itself caught its breath.

Finally it was over, and one million people descended on three stations to go home – but not until they had folded up, cleaned up, picked up and tidied up. The return journey was a nightmare. The heat made everybody soggy and we were squashed together like protons in a nucleus. When I finally got home, I set the air conditioning on 20 degrees (this was long before setsuden!), had a cold shower and finally cooled off after sleeping in the refrigerator.

I may still have my doubts about fireworks in general, but on that specific night that specific fireworks display was definitely worth it. It was a wonderful experience: for one hour, we all became children and marveled at the mystery of fire and light in a black velvet night.

PS: I didn't even try to take photos, because fireworks require skills beyond my capabilities. If you want to see great photos of this year's Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai, I suggest 512colors.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

A sanctuary amongst books

August has been a rough month with a mother whose health is failing, rocketing frail care expenses and a looming budget deficit that makes Japan's national debt look like a small change trifle. I briefly considered chocolate as an anaesthetic, but my firmly established migraine objected. There was only one solution: I had to visit my spiritual sanctuary in Tokyo, Kitazawa Books (北沢書店) in Jinbōchō, on the second floor of Jinbōchō Book House.

Kitazawa Books interior

I buy most of my books at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku, but Kitazawa is where I go to restore my sanity. It sells used and antique books, mostly English, but also Dutch, German and French. It's very quiet, with real wooden shelves, muted lighting and an appropriately solemn atmosphere. This is, after all, a place of worship. The two regular staff members are adorable: they're a Ritalin version of Dr Emmett Brown, complete with fuzzy hair and a subdued but still feverish gleam of devotion in their eyes, in other words, total book boffins.

I went there earlier this week and spent a full hour browsing, reading and recharging my batteries. Only three other shoppers arrived in that time, and two were clearly lost tourists who survived only a few minutes before they fled. The other shopper was a book nerd – oh, it takes one to know one! – who focused on Victorian authors.

Did I buy any books despite my new fiscal austerity? Yes, a 1958 first edition of Things Japanese by Mock Joya, a journalist who graduated from the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages in 1904. It required admirable self-control, but I told myself if my forefathers could walk barefoot across the Drakensberg Mountains*, then I could limit myself to one book. It wasn't exactly a cheap book, but oh well, food is overrated anyway. I'll go for the pale, skinny, anguished look.

Happiness is piles and piles and piles of books.

Then I went downstairs to the first floor, which houses a children's books section managed by Showa Tosho. I have a fatal weakness for well-illustrated children's books, and I spent another hour in a fantasy world of The MoominsThe Little Red Fish by Taeeun Yoo (if you love books, you HAVE to read it!), Kōji IshikawaSatoshi Kitamura and Nankichi NiimiI didn't buy anything. Oh, all right, I did, but it was just a postcard. OK, if you want total transparency, I got three copies of the same postcard. It's based on the Frog and Toad characters by Arnold Lobel, and it says "Reading is Fun!" Three bookwormish friends are going to grin when they open their postboxes …

I second that.

* That's a refence to South Africa's colonial past. During the British occupation of the Cape Colony, an Afrikaans woman called Susanna Smit told a British officer that she would rather walk barefoot across the Drakensberg Mountains than submit to British authority. She became a folk heroine, and to this day we use her words, albeit tongue in cheek, when we refer to a great challenge.

There she goes, barefoot across the Drakensberg. Susanna Smit was immortalized in this statue near Harrismith.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Ayu fishing in Niigata

Summer means ayu. That's when you catch it and that's when you eat it. An ayu is a small river trout that's indigenous to Japan and is famed for its sweet flesh. It's written 鮎 in Japanese; its scientific name is Plecoglossus altivelis. It can be caught in three different but equally traditional ways: using a cormorant, building a small weir ( yana) of wood and stones or using another live fish. The latter technique is called ayu no tomozuri (鮎の友釣り) or ayu decoy.

Ayu are extremely territorial: if they see another fish in their area, they will immediately attack it and try to drive it away. Fishermen exploit this by attaching hooks to a live fish (through its gills) and releasing it in a river. When other fish attack this live bait, they get hooked and you have your lunch. This website explains it in pictures.

When you go fishing in Niigata in summer, you see ayu fishermen everywhere. If you're lucky, they might invite you to join them for an ayu barbecue: just skewer the fish on a stick, barbecue it for a few minutes and there you go. Its flesh is supposed to taste of cucumber and melon. I've tried it, but it's not my personal favourite. That honour still belongs to South African snoek.

Ayu fishing in Niigata

He's using an ayu no tomozuri or ayu decoy.

Massive nuclear reactors and small shrines

Kashiwazaki is a town in Niigata that's probably best known for the nearby Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear generating station in the world (by net electrical power). When it's going full blast. Which it hasn't since the 2007 Chūetsu Earthquake, which caused radio-active gases and a small amount of water from the spent fuel pool to leak from the plant. 

The incident damaged tourism in the area very badly, but it's a beautiful region with interesting sites like the old village Kayabuki-No-Sato.

The town lies on the Nihonkai, the Japan Sea. I've included a few pictures of a very hazy sea on a very hot day in August, a quirky sightseeing spot called Lover (sic) Point and a small shrine that's built in the ocean.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Thoughts on photographing people

Last week I was roped into taking photos at a work-related party. I'm not a particularly good photographer and I'm a hopeless social photographer – I prefer landscapes – but I knew I'd take better photos with my DSLR than other partygoers would take with their mobile phones, so I agreed.

Before I continue, I should confess that I'm not a party animal. I'm an asocial hermit who'd rather spend an evening ensconced in a book than quaffing beers and making small talk. A small get-together with a few friends, great. A noisy shindig with random strangers, ugh. The bigger the bash, the more awkward I get. If you force me to attend a social function, I usually hide behind the nearest pot plant and observe my fellow humans. I love watching people almost as much as I love reading.

So there I was, thrown into the fray, wondering how soon I'd be able to leave. That's when I discovered that a camera is much better than a pot plant. You can go anywhere, intrude everywhere, play voyeur, listen surreptitiously or openly, amble around, stop where you want to and wander off when you want to … all without feeling like a klutz or having to say a word except, "Picture! Closer! Chiiizu!" I stood on chairs, leopard-crawled through chattering groups, stalked unsuspecting victims. I was part of the event yet totally separate. Everybody ignored me.* It was great.

* That is, I thought everybody ignored me until I viewed my photos at home and noticed that some individuals were hyper-aware of the camera. They pop up in the background again and again and again, looking straight at the camera, with what they probably regard as a sexy smile. It's too funny.

I learned several photography lessons. 
  • Because I'm so short – less than 1.6 m – most of my subjects are looking down at the camera. Drat.
  • Non-photogenic people are more interesting.
  • Japanese people are obsessed with that V-sign thing. It's a Pavlov's dog response: they see a camera, they go V.
  • Japan and England have many things in common, like not-so-perfect teeth. I prefer crooked teeth to ruler-straight American crowns, because I think it provides more character to a face.
  • There really is a lot of yaeba teeth in Japan. Men and women. When I came to Japan, I thought it was odd. Now I think it's cute. I've been here too long …

I thought I was taking photos in a fairly egalitarian manner, but when I got home, I realized that I had focused on two groups with far greater frequency: on the one hand women with gorgeous smiles and men with wide grins and laughter lines, and on the other hand cute girls. Cute girls?! I've definitely been here too long. But, well, there was one girl with a nice grin and a very cool man's hat, and another one with the happiest smile ever, and some of my Japanese colleagues looked so pretty.

I also took more photos of two men, one Japanese and one European, without realizing it at the time. Both are in their 40s, which I think is a man's best age, and both have deep laughter lines and mischievous eyes. I smile involuntarily when I look at their photos.

PS: I have a Canon EOS 550D. Not top of the range at all, but a good, user-friendly, light-weight camera. I used my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 for the party photos, because it's a low-light lens and it gives you very nice bokeh. (My favourite general purpose lens is my EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6.)

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Those tiny pesky bugs that live in tatami

I was introduced to yet another summer misery when The Hero arrived home, looking decidedly disgruntled.

"I'm itching," he announced.
"Why? Heat?" I asked.
"What's that?"
"Dani. That's, ummm, whatsimicallits. Ticks."

That's what he said: ticks. TICKS?! Mention that word to a woman from darkest Africa and she immediately sees visions of a "bosluis" or a "bush tick": a big, fat, ugly, disgusting insect that can cause serious cattle diseases. I was ready to jump off the 11th-floor balcony, but I controlled myself. I even managed to look sympathetic when I saw what those dani bites looked like – tiny, red, angry-looking blisters – though my mind was filled with images of tick armies deserting their host and crawling into my clothes, the zabuton, the curtains …

It turns out that dani are not ticks, but tiny bugs that live in tatami. Mite would be a better translation than tick. It so happens that both ticks and mites belong to the class Arachnida and the subclass Acarina – hey, I did my research! – but mite sounds better than tick, doesn't it?

This isn't a dani. It's a sculpture in Marunouchi, but they're both bugs, so ...

Dani are unique to Japan. They thrive in temperatures between 25-30 degrees Celsius, humidity between 60-80% and poor ventilation, in other words, they adore Japan's summer. They multiply rapidly when the rainy season starts and then frolic merrily until autumn arrives. Their bites are apparently very common. You can get rid of them with pesticides, constant vacuuming and regular airing, but they're a fairly fierce foe. The most popular weapon against them is an aerosol spray with a small needle that is inserted into a tatami mat at evenly spaced points, each point receiving a 15-20 second injection.

Since there's no tatami in this apartment – I don't know where The Hero picked up his passengers, but it wasn't here – I don't worry about dani, but I have to battle another summer problem: mildew. We love steamy baths in Japan, so you really have to watch your bathroom very carefully, even in a modern building with built-in air vents and dehumidifiers.

Don't think of Tokyo as a modern city. Heck, no. It's a jungle, with the same kind of I-can't-breathe hot soupy air that you find in West and Central Africa. (Although the last few days have been blessedly cool.) It also has lots of goggas (insects), just like Africa. Take a look at my recent posts: gokiburi, buyo, semi, dani ...

PS: "Gogga" is Afrikaans for "insect". The word cannot be pronounced by any language group except Afrikaans, Dutch and Flemish, but if you want to try, imagine that you have bronchitis, smoke six packets of Camel a day and are choking on a chicken bone stuck in your throat. Now try to get rid of the bone. Go "ggggg".

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The best bread in Tokyo

I've died and gone to heaven, surrounded by voluptuous loaves of fragrant bread. This is real bread. Not a conbini concoction created in a chemical factory, or that fluffy French stuff sold at countless patisseries in Tokyo. I don't want that. I want farm-style goodness instead of faux sandwiches and chichi fashion. Rye bread as big as a pillow. Five grains bread chewy enough to wear down your jaw bone. Spelt bread as yummy as it gets.

If you agree with me, I recommend the bakery Le Pain Quotidien in Shiba-Koen near the Prince Hotel Tokyo. They opened earlier this year. All their breads are handmade by artisans, and that means real yeast, a very slow rising process and no artificial agents. They also sell desserts, jams and olive oils; and you can eat in their restaurant at their "communal table".

Think it's too good to be true? It is. You may not break a tooth on the grains, but you'll probably choke on the price. A large five grains bread is ¥2800. The two zeros are correct. However, it's a hefty loaf that gives you eighteen to twenty slices, in other words, about ¥150 per slice. How much does a conbini sandwich cost? ¥200 to ¥300? I'd rather make my own healthy snack than eat limp white bread with artificial cheese. I ask the shop to slice the bread, and then I keep it in my freezer. That way I can savour it slowly, parsimoniously and pinchguttingly, one precious slice at a time.

More prices: half a spelt bread (eight slices) is ¥710. Organic jam, 250 g, no sugar added, is ¥650.

Another excellent bakery in the Tokyo area is Linde Bäckerei in Kichijōji, which I wrote about here, but it's too far from the shitamachi for regular visits.

While I'm talking about bread, I have a question. Why is Tokyo so enamoured of baguettes? Why, Japan, why? Your Diet is partly modeled on the Reichstag and your schoolboy uniforms are based on Prussian army uniforms … so why did you have to adopt French bread as the standard rather than German bread? Bauernbrot, Vollkornbrot, Roggenmischbrot, Wurzelbrot, Pumpernickel, Dinkelbrot, Mehrkornbrot, Sonnenblumenkernbrot, Schwartzbrot. Real bread.

Five grains bread. This slice looks small because it's the very first one. The ones in the middle are bigger. Promise.

Five grains bread and apricot jam

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I have a Fuji on my forehead!

This week, while I was talking to a Japanese woman, I pushed my fringe from my forehead and tried to make it stay on top of my head. It was hot and I was trying to cool down, but my action had unexpected results.

"Eeeh! Fujibitai!" she exclaimed, pointing at my head. 
"What's that?" I asked. I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Look, look, your head!"
"What's wrong with my head?" I asked, alarmed. 
"No, no, your hair!"
"Look!" she said, and drew an M on a piece of paper. "Your hair looks like this. Fujibitai! Sugoi!"

Aha. Fujibitai means "Fuji forehead", in other words, a widow's peak. The Japanese believe that this distinct point in your hairline resembles Fuji, hence its Japanese name. Forehead is hitai , but when it's combined with another word, the h is pronounced as b. Fujibitai is written 富士額.

During the Edo era, a Fujibitai was regarded as one of the qualities of a beautiful woman. Other characteristics included a fair skin, a narrow face, beautiful eyebrows and a slim waist. The old Edo hairstyle called takashimada (高島田), worn by unmarried daughters of samurai, often had a Fujibitai. You still see this style at traditional Japanese weddings, when the bride wears a takashimada wig. Here's a website that tells you exactly how high or low Fuji should be on your forehead.

You can see more takashimada photos here. I found the photo on the left on this website.

I dunno if I'm a true Edo beauty, although I live in the heart of old Edo, but I definitely have a Fuji on my forehead. So there.

Mōshobi - a very hot day when the sky glowers

Today will be 35 degrees Celsius in Tokyo. Such a hot day is called a mōshobi (猛暑日), which means a fiercely hot day.

My personal planetarium showed early signs that it would be a scorcher: it shimmered in a hazy, sullen-looking sky. A morning like this reminds me of harmattan, a West African trade wind that blows from November to March, filling the air with fine dust particles that it picks up in the Sahara Desert. It's a cool wind, but it also turns the sky into an opaque, blurry, ill-tempered scowl.

Air conditioners will be going full blast today. Let's hope Tepco can cope.

Tokyo Sky Tree, 18 August 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The horrors of a heat rash + an air con rant

It's August. It's hot. It's miserable.

I've developed a familiar Tokyo ailment: asemo (汗疹) or heat rash. Ase () means sweat, so it can also be called a sweat rash. Incidentally, I've seen 汗疹 transcribed as kanshin. Same meaning, different pronunciation.

Well. I think it's a heat rash. It could be measles, but that's unlikely, since I had it as a child. It could be an exotic African virus that's been mutating in my body for several years, but as they say, when you hear the sound of hoof beats, look for the horse before you look for the zebra. Whoever said that never lived in Africa, but we're in Japan now, so ... I think it's a heat rash.

It's a nasty-looking red rash that itches like mad and is prevalent in those areas where the sun never shines. A bit of Googling revealed that it's a common problem in Japan in summer, thanks to the high humidity. There isn't any cure. You can try ointments or talc, but the only real solution is to cool your body down. That means air conditioning, and that's a bummer. I don't like air con: it wreaks havoc with my sinuses and it's just too damn cold.

Yes, it is, if you work with Americans! There's a perpetual war at my company between Americans, who want the air con to be on 24 degrees Celsius or lower, and Europeans, who prefer a minimum of 26. Japanese OLs are always shivering, even when it's 28, so they arrive with jackets, pashmina shawls and knee blankets regardless of which faction wins the daily skirmish. Me? I'm from Africa. Can't we just sit outside under a tree and look at the zebras? I'll take my AK-47 to protect us against the predators.

Incidentally, the opponents in our local freezing conflict never mention the little issues of quake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown and electricity shortage. When summer started, I thought we should all be in this ganbarimashō thing together. Then I observed as pachinko parlours played their cryogenics games, luxury brand shops in Ginza and Omotesandō hurled arctic air from open front doors, and Tepco and NISA executives continued to receive high salaries, fat bonuses and golden handshakes. I asked myself whether these captains of industry were using electric fans at their homes instead of air con, and at that particular moment I decided that this little goose would follow the example of the ganders. Men always know better, don't they?

Despite my resolution, I still avoid air con as much as possible at home. My tactic has nothing to do with Tepco and being a good citizen who saves electricity. I'm simply trying to avoid a persistent headache, but now that it's a choice between an itchy rash that can't be cured by medicine and a headache that can be controlled by Excedrin …

Where’s that remote control?

The colour of insects

Summer means insects. That's why my blog's new colour scheme is summer insect green (夏虫色, natsu-mushi-iro) and a shade that roughly means "opaque insect colour" (虫襖, mushi-ao). As I've mentioned before, green is not my favourite blog colour, but I can't help but love these subtle, complex tones.

"Summer insect green" at

"Opaque insect colour" at

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Niigata's bright light rice

The best rice in Japan is produced in Niigata, specifically the Uonuma area. It's also one of the most expensive rice varieties in the world. It's called koshihikari, written 越光 in Japanese. Koshi  越 is the old name of this area, and hikari 光 means light. Hence: the light of Koshi. 

I've read that some people have started stockpiling rice from last year, since they're worried that this year's crop might have high radiation levels. Me? I'd be very happy to eat the light of Koshi, 2011 vintage, that's ripening in the fierce summer heat as I write this.

All these photos were taken near Uonuma. Click on a photo to see a bigger version.

PS: Bright light rice? Now there's a tongue twister.

Koshihikari rice, Uonuma

Koshihikari rice, Uonuma

Uonuma farms

I don't know if this scares the birds, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

This is near Yuzawa, which is next to Uonuma.

Nothing to do with rice, but it IS growing near Uonuma ...

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The umbrella of compassion

The Hero regularly buys the latest edition of The Big Issue Japan, the magazine that's sold by homeless people.

"Why do you support them? Do you feel sorry for them?" I asked.
"It's not just for them; it's for me, too," he answered.
"What do you mean?"
"Compassion is like an umbrella. It's always in circulation."

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Japan's cicadas - loud enough to split rocks

They should irritate me immensely. They're noisy, they're everywhere and they have zero sympathy for a pounding heat-induced headache. They're not cute and they drop their clothes on the floor and the males are totally one-track minded. Yet they're irresistible, and summer wouldn't be summer without them.
Cicadas. They're called semi () in Japanese; sonbesie ("little sun animal") in Afrikaans. They're ubiquitous in Africa, but I didn't develop an interest in them until I came to Japan and realized what a wide-ranging repertoire these mini-Pavarottis have. Perhaps I never noticed them in South Africa when I was surrounded by "very many nature", in the immortal words of my students, but they're so unexpected in a big city that I'm more aware of them.

That explanation doesn't make much sense, does it? Let's continue.

Wikipedia says an adult male cicada can produce sounds up to 120 dB, "which is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans, should the cicada sing just outside the listener's ear". I don't think we have to worry about that. Insects aren't that stupid. (Humans? The jury is still out.) To compare sound levels: a motorbike is 100, a plane on a runway is 120, a jet engine going full blast is 140.

You can hear many different songs as you walk through Tokyo. Different species sing at different times of the day, and also in different periods throughout summer. The most common one is probably the minminzemi. According to Japanese folklore, the minminzemi chants like a Buddhist priest reciting "nam myōhō renge kyō", one of the central mantras in Nichiren Buddhism. You can hear its song here.

I also like the higurashi, but the champion singer is the tsuku-tsuku-boshi, which can be heard towards the end of summer. You can listen to its bravura performance here and here

Incidentally, if you're puzzled by my accusation in the first paragraph that cicadas "drop their clothes on the floor", I'm referring to the fact that they moult and discard their skins on trees. They live underground as nymphs for most of their existence. Their adult life, when they sing with such abandon, is very short. That's another reason why they're so popular in Japan: like cherry blossoms, they're a symbol of the transience of life. As a matter of fact, the Japanese word for an empty cicada shell is utsusemi (空蝉), which is a homonym for "mortal man" or "temporal things" (現人).

The word semi also serves as kigo (季語) for summer. Kigo are words associated with a particular season, used in haiku as well as longer poetry forms.

I recommend the websites kimoto and hitohaku for more information about Japan's cicadas; and cicadamania for general information about all species. I end this cicada post with a beautiful haiku by BashōYou can read more about it here.

閑かさや shizukasa ya        
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimi iru
蝉の声 semi no koe

In the stillness, the cicada's cry penetrates the stone.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The miseries of the great outdoors

One of the joys of summer is the great outdoors. One of the miseries of summer is the great outdoors. Especially the creepy crawlies.

I'm convinced Africa's armour-plated monsters are the worst, but the members of Familia Japonica are not to be sneered at. They're a nasty nuisance, especially during fly fishing excursions in the mountains. Stand in a river in Japan's sodden summer heat and you’re soon surrounded by mosquitoes, gnats and midges, all determined to turn you into tabehodai (as much as you can eat). Worst of all is the dreaded black fly, which I wrote about here.

I've tried various Japanese insect repellents, but they remind me of Japanese deodorants: not particularly powerful. I prefer a South African doepa (magic potion) called Tabard. It's basically diethyltoluamide, or DEET, which is used in a thousand similar products, but I swear on my entire book collection that Tabard is better. I also like it because it's not sticky and it's very easy to apply.

Who knows whether it's simply my imagination or whether Japan's bugs are really spooked by this smelly green stuff, but … it works. I'm guarding my one remaining Tabard stick jealously.

Completely irrelevant linguistic digression

Muggy means humid. Muggie is an Afrikaans word for a midge. It's pronounced with /X/, in other words, the voiceless velar fricative that you also hear in Scottish English, Russian and Arabic. So Japan's summer is muggy and it's full of muggies and that yet again proves that mushi-atsui (humid in Japanese) should be written 暑い and not 蒸し暑い. As I've opined before. Q.E.D.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Japanese slave in South Africa

A Japanese slave in South Africa? It cannot be proven beyond any doubt, but it's possible.

Here's the story. South Africa – or rather the old Cape Colony – was built with the help of slaves captured by the Dutch East India Company and taken to the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope (modern-day Cape Town).

These slaves were mostly from the Indian Ocean, which was the main trading domain of the Dutch East India Company. Whereas the United States had mainly black slaves, the Dutch slave colony was a cosmopolitan collection that could be divided in four equal parts: Africa, Madagascar, the Indian sub-continent and the East Indies.

If you look at the Cape's old records, you'll find references to a mysterious man called Anthonij van Bengal de Later van Japan. It is possible that he was born in Japan and taken to the Dutch base Dejima near Nagasaki in the 1600s. There he became the slave of a man called Zacharias Wagenaar, who worked at Dejima from 1656 to 1659. When Wagenaar returned to the Cape, he took Anthonij with him.

Seven years later, when Wagenaar was transferred to Batavia, he gave his slave his freedom and an "erf" (a piece of land) for the price of 60 rijksdaalder. The old property deed refers to Wagenaar's "Japanischen lijffeijgen Anthonij" (Japanese male slave)

Incidentally, Wagenaar worked for the Dutch East India Company, but he was German. His original surname was Wagner. He was the second governor of the Cape Colony, after Jan van Riebeeck, and also the chief trader at Dejima. Yes, we've always been a mixed bunch in South Africa. I'm a Dutch/German hybrid, but my pet theory is that Anthonij van Japan is in my family tree, somehow, somewhere. That would explain many things.

Who was Anthonij van Japan? There were many slaves from Bengal, and many were called Anthonij. Was this man really Japanese, or did he simply adopt the name to distinguish himself from all the others? The Hero, who first alerted me to this story, said I wouldn't find any Japanese references online, but being a stubborn Dutch descendant, I tried a Google search anyway. He was right. As usual. I did find English citations, including this reference to church records, but there's no conclusive evidence of Anthonij's ethnicity. Perhaps if one looked at the original Dejima records, one might find more information.

Ag nee man, David Mitchell! Why did you write about a boring guy called Jacob de Zoet? I've heard rumours that you're planning a sequel. Don't you want to write a prequel instead and include Anthonij van Japan in your next book? Or ... maybe I should visit Nagasaki myself? Hmmm.

Böeseken, A.J. Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape, 1658-1700. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1997.
Schoeman, Karel. Early Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1717. Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2007.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Stories in Afrikaans

This is a bilingual story about The Hero and his expressions. His native language is Japanese, but he has near-native fluency in three others. He creates wordplay in all of them without any effort. When I pick up an oddity in his English or Afrikaans, I'm never sure whether it was intentional or an honest mistake, but he does occasionally slip up.

The other day, while we were driving along the Kan-Etsu Expressway, he petaflopped a collision between cautious and careful, and out came cauful. Afrikaans syntax interfered and hy sny voor jou in got translated as he cuts before you in. One could say Afrikaans cut before English in and caused a bit of a pile-up. It took me a while to explain that cut in – referring to traffic incidents – is one of those English verb phrases that cannot be split. "Afrikaans does it. German does it. Why can't English do it?" he demanded to know impatiently.

I'm going to switch to Afrikaans now. My apologies to English readers, but I occasionally write in Afrikaans for two reasons. Firstly, The Hero loves reading it; secondly, this blog gets surprisingly many search queries for "stories in Afrikaans".

Hier's die res in die kombuistaaltjie.

Die ander dag maak Die Held 'n motorvenster oop. "Ek moet vars lug kry. Ek's mos warmlik."
"Jy's wat?"
"Warmlik. Nes jy koulik is." Net voor ek hom beterweterig daarop kon wys dat daar nie so 'n woord is nie, het ek die duiweltjies in sy oë sien dans.

Wanneer hy gegim of ge-onsen het, moet hy uitkoel, nie afkoel nie. Hy strip nie sy moer nie, hy moer sy strip.

Sodra hy hoor dat ek 'n woord gebruik wat vir hom onbekend is, word ek in die rede geval. "Wat is dit? Wat beteken dit?" Hy vra my altyd om dit 'n hele paar keer te herhaal. Dan mompel hy dit herhaaldelik vir homself, en dan vergeet hy dit nooit weer nie!

Hy het my ook laat besef dat my taal geen sin maak nie. Onthou dat Japannees geen direkte of indirekte artikel het nie, met ander woorde, die en 'n bestaan nie. Hierdie twee klein woordjies fassineer Die Held. "Hoekom is jy oor DIE muur? Hoekom nie HIN muur nie?" 

Hy sê ek moet hom iewers ontmoet.
"OK, ek sal op die trein spring."
Blitsvinnig kom die reaksie: "Hoekom DIE trein? Hoekom nie HIN trein nie?"

Dis lekker om anderkant die taalgrens te gaan kuier.

The colour of summer

I haven't changed my blog colour for a long time, so here we go: I've used "willow colour" (柳色, yanagi-iro) for the background and "thousand years green" (千歳緑, chitose-midori) for the titles. I happen to think green isn't the best colour for a blog, but it's mid-summer, so what the heck.

Willow colour at
Thousand years green at 

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Wisdom from a tree

If you can't get through it, go around it.

This photo was taken in the mountains between Tsuru and Fujiyoshida in Yamanashi.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A nasty gnat called buyo

Last month I experienced the nasty side of Japan, the dark underbelly, the danger lurking beneath the pretty façade.

It's ugly. It's poisonous. It's vicious. It has certainly changed my perception of Japan as a safe, refined, harmonious society. Unfortunately it's ubiquitous in the countryside, and there's absolutely nothing a hapless foreigner can do to protect herself against this repugnant atrocity.

It's … buyo. Buyo, called black fly in English, is a nasty gnat that's found next to rivers all over the world. It can cause a human illness called onchocerciasis, which can lead to blindness, but I suspect that's mostly in developing countries. As is the case with mosquitoes, it's only the female black fly that feeds on blood. During a fishpedition to Yamanashi, I got attacked by this horrid beastie. The bites caused a painful swelling that lingered for two weeks, itched like hell and left small but obvious lesions.

I should've listened to The Hero. Even before we left Tokyo, he told me to take a long-sleeved shirt. When we arrived at the fishing spot, he reminded me to button up and then proceeded to do that himself. He even tucked his jeans into his socks.

"That looks like Boksburg!" I teased him. (Boksburg is a less sophisticated suburb of Johannesburg, and the butt of endless jokes. Just Google "Boksburg jokes".) "You'll see. You'll be sorry!" he growled at me, who was gambolling about in a short-sleeved T-shirt.

I did. I was. I got stung twice, on my arm and my forehead. It looked as though I'd hit my head against a brick wall.

The insect is notorious wherever it's found. You can listen to a cute song about an extremely uncute malevolence here.

The beauty of birds

One of my greatest pleasures during these fishing excursions is to listen to the birdsong in the forests. I wish I could identify more species! During this trip, I heard an uguisu or Japanese bush-warbler. It's also referred to as the Japanese nightingale, but you never hear it at night. According to folklore, it sings pi pi pi kekyo kekyo hoo-hoke'kyo hoo-hoke'kyo.

I also watched a big flock of egrets as they swooped in slow circles above the tall, stately cedars. The contrast between blindingly white feathers and jade green leaves was breathtaking.

The cuteness of cats

While we were fishing at a private pond, a little black-and-white cat came tiptoeing from the surrounding trees. There were several fishermen around the large pond, but the cat made a beeline (fishline?) for The Hero. It barely acknowledged my attempts to make friends; just sat down and stared fixedly at its target until The Hero was totally, helplessly hypnotized.

"He looks hungry," The Hero was brainwashed into declaring.
"You want to feed him? Don't you have to release the fish in this pond?"
"No, you don't have to."

Lo and behold, the next two fish that were caught were offered to My Feline Lord, who gobbled it up and then collapsed next to the pond to sleep off its over-indulgence.

Staring The Hero into submission

Happy cat!



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