Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: October 2011

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Happiness is ... the new Murakami

Bought earlier this evening, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, all 925 pages of it. Goodbye. I will resurface when I've finished at least one third of the book. If I read non-stop, as I am wont to do, I will have done that by tomorrow.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The prostitute and the spouse

I saw them at Shinjuku Station. I thought they might be employed in Kabukichō, Shinjuku's red light district, but then reality took hold: here in Japan, ordinary garden-variety girl-next-door women dress in clothes that would make a Nigerian night worker blush.

Both girls were wearing French knickers. Not as underwear, but as outerwear. Not disguised in any way whatsoever. Made of satin and lace. There was only one difference between the real item and what these two (almost) had on: original French knickers have a loose fit, the Shinjuku versions did not. The young ladies had combined their apparel with black stockings (of course), stiletto boots (of course) and bolero-type fur thingies. Fur is apparently big news this winter.

Have you noticed that foreigners stare at such outfits, but Japanese men don't? Perhaps the latter have been bludgeoned into oblivion by an oversupply. As I myself observed the public display, I suddenly remembered a Lagos incident that still makes me chuckle.

I was with a colleague who was driving his car along Adeola Hopewell Street on Victoria Island. My colleague – let's call him George – had worked in Lagos for several years and had gone "bossies" (mad): instead of employing a driver, as all expats did, he insisted on driving himself. He turned down his window, blithely ignoring beggars, hawkers, prostitutes, robbers, machine guns and exotic viruses. This action would freak out most expats, but since I was living in world murder capital Johannesburg at the time, I yawned and followed his example. Five minutes later exhaust fumes and other assorted odors made me close my window again.

Anyway, we were crawling along in yet another mindboggling Lagos go-slow (traffic jam), stop, stop, inch forward, stop. Adeola Hopewell, which could be described as the Wall Street of Lagos provided you appreciate irony, is infamous for its prostitutes. George was propositioned several times, but this was the best:

"I give you good time. How much?"
"No, thank you."
"I give you very good time. We go hotel. Only 5000 naira."
"We go hotel. How much you pay?"
"Maybe 100 naira."
"Oga, I don give you good time o. You no dash me small-small." (Boss, I will give you a good time. Don’t pay me so little.)
"I can't go with you. Look, my wife is with me."

The prostitute glanced over and dismissed me with a flick of long red nails. "It's OK," she replied. "She can watch."

Sometimes I miss Africa.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Japan has a long way to go

I read articles about the current EU talks and look at photos of IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then I try to imagine Japanese women in that situation. Oh dear.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Autumn colours in Gunma

Just to show you where I get ideas for my blog colours. These photos were taken in the mountains of Numata in Gunma, where leaves start changing colour earlier than in Tokyo. Click on the photos to see larger versions.

The world is my mikan

New blog colours. I tried to find a traditional Japanese colour that resembles half-green, half-yellow ginkgo leaves, but it just doesn't work on a blog. I eventually settled for mikan (a kind of citrus fruit) colour. Mikan season only starts when winter arrives in its full glory, but it's a good autumn colour nonetheless. The background colour is mikan-iro (蜜柑色) and the headlines are akadaidai (赤橙) or red-orange. The latter is also known as kinaka (金赤) or gold-red. It happens to be the colour of the Chuo Line, which – incidentally – I've never liked, but it looks a bit better on a blog. I think. Maybe.

Mikan colour at

Red-orange at

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Why is the tree wearing a straw mat?

It's wearing a straw mat because winter is coming! See?

Towards the end of October, you'll start seeing straw mats wrapped around pine trees. It’s called komomaki (written as 薦巻 or こも巻き), and it's an old Edo period method to control pine moths (Japanese name マツカレハ or matsukareha, scientific name Dendrolimus spectabilis). These insects feed on pine leaves, but when it gets cold in winter, they crawl down the tree to spend the winter in the dead leaves on the ground. The mat serves as a trap: it's loosely tied at the top but tightly fastened at the bottom. The insects crawl into the mat, where it's snug and warm, and then in spring you remove the mat and burn it with all its inhabitants. Bug problem solved.

Komomaki are usually fastened on trees in October and removed at the beginning of February. I've included photos of komomaki taken last year in Tonogayato Teien in Kokubunji and Koishikawa Kōrakuen near Iidabashi Station in Tokyo. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Komomaki in Tonogayato Teien 

Tonogayato Teien

Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Koishikawa Kōrakuen. This particular covering is bug control, cold protection and an ornamental decoration.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Why do Wednesdays have the worst students?

Why are Wednesdays so ghastly? Is there a communicated-via-osmosis or unique Japanese haragei* rule that Wednesdays are reserved for the worst students? I've been writing more than usual about teaching, but recently I've had more than my fair share of migraine-inducing, Torquemada-torture-inspiring and narcolepsy-imbuing students. All on Wednesdays.

Jabberwocky written by Yoda

One of our regular Wednesday students is an engineer. He's repeated the beginner's book four times. Conversations with him rapidly deteriorate into a surreal hallucination. Yesterday we were doing … or I was trying to do … a very basic chapter about food and mealtimes.

"Good morning! How are you?"
"Errr. OK. So. Let's talk about breakfast. Did you eat breakfast this morning?"
"My office locate Shinagawa."
"Do you usually eat breakfast in Shinagawa?"
"I have take this coffee." He proudly shows me his vending machine coffee.
"This is your breakfast?"
"Case by case. I go McDonalds."
"Why do you eat breakfast at McDonalds?"
"I am engineer."
"No, Mr Sato, you're an obscurantisme terroriste. Ever heard of Derrida?"
"Now I am very busy."
"Indeed. What time do you start working?"
"I had better start nine and hour half."
"When do you eat breakfast?"
"Yes, today it is cold."
"Do you eat breakfast at home or in your office?"
"What did you eat for breakfast today?"
"I like soccer."
"Errr. OK. Do you play soccer?"
"Soccer I play. Young yes."
"Who is the best soccer player in Japan?"
"I go German."
"Factory we buy parts so I go."
"Errr. Where in Germany is the factory?"
"No. There is very many nature. I like."

This coyness, Lady, is a crime

Why do you spend ¥800 000 per year on English lessons and then either give monosyllabic answers in every single lesson, or sit there with a "Lepus capensis caught in the headlights of a Land Rover Defender" look? That's another regular Wednesday student. She's a 40-something unmarried woman – is it really necessary to add that she lives with her parents? – who's been taking English lessons for two years. She doesn't have any opinion about anything. She doesn't work, doesn't travel, doesn't read. She avoids eye contact. She never smiles. She doesn't take notes, record the lesson, ask any questions or complete her homework. She just sits.

I'm patient with slow students and never become openly irritable, but she's an exception. As soon as I walk into a classroom and see her, I'm swamped by catecholamines.

I hate Wednesdays. Can't we ban Wednesdays?

* Haragei = belly art, i.e. telepathy.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Don't you know you should not use negative questions?

"Don't you ever learn?"

"No, clearly not. That's why I tried to explain negative questions to a beginner student, and ended up in a quagmire from which I only escaped thanks to the bell."

"Shouldn't you have known better?"

"Yes, I should have, but I didn't. Hindsight and 20/20 and all that."

"Can't you let him live in blissful ignorance until he reaches a more advanced level?"

"Yes, but don't you understand that I didn't volunteer this explanation? He saw a negative question in his textbook and asked me about it. A plague on all English textbooks!"

"Wouldn't it have been easier to tell him there's no difference between positive and negative questions?"

"Oh, and aren't we the snotty one? Yes, it would've been easier. Now shut up."

This afternoon I had that conversation with myself. 

Japanese students struggle with negative questions in English. Aren’t you going to Thailand next week? Ask that question and beginners often respond No, I'm going or Yes, I'm not going. Now try to explain to them in beginner-friendly language why it should be Yes, I'm going or No, I'm not going.

Many beginners also get confused by a tag question like You're not going to Thailand, are you? They don't know how to answer. You can explain a thousand times that the answer doesn't depend on the question, but should simply reflect the truth or the facts. They still wakanai. You're going to Thailand, aren’t you? doesn't cause too many problems, but You aren't going to Thailand, are you? is a whole different issue. If you want to cause merry mayhem, start mixing the types of tag questions.

Isn’t English a crazy language?

No, it is.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Japan contamination maps from different viewpoints

I haven't written anything about the quake and its aftermath for a long time, but I've discovered a blog, nanohana, with maps that show which areas are contaminated according to different groups. People will believe what people will believe.

Contaminated areas according to people from Tōhoku

Contaminated areas according to people from Kantō

Contaminated areas according to people from Kansai

Contaminated areas according to people from Okinawa

Contaminated areas according to foreigners

Contaminated areas according to Japanese politicians

Contaminated areas according to TEPCO

The original post (herealso introduced me to a blog written by Jeff Bayliss, Associate Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, about the complex issues that Tōhoku faces after the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. It's called Where does it all go? (Hat tip to The Hero for telling me about these maps.)

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The mountain temple bell is ringing, let's go home

They're playing my song again! "The mountain temple bell is ringing, let's go home."

It's a custom in Japan to play a song over public loudspeakers – usually near schools or city halls – when children go home at 5 pm. Different neighbourhoods have different songs. When I lived in Kanda a few years ago, a nearby primary school played the perennial favourite Yūyake koyake (夕焼け小焼け) every day. I fell in love with the song, and have come to associate it very closely with Japan. Then I moved to Taitō, where I had to listen to boring chimes and an announcement in the s-l-o-w-e-s-t woman's voice I've ever heard that "children are now walking home please be kind please be careful". We still have to listen to her torturing a ten-second message into a full minute, but since the schools resumed this month, they've also been playing … my song! Every afternoon! I don't know who made this decision, but my sincerest thanks.

Yūyake koyake was composed eighty years ago by a school teacher called Nakamura Uko. Here's the Japanese lyrics, followed by an English translation:

Yūyake koyake de hi ga kure te
Yama no otera no kane ga naru
Otete tsunaide mina kaerō
Karasu to issho ni kaerimashō.
Kodomo ga kaetta ato kara wa
Marui ooki na otsukisama
Kotori ga yume o miru koro wa
Sora ni wa kirakira kin no hoshi.

The sunset is the end of the day,
The bell at the mountain temple rings.
Hand by hand let’s go back home,
Let's go back together with the crows.
After the children have returned home
A big and round moon shines.
When the birds dream,
Brightness from the stars fills the sky.

Here's a YouTube video with the lyrics in Japanese, followed by an instrumental version:

Don’t you think it's a lovely song?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A teacher has to know when to give up

It was hell. We had to do a chapter about "my hobby" – a topic that inevitably falls flat unless the student's hobby is his (live) scorpion collection or making raku-yaki. This particular group was a wretched torment. He's a 24-year-old salesman with plucked eyebrows; she's a 36-year-old dermatologist with suspiciously heavy make-up. He has a habit of stroking his hair compulsively; she bursts into nervous giggles at the end of every single sentence. His hobby is sleeping; her hobby is watching TV. It's the very essence of scintillating conversation.

The dermatologist was a rude shock. I'm naïve enough to believe that medicine shouldn't be an arbitrary career choice and that it requires a certain level of intelligence. Throughout the course of the lesson, the following questions came up. (I should add that the dermatologist has studied English for two years, two lessons per week, without missing a single lesson. One assumes it was yet another recommendation from the parental units.)

"Why did you become a doctor?"
"I don't know." Nervous giggles.
"You don't know?"
"No." Nervous giggles.
"My parents recommend." Nervous giggles.
"My parents recommended it."
"My parents recommend." Nervous giggles.
"My parents recommended it."
"My parents suggest me." Nervous giggles.
"No, my parents … Never mind. Do you like your job?"
"I don't know." Nervous giggles.
"What do you do in your free time?"
"I watch TV." Nervous giggles.
"What do you watch?"
"I watch Korean dramas." Nervous giggles.
"Do you have any other hobbies?"
"What? One more, please." Nervous giggles.
"You watch Korean dramas. Do you do anything else in your free time?"
"I go to jogging." Nervous giggles.
"How often do you go jogging?"
Silence. Intensely nervous giggles.
"I don't go." Nervous giggles.
"You don't go jogging?"
"I start next Sunday." Nervous giggles.
"You will start jogging next Sunday?"
"No, I went to next Sunday already." Nervous giggles.
"Aha. You went jogging last Sunday?"
"Yes, I went to go to jogging last Sunday." Nervous giggles.
"So you've gone jogging only once?"
"Yes." Nervous giggles.
"Did you enjoy it?"
"I don't know." Nervous giggles.
"Why did you go jogging?"
Silence. Intensely nervous giggles.
"My parents recommend." Nervous giggles.
"You went jogging because your parents told you to?"
"Yes." Nervous giggles.
"I see. Well then, Daisuke, let's talk about sleeping."

Thank heavens university resumed this month. I prefer teaching university students. That powerful brainwashing force known as the cult of the corporations hasn't bludgeoned every original idea out of them yet, and you need more than alpha parents to get into the university where I teach.

Friday, 14 October 2011

It's October, and the gods have absconded

October is called Jūgatsu (十月tenth month) in Japanese, but it's also known as Kannazuki or Kaminazuki (神無月), which means "the month without gods". This month the Shinto gods, all eight million of them, vacate their homes  the shrines, mountains, rivers, trees and countless other places where they reside  and convene in Shimane Prefecture in Western Japan at Izumo-taisha, one of the most ancient and most important Shinto shrines in the country. Only at Izumo, by the way, is the month called Kamiarizuki (神在月or "the month with gods".

The gods get together at Izumo-taisha to discuss the coming year's births, weddings and deaths. Appropriate topics, since the shrine is dedicated to the god Ōkuninushi-no-mikoto, famous as the Shinto deity of marriage. So they talk a lot, but I would hazard a guess that they also get up to much merry mischief laced with lots of liquor.

Incidentally, when you visit a Shinto shrine, you clap your hands twice during your prayers, but I've read that at Izumo you clap your hands four times: twice for yourself and twice for your partner.

Ojisanjake has lovely photos of Izumo here and here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

My pet neighbourhood peeve

My pet peeve in this neighbourhood is the sodai-gomi truck.

Sodai-gomi seishūshūsha. Tēpurokōdā. Terebi. Pasokon. Rajiokase. Sodai-gomi seishūshūsha. Tēpurokōdā. Terebi. Pasokon. Rajiokase. Sodai-gomi seisūshūsha. Tēpurokōdā. Terebi. Pasokon. Rajiokase. 

Over and over and over, in a singsong syrupy female voice that's worse than nails on blackboard, asking residents if they have any big garbage items for collection. Why are they talking about tape recorders and radio cassettes anyway? Tape recorders? Radio cassettes? Shouldn't that have been chucked out twenty years ago?

Japan has draconian garbage disposal laws, and that's good, but it's also a pain in the butt. Where I come from, South Africa, you either give what you don't want to your "domestic" (i.e. maid) and/or gardener, or you dump it on the pavement in front of your house on garbage collection days. Anything that's remotely reusable, from clothes to refrigerators, will be gone long before the garbage truck arrives. Throughout the night, the poor, the homeless and the township entrepreneurs sweep through the suburbs and re-distribute whatever is found. It's remarkably efficient. Especially when the garbage collectors are striking.

Here you have to sort garbage into burnable, non-burnable and recyclable. Anything that can't be folded flat into the size of a matchbox is called sodai-gomi (oversized garbage) and has to be collected. You can contact your local ward office (here's a website), but that's expensive, or you can use the cheaper or even free service of the sodai-gomi truck: a small truck with a loudspeaker on top that drives through the neighbourhood at an impossibly slow speed, pausing frequently, usually right underneath your window, going in circles for two to three hours every day. They're particularly fond of weekends. Sound trucks may only operate between 8 am and 8 pm, but I can assure you, 8:01 am on a Sunday morning in winter is four hours too early.

Sometimes there are two different trucks competing for business, and you have two cloying female voices chirruping from opposite directions. AAARGH! I know what I want to incinerate ...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Autumn in Shinjuku Gyoen

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Red copper wins

I like the red copper colour so much that I've applied it to the entire blog, not just the headlines. We shouldn't be too subdued. Autumn isn't a wishy-washy season in Japan, and we can try brown shades in mid-winter. Red copper is called shaku-do-iro (赤銅色) in Japanese. PS: I suspect this colour has caught my fancy because it reminds me of Africa: red soil, red dust, red sunsets.

Red copper at

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Yellow acorns and red copper

Colours change constantly in autumn, and the blog has to keep up. The current colour scheme is yellow acorn (黄橡 ki-tsurubami) for the background and red copper colour (赤銅色 shaku-do-iro) for the titles. When I started this experiment with autumn colours, I had my doubts, but I've fallen under the charm of both the subdued browns and the vibrant reds. I really like that red copper colour.

Yellow acorn at

Red copper colour at 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Fire! Call 119!

We had a bit of a commotion in the neighbourhood this morning: a fire! I heard sirens approaching, but ignored it as usual. I heard more sirens – nearer, louder, more urgent – and I thought, "Maybe they're chasing a yakuza." (That's probably not how they do it, but never mind, I have a bookworm's imagination.) Then the sirens, screaming full blast, stopped right underneath this apartment, and I thought, "What? Eeek! Help!" So I looked, and oh my poor heart, there was a fire almost next door.

I think it was a fairly big one, because several streets were cordoned off and there were dozens of fire trucks. I didn't go closer to investigate. Firstly, stay out of the emergency services' way so that they can do their job. Secondly, I find bystanders' fascination with mayhem rather disturbing. We're still mesmerized by blood spilled in the arena.

I did watch from the balcony, but my eyes were mostly on the sexy firemen running around and the curious neighbours clambering on their roofs to get a better view. So what if I fall? There's an ambulance nearby, isn't there?

I was impressed by the speed of the fire brigade's arrival, as well as the scope of their response. A fire brigade helicopter circled above for a long time, and when I returned home that afternoon (the fire was at about 9 am), there were still trucks around. I wondered whether it wasn't overkill, but then I remembered that fire has caused massive devastation in Tokyo over the centuries. The shitamachi still has many old wooden buildings, and a fire is probably more dangerous than any other disaster.

I'm not sure what burned down, but I'll go on a quick recce tomorrow. 

I added this paragraph a day later. Initially I thought it was a tempura shop that had burned down, but it seems it was a residence. The photo below isn't very clear, but it was the old wooden house right at the end of this small alley. You can see how dangerous a fire can be in the shitamachi's narrow, labyrinth-like streets: it can spread very easily among the densely packed buildings.

The house that burned down is at the end of this alley.

Autumn has arrived

First autumn colours at Tōkei-ji (東慶寺) in Kita-Kamakura. The small orange flowers in the second photo are fragrant olive (Japanese name kinmokusei, Latin name Osmanthus fragrans). Click on the photos for bigger versions.

First  autumn colours at Tōkei-ji in Kita-Kamakura

Fragrant olive (kinmokusei) at Tōkei-ji

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Happiness is gardening, says the god of happiness

"The treasure you are looking for is next to you," says the entrance gate to Jōchi-ji. Or, to use the Japanese, 寶所在近 (hōsho zaikin, treasure's place exists near). The temple's full name is Kinpōzan Jōchi-ji (金宝山浄智寺), and it's ranked fourth among Kamakura's great Zen temples. It's only a few minutes on foot from Kita-Kamakura Station and well worth a visit, especially in the upcoming autumn leaves season. My favourite attraction is the statue of Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment, that stands in a cave towards the rear of the complex.

If you add two and two, you'll discover the secret of happiness at this temple. Let me lead you on this journey of discovery. Here's the front gate with its message.

Jōchi-ji's entrance gate. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

"The treasure you are looking for is next to you."

I walked into the temple's first graveyard, looked next to me, and met a local resident who told me which way to go to Hotei's statue.

A bit further on, I saw this sign:

I looked next to me again, as instructed at the entrance gate, and saw ... gardening instruments! Well, that's it then, happiness is gardening. After achieving this profound insight, I walked through a tunnel to a second graveyard, high on Kamakura's hills.

Visitors rub Hotei's belly (or ear or finger) for good luck.

Hotei's statue at Jōchi-ji in Kita-Kamakura

I walked into the cave to check with Hotei. Is gardening really the secret of happiness? He didn't say anything. He just chuckled and pointed his finger ... straight in the direction of the gardening instruments. So, there you have it, happiness is gardening.

Contentment lies thataway.

PS: I wrote this post for a Johannesburg friend who loves gardening, and in memory of the garden I used to have in Stellenbosch: a beautiful haven that had a real mountain stream running through it. Ah well. A pot plant on a balcony is also nice ...

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A scarlet dance of death

Red spider lilies are known as higanbana, the flower of the dead, in Japanese. (You can read an explanation here.) I discovered this graveyard while wandering around Shibamata, home of Tora-san. The graveyard is at Hoteison (布袋尊), also known as Ryōkan-ji, and red spider lilies were in full bloom among the graves. It was a stunning sight: the vibrant red flowers performing a Danse Macabre on the somber graves. It's made more poignant by the fact that this temple is dedicated to Hotei, the deity of happiness and contentment.

I've written several posts about higanbana. (Yup, you're right, I love this flower.) You can read a general explanation here, and see photos of higanbana at Kinchakuda in Saitama here and here.

Friday, 7 October 2011


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