Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: December 2011

Friday, 30 December 2011

Shirahige Jinja cleans up for the new year

I was muttering and moping about oosōji, the big clean-up that we're supposed to do before New Year's Day. Then I visited Shirahige Jinja in Mukōjima (向島白髭神社) and realized that I should stop grumbling forthwith: at least I don't have to clean my local shrine's mikoshi! Can you imagine taking that apart and polishing every little bit?

They cleaned everything, every lantern, every banner, every paper fan. Yikes. Nothing was spared. The lion mask (shishi-gashira) that is used every June in their lion dance (shishi-mai) was unpacked, clean, polished, cleaned again and polished again. It kept grinning throughout.

Lion mask. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Shirahige was founded in 951, but has been rebuilt many times. The deity that is worshipped here is Jurōjin, the god of wisdom and longevity (and one of the seven lucky gods). The interesting thing about this shrine is its Korean history. It's named after Shirahige, a Korean tutelary god who was brought to Japan by immigrants who settled in the Lake Biwa area.

The main Shirahige shrine is Koma Jinja in Hidaka, Saitama. If you want to read an arbitrary but quirky story about a Shirahige/Korean/Yon-sama connection, click here. If you'd like to learn more about Korean shamanism, this is a good summary.

Fascinating what you discover when you start Googling and compulsively following links. You unearth, for example, that this humble shitamachi shrine has a link to NHK's new 2012 Sunday night drama, Taira no Kiyomori. A bit tenuous, perhaps, but here we go:

Mukōjima means "island on the other side of the Sumida". It used to be fertile farmland thanks to soil carried along the Sumida River and deposited in this low-lying area close to the ocean. The river was crossed at a promontory not far from the shrine, and it was here that Minamoto no Yoritomo, future shōgun of Kamakura, crossed the river in his uprising against the Taira clan of Kyoto. The NHK drama chronicles the rivalry between the two families. (The official website is here.)

See? The shrine doesn't really have anything to do with the drama, but it nevertheless took me on a very interesting journey through history.

Here's an old photo of the shrine (exact date unknown), followed by more photos of the big clean-up. 

The entrance to Shirahige today

Cleaning Shirahige's mikoshi

They take everything apart! I will never again complain about oosōji!

I initially thought his butt was kawaii. I was very disappointed when I realized it was Hawaii.

A place to pray underneath a sacred tree

Detail of New Year's decoration at the shrine's torii

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Fuji-san is taking a New Year's break in Tanzania

Look! Fuji-san has moved to Tanzania!

Photo from

I saw this photo on The Big Picture, in an article entitled "50 best photos from the natural world". The mountain is Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano in Tanzania's Rift Valley, and the lake is Lake Natron.

I share it with you in this quiet let's-start-winding-down few days before the 1st. (Actually it's not winding down at all. I still have to tackle oosōji, the big cleaning that we're supposed to do before New Year's Day, but I'm in total denial. It's more fun to look at pretty pictures.)

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fie, dastardly dust, begone from my camera sensor!

I first noticed it during my recent walk to Tokyo Sky Tree: in every single photo there was a fuzzy spot floating in the sky, always in the same place, persistently present. There was only one explanation: dust on the camera's sensor. 
Out, damned spot! out, I say! One; two: why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! a photographer, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old camera to have had so much dust in it?
Dust on your DSLR's sensor is an inevitable result of changing lenses. Many cameras have a "self-cleaning" feature, but its efficacy is limited. You can buy a cleaning kit and do it yourself, but I'm too clumsy with my hands to attempt that. (I'm really stupid with my hands. If you ever see a screwdriver in my vicinity, run for your life and call the paramedics. There will be blood.) I decided to go to the Canon Service Center in Shinjuku.

The bad thing about any problem in Tokyo is that any problem is a bummer per definition. The nice thing about any problem in Tokyo is that it inevitably increases your Japanese vocabulary. I consulted my dictionaries and had a lesson from The Hero. Dust = hokori (). Sensor = sensaa (センサー). Duh.

I started chanting hokorihokorihokori non-stop to remember it. I have an embarrassing tendency towards spoonerisms in Japanese – hokori becomes horoki, Takadanobaba becomes Tabakodanada – and endless repetition helps to avoid it.

Then I toddled off to the service center, and I'm happy to report that I got hokori right. The man who helped me wrote down my details, and apologized that they were Very Busy just before the New Year's holiday and unfortunately I'd have to wait an hour before I could collect my camera and he was truly abjectly sorry for this wretched inconvenience but would I find it in my heart to forgive them and would it be possible to disrupt my day by returning at 2 pm? Something to that effect.

I apologized for not being able to return at 2 pm, but would it be acceptable if I collected it at 5 pm?

He apologized a) for not being able to help me immediately, b) for not anticipating that I would not be able to return at 2 pm and c) for not obliterating every single dust particle in the history of the universe so that my camera wouldn't be so troublesome. Something to that effect.

I said daijōbu. He thanked me. I thanked him. He bowed. I left.

I collected my camera at 5 pm. They had cleaned not only the sensor, but also the camera itself and the lens. It cost ¥1050.

Originally I thought if I went there on Monday, I would probably get my camera back by Wednesday, in other words, in time for New Year. It didn't take three days. It took one hour. Oh you battle-scarred child of Africa, you never learn, do you?

PS: That quote is based on Lady Macbeth's famous speech in Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree and the sun goddess's lion-dogs

I don't know what other foreigners in Tokyo do on Christmas – eat Kentucky? – but I go walking, and today I headed for Tokyo Sky Tree.

I love this tower. It's clearly visible from this apartment, and I've been watching its progress over the past two years. The last time I walked there was on 19 March, the day after it reached its maximum height of 634 meters (a week after the big quake). Today I went there again, and wow, it's looking great – not only the tower itself, but also the huge commercial complex that surrounds it.

The area buzzes with sightseers, and it's obvious that many new shops, especially restaurants, have opened in the area. Oshiage Station has undergone a metamorphosis; it will be directly linked to the complex and will become the area's main station. Narihirabashi, the other nearby station, remains as small as always.

A suggestion to Tobu Railways, who developed the complex: I know the opening is still five months away, but you’re going to have to make that area more foreigner-friendly. Today I used Exit A2 in Asakusa-dori to get to Oshiage Station. I was halfway through the long underground passage when I noticed a sign in Japanese: "This passage only leads to the Keisei station; if you want to go to the subway lines, please go back and follow this map." I can just imagine a herd of tourists milling around in confusion, or boarding the wrong train, or trying to get help from the station staff …

Ah well. I guess most foreign tourists would visit the commercial complex itself, not wander around trying to find obscure shrines with the help of their 東京散歩下町と山の手のいいとこめぐり53コース book (Tokyo walks, from the low city to the high city, the 53 best courses).

Today's final goal was a tiny shrine hidden in the back streets of Narihira, the suburb to the south of Sky Tree. It's called Oshiage Tenso Jinja (押上天祖), and it's achieved unexpected fame thanks to its juxtaposition of ancient and modern: if you contort yourself, you can take photos of the shrine's komainu (lion-dogs) with Sky Tree in the background.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Tenso Jinja is a so-called sonsha () or township shrine. It was established in 1356, destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake and again burnt down during World War II. It was rebuilt in its current form in the 1950s. The deities worshipped at this tiny shrine are heavyweights: Amaterasu-ōmikami, goddess of the sun and the universe; and Hachiman, the god of war. (Tenso means sun goddess.)

The shrine itself is really nothing special, but the contrast between ancient tradition and hyper-modern technology is startling … and worth a visit.

The other photos were taken between Sky Tree and Kinshichō Station. I walked along Ooyokogawa-shinsui-kōen (大横川親水公園, Big Yoko River Water Park), a canal that runs from Kinshichō Station to Asakusa-dori. Again, it's nothing particularly special – the Yokojukkengawa walk to the east is much more beautiful! – but it's a nice, quiet walk with Sky Tree always in front of you. More information about the park here.

I'm telling this story the wrong way around. I actually started in Kinshichō and finished at Oshiage, but never mind, I never did have a sense of direction. That explains why I was born in Africa but ended up in Japan.

A cute African Christmas wish from Japan

I'm a heathen whose only religion is to worship at the altar of the book, but Japan has also brainwashed me into becoming a devoted follower of the cult of the cute. Thanks to the latter I succumbed to the temptation of this photo and its accompanying Christmas message. I refuse to go PC and say Happy Holidays. This is a Christian day (with pagan roots, if you want to be historically pedantic). So this zazenning animist would like to say Merry Christmas to my Christian friends.

Photo credit: The Guardian

I spotted this photo in The Guardian. The animal in it is a meerkat, a kind of mongoose that lives in Southern Africa. It's the cutest animal I've ever seen, with the possible exception of Rilakkuma. (Meerkat is an Afrikaans word that means "lake cat", but it's a desert animal. You're right, it doesn't make any sense. It's Africa.)

Friday, 23 December 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree illuminated for three nights

I wasn't planning on doing three stories in one day, but just after I'd posted the previous one, I happened to glance out of the window … and there it was. Tokyo Sky Tree.
The tower is illuminated tonight, tomorrow night and on the 31st. It has 1 995 LED lights that will be switched on when it opens in May 2012; but only 720 lights in strategic spots above 125 m will be lit on the three nights this year. More information (Japanese) here.

Fellow blogger Lina of Urutora no hi asked me to take photos of the illuminated tower, so I did. I'm a very bad night photographer, I don't have a tripod and it's freezing on the balcony, but here it is.

Click on the photo to see a bigger version.

A poem about earthquakes by Anthony Thwaite

This week there was another big quake in New Zealand. The earth remains restless. I'm not indifferent towards quakes, but neither do I fret about the next big one. It will come. Shōganai. (The March quake, instead of turning me into an edgy nervous wreck, has actually quietened down my concerns. Now I know what to expect. Roughly.) The recent jitterbugging reminded me of this poem in Anthony Thwaite's collection Letter from Tokyo:

An easing of walls,

A shuddering through soles:
A petal loosens, falls.
In the room, alone:
It begins, then it has gone.
Ripples outlast stone.
Rain-smell stirs the heart;
Nostrils flare. A breath. We wait
For something to start.
The flavour of fear,
Something fragile in the air,
Gone, it remains here.

PS: I've gone into shut-down mode as the year-end approaches. That explains the quotations instead of any original writing. I have posts about Inari shrines and the seven lucky gods and my love affair with Tokyo Sky Tree, all half-written, but they will have to wait until 2012. Ne?

A beautiful winter quote

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.  ~  Andrew Wyeth

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

American vs Japanese businessmen

The bulk of my book collection remains in South Africa with my family – there's no space in your average Tokyo apartment for 3 000 tomes – but I've shipped a few boxes to Tokyo. They remain piled on top of each other in the passage, guarded by two bronze lions from Benin.

I bought many books about Japan after I met The Hero, but before I moved to his country. Confront me with something unknown and my instinct is to dive into books. I discovered lots of useful information about the country; I'm still looking for an instruction manual for the man!

It's interesting to re-read these books after I've lived in Japan for several years, and theoretical knowledge has been replaced with real experience. Many books disappoint the second time around. Alan Booth and John W. Dower remain my heroes; but Pico Iyer's The Lady and The Monk now irritates me so much I want to throw it from the balcony. It's condescending and hypocritical.

Yesterday I paged through Dave Barry Does Japan. It could be described as politically extremely incorrect, but Barry pokes fun at everything, including himself and his own country. Incidentally, I've learned a new Japanese word, chakasu (茶化す), which means "to poke fun at". Here's an excerpt for your enjoyment.

When two Japanese businessmen meet:

First businessman: Hello, sir.
Second businessman: Hello, sir.
First man: I am sorry.
Second man: I am extremely sorry.
First man: I cannot stand myself.
Second man: I am swamp scum.
First man: I am toenail dirt.
Second man: I should be put to death.

When two American businessmen meet:

First businessman: Bob!
Second businessman: Ed!
First man: How they hangin'?
Second man: One lower than the other!
First man: Har!
Second man: Listen, about those R-234-J's, the best we can do for you is $3.80 a unit.
First man: My ass, Bob.
Second man: Har!

Dave Barry is an excellent anthropologist. Heed his words.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The day I turned into an old woman

I'm that rarest of creatures – a woman who doesn't like shopping – but recently the sorry state of my office clothes forced me …

Wait. Let me qualify that statement. I don't like shopping for clothes. Books? Different story altogether. I lament the fact that bookshops don't have shopping trolleys for their customers.

We continue. I've had to admit that maybe I need more than one black skirt, and that perchance you can't fool people into believing that black jeans are actually tailored pants. I mentioned in a conversation with a friend that I needed office clothes. She promptly invited me to go shopping with her in Yokohama.

So that's what we did, in the station area, on a Sunday, just before Christmas. Japan has a too low birth rate? Really? Really?! I felt like that poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Struggled the two brave women into the teeming masses of millions.

I wanted to escape to a library within 5 minutes of entering the underground shopping arcade called The Diamond, but my friend Miho ruthlessly dragged me ever onwards.

The advantage of buying clothes in Japan is that everything fits me. The disadvantage of buying clothes in Japan is that there is a universe of difference between what Japanese women like to wear and what I like to wear. You see, I believe that mini-skirts and hot pants went out of fashion in the 1960s and should, please!, remain out of fashion. If you feel absolutely compelled to wear it, you should preferably be younger than 20, and my 20th birthday is but a foggy memory.

So then. I don't like short pencil skirts. I prefer mid-calf skirts. My favourite style, as unpractical as it may be, is the 1947 Christian Dior New Look silhouette: a tightly fitted jacket, a cinched waist and a flaring skirt. I would never wear it myself – I love my Levi's too much – but oh, it's gorgeous to look at. This odd, old-fashioned belief complicates shopping in Japan. 

Miho took me to several shops. I started sounding like an old LP record that got stuck: "It's too short!"

Finally Miho stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of seething hordes of frenetic shoppers and observed me with a shrewd, calculating look.

"You want long skirt? OK, we go shop for senior person," she instructed in English.

"I'm not senior person!" I protested.

May the gods have mercy on my soul, but I've started speaking Japanese English. I drop articles with abandon; I blithely ignore the singular s; I form questions not by changing the word order, but by tucking a question mark at the end of a declarative sentence.

"You're not senior person, but you want senior skirt!" she said, crossly.

"I don't want senior skirt! I want long skirt!"

"Then we must go senior shop. This way."

So we went to Noge Mariya, where I happily bought a long woollen skirt with knife pleats after I finally proved to the shop assistant that not all foreign women are big. I suspect her thoughts proceeded as follows: foreign woman = tall + big hips = large size. Stereotype trumped empirical evidence. She gave me a skirt with a 66 cm waist to try on, and then as an afterthought also a 71 cm waist.

"Try both," she said. 

"It's too big," I said.

"It's the correct size," she said.

"It's too big," the LP record got stuck again.

"Try the 71 cm waist first," she said.

You have two options in a situation like this: throw a tantrum or play along. I took the skirt, put it on, walked out of the fitting room and called the shop assistant. She goggled at me. "Eeeeh! Gomen, ne! Eeeeh!" Then she fetched me a 61 cm waist. It was a bit loose but I don't like tight clothes, so I bought it.

"I'm Japan-sized," I admonished the shop assistant. "Eeeeh! Gomen, ne! Eeeeh!" she repeated. Silly old biddy.

Yes, she was old. She mos works in a senior shop.

I really have to teach you that Afrikaans word mos. It's used in a sentence that announces an obvious, self-evident truth. It's roughly equivalent to "indeed" or "as you know", and it has the same role as tag questions in English. When I say that she mos works in a senior shop, what I really mean is: "Well, of course she's old, isn't she, because I've already told you that it's a shop for old women, so the chances are pretty good that the shop assistant will be mature as well, use your common sense, she's hardly going to be sweet 16, is she, so stop asking stupid questions and shut up and let me finish my story."

After this successful purchase we had a lovely lunch at a restaurant called Ottimo Seafood Garden in the Lumine centre. A pleasant surprise awaited me at Ottimo: they served a South African bubbly called Villiera Tradition Rosé Brut NV. Look, 1995 Krug Clos d'Ambonnay it's not, but it's a satisfying, easy-to-drink, inexpensive sparkling wine: pink but dry and not overly sweet, with just enough acidity to balance the fruitiness.

So, all in all, a good day. I found a nice skirt that wasn't expensive, I had a taste of home and then I popped into Yurindo Books to recover from the trauma of old age. That's mos happiness.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The lucky dragon's pine tree at Shibamata Taishakuten

It's so big that you don't realize you're looking at one living creature. You simply assume it's a row of pine trees, neatly planted, until you finally register that underneath those meters of branches there is … count it … only one trunk.

The pine tree stands in front of Shibamata Taishakuten (柴又帝釈天). It's called Zui-ryū-no-matsu (瑞竜の松), which is one of the loveliest Japanese names I've yet encountered. Zui means happy, lucky, good omen; ryū is dragon; matsu is pine. Add it together, and you get the pine tree of the lucky dragon. It's 460 years old, its southern branch is 14,5 meters long and its eastern branch is 12,5 meters long. The secret of its longevity? Sake! To this day, temple priests mix of bit of sake into the fertilizer that is poured on its roots.

The pine tree of the lucky dragon at Shibamata Taishakuten

All that green is one tree. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Shibamata is mostly famous as the home of Tora-san, the lead character in the TV series Otoko wa tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, It's tough being a man). It follows the adventures of an anti-hero salesman as he travels through a rapidly modernizing Japan, always falling in love with the wrong woman. It's the longest running series in film history, and more than 80 million people saw it between 1969 and 1995. The lead role was played by Atsumi Kiyoshi (渥美 ). You can still see a statue of Tora-san in front of Shibamata Station.

Tora-san's statue in front of Shibamata Station


The main temple in the area, the Shibamata Taishakuten, was founded by Nichiei Jōnin in the 17th century. The legend goes that he discovered a natural fountain flowing from rocks near the foot of a giant pine tree. Shibamata residents still believe this water is sacred. (According to the TV series, Tora-san was bathed in this water as a baby.)

Taishakuten is best known for its incredibly detailed wooden carvings depicting the Lotus Sutra. The carvings are protected by glass, and you have to pay an entry fee of ¥400 to see it (but that also allows you access to the beautiful Japanese garden at the back of the temple).

Some of the carvings on the exterior of Shibamata Taishakuten

However, the main purpose of my visit was neither Tora-san nor the wooden carvings nor the shopping street leading up to the temple. I wanted to see that tree and a garden called Yamamoto-tei (山本亭), which belonged to a wealthy businessman from the Taishō era. It's near the temple, and it's often described as one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan.

My verdict? Oh, but that tree is magnificent. Yamamoto-tei? Meh. The problem is that you're not even allowed into the garden itself – perhaps on special occasions, but not on the day I was there – so you're restricted to peering at a wall of green from the teahouse. I suspect the Japanese garden at Taishakuten is more beautiful, so now I can kick myself for not going in. Next time, ne?

By the way, I visited Shibamata in summer, but haven't written the story until now. That's why you'll see T-shirts in my photos. Don't complain. It's called Africa time. 

The shopping street leading to Shibamata Taishakuten

A shop selling Tora-san memorabilia

More tree photos

Shibamata Taishakuten's ema

Two of the photos below were taken at the sacred natural fountain where Tora-san was bathed as a baby. There are several tiny porcelain figurines on the rocks behind the fountain - all of a double-headed snake coiled around a pile of poop. Golden poop or "kin no unko" is regarded as a lucky symbol in Japan, because "un" means good luck, and "unko" means you-know-what. Maybe this is a little pile of lucky dragon lucky poop?

The sacred fountain

A little pile of lucky dragon lucky poop?

The teahouse at Yamamoto-tei

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Peek-a-boo with a cat

I lied, OK, I lied. Koishikawa was not my last autumn photos for 2011, although in my defence, m'lud, I didn't specifically go hunting for autumn leaves. I just went for a walk next to the Kanda River, and then I played peek-a-boo with a cat at a small shrine called Suijinja (水神), and then I had tea with a friend at the Four Seasons Hotel at Chinzan-so.

The garden at Chinzan-so is breathtaking in autumn, and the hotel offers the best British afternoon tea in Tokyo at their Le Jardin restaurant. Provided you're willing to pay ¥3500 for tea, sandwiches and cakes; or ¥4500 if you add a glass of champagne. Think it's expensive? Afternoon tea at The Ritz in London is between £42 (¥5000) for an ordinary tea and £64 (¥7700) for a "celebration tea with champagne". I think Le Jardin is quite reasonable. I just wish the portions weren't Tokyo-sized!

Waterfall at the Four Seasons Hotel

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Afternoon tea at the Four Seasons Hotel



Suijinja next to the Kanda River. It's near the Four Seasons Hotel.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Dear Japan, here's the thing about bread

Dear Japan

I understand that rice is a sacred food, and that your citizens are reduced to wretched misery when deprived of its nourishment. It's so important to you that you use the same word, gohan, for "cooked rice" and "any meal of any kind". The Hero explains with adorable solemnity that it's an unforgivable sin, not to mention a grave insult to the cook, to leave behind a single grain of rice when you're eating your food.

I watch you quaffing onigiri on station platforms, snarfing it before class, gobbling away happily in restaurants.

I've read long, scholarly dissertations about the effect of rice cultivation on your national character: because rice-farming is labour intensive and requires a lot of cooperation, you developed this group think phenomenon. The scholarly dissertations elucidate it more elegantly, but that's the gist of it.

Incidentally, I've never understood this analogy. I don't think a wheat farmer in Iraq ed-Dubb, circa 9600 BC, could've sown, harvested and transported his crop by his glorious Lone Ranger self, since he probably didn't have a John Deere Combine Harvester yet. However, I accept that I'm a southern barbarian with a tenuous grasp of world affairs, and I won't argue too much.

When I arrived on your shores many incarnations ago, my only knowledge of rice was Tastic Rice's claim to fame: "Tastic parboiled rice always cooks up separate, fluffy and white every time."

That's what my mother taught me, too: when you cook rice, every grain should be separate and fluffy. (Let's not dwell on the white aspect too much. It remains a sensitive issue in South Africa.) Then I came here, and a turn-your-head-180° adjustment was required. Separate = bad. Stick together = good.

I now agree that Japanese rice tastes better than Tastic Rice; as a matter of fact, there's really no comparison. I even took a small bag of koshihikari rice with me to South Africa, to introduce it to my mother. It was a mistake. I now have to lug along a 5 kg pack whenever I go home. Do you realize that a 5 kg pack of rice contributes generously to an overweight suitcase?

So, you see, I really do get it.

But, Japan, here's the thing.

Nothing beats the fragrance of freshly baked bread. Nothing.

I register that dampish smell bubbling from a rice cooker and I think, "Oh, it's almost done."

I catch a whiff, just a tiny whiff, of freshly baked bread wafting from an oven, and my brain goes into raptures, my salivary glands kick into over-production, my stomach gurgles and frolics and starts turning triple somersaults.

I know it's cultural, but come on. Bread smells better. You know I'm right. Right?

I remain, Japan, your obedient, tax-paying, rice-eating, bread-loving servant –

The Wanderer

PS: I'm talking about real bread, not Yamazaki pan.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The pain and the pleasure of paying taxes in Japan

I sold my house in South Africa a few years ago, partly because I knew I would not return, partly because it's a pain in the butt to be a long-distance landlord. Initially I invested the money in South Africa – the country has a booming economy and high interest rates – but eventually I transferred some of it to Japan. That's when the fun started.

I didn't declare this as income in Japan, because I'd pay the required tax on the transaction in South Africa. Oops. What I didn't know was that a) Japanese banks inform the tax authorities of any transfer larger than ¥1 million into your account and b) as soon as money enters Japan, it counts as income, regardless of what preceded the transfer. (Keep in mind that there's no tax treaty between Japan and South Africa. Different rules could apply to different countries.)

Thus it came to pass that I received a letter from my local tax office requesting an explanation of "foreign funds". I panicked. Bitter experience in my birth country has taught me that it's better to get on the wrong side of the police, even the secret police, than the receiver of revenue. The latter will screw you in every way impossible.

I started Googling for professional assistance, preferably tax consultants experienced in foreigners' tax problems. I found plenty of help for companies, but not much for private individuals. I did stumble across one Japanese consultant who practices in central Tokyo and does foreigners' tax. This person quoted me ¥250 000 for completing the "foreign funds" form and a new tax return form for that particular year. A quarter of a million yen, and that's after a 30% discount.

It made me realize anew how easily foreigners can get fleeced in their adopted country. It also made me determined to solve my own problem. So I went to the tax office myself, and what I thought would be a nightmare turned into a very pleasant experience.

Tax issues? Pleasant? Yes.

A friendly, sympathetic woman at the tax office helped me to complete the forms. It took about two hours in total. It didn't cost one yen. I must add that The Hero graciously accompanied me, translated when necessary, looked suitably serious throughout the process and flashed his most charming grin at well-timed intervals.

Fortunately I don't have to pay extra tax, because Japan allows you up to ¥30 million tax free when you sell your primary residence. That is dirt cheap for a house in Tokyo, but a pretty decent amount for South Africa. However, I still had to complete the necessary forms (explanation of foreign funds, statement of capital gain for real estate, confirmation of resident status, adapted tax return form) to prove that my funds aren't income from rhino horn smuggling, and to get official confirmation that I can legally claim tax-free income.

Although it involved endless detail, it was almost pain-free. Almost. I winced each time we had to force a freewheeling African situation into a rigid Japanese tax form.

"What was your house made of?" my tax angel asked.
"Bricks," I answered.
"Renga," The Hero translated.
"Renga?" she responded. "I don't think we have that on our list. Concrete?"
"Errr, no," I said.
"Renga, renga, renga," she repeated. "Ah, here it is." It was last on the list, after wood and hardboard and plaster and asbestos and straw and mud and concrete and steel and glass and blue tarpaulin and whatnot.
"Did you buy the house and the land?"
"How much was the house and how much was the land?"
"Errr. I don't know. You always buy them together in South Africa, for one amount."
"I must supply two figures, one for the house and one for the land."
"Land is very expensive in Japan. What about South Africa?"
"The house is more expensive than the land."
"Maybe 80% house, 20% land?"
"Did you buy a new house?"
"It was five years old."
"You bought an old house?"
"Almost new. Just five years old."

I beamed. She looked baffled.

"I have to calculate your house's depreciation, because that will decrease the amount liable for tax," she continued.
"Depreciation? Errr. Houses don't depreciate in value in South Africa. They appreciate." I stared at her. I was stumped.
"It was worth more when you sold it?" She stared at me. She was stumped.
"Oh, but it has to depreciate."
"It has to?"
"Yes, it has to, on this form."
"We can calculate depreciation based on the Japanese situation."
"I need to know the size of your house to calculate depreciation. How big was your house?"
"It was 250 m2."
"How much?!"
"250 m2."
"I'm sorry. I know that's big in Japan, but it's small in South Africa."
"We don't have a size of 250 m2 on this list."
"I'm so sorry* for this trouble." I used the word meiwaku, 迷惑, which means to cause trouble, annoyance or embarrassment.

My tax angel and I stared at each other.

"Maybe the land was 250 m2," I offered as an alternative.
"That is acceptable," she said, relieved.

I was in a state of shock when I finally left the tax office. I had expected nothing but trouble, indifference interspersed with hard-arsed arrogance and an "out to get you" attitude. That's what awaits you in any encounter with South African bureaucracy. Instead, I was treated with courtesy, sympathy and endless patience. The tax office tried to help me. They even brought us coffee at the start of the meeting, and please note, it was a man who brought the coffee. A man. Not a woman.

That's it. This is a crazy country after all.

* When you don't know how to respond appropriately in any given situation in Japan, apologize. It doesn't matter what you apologize for: for breathing, for stealing your sisters' books when you were six, for being a clumsy ignorant southern barbarian who doesn't understand the intricate technicalities of Japan's tax laws. Just apologize.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Autumn grand finale at Koishikawa Kōrakuen

You may recall that Koishikawa Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) only achieved second place on my list of best spots for autumn leaves in Tokyo; yet that is where I went for my final autumn leaves excursion for 2011. Nostalgia, old friendship, force of habit, call it what you will. I'm glad I went. The garden was much quieter than usual, probably because the Japanese maples are past their peak, but I could still enjoy my favourite little tree. See below.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

I know this tree. I've been visiting it for many years. You have to be there at 9 am to catch the sunlight on its leaves. Barely half an hour later it's in shadows.

I've written about komomaki before  straw mats that are placed around pine trees to serve as an insect trap – and this morning I had a chance to take close-ups.



Remember my rant about men with ginormous zoom lenses? I wasn't exaggerating. These two were photographing the leaves a few meters in front of them. Down, boys, down. The eclipse of the moon is over, so you don't need telescopes anymore. PS: Why don't you just walk closer?

Sometimes, in winter, you see a rope framework around trees. It's called yukitsuri (雪吊; yuki = snow, tsuru = to hang or suspend), and it protects the trees against heavy snow. Trees in Tokyo don't really need this protection, but the old custom is continued as decoration. The ropes are usually attached to trees that have been pruned into a very specific shape. You can see yukitsuri in the photos below.



Abstract art

Koishikawa's forest very early in the morning, before the crowds arrive.


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