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Showing posts from January, 2012

Mixed feelings about Tsutaya Books in Daikanyama

Daikanyama is probably Tokyo's most upmarket suburb. It's the enclave of fashionistas and ladies who lunch. I was struck by the absence of men: it's mostly women traipsing around with designer outfits and designer dogs, looking anorectic (referring to both women and dogs) [whippets seem to be à la mode]. All shops are tiny and empty, and all have French names. All restaurants are French or Italian, and all menus are in English. You might as well be in Europe. 
I went to this area to visit a new bookstore called Tsutaya in Daikanyama T-site. I was so excited about it that I went there two days after I read about it for the first time. Half an hour later I left with mixed feelings. I wanted to like it. I was prepared to like it. I took ¥20 000 with me, just in case. Perhaps this will tell you more about my experience than anything else: I didn't buy one single book. I'm not sure what put me off. Perhaps its ostentatiousness? I've read the design is supposed to be …

Why don't Japanese commuters hate me?!

Why do foreigners complain that Japanese people don't want to sit next to them on trains?

If you think I'm complaining about their complaints, no, you're wrong!
I'm complaining because I don't have whatever force field they have that repel their fellow commuters.
I've seen this countless times: there are ten empty seats in a carriage. The train stops. One Japanese commuter gets in. Does this person avoid me? No. No hesitation, makes a beeline, plonks down next to me; and there I am, squashed between people, while other Japanese commuters sit in blissful solitude with oodles of space.
What am I doing wrong?! Why don't Japanese commuters fear me?! I want to be feared! I want to sit without a big man crowding my space with his newspaper, or a woman with shopping bags collapsing on my lap, or a teenager who crumples against my shoulder, or a student who's listening to ghastly brain-pulverizing music on his iPhone/pod/pad, or a girl who digs into my ribs with he…

I was a sex therapist in a bookshop

The best job I ever had was the worst-paid job I ever had: assistant in a bookshop. I had to be an expert on everything, from whodunits (British is best) to sex therapy. 
I was a student at the time, and my bookshop job was for pocket money. It was a pointless exercise, of course, because every penny I made was promptly reinvested in the shop itself. While I worked there, I wrote down my funniest moments. Here's another one.
It was a quiet afternoon. I was sitting behind the counter, reading a linguistics textbook.
Gradually I realized that I was not alone. I peered upwards fuzzily, and encountered The Cleavage. A talon dripping in blood-red Cutex languidly waved into my field of vision. Gold bangles shimmered. She displayed three books on the counter in front of me. "Tell me," a sultry voice arose from the depths of The Cleavage, "are these books all based on that big book over there, and which one would you recommend?"
I glanced at "that big book over there…

Obligatory snow photo

Remember the glorious ginkgos at the University of Tokyo? They're looking a bit different now. I took the top photo with my smartphone on Tuesday morning, after we had a bit of snow overnight. (Nothing compared to northern Japan, but relatively generous for Tokyo.)

The snow had already turned to ice by early morning. I never knew it was so tricky to walk on this slippery stuff. (Don't laugh. I'm from Africa. See comments below photos.) How women do it in high heels I shall never understand. I wore my hiking boots. Elegant, not. Warm and steady, very.

Incidentally, we had snow ánd thunder in Tokyo. Is that common?

*To get serious: Southern Africa has snow, but in limited, very specific places.  The Western Cape, where I grew up, has snow on its high mountains. A town called Ceres gets heavy snowfall, but not exactly heavy enough for skiing.Astronomical observatory town Sutherland in the Northern Cape, 1450 m above sea level, has temperatures that plunge below -10°C.Lesotho, a…

Matsuchiyama, the temple of the sexy daikon

This is a naughty temple, with lots of frolicking daikon immortalized in flagrante delicto. As if that's not enough, it stands on a hill that raised itself in a day, and then a huge golden dragon appeared and coiled itself around the hill, whereupon the heavens poured forth heavy rain that relieved a long drought in the district.

See why I love mythology?
This Asakusa temple is one of my best discoveries in the shitamachi, but like so many treasures in this area, you won't find it in English guide books. It's called Matsuchiyama Shōden (待乳山聖天), and it has two symbols: a money bag and two daikon with intertwined legs, i.e. bonking away merrily. (A daikon is a large white radish that's used in a wide variety of dishes.)

I've read various articles about Matsuchiyama's daikon, and they all say the vegetable has an invigorating effect when eaten, hence its link to sexuality. I find it odd that there's no mention at all of the plant's obvious phallic shape, but …

The joys and horrors of working in a bookshop

Long, long ago in a world far, far away I worked in a bookshop while I pursued postgraduate studies. Here's a story from that time.
Working in a bookshop is not just about reading. It’s like a gym work-out. You carry approximately ten tons of books every day. You wrestle with bookshelves. You dust, you vacuum-clean, you wipe and shine and re-pack your books into neat little just-so piles. You double-check that your favourite books are still displayed nicely, that you have enough of the latest bestsellers, that you haven’t sold the last of the slow-but-steady sellers, that you have enough copies in the storeroom of Harry Potter and Tintin and Asterix.
Every once in a while, when the store is quiet enough, you stop to become more intimately acquainted with a sexy, promising individual. You pick it up, open it reverently, inhale its richness, fondle it a bit … and then succumb, defenceless, to its allure. Books are just like men: some are infinitely disappointing; others are suitable f…

Tired of bad luck? Swap your bullfinch!

When it comes to festivals in Japan, I can never decide what the correct blogging procedure is: write about it before the festival so that others can go, too; or write about it after the festival so that you can include the latest photos. Both?
This time, though, I'm going to do a story before the event. Partly because it's so cute that you should really go, and partly because I probably won't have time – drat! – to go myself this year. These photos were taken last winter.
Every January, on the 24th and the 25th, Kameido Tenjin in Tokyo holds a ceremony called usokae shinji (うそ替え神事) or "uso exchange ritual": worshippers bring wooden carvings of bullfinches and exchange them for new ones, hoping to turn past bad luck into good luck. This belief is based on word play: the bird's name, uso, is written as うそ in Japanese; but uso, written as 嘘, can alsomean lie or falsehood. Play with meanings, and you turn the bad luck into a lie, i.e. non-existence. While they'…

Ladies, unskilfull persons and hard vsuall English wordes

Oh I geddit! I'm a linguistic idiot because I'm a woman. That's why I can't master Japanese, I get headaches when I edit Afrikaans and I can never remember how to spell occasion (I always write ocassion). Ladies, gentlewomen and other unskilfull persons, you see, need help so that they can more easilie understand many hard English wordes.

Yesterday, in a classic avoidance behaviour manoeuvre, I started re-reading a book called Is that a fish in your ear? by David Bellos instead of actually editing the document I'm supposed to be editing. It's a book about translating, and it contains a reference to Robert Cawdrey's 1604 dictionary called … this is the full title …
A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any o…

Winter peonies at Tōshō-gū Shrine

Tōshō-gū Shrine in Ueno Park has a beautiful peony garden that is open to the public twice a year: early January to early February for winter peonies, and mid-April to mid-May for summer peonies.
There are about 40 varieties of winter peony in the garden, but it's so difficult to cultivate the flowers in winter that less than 20% blooms, according to the garden's website. The winter flowers are not as spectacular as their summer cousins, but I go every January to marvel that such fragile flowers can bloom in such icy cold weather. (They're big, but not particularly robust. The summer variety, too, wilts towards noon. You have to catch them very early in the morning.) 
More trivia: Peonies are called botan in Japanese. It's usually written in kana as ぼたん or ボタン, sometimes in kanji as牡丹.The flower was brought to Japan from China in the Nara period (710 to 794). It was celebrated not only for its beauty, but also as a painkiller and anti-convulsive m…

Copy-editing is a very silly business

I used to be a copy-editor, many lifetimes ago, but I was never a very good one. My attention span isn't up to it. I still start scowling when I see obvious mistakes like its/it's and whose/who's, and don’t you dare use impact as a verb in my presence. I will impact you in your nuts! However, I don't do copy-editing anymore. I got tired of endless debates about teabag vs tea-bag. It doesn't matter. That particular point is style, not grammar. Choose your style, be consistent and chillax.
Then, unexpectedly, I got involved in editing again. Suffice it to say that it's an Afrikaans version of a Japanese document. A Very Official Bureaucratic Kind Of Document. The kind of document that is written in extremely formal language, with unnecessary repetition of synonyms (each consisting of more syllables than the previous word) and a generous application of the passive voice.
The Hero is translating from his native Japanese; I'm editing his Afrikaans. Not that it nee…

Next time, before you decide it's Japan's fault ...

I write this story to my own detriment. It makes me look stupendously stupid, but it might contain a few truths, too.
A while ago I took my camera to Canon's Shinjuku Service Center so that dust could be cleaned from its sensor, and afterwards I wrote another ode to Japanese customer service on my blog. A few days later I walked to Sensō-ji to take photos of its New Year preparations, and I had nasty shock: my camera wouldn't focus.
My reaction was instantaneous. I went ballistic. "Damn you, Canon," I fumed, "what did you do to my camera? This is your fault! I take my camera to be cleaned and you screw it up. Why did I praise you for your good service, you morons, you accursed blasted infernal idiots!"
I was furious, and the teeming holiday crowds did nothing to calm me down. I fled to the parking area at the back of the temple. As I stood there, sulking, I noticed this character:

"What are you looking at?" I snarled at him. He glared back. "Don&#…

Tsukudajima, an island of yore in the Sumida River

It's all too easy to say this neighbourhood is unique. It probably isn't. All Tokyo's wards have a distinct personality; all have similarities. Many neighbourhoods combine very old with very new. Yet, having conceded all that, Tsukudajima (佃島) is different. Really.

Tsukudajima used to be a natural island in the Sumida River's estuary. The area was settled at the beginning of the Edo era, when Tokugawa Ieyasu invited a group of fishermen from Osaka to live here. Nowadays it's much bigger, supplemented by reclaimed land that includes Tsukishima, Kachidoki and Harumi, and it offers a stunning contrast of skyscraper condominiums and lopsided old wooden houses that have survived various calamities. As a matter of fact, Tsukudajima is one of the few places in Tokyo where you can still see nagaya (長屋,tenements or row houses) which datefrom the Edo era. A nagaya is a long wooden structure that's divided into several independent houses. Each row of houses is separated by…