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Showing posts from April, 2012

Peonies, lions and trees in roads

It was called the king of flowers, back in the Sui and Tang dynasties in China. Emperors cultivated them, painted them on scrolls and composed poems about them. Emperor Xuanzong love them so much that he allowed his citizens a holiday just to view them.
Japanese scholars who travelled to China learned about this peony fad and brought the flowers with them to Japan, probably in the 8th century. You can still see the descendents of these first arrivals at Hase-dera in Nara.

The military elite of the fourteenth century loved all things Chinese, and the peony became one of their most important motifs. It was probably around this time that artists started combining the king of flowers and the king of animals. You can see images of peonies and lions in prints, on kimono, in kabuki plays and … apparently it's a very popular tattoo.


Tokyo's best-known peony garden is at Tōshō-gū in Ueno Park, which I wrote about here, but this year I ventured further afield to Yakuō-in (薬王院) in Mejiro, w…

In praise of wisteria and older men

"There is much to be said for cherry blossoms, but they seem so flighty. They are so quick to run off and leave you. And then just when your regrets are the strongest the wisteria comes into bloom, and it blooms on into the summer. There is nothing quite like it. Even the color is somehow companionable and inviting."

The speaker is Tō no Chūjō, friend and rival – both in love and politics – of Genji, the main character in The Tale of Genji.

The paragraph ends with these words: "He was still a very handsome man. His smile said a great deal." I fell in love with Tō no Chūjō when I read this: an older man, still handsome, who has a charming smile and prefers steadfast companionship rather than a thousand flighty flirtations. (It should be added that this ideal probably applies to his mistresses rather than to himself. This is, after all, The Tale of Genji we're talking about. Let's not get too starry-eyed.)
However, this post is not about the charms of older men…

Wah! This book so lekker, lah!

There's nothing on this planet as lekker as a new book. (I really need to teach you more Afrikaans words, but for now, lekker means nice, great, wonderful, etc.) If that book arrives from overseas after it mysteriously went missing, and if it's a book about a country with quirky languages and fabulous food, and if it's a present from another jungle woman who was the first ever commenter on your blog … then that lekker factor increases exponentially.
Lina, you brightened up a cold rainy day in the middle of a frantic fortnight, and your present will keep me chortling happily for a long time. The only problem is that I took it with me to work today, and throughout my lessons I could hear it calling my name. I'm afraid I wasn't a particularly focused pedagogue.

Aiyah, it's your fault, lah! Or should that be it's your fault, ah? I'm still getting my head around lah vs ah.
The book is called Malaysian Flavours by Lee Su Kim, and it provides insights into all…

April is the cruellest month in Niigata

April is the cruellest month in Niigata: a cold muddy earth under a sullen leaden sky. No lilacs, as in the poem, but a few daffodils in gardens. No spring rain to stir dull roots, yet some mountain vegetables have made a brave appearance.*
The seasons start later in the high mountains, and right now it's that dreary phase at the end of winter before spring arrives in her party frock: everything is dead and dry and grey. The sky is dull, the earth is an old sepia photograph. Rice farmers have started preparing their rice paddies - ploughing them and clearing away weeds - but they won't start planting for another few weeks.

If  you look carefully, though, you'll notice the beauty of the grim landscape. It's a bit post-apocalyptic, but  white snow, skeletal trees and ill-tempered clouds provide beautiful moody scenery.
As far as fishing is concerned, it's simply too cold to catch a lot. You can still have fun, though: practice casting, or gambol in the snow. Or sludge.…

I've joined the queue in front of the toilet

I feel inspired! Lina and Cocomino both wrote recent posts about toilets, so I've decided to follow their sterling example. A toilet post is obligatory on any self-respecting Japan blog. Where else in the world has the toilet – called a washlet in Japan – been elevated to such an art form?

A thousand stories have been written about these electronic toilets that deliver a warm seat to a happy bum, warm water to other startled body parts, warm air to hitherto unknown regions and artificial flushing sounds to hide the real sounds. While this is happening, the toilet is reciting sonnets in iambic pentameter.
I don't want to add to the existing oeuvre. I'd rather write about Japan's rapidly disappearing squat toilet. When I arrived here, seven lifetimes ago, I liked squat toilets. It felt cleaner.
You need to know, gentlemen, that most woman dread sitting down on a public toilet seat. We hover mid-air, giving our thigh muscles a good workout. This fear was a daily reality in A…

Genkaku-ji, a temple for bad eyes

Quirky temple time!
This one is a gem: small but beautifully maintained, with dozens of interesting bits crammed into a small space near the Bunkyō Ward Office and Tokyo Dome. It's called Genkaku-ji (源覚寺), and this is where you go if you want to cure an eye problem. Or pile extra salt onto a precariously tilting salt tower. Or ring the Pacific Peace Bell.

Genkaku-ji was built in 1624. Soon afterwards a wooden statue of the god of hell, Enma-ō (閻魔王), was found in a nearby pond. It was placed in the temple and largely ignored, but then people started noticing an old woman who visited every day with an offering of konnyaku.
"Why are you giving konnyaku to Enma?" was the perfectly reasonable question everybody asked.
She told them that her eyes had become weak and all medicines had failed, so she asked Enma for help. One day, as she was praying before the statue, he said to her, "I will gouge out one eye and give it to you." She looked up and saw that one of his eyes w…