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Showing posts from August, 2012

Pest control for trees, summer version

Have you seen straw mats wrapped around trees in winter? I know it's difficult to remember winter in what is probably this summer's hottest week yet (in Tokyo), but try.

They're called komomaki, they're made of straw and they're an eco-friendly pest control. You see them in parks in winter, but this summer a modern version appeared on a few zelkovas(keyaki in Japanese)in Nishi-Shinjuku. The whole street in front of the Keio Plaza Hotel is lined with gorgeous, towering, massive trees; but the wraps appear on only a small number. Perhaps it's an experiment?

The straw mats protect pine trees against pine moths (マツカレハ or matsukareha, Dendrolimus spectabilis); these modern fabric versions protect zelkovas against an insect called aodougane(アオドウガネ, Anomala albopilosa). 
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 for protection instead of burrowing into the tree's bark, and then you re…

Sometimes Tokyo reminds me of Africa

It's a highly unlikely comparison – an African squatter camp and modern-day Tokyo – but the other day I spotted an image that stopped me in my tracks and brought a lifetime of memories tumbling into my summer-sluggish mind. Look at this photo of the back wall of a house in the shitamachi, more specifically, in Taitō. It was revealed when the house behind it was demolished:

Now look at this squatter camp (shanty town) near Cape Town:

No wonder I feel so at home in the shitamachi, but let's put things into perspective:
1) There was a building boom in Tokyo after WWII. American fire-bombing had pulverized the city, and the government had to supply lots of houses, and very quickly. Quantity was more important than quality.
2) Japan likes new houses so much that little attention is paid to renovation. Japanese houses last only thirty years, and lose all their value after fifteen. I don't say that; Nomura does.
3) Land is so expensive, especially in Tokyo, that homeowners don't h…

A temple for storytellers and a tomb for dead stories

I've found a temple for storytellers!

Could this be my best discovery yet? I think so. It's not the prettiest temple by far, but the very idea – a temple for stories! – is enough to place this at the top of my list of best quirky temples.
Honpōji (本法寺) is a tiny temple in Kotobuki, Asakusa, which is basically my backyard.

May I tell you a bit of history to explain why Honpōji is special? The period before and during World War II was a tough one. Military authorities tried to control public opinion, and one of their methods was to prohibit professional storytellers from telling any humorous stories that could weaken the Yamato damashii (大和魂) or Japanese spirit.
The traditional Japanese art of storytelling is called rakugo (落語). The stories themselves are also called rakugo or hanashi (話), and the narrators are known as rakugoka or hanashika. They have a big repertoire, but during World War II, 53 of their stories were banned.
A famous rakugo critic, Nomura Mumeian (野村無名庵), suggested…

Sweet potato Häagen-Dazs

Duck! Take cover! Another food post!

I spotted this in our local konbini and immediately thought it was a perfect snack for late summer going into early autumn. Not that there's any sign of autumn apart from a few leaves that are early quitters, but theoretically autumn starts on 1 September.
It's "Häagen-Dazs murasaki imo", in other words, ice cream with a sweet potato flavour.

Ice cream means summer, and sweet potato is an iconic feature of autumn in Japan. I always know that autumn has arrived when I heard the yaki-imo truck that drives around our neighbourhood selling baked sweet potatoes. Its plaintive song awakens instant nostalgia for who knows what. If you want to read more about it, here's an excellent post. I'll also attach a video at the end of my post.
The sweet potato was introduced in Japan about 350 years ago ...

What? You don't really expect me to do a Facebook-type food post that focuses on photos and doesn't include any arcane obscure ir…

The limit of the heat

According to the traditional Japanese calendar, today is shosho (処暑), the limit of the heat, the day when rice begins ripening.

Quick notes
1) Traditional East Asian calendars divide the year into 24 solar terms. The days that mark a change in the seasons are called the 24 sekki (二十四節気, nijūshi sekki).
2) The traditional calendars and the contemporary Gregorian calendar don't correspond exactly; they're about a month out of sync.
3) After the "limit of the heat", things are supposed to cool down. I have my doubts, but we'll see.
4) This has been a hot-but-easy week. High temperature + low humidity = happy Rurousha.

A tale of two walks
The weather for Saturday 18 August: only 30 degrees, but a humidity of 90%. We had a thunderstorm early that morning, and Tokyo was a soggy swamp. So what did I do? I went walking, and it was the only time this summer that I almost gave up and made an early U-turn. I was drenched in sweat, and even my facecloth was in such a sorry state th…

Snow in a South African desert

Yes, we have four seasons in South Africa.

Yes, South Africa is generally speaking rather hot, but it can also get very cold. I'm talking freezing point and below.

Yes, it even snows in South Africa!

Granted, not often, and usually on the high mountains, but this winter has been one of the coldest on record. (It's winter in South Africa now. Southern hemisphere? Opposite? Ja?) It even snowed in the Karoo, a semi-desert that covers a large part of the country's interior. This is what it usually looks like:

This is what it looked like this winter:

The photos were forwarded by another scatterling of Africa, a South African friend in London. I don't know who took them, but I was astonished to see an old klipkerk (stone church) covered in snow. I've seen plenty of mountains covered in snow, but churches in the Karoo? No.

The town where I was born, Worcester, is surrounded by mountains. It's in a wine-growing district, and this is what it looks like in winter. Mooi, …

A temporal thing called a cicada

I've written about Japan's cicadas (蝉, semi) before, but my blog is getting so many Google search hits for "Japan cicada" that I've updated a story I did last summer with new information.

I'll start with a recent photo of a cicada's utsusemi (空蝉) or exoskeleton, inother words, the empty skin after they molt for the last time and finally reach maturity. Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their existence. Their adult life, when they sing with such abandon, is very short. Incidentally, utsusemi is a homonym for "mortal man" or "temporal thing", written with the kanji 現人.Very appropriate, don't you think?

I found this utsusemi purely by chance at a small temple in my neighbourhood. I grimaced when I saw it stuck on a fox statue's face, because it looked a bit creepy: was the fox having the cicada for lunch, or was the mini-monster attacking the fox?
A second utsusemi was attached to the fox's red bib:

If you want to kno…

Help! I'm shrinking!

What's going on? Did I DRINK ME, use the White Rabbit's fan, eat the right-handed size of a mushroom?* Why am I shrinking? Stop this bus and let me get off! It's not exactly as though I have length to spare!

I got the results of my latest annual health check, and it's pretty boring as usual, except that I am now … undeniably ... getting older and therefore smaller.

The Wall Street Journal says in this article:
"It's not uncommon to shrink by 0,6 to 0,8 cm every decade after age 40. Think of a house settling on its foundation. Disks—the gel-like pads between vertebrae—lose fluid over the years and flatten. Muscles lose mass and weaken, especially in the abdomen, which can exacerbate poor posture. Even the arches of the foot flatten out slightly, reducing height by a few millimeters more."

Oh, ignominious life, from freely roaming nomad to sorrowfully sagging house. Sigh.
Here's my feedback. The top row is height. See? I'm getting shorter: from 158,8 tw…