Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: January 2012

Monday, 30 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 understated, but everything is screaming for attention, from the lighting fixtures to the massive leather couches.

Ah. Ignore me. I'm too poor and too much of a savage to give you a truly unbiased opinion.

Courtyard between two buildings at Tsutaya Daikanyama

Tsutaya Daikanyama is a huge bookstore spread across three buildings. Each building has two floors: books on the ground floor, and then either music, movies or a bar/lounge called Anjin on the top floor (where you order from iPads, not real menus). It's a bold step in an era when book sales are plummeting, even in book-loving Japan, and we'll have to see whether it pays off. Apparently it's primarily aimed at what is called "premium age clientele". That label irritates me. Premium age? How many more euphemisms for old people will marketers create? [Edit added on 31 January 2012: According to this story in The Japan Times, "premium age" refers to 45 to 50. Oh, I see. Middle-aged. If you're older than 50, you're what? A write-off?]

Incidentally, I've read that the complex will soon have an anti-ageing clinic. If the self-help book doesn't do it for you, go get some Botox and sheep placenta.

Its other target market is the "urban premium crowd" and the "burgeoning new wealth who looks for subtle quality". That's marketing jargon for pretentious twats.

Let's examine it not as a reader, but as a former publisher and book retailer. You'll need enormous turnover to pay for that space, and profit margins in the book retail industry are notoriously small. I was there on a weekday morning, and for their sake I hope they're a lot busier on weekends.

I didn't see any premium age persons, but there were plenty of urban premium females, with the emphasis on premium. Oh, they'll cost you plenty, make no mistake. They were looking, not buying, mostly in the cookery books section and in the J-pop section. It's the first time I've ever seen a bookstore in Japan with more female than male customers.

I didn't see any young kids in the store. Might that be because Daikanyama mamas put their offspring into nursery schools affiliated with Keio University as young as possible in order to have more shopping time?

The busiest section was Starbucks on the ground floor. I didn't see any customers with book bags in Starbucks. 

Is it worth a visit? Yes, it's a beautiful store. Go, by all means! It's a temple of the book. However … I left with the uneasy feeling that its emphasis is on looks, not books; that it's meant for people who buy books for the effect rather than for the contents.

I'm glad I went, and I'll go back because I think it deserves a second chance, but it offers nothing that will dent my loyalty to Jinbōcho and Kinokuniya.

I took the interior shots with my phone. The quality isn't brilliant. Sorry!

Looking down towards the magazine section

My intention was to walk around Daikanyama after visiting the bookstore, but I got bored very quickly. I'm just not a shopaholic. I fled, and forty minutes later I was back in my beloved, scruffy, warmhearted shitamachi. That's when I realized what both Daikanyama and Tsutaya lack.

It's called soul.

You can read more about the bookstore here and here.

Kids' corner

Lounge with grand piano

Listening spot in CD section

This is where you tie your whippet while you buy a book on gourmet dog dinners. 

I couldn't figure out what this was, until ...

... I realized it's a dog garden: pet grooming and defrosting of whippets tied to cute gadgets on fake rocks in mid-winter.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

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 her elbow as she applies some mediaeval torture instrument to her eyelashes.

This lack of discrimination applies to everybody: doddering old fogies, businessmen, grocery-laden housewives, self-conscious schoolgirls, kids, students, blue-collar workers in nikka-pokka, hostess bar ladies in their outfits (or nice girls next door; you never know in Japan) … they all zero in on me.

It's not fair. Hate me! Please, hate me!

I've heard this complaint – "The seat next to me is always empty!" – so often that I assume there must be some truth in it. Yet … don't we all discriminate when we choose train seats?

My first choice is to sit next to a middle-aged woman on her own, because she usually sits quietly, tucked in, occupying little space. Chances are she won't listen to music, won't read a newspaper, won't eat anything and won't smell of cigarettes. She'll probably be polite and she might be reading an interesting book. (Two middle-aged women together, on the other hand, are to be avoided. Chatter chatter chatter.)

Conclusion: I choose a commuter who's exactly like myself! It's not racism, but it's definitely sexism. I'd much rather sit next to a woman than a man. So shoot me.

My second choice is a young OL. She might fall asleep and slump against me, but I don't get uptight when a woman invades my personal space.

My third choice is younger businessmen. They don't sit down balls first with legs spread at least one meter, as older men are wont to do.

I avoid teenage boys, because they'll be either noisy or sleepy. I avoid young girls, because they're too giggly. I avoid men in their 50s, because they all suffer from entitlementitus.

Guess what? I also shun big foreigners, I dodge foreign women drenched in perfume, I bypass any badly overweight commuter of any nationality. Is that reprehensible, or is it merely an attempt to make a crowded commute as pleasant as possible?

I can guess why other commuters choose me. I'm quiet, mousy, self-contained. The fact that I'm foreign is immaterial. I'm not saying foreigners are never avoided because they're foreign, but I do think sometimes it's a bit less nefarious than that.

I'd like to hear about your experience, which might be completely different. Am I correct in guessing it's mostly males who are persona non grata? Do you think you're avoided because you're not Japanese? If your answer is yes, what exactly is it that you do on trains? Or don't do? I really want to apply whatever your secret is!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Life with a Japanese man

Any relationship requires adjustment, compromise, negotiation and, at appropriate moments, guerrilla warfare. If it's an intercultural relationship, you need to double your efforts.

One day I have to write a serious post about the Japanese man/white woman combination. The opposite, white man/Japanese woman, has been analysed ad taedium, but my combination remains relatively rare. The other day a 50-something white colleague – the immensity of his ego is rivalled only by the enormity of his stomach – said to me, "I've never understood what you women see in Japanese men." Well, Casanova, I don't understand what your Japanese ex-wife saw in you. Evidently she doesn't either.

Yes. One day, after careful consideration and editing, I really must publish a highbrow post, but for now we remain light-hearted.

One of the complexities of life with a Japanese man is that I'm never sure whether he's being difficult  I don't understand him  he doesn't understand me he's being difficult because he's a man, because he's Japanese or because he's he. He says it's because he's Japanese; I think it's a man thing. He has no doubts about the main reason for my recalcitrance: it's because I'm a southern barbarian and, to add insult to injury, a country bumpkin as well.

Our differences aren't only culture-related.

He's an outspoken charmer; I'm a timid wallflower in social situations.
He has a beautiful baritone voice; I sound like a crow that's been castrated.
He's stubborn. I'm not stubborn at all. I simply have exceptionally firm principles.
He speaks four languages fluently and understands a fifth; I can barely manage two. He corrects my grammar in my mother tongue, Afrikaans. He's always right.

I'm a neat freak; he's a weapon of mass destruction.
I'm impatient; he's calm, except when confronted by bad drivers.
I start shivering below 20 °C; he goes fishing in sub-zero temperatures.
I'm a morning person who starts nodding off at 10 pm; he bounces around like a caffeinated hyperactive toddler at 2 am.

See that tiny figure towards the right? That's The Hero. Fishing. 

He doesn't like Tokyo; I do.
He likes Afrikaans pop songs; I don't. 
He prefers Veloce; I'm forever trying in vain to drag him into Starbucks. 
He goes to gym 3 times a week; I'm a couch potato, except for walking. He doesn't like walking in Tokyo. "It's too far," he says. Then he goes to gym for 90 minutes. D'you know how far you can walk in 90 minutes?!

I've given up. I walk on my own. That way I can wander aimlessly as much I want to. Fair is fair. He doesn't expect me to gym with him and when I accompany him on his fishing trips, even in the snow, it's entirely voluntary. I go hiking while he's fishing. It's a good combination of hobbies.

He's going to read this post and then he's going to say "moenie stupid wees nie". It's a mixed Afrikaans/English expression that means "don't be stupid". He says it rather frequently. I've decided it's an indirect Japanese way of saying "you are a goddess among women and I worship the ground you walk on but you really should replace your scruffy hiking boots with more elegant footwear".

If it's not, please don't enlighten me.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

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" and then at the three books on the counter. "Yes," I said, "that big book and these three smaller books are all based on the Kama Sutra."

"What’s that?"

I wanted to snap at her: "I’m a bluestocking, not a blue movie actress, what do I know?!" Instead I hooked my rapidly flagging smile around my ears and answered in my best "I’m an academic and I shall give you a rational answer" voice: "It’s an ancient Indian erotic manual. It’s especially known for describing various sexual positions."

"Oh," said The Cleavage, "so which one would you recommend?"

"Personally I prefer the missionary," I said. Blank look.

"Let’s see," I continued. "They’re pretty similar, aren’t they?" I turned the books upside down in a futile attempt to get rid of the rather graphic pictures that were displayed right beneath her bosom. Waste of energy. If the front page had the "splitting the bamboo" position, the back page had the "congress of the mare" variety.

I was getting desperate. I simply blurted out the first thing that entered my mind: "Well, they’re the same price, but that one is bigger and thicker, and that’s always better." As soon as I said it, I recognized my double entendre. Fortunately The Cleavage remained blissfully unaware of my foreplay I mean wordplay. "OK, then I’ll take this one, and I’ll also take these two books. Will you take the others back to the shelves?"

"Intercourse I mean of course!" I replied. She bought the Kama Sutra, a book about full body massage and a book of erotic stories. As I handed them over, I did my usual "goodbye I’m so happy you honoured us with your patronage" speech. "Have fun!" I warbled. Yeah, right. Then I delivered my coup de grâce: "Please come again!"

She smiled vapidly and left. Whereupon I collapsed behind the counter in a breathless heap of post-coital exhaustion.

And that, dear readers, is what happens in the genteel, elegant, sophisticated world of the book.

PS: I remembered this incident when I visited the temple of the sexy daikon.

PPS: If you want to see a truly awesome position, go here. Fear not. Your maiden aunt won't be offended.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

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?



Early autumn

*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 landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, has snow on its highest peaks throughout the year, and in winter its highlands shiver in -18°C.
  •  The Highveld, the plateau on which Johannesburg lies, experiences winter frost that solidifies your bone marrow. I lived in Joburg for several years. It's not as if I don't know cold. The difference is that by noon, you're basking in 20°C+.

Monday, 23 January 2012

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.)

Intertwined daikon

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 maybe I'm just dirty-minded.

Matsuchiyama also imparts wealth, according to legend, hence the money bag symbolism. The wealth/sex thing gets even more interesting when you take into account that the old Yoshiwara pleasure district was very close to the temple. There used to be a canal that linked the Sumida River with Yoshiwara just a few meters from the temple, but it's been filled in and converted to a narrow promenade. Way back then the temple attracted many worshippers from the sex industry, and it very well still might, but these days most visitors are probably looking for love, a successful marriage and fertility of either womb or wallet.

Money bags on roof with blah white-grey sky behind it

You can see the daikon and money bag everywhere: on lanterns, on water basins, on the roof of the temple. You can also buy real daikon to offer to the gods enshrined here. One of them is Bishamonten, one of the shichifukujin or seven lucky gods. That's why this temple is also part of Asakusa's seven lucky gods pilgrimage. You can read more about these pilgrimages in this post which I wrote about Fukagawa.

I walked to Matsuchiyama this morning to clear my edit-fuzzy head. Unfortunately it was a ghastly day for photos – overcast, drizzly and just blah – but I've included my best efforts. I like this quirky temple so much that I will definitely return on a sunny day to enjoy its atmosphere and to take better photos. The temple also has big cherry and ginkgo trees, and you can see the ultimate phallic symbol, Tokyo Sky Tree, from its grounds. Grin. Plenty of reasons to go back!

Arbitrary aside: a woman with chunky legs and thick ankles are said to have daikon legs (大根足, daikon ashi). Again the similarity should be obvious.

You can read more about the temple (in Japanese) here and here

Dreary photo taken on a dreary day, but that's Matsuchiyama

See the daikon on the right? Also note that the water basin is in the shape of a money bag.

Daikon on the lantern

The lanterns are everywhere!

I love this photo. I'll have to go back on a sunny day to get a better version of the daikon plus Tokyo Sky Tree.

View Larger Map

Saturday, 21 January 2012

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 for a harmless flirtation; but some – ah – some will fascinate, titillate and satisfy you for a lifetime.

My pet hates: Dan Brown, Paulo Coelho, Deeprak Chopra, J.M. Coetzee, Nicholas Sparks, LaVyrle Spencer and her bodice-ripper brigade. Vastly overrated, every one of 'em.

Customers are a necessary burden if you want to work in a bookshop. I enjoyed their passion for books and their eccentricities, and even their boundless stupidity provided amusement. When you work with books, you have to remind yourself constantly that not everybody who walks into your shop is necessarily a bibliophile. Some are truly intimidated by books, and they grasp at your knowledge like a lifeline. Book club women are in a class of their own. They seem to fall into two extreme categories: the (inevitably terribly British) know-it-all school-marm jolly-hockey-stick types, and the totally lost souls. The former demand that you immediately produce the obscurest tomes on Victorian authors; the latter wander aimlessly into the store, look around them in a bewildered fashion, and then JUMP on you.

"I need to buy a book for the book club. What do you recommend?"
"Do you want an English or an Afrikaans book?"
"Ag, it doesn’t matter."
"Aha. Well, what do you like to read?"
"Oh, everything."
"Hmmm. Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?"
"Oh, anything."
"Errr. Do you like serious books, or more humorous books?"
"Oh, everything."
"Right. Let's go look at the picture books, shall we?"
It gets worse. Another hapless victim wanders towards the counter, and here comes that most profound of all statements: "I'm looking for a book."

You don't say? A book?! You're looking for a book in a bookshop? Well I never, what an absurd idea, what makes you think we have books?!

"Sure! What kind of book?"
"I read about it in a magazine."
"OK, what's the title?"
"I don't remember."
"I don't know."
"What is it about?"
"I can't remember. It's a red book."
"Das Kapital?"
"Can you remember the magazine?"
"I think I know what you're looking for. It's not called (insert current schlock bestseller), is it?"
"Yes! Yes, that's it!"


Friday, 20 January 2012

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 , can also mean lie or falsehood. Play with meanings, and you turn the bad luck into a lie, i.e. non-existence. While they're swopping uso, they chant "kaemashō, kaemashō" or "let's change, let's change".

Although the exchange itself is on 24 and 25 January, the shrine displays the wooden carvings until February, when it also has a plum blossom festival. Plum trees are associated with Sugawara no Michizane, who's enshrined at Kameido Tenjin, but all of that is another post for another day. (There's also an Honourable Dog that's covered in salt, because there used to be a booming salt trade in this area in the Edo period. See? Lots of stories to tell about this shrine!) 


Main shrine at Kameido Tenjin

One of the famous drum bridges

The temizuya, where you wash your hands, is in the shape of a turtle (kame in Japanese), which symbolizes longevity. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Sugawara no Michizane

Thursday, 19 January 2012

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 other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, vvhich they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.

You can read the dictionary here. The preface is hilarious; the word list itself is not bad at all. Now please excuse me. I have a headache that has to be completed. The Hero finished his translation at 3:30 am this morning; now it's my turn.

Oh! Wait! More avoidance! See this photo below? When I had to decide which books to bring to Japan – not an easy task if you have a collection of a few thousand – I dithered about this dictionary. It's massive, it's heavy, it's awkward. "You'll never need an Afrikaans dictionary in Japan," I told myself. "Yes," I answered myself, "but what if you forget a word?!" Eventually I packed it, mainly for sentimental reasons: it's been my companion, guru and mainstay for so many years.

I never thought, not in my wildest dreams, that I would sit with it on my lap, like Linus and his security blanket, while editing a Very Official Bureaucratic Document in Tokyo.

Ek mis my HAT en Spelreëls en Skryf Afrikaans van A tot Z! (I miss three other well-known Afrikaans reference books.)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

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 medicine. 


Just to show you the contrast, I've included photos taken of last year's summer peonies, protected not by a straw cover against the cold, but by a paper umbrella against the sunlight.

Back to winter. The photo below shows the long row of stone lanterns in front of Tōshō-gū. Can you see the white line on the lower part of some lanterns? That's where the lanterns were repaired after last year's big quake, which toppled many of them.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

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 needs much editing. He's just careless with punctuation. (You are! You know you are!)

I developed a headache halfway into the second paragraph thanks to the passive voice. Or should I say, a headache was developed. Neither I nor text had any role in it. It transmogrified from a spacetime singularity into a headachy beingness. That's the passive voice. Nobody does anything. Things just happen, entirely by themselves. Beer was consumed, emergency measures were undertaken, from the silly to the sublime. The beer is, of course, an example of the sublime.

I've also realized that Afrikaans has two extremely irritating aspects:

(1) Its diacritics. It loves letters like ô ê ï ë. Do you know what a pain in the butt it is to write these letters in Word? Should I growl at Word rather than at my mother tongue? The Hero, being The Hero, blithely ignores all diacritics in his translation; I, being a compulsive-obsessive anal-retentive copy-editor, have to redo them with much muttering, mumbling and grumbling.

(2) The lingering use of the polite form of the second-person personal pronoun. English – such an uncomplicated language! – has you, French has the familiar tu and the formal vous, German has the familiar du and the formal Sie, Japanese has … oh dear … how many different humble, standard, polite and exalted forms does Japanese have? Lots. Anyway, Afrikaans has the familiar jy and the formal u, but u has become almost obsolete. It's used so rarely that it sounds hideously pompous, pretentious and just plain stupid. I thought I was rid of it, but here it is, popping up in this Very Official Bureaucratic Kind Of Document. I don't like this address form. U gat. Thine arse.

Pronouns are unnecessary complications. Languages should get rid of them. This whole he/she thing is driving me nuts. The only way to avoid he/she is to use a singular they – a grammatical blasphemy that usually sends copy-editors into a froth – but I'm ready to hands-up. What's good enough for Chaucer is good enough for me. Here's a line from The Canterbury Tales, circa 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
 wol come up …

(Whoso is syntactically singular, but it's followed by a plural they.)

This editing job has increased my Japanese vocabulary exponentially. I
now know at least 2 117 new words, such as 領置物
, that I will never be able to use in ordinary conversation. It's enough to drive a woman off THEIR edge. 

erendipity. Just before I published this post, I noticed that No-sword wrote this post about Japanese pronouns. We're on opposite ends of the scale – he's a total guru and I'm a barbaric beginner – but I really enjoy his blog. Highly recommended.

Monday, 16 January 2012

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't just stand there!" I snapped. "Do something!"
His glare didn't falter.
"Asshole," I muttered. I left like throwing my camera at him, and in that state of agitation I grabbed it by its lens. I wasn't really going to throw it; it just felt good to pretend.

That's when I noticed it. The lens was on MF, manual focus, not AM, automatic focus. I only use the former for close-ups, which I hadn't attempted yet on that day; and I simply hadn't noticed that I couldn’t focus thanks to a stupid button.

Or rather, thanks to a stupid photographer with zero practical skills and even less common sense.

ごめんなさい、キヤノ間違え!  私のミスで! (Gomen nasai, Canon. Machigaeta! Watashi no misu desu! I'm sorry, Canon. I made a mistake. It's my mistake.)

It was a dumb, dumb, dumb mistake, and once I'd stopped blushing, grovelling in embarrassment and apologizing tDanjūrō Ichikawa IX (that's his statue; he used to be a famous kabuki actor), I started wondering whether we – us foreigners in Japan – don't tend to do this too often.

Something goes wrong, and instead of turning the camera around and looking at ourselves, we immediately accuse Japan of … oh, the list is endless … xenophobia, racism, discrimination, feudalism, backwardness, isolationism, stupidity, condescension.

I fear our opinion of Japan is often a reflection of our own insecurities. Is Japan perfect? Hell, no. Problem 1: mamacharis. Problem 2 – 10 000: politicians. Is it always our own fault? No, that's not necessarily true either.

But next time, before you decide it's Japan's fault, perhaps you should check your own settings first.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

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 Bridge

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

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 date from the Edo era. A nagaya is a long wooden structure that's divided into several independent houses. Each row of houses is separated by a narrow alley. Merchants had residences facing the main streets; commoners and craftsmen rented houses in back streets.

Nowadays you find them mostly, if not only, in the shitamachi. Unfortunately it looks as if they face an uncertain future, because they're regarded as a fire hazard.

Old and new


If you want to go for a walk in this area, I suggest you start at Tsukishima Station on the Toei Ōedo Line (Exit 6). If you turn left as you reach ground level, you'll reach the old nagaya within three minutes. Do yourself a favour and stop at the tiny temple Tsukuda Tenzai Jizōson, which I wrote about here.

The main shrine in that area, Sumiyoshi Jinja, is a branch of Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka. It deifies several gods, including Empress Jingū, who is venerated as a goddess of easy childbirth and warfare at sea. I suffer from severe cognitive dissonance when I try to connect those two issues. You could argue that it's a hell of a battle to get a baby out of its ocean of amniotic fluid …

Nah. Still doesn't work for me. Anyway, the shrine protects fishermen. If you're into arcane detail about mythology, I recommend
 this post at the blog Omamori from Japan.

Sacred and profane

The main building at Sumiyoshi Jinja

The main entrance to Sumiyoshi Jinja

The ceramic sign on the torii (see below) was painted in 1882 by calligrapher Ippin Shijin Shinno, who visited the shrine regularly. The inscription says: 明治十五壬午歳六月三十日 住吉神社 一品幟仁親王. (Translated: Meiji 15, year of the ox, June 30th, Sumiyoshi Jinja, Ippin Shijin Shinno.)

This lighthouse was built in 1866 on an island called Ishikawajima. The island is now part of the landfill that comprises Tsukudajima, Tsukishima, Kachidoki and Harumi.

The area is also famous for tsukudani (佃煮), a seafood preserve made of fish, shellfish and seaweed that have been simmered in soy sauce, mirin and salt. That's what you do if you don't want your fish to rot. I didn't particularly look for these shops, since I'm not brave enough to try the concoction.

2012's cherry blossoms

Boats seen from Sumiyoshi Jinja

These cherry trees on the banks of the Sumida River will be magnificent in spring.

I end this post with some totally arbitrary information: in the movie Babel, Chieko Wataya and her father, Yasujiro, live in a condominium in Tsukudajima.

No, I lie. I end this post with some ukiyo-e about this area, done by masters such as Hokusai (the first one) and Hiroshige (the last two).

Tsukudajima and Fuji-san, by Hokusai

Tsukudajima and the first cuckoo of spring, by Hiroshige

Tsukudajima from Eitai Bridge, by Hiroshige


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