Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: March 2012

Friday, 30 March 2012

The silence of the stones at Jyoumyoin

My recent grammar rant made everybody skrik (that's an Afrikaans verb that means "to catch a fright"), but it also proved that the gods have a sense of humour: I made a few mistakes in my own follow-up comments. Am I allowed to blame my smartphone's tiny keyboard? It's either that or early-onset Alzheimer's, so let's just go with the keyboard option.

I realized I had to write a new post so that we could all ignore linguistic vexations. I decided to do another story about a deity called Jizō (地蔵), because he never fails to calm me down and make me smile. Jizō is the protector of children, pregnant women, firemen, travellers and pilgrims. See why I like him? One of my favourite Jizō temples is Jyoumyoin (浄名院) in Uenosakuragi (上野桜木). You probably won't find information about this temple in any non-Japanese guidebook, and I cannot imagine that too many tourists would find it interesting, yet I can spend hours amongst its graves. I love the tranquillity of Japanese cemeteries and the companionship of the silent stones. Every single stone, every single face, is different.

As per usual, click to see bigger versions.

The statues at this temple are quite old, and for some reason many heads have fallen off. They're gently placed on top of the statues.


Jizō has many forms in Japan, including Mizuko Jizō (水子地蔵) or Water-Child Jizō. He's the guardian of children who die prematurely, through abortion or any other means. Their souls go to a hellish realm, a riverbed known as Sai-no-Kawara (賽の河原), which is similar to the river Styx in Greek mythology. Since these children haven't had a chance to build up good karma, they are forced to build small stone towers, pebble upon pebble, in the hope of reaching salvation, but demons scatter their stones and beat them with clubs. Fortunately Jizō comes to the rescue, hiding the children in the sleeves of his robe. That is why stones are often placed at Jizō statues: parents believe that it will help their child to do penance.

You can also see toys at Jizō statues: the gifts of a parent whose child has been cured of an illness thanks to Jizō's intervention, or a gift to help the deceased child in the afterlife. A little hat or bib (often red, because red drives out demons) is often displayed as well, for the same reason. 




Incidentally, if you want to buy a grave at this temple, it will cost you from ¥500 000 for 0,25 square meters to ¥1,4 million for 0,70 square meters. You also have to pay an annual maintenance fee of ¥20 000. It's expensive to live in Tokyo; it's expensive to die here.

I wrote another post about Jizō statues at Hase-dera in Kamakura here. Hase-dera has cuteness; Jyoumyoin has atmosphere.




I identify with this one. He's a bit out of step.




Jizō often carries a pilgrim's staff with six rings that jingle to warn animals of his approach and prevent mutual harm.




Main Jizō statue at the temple

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

My pet language peeve

Am I allowed another post about language? I'm a curmudgeon when it comes to slipshod grammar. I have no choice: it's a burden I've been cursed with* since my days as a copy-editor. Lina's husband would probably call me "macam poyo" about grammar. (* Please do not tell me I should say "with which I've been cursed". You are WRONG. This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put.) 

We all make mistakes in written English, but there's a difference between an honest typo and mental sloppiness, and right now my pet peeve is the stupid cretinous crackbrained habit of using should of instead of should have. It's alarming how common it's become, and it's frightening that its users have no inkling that they might be wrong.

I've given up when it comes to irregardless, literally, impact as a verb, less vs fewer, sort of, kind of, you know and basically, but I will not give up the good fight against the misuse of the apostrophe s and should ofI refuse. I shall fight in the classroom, I shall fight on the internet, I shall fight in the streets of Tokyo. I shall never surrender. Like, you know?

I should of used my dictionary.
I should of studied more at school.
I should of requested a better brain at birth.

AAARGH! {{|└(>o< )┘|}} She gives a primal scream and chokes her dictionary.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Yogo-no-matsu, the pine that almost pined away

This tree is big. It's BIG.

I've seen taller trees and I've seen prettier trees, but I've never seen another tree that covers 800 square meters. It's 600 years old. Its trunk is 4.5 meters at the stem. It's only 8 meters at its highest point, but its branches extend 30 meters east to west and 28 meters north to south. They have to be supported by wooden poles.

The tree is said to be a bridge between heaven and earth for Buddha and other deities when they come to our world. It's called Yogo-no-matsu (影向の松) and you'll find it at Koiwa Fudōson Zenyōji (小岩不動尊 善養) in Edogawa-ku.

Yogo-no-matsu  (影向の松). Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

I first learned about its existence when I researched another big pine, the Zui-ryū-no-matsu (瑞竜の松) in Shibamata, which I wrote about here. I made a mental note to look for its much older granddaddy, and finally had a chance to visit Koiwa earlier this month.

Yogo-no-matsu makes your jaw drop: it's difficult to grasp that all that green belongs to one trunk. If this centuries-old creature doesn't fill you with awe, wonder and humility, that's it, you have no soul.

All that is one tree ...

It was declared a protected tree in 1926 and a national monument in 2011, but don't think this is just a happy story about a tree with good genes. Oh no. It's a grim saga of death, illness and a struggle to survive.

A few years ago the pine started pining. (Is that an awful pun?) It started losing its vitality in 1993, when there was an outbreak of velvet top fungus in the area. Leaves turned yellow and smaller branches withered so badly that the cavalry – more specifically the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education – was called in to launch a rescue attempt. It was found that the tree's roots couldn’t breathe properly due to high groundwater levels, poor drainage and poor soil quality. Catchment wells and a drainage system were constructed, and so far it seems to be successful.

You can read a full report entitled Restoring The Vitality of a Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii) by Improving the Groundwater Environment by a team of Nihon University …

Yes. Well. I read this academic report as if it were a life-and-death struggle chock-a-block with high intrigue, brave heroes and feats of human engineering, but I'm pretty sure 99,9% of humankind would disagree with me. However, if you are insane too, you can read the full report here.

It says, "The current growth and development status of the Yogo-no-matsu as of May 2005 is that, although some yellowing of pine needles remains, the defoliation that is a characteristic of excessive moisture damage has diminished and the number of pine needles has increased, and the withering damage at the ends of the branches at the edges of the canopy has also been observed to have been prevented. Yellowing of needles is a sign of excessive moisture damage, nitrogen deficiency and so on, but at present it is judged to be mainly the result of dothistroma needle blight."

OK, that's the tree. Now for three other quirky facts about the temple that houses it, Koiwa Fudōson Zenyōji.

If you can't be bothered to do the full Shikoku Pilgrimage, which consists of 88 temples and covers 1200 km, you can come here and do a mini-version. There's a stone for each temple, and you can finish your pilgrimage in a few steps. Instant salvation.

Yokozuna Tochinishiki Kiyotaka's grave is at this temple. He was born in Edogawa and dominated sumo wrestling in the 1950s. (That's his statue at Koiwa Station.) I've read that famous wrestlers still visit the temple to pay their respects.

Then there's a monument to a mountain tsunami. I first read about the mountain tsunami on the blog Tokidoki Tokyo, whose author also visited this temple. When Mount Asama erupted in the 1780s, dead bodies were found in the river that runs behind Zenyōji. They were buried at the temple by local residents. Hence, mountain tsunami. (Actually I don't quite get that hence, but that's what Koiwa calls it, and that's what it shall be.)

Finally, if you have a thing about trees, like I do, I'd like to recommend the blog life@inhasa, where Mullenkedheim is chronicling the giant trees of Tochigi.

Access: The easiest way to get there is to walk from Koiwa Station on the Sōbu Line. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes. I initially wanted to walk along the river from Edogawa Station, but abandoned that plan because it was quite a cold, windy day. That would be another option on a nice day, though.

I've included more photos. Lots of photos. I found it very hard to select only a few.


Yogo-no-matsu's main trunk



It's getting closer and closer to a sub-temple. They'll have to move the temple!

Not sure what this is. It looks as if it's protecting a broken-off stump, but I'm not sure.


Drainage shafts

Main entrance, with the mountain tsunami memorial towards the right

Mini-pilgrimage. Each stones represents one of Shikoku's 88 temples.

Roof detail

Side entrance, with more black pines

Side entrance, with Yogo-no-matsu visible through the gate

Zenyōji from the banks of the Edo River

The Edo River behind the temple. This is very close to the location of the annual Edogawa Fireworks Festival, in my opinion the best in Tokyo. See those wide river banks where you can sit? Perfect. 

The pine has its own road sign! 

woodblock print of Yogo-no-matsu by Koizumi Kishio, made in 1935. It's part of his series One Hundred Pictures of Great Tokyo in the Showa Era.

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Sunday, 25 March 2012

I can't do American English

www.sodahead.com
"England and America are two countries separated by a common language," said Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. He's so right! My biggest culture shock in Japan had nothing to do with Japan; it was coping with the dominance of American English in Japan's education system.

South African English has its own pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammatical structures, but it's largely based on British English. It's given me an inbuilt bias. I find it utterly impossible, for example, to say yeah when I'm reading from my eikaiwa's American textbooks. (We do have British books, too: OUP and Macmillan.) I stage a tiny personal rebellion and change it to yes every single time.

I can do the Aussie yeh, but I balk at yeah. Southern sympathy?

Real Sow Effricans, of course, say ja. It's pronounced a bit like yaw. I do that in class. Unthinkingly. May the gods help my poor students.

Then there's the pronunciation of can't. I battle forth bravely and pronounce it the British way. When I do that in class, this happens (when we're practicing can/can't):

Me: I can speak German, but I can't speak Chinese.
Student: Eh? One more please.
Me: I can't speak Chinese.
Student: Oh! I cunt speak Chinese too.
Me: Can't.
Student: Cunt.
Me: I cannot speak Chinese.
Student: I cannot speak Chinese.
Me: Excellent. Let's move on.

The problem with the American pronunciation, just by the way, is that students find it hard to distinguish between can and can't.

Cannot it shall be.

PS: It's mind-boggling how many Google searches for "Japanese nipple" end up on this blog, thanks to my Japanese nipple curry post. I dread to think what's going to happen now that I have Japanese and the above-mentioned four-letter word in one post ...

Friday, 23 March 2012

Lion-hunting in the shitamachi

The lion family started its journey in Trafalgar Square in London. A few cousins travelled overseas and camped out in front of Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi. One of them took off for Mitsukoshi Ikebukuro, but he became homeless and ended up at a small shrine in Mukojima … and I found him! Am I a good hunter or what?

Here he is: an African lion resplendent in front of Mimeguri Jinja in Mukojima. This bipedal African was very happy to meet her quadrupedal compatriot.

The Mitsukoshi lion at Mimeguri Jinja

You may be confused by these apparently unrelated facts, but hang in there, I'm about to connect the dots. Mimeguri Jinja rates as one of my best discoveries yet. It's even better than the shrine of true love and the temple that ensures beautiful hair.

The story actually starts in 1673, when a tycoon called Mitsui Takatoshi opened a kimono shop in Honchō in old Edo. It was called Echigoya. It was a small operation that initially took samples of kimono fabrics to the homes of potential customers, but then Mitsui started encouraging customers to come to his shop, where they paid cash for fabrics that were openly displayed and had fixed prices. Sales boomed and in 1683 he bought a piece of land at Surugachō just north of the Nihonbashi bridge.

Today the family's flagship store, Mitsukoshi, stands on that same spot, and the Mitsui company has grown into a massive international conglomerate.

So where do the lions fit into this story?

Lions have guarded Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi, as well as all subsequent stores, since 1914. They were made by a British company and modeled after the lions at the foot of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London. When the Ikebukuro store closed in 2009, its lion statue was donated to a small shrine called Mimeguri Jinja (三囲神社) in Mukojima in Sumida-ku. Basically at the foot of another very tall column called Tokyo Sky Tree!

My idea of bliss: Tokyo Sky Tree and an African lion in one shot!

Why Mimeguri? Mitsui Takatoshi lived in the shitamachi, remember, and he revered the shrine's god as his guardian deity. (It is rumoured that in economically difficult times, you can still see the top leadership of Mitsui gathered here to pray.) When the shrine asked Mitsukoshi if they could have the Ikebukuro statue, the company agreed. Apparently it's the only time that a Mitsukoshi lion has ever been donated to another entity.

So there it is. It hasn't been there for a long time, but it's already the stuff of legends. It is said that if you succeed in riding the lion without being seen by anybody, your wish will come true, whatever it is. Something tells me that lion turns into a real merry-go-round at night …


That's the story of the lion, but don't think it's the end of fascinating facts about Mimeguri Jinja.

Mimeguri means, roughly, "to go around three times". The current name is based on the legend of a white fox that ran around the enshrined deity (Ukanamitama, 倉稲魂命, the god of rice warehouses) three times. That was ages ago, in an era barely remembered by humans.

Since Mimeguri is an Inari shrine, it has a fox shrine and many fox statues. I'm not going to retell the story of the rice god and his fox messengers; I wrote about it here. Mimeguri also has the statue of an old man and an old woman, tucked away towards the back of the shrine. They could allegedly communicate with foxes, and the foxes could then take worshippers' wishes to Inari.


Another characteristic: the shrine has both a pair of lion-dogs (狛犬, komainu) and a pair of foxes guarding it. Either or? Normal. Both? Unusual.

Can you spot the lion-dog on the right and the two foxes in front of the shrine? Click on the photo to see a bigger version.

Ready for another legend? Edo suffered from a severe drought in 1693. Farmers gathered at the shrine to pray for rain, and at that moment, the poet Takarai Kikaku (宝井其), a pupil of Bashō, coincidentally passed by. He sympathized with the farmers and composed an impromptu haiku. Lo and behold, the very next day life-saving rain fell, and the poet was honoured with a stone monument that still stands at the shrine.

Here's the haiku:

遊ふた地や yūfutachi ya (the contemporary word is 夕立, yūdachi)
田を三囲の ta wo mimeguri no 
神ならば kami naraba 

Translated very roughly:
A sudden squall!
If indeed you are the god
That encircled Mimeguri thrice

(If you spot anything wrong in the Japanese or the translation, yell!)

More fun facts

Mitsui () means three wells, which explains why the shrine has an unusual three-cornered torii that covers a well. It was moved from the original Mitsui family home in Kyoto. (A possibly better-known three-cornered torii is at Kaiko-no-yashiro (蚕の), also known as Konoshima Jinja or the Silkworm Shrine in Uzumasa, Kyoto.) Actually everything at the shrine comes in threes: stone lamps have three holes, trees have one trunk that split into three …



A Mitsui family shrine can be found between Mimeguri Jinja and Sumidagawa, but you can only look at it from a distance because it's behind an iron fence.


The lion-dogs in front of the Mitsui shrine have an interesting shape and a lotus-shaped tail.

The complex has a smaller shrine to Ebisu, the god of farmers and fishermen.

It also has a lovely moss-covered garden with mysterious stones, smaller shrines, tall trees, cheerful birds and leaping fox statues on the shrine's roof. I first read about it in the book 
東京散歩 (Tokyo walks), which only mentions briefly that you can see Mitsukoshi's lion at this shrine, but that sounded funky enough to attract me. I had no idea that the shrine would be such a hotchpotch of delights. I regard it as one of my best discoveries thus far: what was supposed to be a quick visit during a riverside walk turned into a two-hour visit! I wandered from stone to stone, chatted with the lion, sat under the trees and watched the foxes, and let my imagination run wild.

It's a small, unpretentious shrine in a working-class neighbourhood, but it's clear that it's not short of money: it's clean, well-maintained, spick and span. Go. You'll love it.

If you do, tell the lion I say, "Howzit, my bru!"

The entrance to Mimeguri Jinja

Torri in the shrine's garden

One of the fox shrines

Why have these two been abandoned here? Earthquake damage? They look skinny, don't they?

I love these fox statues on the roof. Click to see bigger versions.





Unusual eyes and expression!

See? Even the trees split into three!

I think this is earthquake damage: a lantern that tumbled and never got repaired.

The lord of all that he surveys!

またね!


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Edit added Saturday 24 March 2012: It's occurred to me that I should add references to my Wikipedia-like posts. (I do try to verify my facts. Very unjournalistic of me.) Here you go:

Daily Yomiuri, Mitsukoshi lion statue cheers shrine worshippers, 2010-01-28
McLain, James L; Merriman, John M; Ugawa, Kaoru. Edo and Paris: urban life and the state in the early modern era. Cornell University Press, 1997.
Weston, Mark. Giants of Japan: The lives of Japan's most influential men and women. Kodansha USA, 2002.

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