Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: April 2012

Sunday, 29 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.

White peony. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

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.

"Lion, peony and firefly" by Utagawa Yoshitora (1840-1880)

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, where you can see peonies propagated from Hase-dera's famous flowers. Yakuō-in stands on a steep hill in a quiet neighbourhood. It was rebuilt after World War II, and it was built on stilts to resemble Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. The main peony garden is at the foot of the temple, but there's a smaller garden towards to entrance. I found it interesting that there's no attempt to protect the flowers against the midday sun. At Tōshō-gū they're covered by paper umbrellas in summer, but at Yakuō-in they're left to wilt, and wilt they do: they may be big, but they're fragile.

Yakuō-in is built on stilts.

I got lost on my way to the temple. That was a bad idea. I'm from the flatlands in the east, but the area between Shimo-Ochiai and Mejiro is very hilly, and I was working myself into a lather as I marched along. I found it, eventually, and I always enjoy wandering through Tokyo's suburbs. Just as well, because after I'd enjoyed the flowers, I set off – up an endless flight of steps, never mind a slope! – to find a very special tree that has intrigued me ever since I read about it. Shinjuku ward has many zelkovas, but this one stands slap-bang in the middle of a road about fifteen minutes on foot from the temple.

This area used to be the
shōgun's hunting lodge, but in the Meiji period it was divided between two nobles, Baron Konoe and Viscount Soma. Dwindling fortunes forced them to sell it in the 1930s, and in the 1960s the government started clearing the area to build apartments. The residents decided Over Our Dead Bodies. They approached Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (yes, the Lockheed guy) at his home in Mejiro, and he promised to preserve the woodlands. Today not much remains apart from Otomeyama Park and this single zelkova, which used to stand in front of the Konoe residence. The current road has been split in two to save the tree, and a straw rope, which indicates a holy site, has been tied around the tree.

The road politely steps aside for the zelkova.

Otomeyama Park is nothing special, simply a smallish area of natural wildness, but it's one of the few places in Tokyo where you can still see fireflies! If you'd like to go, the best time is at the end of July.

So then. Next time somebody tries to tell you that Tokyo is an ugly mess of electrical wires and oblivious zombies, tell them about this place, where fireflies sparkle and roads step aside for trees.

Peony detail on a wall at Yakuō-in

Smaller peony garden at Yakuō-in. I'm always the youngest person by roughly one century at Tokyo's flower spots.

Main peony garden at Yakuō-in

Jizō statues

Fishing at Otomeyama Park

Slap-bang in the middle of the road

Rope around zelkova

"Lion dance" by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)

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Friday, 27 April 2012

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, much as I believe a man's best years are his forties and fifties. It's about wisteria, called fuji () in Japanese. Its Afrikaans name is bloureën, blue rain. Isn't that a perfect description?

Wisteria at Hisaizu Jinja. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Wisteria is native to China, Korea, Japan and the eastern United States. The Japanese species is called Wisteria floribunda, and as Wikipedia says, it's "perhaps the most spectacular of the Wisteria family. It sports the longest flower racemes of any wisteria; they can reach nearly half a meter in length … in early to mid-spring." The flowers range from white to blue to violet, and they have a lovely sweet scent.

I'm not going to give you a long history lesson. Suffice it to say that a clan called Fujiwara (藤原, wisteria field) dominated politics in Kyoto in the Heian period. Their influence undoubtedly helped to entrench wisteria's popularity amongst the aristocracy.

Sei Shōnagon, author of The Pillow Book, which was written around 1000, included wisteria in her "list of splendid things". Here we go: "Chinese brocade, a sword with a decorated scabbard, the grain of the wood in a Buddhist statue, long flowering branches of beautifully coloured wisteria entwined about a pine tree."

More wisteria trivia: It's believed that wisteria loves sake! If a wisteria has flowered well during spring, its owner pours sake over its roots with wishes for good blooms in the next season.

Wisteria will be in full bloom in the next two weeks, so here's my recommendations for wisteria spots in Tokyo. There are many other places, but I haven't been there myself yet.

Hisaizu Jinja (久伊豆神社) in Koshigaya, Saitama, houses a 200-year-old wisteria. A rice farmer planted the wisteria at the shrine in 1837. It was his way to express his gratitude to Hirata Atsutane, a nationally famous scholar of classical literature who shared his knowledge with rural farmers on his frequent visits to the shrine. The wisteria still thrives. Today it spreads its branches over a trellis measuring 20 m by 30 m. (I've included an access map at the end of this post.)

Hisaizu Jinja

The magnificent wisteria trellis at Hisaizu Jinja

One of the best places in Tokyo for viewing wisteria is Kameido Tenjin (亀戸天神), a shrine that's been immortalized in many woodblock prints of its famous, steeply arched taikobashi or drum bridges. The bridges are beautiful, but not as enchanting as the wisteria. The flowers hang from trellises suspended over green ponds, and their smell is intoxicating. (The wisteria; the ponds smell, well, pondish.) The shrine has a wisteria festival in late April and early May. Unfortunately. I add "unfortunately" because festival implies food stalls. These stalls line the paths around the ponds, which makes it very difficult to get good photos of the bridges, their reflections and the flowers. Bah humbug! Who needs food? According to this site, full bloom should be early May.

Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin

Kameido Tenjin

Kyū Shiba Rikyū Onshi Teien (旧芝離宮恩賜庭園) next to Hamamatsuchō Station also has a lovely wisteria trellis with easy access.

The most beautiful wisteria is probably the one in Ashikaga in Tochigi, but it's a bit too far for me. 

So many flowers! Right now it's also the best time for azaleas and peonies, so thank heavens it's almost Golden Week. Just keep your fingers crossed that we'll have nice weather!

The trunk of the wisteria at Hisaizu Jinja. It looks like an animal in a cage ...

Drum bridge at Kameido Tenjin

Genji, wisteria and Kameido Tenjin, all together! This woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) shows Genji during a visit to the famous shrine.

Wisteria next to a canal in Kōtō-ku

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Monday, 23 April 2012

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 things Malaysian. Whence this interest? It started when Lina left a comment on my blog. I visited her blog about Japan, Urutora no hi, and turned into an ardent follower. Eventually I realized that she had another blog about her own country, Malaysia, called Life, in my own backyard. I started reading that, too, and it brought a thousand memories tumbling into my fuzzy head. 

You see, there's a long history between Malaysia and South Africa, due to the spice trade and the colonial activities of the Netherlands as well as Great Britain in these barbarian banana republics. To this day there's a community in South Africa called the Cape Malays. Their founders brought Islam to South Africa, and their culture has had an enormous impact on South African languages, especially Afrikaans, and food. When I read Lina's posts (and other Malaysian bloggers I discovered through her), I keep thinking, "Oh, but I know that!"

I started bombarding her with questions. What does this mean? What does that mean? Do you have a condiment that resembles blatjang? Did you know that you call it pisang and we call it piesang?

I think she sent me this book to shut me up, but it's not going to work. I'm a gone case (absolutely beyond help). I already have new questions, because I'm so bodoh one lah (I'm so stupid), but I'll restrain myself for now.

I love this book. It's not just about Malaysia's languages, but also about its culture and its people. That's it. Next time I go to South Africa, I'm flying Malaysian Airlines via Kuala Lumpur, and I'm staying over for a few days.

Terima kasih, Lina!

PS: Oh, that missing bit? A small misunderstanding between Japan Post and me. All cleared up, thanks to The Hero, who galloped to the rescue of the damsel in distress.

PPS: Look at Malaysia's beautiful stamps! OKbaibai I have a book to read.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

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.

Uono River

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'm not going to tell you exactly where we were. The Hero says it's an unspoken agreement amongst Japanese fishing bloggers that you identify the river, but never reveal the exact location of the best fishing spots. Suffice it to mention that it was the Uono River and other smaller rivers along National Route 352.

Food, Niigata-style

Niigata has its own unique soba called hegisoba (へぎそば). It's made from top-quality buckwheat that's mixed with a type of seaweed called funori (フノリ). The latter gives the soba a tinge of green and a firm, chewy texture.

It looks like an enormous amount of noodles in the photo below, but it's served on a zaru, a draining basket made of bamboo, which means you're basically seeing one layer of noodles. Left is udon, made from wheat, and right is soba, made from buckwheat. Our meal included maitake tempura (mushrooms dipped in a light, crisp batter and deep-fried in a very light oil). Maitake (舞茸) means "dancing mushroom". Its scientific name is Grifola frondosa, and it has proven anti-cancer qualities. It also happens to be delicious; as a matter of fact, I'd much rather have maitake than shiitake.

Incredible that there's life in the semi-frozen mud. The plant in the photo below is Petasites japonicus, fuki (フキ) in Japanese, giant butterbur in English. The bud of this plant, called fuki-no-tō, is highly regarded as a sansai or mountain vegetable (in other words, an edible wild plant).


"You're just like my mother!"

As we were driving home from Niigata, we stopped at a parking area.

The Hero turned to me and asked, "Will you drive from here?" Then he added with no further prompting, "You drive OK for a woman, but break softly. And stay in your lane. And don't drive too fast. And watch your following distance. And don't drift off towards the left as you tend to do."

I made manga eyes and smiled sweetly and agreed demurely.

A few kilometers later he said something that almost made me veer off the road. He announced without any warning, "You're just like my mother." Since a Japanese mother is on a pedestal roughly seven leagues above that of a Jewish mother, seen from the perspective of their princelings, this is high praise indeed.

"Why?" I sputtered.

"You're both neat freaks," he explained. "She's always cleaning up, just like you."

Yes, dear heart, we have to do that because you're a force of nature. You get into a clean, empty, immaculate car and ten minutes later it looks like a tornado disaster zone. I couldn't achieve that same effect if I went berserk after overdosing for ten days on espresso, and then injected myself with methamphetamines.

If you really need to ask: I got us to the outskirts of Tokyo safely. I'm too scaredy cat to drive in Tokyo itself. I'm from Africa. I can cope with elephants on the road. I can't cope with mamacharis.

* I'm referring to the poem The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

National Route 352 in April

It's cold, it's grey, it's muddy.

The trees are yukigeshō (雪化粧), which means "covered in snow". However, if you analyse the three kanji, it  means snow + change or enchant + adornment or cosmetics. So ... the trees have powdered their noses!

The Hero's grandfather was buried from this temple. He was a prisoner of war in Siberia for a long time, but he eventually returned to Niigata.

Statues in front of the temple, with Yuzawa in the background

Friday, 20 April 2012

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?

I spotted this sign in a toilet at Kyū Shiba Rikyū Garden in Tokyo

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 Africa; here in Japan it's mostly, but not entirely, absent. The squat toilet removes whatever concern remains: you have no choice but to hover like a hummingbird, however long it takes.

So it felt cleaner, and I was happy.

Then I realized that a squat toilet is a pain when you're wearing jeans (which I love) or long flowing skirts (which I also love), because it's difficult to keep the former out of the way and the latter off the floor, and … that floor … I'm afraid that floor can be rather icky, even in cleanliness-obsessed Japan.

Aim, ladies, aim! Don't copy men with their flailing fire hose approach! Mercenaries and women in toilets should follow the same simple rule: aim, shoot and get out.

Except that women don't, do they? They don't get out. They linger.

Sisters, for pity's sake, what do you do in there?! It cannot take that long to pee, and based on all your other noises that are clearly audible despite the Sound Princess, you don't seem to be doing anything more, um, solid. So why does it take you forever to get out?!

I've worked in several different buildings where I shared restrooms with both Caucasian colleagues and Japanese office ladies. The difference is glaring: Caucasians go in, do their thing, wash their hands and get out. Young Japanese women go in and … disappear. Fifteen minutes later they reappear, and then they re-brush teeth, re-do make-up, re-do hair, check teeth, check make-up, check hair, and finally emerge like Amaterasu from her cave. They look considerably better than I do, but I refuse to faff: I could read half a novel in that time!

I don't even look at myself in the mirror. I know what I look like: nothing that will inspire a washlet to recite an ode to beauty. My male friends all say I'm the fastest toilet sprinter they know: no other women gets out as fast as I do. I feel honoured to hold that record.

Anyway, where wôs I?

Squat toilets. At the university where I teach, there are no squat toilets; in the office building where I do eikaiwa work, there's a smallish restroom on our floor with one squat toilet and one Western toilet. Nobody uses the squat toilet, not even Japanese women. We all stand in a queue in front of the Western toilet, waiting for the current incumbent to finish her disappearing act.

So here's my question to the women out there. What do you prefer: squat or Western? Why? Any toilet horror stories to share?

PS: World Toilet Day is held on 19 November each year to raise global awareness of the 2.6 billion people who don't have basic sanitation. When I read facts like that, I slap myself on the wrist and swear that I will never again complain about squat toilets.

PPS: Women might be mortified by peeing, but poop is a different story. Everybody loves poop. Don’t believe me? Read this and this.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

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.

Ema with Enma (that sounds funny)

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 was gone, and blood was running from the empty socket. When she glanced around her, she realized that she could see everything clearly.

She wanted to thank Enma, but she was so poor that she had nothing to give him. She decided to stop eating her favourite food, konnyaku, and offer that to him instead. To this day you can buy konnyaku at the temple and ask the god of hell for protection against eye disease.

Enma's statue was probably carved in the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

Photo credit:

Pacific Peace Bell

The temple's bell, called the Pacific Peace Bell, has an interesting history. It was cast in the Genroku period (1688–1704) and used at Genkakuji for a century and a half. When fire destroyed the temple in 1844, the bell was placed in storage until 1937, when it was loaned to a temple in Saipan. It stayed there throughout World War II, but when peace arrived, the bell had disappeared, apparently stolen by American soldiers. It was eventually found in Odessa, Texas, in 1974 and returned to Genkaku-ji.

Pacific Peace Bell


Genkaku-ji also has one – actually, two – of the most unusual Mizuko Jizō I've seen. I assume there are statues of Jizō hidden underneath, but two narrow columns of salt, tilting lopsidedly, reach upwards towards the roof of the small wooden structure. (Salt is believed to ward off evil.)

While I was there, a young woman arrived to pray. I noticed that she was crying, so I left her in peace and wandered through the cemetery at the back of the temple until she had left. I had to stay amongst the graves for quite a while.

Lopsided piles of salt

Fires of old Edo

If you look carefully, you'll spot a stone half-hidden behind plants. It's a special memorial to victims of the Great Fire of Meireki on 2 March 1657, in which 100 000 shitamachi residents lost their lives. It also commemorates the victims of various other fires as well as the American fire-bombing of World War II.

If you're wondering why there are so many fire memorials in Tokyo, may I suggest this Wikipedia post? Fire has wreaked havoc in my beloved city.

Sōseki's link to the temple

The temple features in Natsume Sōseki's famous novel Kokoro:

十一月の寒い雨の降る日の事でした。 私は外套を濡らして例の通り蒟蒻閻魔を抜けて細い坂道を上って宅へ帰りました。

"It was a cold, rainy day in November. I walked home as usual through the grounds of the temple of Konnyaku Enma and up the narrow lane that led to the house."


The temple is also known as Konnyaku Enma, and the street crossing in front of the temple is Konnyaku Enma Mae ("mae" means in front of).

The statue of Enma is inside this building. 

You can buy konnyaku at the temple and offer it to Enma.

The peace bell

The peace bell from the cemetery next to the temple

I spotted this in a remote corner behind the temple: an old part of the temple bell.

Bell detail

Ema with Jizō

The Jizō temple under a beautiful cherry tree

Detail at Jizō temple

Salt and sakura

Discarded sotoba? New ones? Who knows.

Dragon detail



Road sign in front of the temple

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