Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: May 2012

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Planting rice at Koishikawa Kōrakoen

The traditional Japanese garden Koishikawa Kōrakoen near Iidabashi Station has a real rice paddy where school children learn how to plant rice. I was lucky enough to bump into a group that was being shown the ropes by a few old-timers and I could sneak in a few shots. (Mid-May is rice-planting season in the Tokyo area; a bit later in areas further up north.)

The Hero has done rice-planting on his family's farm in Niigata. "How do you survive a full day bent double, in killer heat and evil humidity?" I asked him. "Zen," he answered.

So there you go. It's all very Zen. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Don't you love the woman on the left? My grandmother had a "kappie" (bonnet) just like that.

My pet hate in Japan: parasols!

I'm obsessed with new maple leaves.

Early iris. They'll be at their best in June.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Out of sight, out of mind

Even as you board that plane that will take you to your new country, you know it will happen: "out of sight, out of mind" will ultimately triumph over "absence makes the heart grow fonder".

It starts slowly, but I suspect it follows a fairly predictable pattern. 
  • Daily becomes weekly becomes monthly becomes annually.
  • Some individuals still respond, but they never initiate contact.
  • You receive emails only on Christmas and on your birthday.
  • Then your birthday is forgotten, and you become part of the mass-mailed Christmas message.
  • Next you get dropped off the Christmas list.
  • Finally you don't even get responses to your emails.

I used to be a good correspondent – writing comes easily to me, and I can hammer out a relatively comprehensible email in a relatively short time – but eventually it dawned on me that if I didn't take the initiative, there would be no communication at all with certain South Africans. "I'm no good at writing," they say. "I'm so busy."

Some of them are not too busy to use Facebook regularly. It might've been a solution to become Facebook user number whatever billion and eleven, and share the same banal trivia with hundreds if not thousands of "friends", but I refuse. My definition of friendship is slightly more personal, considerably more private and somewhat less superficial.

The one exception to this silent treatment was just after the big quake. I received instructions to "come home immediately" from people I hadn't heard about for several years. "I am home," I responded. "We're praying for Japan," they replied. "Thank you for your prayers," I wrote back, "but could you also send money?" I never heard from them again.

This year, after I'd received many New Year's and birthday wishes from Japan but almost none from South Africa, I undertook an experiment. I stopped writing first. You know what happened. Nothing happened. I shrugged, told myself that life moves on and deleted several names from my contact list.

My two mountains: Table Mountain in Cape Town (image from Wikipedia) and ...

... my new magic mountain, Fuji-san.

It's a natural process for any immigrant that old knots become frayed and new commitments grow steadily stronger, and I'm just as guilty as my mute deleted friends-no-more. I tend to forget birthdays, I don't understand South African political jokes anymore, I've lost interest in what seems to be an endless regurgitation of crime, corruption, racism, a crumbling infrastructure and above all the blame game.

Talking of which, I can't blame my unofficially unfriended friends either. They couldn't care less about Tokyo Sky Tree and they have no idea who Shintaro Mr Olympics Ishihara is and AK-47 makes more sense to them than AKB48.

I shouldn't complain. I'm the one who left.

Yet, to that small handful of old soul mates who have persisted over a distance of 14 000 km and many years … thank you. It's lekker to know you.

Friday, 25 May 2012

A-un, alpha and omega, birth and death

You've probably spotted them at shrines – statues that look a bit like a dog and a bit like a lion – but have you noticed that one always has an open mouth and the other always has a closed mouth?

They're called koma-inu (狛犬 Korean dog). This mythical beast probably came from China, travelled via Korea and arrived in Japan in the 7th or 8th century. The Japanese version is a hybrid. Initially the creature on the left was an open-jawed lion of Chinese origin (獅子 shishi), whereas the one on the right was a dog with a closed mouth (狛犬 koma-inu) that probably originated in Korean mythology. (Koma was the Japanese term for the old Korean kingdom of Koguryo.) The two animals eventually morphed into one, and today the only distinguishing feature is the open versus closed mouth referred to as a-un (阿吽). You can see it clearly in the photos below, which were taken at Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka.

The concept of an open mouth (阿形 agyou) and a closed mouth (吽形 ungyou) can also be seen in Niō guardians in front of Buddhist temples.

The explanation of a-un is a bit esoteric, but nonetheless very interesting. A-un is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term aum, which is comprised of the first and the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. It is said that "ah" is the first sound you make when you're born, and "nn" is the sound you make as you breathe your last. It marks the two moments when you begin and end, and in between these points is your life, the universe, all of existence. Birth and death, start and finish, alpha and omega, a and un.

The term a-un is also used in expressions such as a-un no kokyū (
阿吽の呼吸 a-un breathing), which refers to an inherently harmonious relationship. Think of an orchestra playing together in perfect harmony, or an old married couple who can read each other's thoughts.

Some sources also say that the open mouth is meant to scare away demons, and the closed mouth provides a shelter for the good spirits.

The koma-inu below guard the Ōtori Jinja in Zōshigaya; the Niō statues can be found at Kishimojin, also in Zōshigaya; and the shachihiko (the fish-like creatures) stand in front of the Yūshūkan at Yasukuni Jinja. The round object that you sometimes see beneath a koma-inu's feet is called a tama (). It's a symbol of wisdom that can grant wishes. 

Want to see my all-time favourite koma-inu? It's this guy at Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka. He carries such a heavy burden that he's completely cross-eyed!

If you'd like to read more about koma-inu, you'll find excellent information here.

PS: This post has a Korean angle, which should make my fellowette jungle woman happy.

Hikawa Jinja, Akasaka

Hikawa Jinja, Akasaka

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A girly question

It's a very unusual topic for this flowers-fish-and-funky-shrines blog, but I might as well exploit my own web space. I have a question for Caucasian women* in Japan. What shampoo do you use?

* Boys are welcome to answer too. As a matter of fact, anybody who's ever had a bad hair day, jump in!

Japanese shampoo is made for Japanese hair. It turns my fine, soft, fly-away hair into a depressed-looking oily mess, so I spend a fortune on Kérastase products that I buy at my hairdresser, or on Stephen Knoll products that you can find in some pharmacies in Tokyo's more chichi areas. I've tried Asience Nature Smooth and Shiseido Tsubaki (the white bottle), and they're OK, but still too heavy.

What's your solution?

PS: My hair isn't only very soft, it's also wavy. I had dead straight hair as a child. When I hit my forties,  it started changing its texture. Now the bottom layers are almost corkscrew curls and the top layers are still straight. If I don't blow-dry it or (wo)manhandle it into a plait/bun, I resemble a perm gone badly wrong. During rainy season it looks as if I've just been electrocuted. Hormones. Ah, women and their hormones.

PPS: Next post, mythology. Promise.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

So what did you see up there? Well, umm ...

Today is Tokyo Sky Tree's opening, but this is what it looked like at 7 am and 4 pm:

I'm afraid people who won tickets in the lottery will have to focus on their shopping. I haven't been there myself, but Sky Tree's shopping complex looks promising. Here's an excellent site with photos. Me? I'll wait until autumn, when the sky is crystal clear, and then I'll go up.

This thing called life

The campus where I can be spotted – I'm that small, mousy, absent-minded oba talking to every tree she passes – is rather beautiful. A great deal of that beauty is thanks to its trees: dignified old-timers that stand guard over buildings, teachers and students. They provide a tranquil environment, but they also demand a lot of work.

This is a giant camphor tree ( クスノキ or kusunoki) on the campus.

About once a month, a garden service comes to the campus to sweep leaves and to tidy up. The gardeners are mentally challenged adults. I admire both the garden service for providing work, and the university for giving them a contract.

Last week, as I was approaching their working area, I saw one gardener with Down syndrome sweeping leaves on a narrow stairway that leads from the campus to the street. He didn't look up, but said "ohayō gozaimasu" to every person who passed. Everybody, from grizzled professors to the nation's bright young things, ignored him.

I don't know what made me do it, but when I passed him and he said hallo, I stopped and returned his greeting. He glanced up, startled. I smiled at him. He hesitated, and then … he beamed. He was radiating light. We grinned at each other in mutual delight, and then he returned to his work while I walked on. I was fighting back tears.

We grow emotional in our old age.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A visit to Niigata's water world (with Angela Merkel)

The earth is covered in water. The residents have water where South Africans have lawns: everywhere. They have water in their front gardens, in their back gardens, between houses, between towns, between mountains. When you look across the valleys, you see acres of water reflecting sky, mountains and houses in an endless mirror image. To me it is beautiful beyond words, beyond pictures, beyond belief.

Niigata. Yasunari Kawabata called it snow country, yukiguni, in his famous book, but in summer it's an endless water world. The whole prefecture is covered in suiden (水田) or water-covered rice paddies. It doesn't matter how often I see it, it still fills me with disbelief. Perhaps you'll understand my awe when I tell you that I come from a "dorsland", a thirsty country. Most of South Africa is semi-arid and drought is an ever-present threat. My mother, for example, was born in the remote northwest of the country, where drinking water either came from rain stored in special containers or from a single natural well on their family farm.

Now do you understand why Niigata turns me into a slack-jawed idiot?

Water world. Click to see bigger versions.

The area I know best is Yuzawa, where The Hero's family has a rice farm. The town is surrounded by mountains and there is a stream next to every single street, so that you can hear water running constantly, wherever you go, 24 hours a day. These streams are channelled into the paddies, which are built on terraces so that the water can drain at the lower end. The criss-crossing networks of channels have sluices that are operated by hand in a centuries-old way.

There is very little mechanization on Japan's rice farms. Rice farming is a protected industry, which leads to very high prices, but how can you be angry that old customs are protected, especially if Japan is still self-sufficient in rice production? I'm not sure how long this can continue, though, since the depopulation of the countryside is a big problem, and it's noticeable that the workers on the rice farms are mostly older people. Older? That's too polite. They're ancient.

It's lovely to stand in the rice paddies when dusk settles, because that's when the frog choirs launch into joyous Bach cantatas. You can hear the sound rolling towards you: it starts with a few tentative croaks in a faraway paddy, then swells into a glorious jubilation of basso profondo and coloratura soprano. It’s LOUD! No insects yet – still too cold – but wait till next month and you'll be eaten alive.

We went to valleys so remote, we had to watch out for bears; to mountains so high, we could still see patches of snow in May; to villages where one experiences traditional Japanese omotenashi or hospitality. Tokyo is polite but not friendly; the countryside is rougher around the edges, but it has a very warm heart. More random strangers chat to me in my short periods in Yuzawa than I've experienced in years in Tokyo.

River near Yuzawa

River near Yuzawa

If only I could describe these valleys to you: solemn, graceful trees; crystal-clear mountain air; a deep, profound silence except for tons of water tumbling down the mountain slopes. I went for walks while The Hero fished, and that's the real miracle: that I could walk alone with zero fear. (This was in valleys closer to Yuzawa, where there aren't any bears. Maybe.) Sometimes I stalked The Hero with my camera, since it's always interesting to observe an animal in its natural habitat. Sometimes I simply sat on a rock and soaked up the scenery. Happiness.

A Facebookish bit

The Hero detests Facebook, especially users who only post food photos. "She's been showing everybody what she's eaten every day for the last week! I don't give a $#% stupid *&# food £§$!" Remember, he's fluent in Afrikaans, and Afrikaans, with its earthy humour and guttural sounds, is perfect for cursing.

So I couldn't resist this bit, partly to unravel his soul and partly because I get the impression that readers are genuinely interested in what we eat. "Unravel his soul" is a direct translation of the Afrikaans phrase "sy siel uittrek", which means to take the mickey out of someone.

I'll focus on two sister restaurants in the Yuzawa area, La Locanda del Pittore in Iwappara and Taverna Vicini in Daigenta Canyon. It's some of the best Italian food I've eaten in Japan, and their locations don't hurt either: Pittore is on a slope overlooking the Yuzawa valley, and Vicini is in a forest in a tranquil valley far from the madding crowd.
When we visited Pittore, one photo in their portrait collection caught my attention: a somewhat younger Angela Merkel surrounded by restaurant staff. Unfortunately it didn't occur to me to ask when/why she'd been there, and internet searches in English, German and Japanese didn't provide much further insight, except to confirm that she was in Japan on an official working visit in August 2007. Hmmm. Clearly she wasn't working all the time and she definitely wasn't practising Sparsamkeit (austerity or frugality): Pittore has great food, but it's expensive.

Schmackhaft, nicht wahr, Frau Merkel? Prost!

Iwappara, looking towards Yuzawa

There she is, Angela Merkel, at La Locanda del Pittore.

Daigenta Canyon

Taverna Vicini in Daigenta Canyon

For man cannot live on rice alone ...

Graveyard and water-filled rice paddy

Bigger canals lead to (below) smaller canals ...

... and hand-operated sluices that ...

... allow water to run into the paddies.

"Why is that crazy woman taking my photo?"

See? They have water where we have parking lots!

Water on every flat surface


The water in Niigata's rivers is very clean.

Wild iris

The sun is setting. Time to go home.  またね、湯沢!


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