Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: July 2012

Monday, 30 July 2012

Fireworks at Tokyo Sky Tree

When the fireworks start, you know ... now it's really summer.

Here's a very amateurish video of the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival near Tokyo Sky Tree. If you don't want to watch the full two minutes, fast forward to 1:05 to hear the entire shitamachi give a collective gasp when there's a particularly spectacular explosion. You could hear the whole neighbourhood go "aaah!" because everybody was standing on balconies, rooftops and stairways. There we were, all of us children, staring in awe as the sky exploded into a thousand fiery flowers. (The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi, flowers of fire.)

The crowds started gathering towards late afternoon, and women in butterfly-coloured yukata could be seen everywhere in the streets. I fled upwards, grabbed my camera, poured a glass of champagne and grinned like an idiot for the next 90 minutes. Yes, champagne, not Pepsi Salty Watermelon. One has to maintain one's standards.

PS: I wrote in more detail about fireworks in this post.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Nuclear protesters, you have to learn how to toyi-toyi!

Africa isn't known for its civil obedience: it can claim many revolutions, coups d'état and brutal civil wars. My own country, South Africa, didn't get rid of a white nationalist government by following rules. I myself belonged to a forbidden student union when I was at university, published a few controversial articles in a student newspaper and got thrown in jail, but that's another story for another day.

Protests aren't pretty, and in Africa they often end in bloodshed. I'll add a scene from a movie called Stander, depicting a protest in 1970s South Africa against Afrikaans in high schools (Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressors) at the end of this post. 

So when I hear "protest", I think of toyi-toyi, a military-style song/dance/march routine. These days toyi-toyi gatherings aren't stopped with guns anymore, but they still happen regularly. I'll add a second video that teaches you how to toyi-toyi.

I had to give a fairly long introduction to this post about Japan's nuclear protests so that you can understand my reaction when I went to Kasumigaseki last Friday night to observe the proceedings.

I didn't go to protest, but to observe. I'm not against nuclear power as in "immediately switch off all nuclear power plants and stop all research into nuclear fusion". I believe the issue is far too complex to justify an emotional response, and I think it's the height of hypocrisy to protest against nuclear power and then to return to your air-conditioned home. Work towards a long-term sustainable energy policy, but in the meantime, ask yourself whether trains run on anti-gravity, idle nuclear power plants contain no radio-active fuel and there's no rapidly escalating budget deficit thanks to gas imports.

I've read so many conflicting reports that when fellow blogger Cecilia suggested a visit, I immediately agreed. I'm surprised she didn't slap me silly during our walk around the area, because I kept halting in my tracks, muttering in confusion, "This is not a protest. This is a protest? This is not a protest." Then I'd walk a few meters and stop again, muttering, "Why so few protesters? Why so many police officers? Why this overkill?"

It was a fascinating experience. This is how you control a protest in Tokyo:

Deploy hundreds if not thousands of very polite, but very firm police officers as well as plainclothes police officers.
Cordon off roads.
Allow protesters one half of a sidewalk.
Don't allow protesters to walk.
Don't allow passersby to stop.
Allow the protest to take place between 6 and 8, and stop it promptly at 8.
Rely on citizens' good manners and natural tendency towards obeying rules.

Cecilia has attended protests before, and she says Friday night had far fewer people. My guess? It was just too hot. However, one of the organizers, who asked us whether we wanted to come along, said there would be another protest near Kokkaigijido-mae Station today (Sunday 29 July) from 3:30 which will include a candlelight protest.

August is approaching: 6 August Hiroshima, 9 August Nagasaki, 15 August Emperor's speech, 2 September Japan surrendered. It's an emotional time, and left as well as right might ramp up their limited activities. I deliberately add "limited" so that you don't get the impression that Japan is a boiling cauldron of lunatic hostilities. It isn't, OK, it just isn't.

If I may veer off again: far right actions are tolerated with more leeway than far left / Communist demonstrations in Japan, but I don't know enough about politics to expand on that topic.

My observation is that the current anti-nuclear protests consist of mostly women and mostly older folk, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything: men and younger people would be working on a Friday evening at 6 pm. I suspect that many protesters are "repeat attendees" and I strongly doubt that any of them think twice before switching on their air con.

I tend to go on rants when it comes to air con. These constant complaints about heat … I don't geddit. Tokyo is not the only hot city in the world, though if you were to believe the media and lamenting Tokyoites, it apparently is. My mother's family comes from the Northern Cape, where 40 degrees is regarded as normal. I can't recall anybody being rushed to hospital, despite a total lack of air con. 

If everybody in Tokyo switched off their air cons, the city's temperature would immediately drop by 5 degrees. I'm still not using air con at night. (I don't eat much meat or any sea animals either, which is probably more than 90% of the nuclear protesters can claim.) This apartment is on the 11th floor with windows on three sides and no surrounding buildings. It ensures a nice breeze. Not sure for how much longer though.

I've hijacked my own post with an anti- air con verbal toyi-toyi! Where wos I?

There was a conspicuous absence of white foreigners, who – based on internet discussion boards – are some of the most vocal opponents of nuclear power in Japan. I noticed two in the protest line: a disheveled bearded guy and a tough-as-old-leather アルフォ woman. However, foreigners might have been working too, and might be better presented on weekends.

This was a splinter group in another street. Not sure why they didn't join the main protest.

Main protest

Che Guevara? You've GOT to be kidding me!

Give us back our northern islands! A banner against Russia's occupation of  the Kuril Islands.

Total number? I have no idea. I was too taken aback. I understand that this might represent a grass-roots level moment which is unprecedented in a nation not known for its unrest, yet to me – child of South Africa's bloody past – it's a very subdued protest. I understand why NHK doesn't cover it, and I say that not as a resident of Japan or a pro/anti-nuclear advocate, but as a former television executive. There's nothing to cover, just people standing in a queue behind long lines of police vehicles. 

I'm infinitely grateful that I didn't see a single AK-47, yet … yet … I really think we need to teach the protesters how to toyi-toyi! They do fulfil a very important role: force the government to overhaul the cosy collusion between players and ensure better regulations in the nuclear industry.

Nuclear power is a complex and emotionally charged issue. If you'd like to read more about protests from various perspectives, I'd like to suggest:

Toyi-toyi by all means in the comments, but no AK-47s will be allowed!

PS: Cecilia, thanks! I'll fight with you in the trenches any day!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

I thought Africa knew about drums. Then I played taiko.

I've always known about biceps. They are those particularly attractive gibbosities (go on, look it up) on male upper arms, and they work quite hard if you're a bookshop assistant, as I was, and have to carry lots of books. What I didn't know is that they rather like hanging from your shoulders, and that they get extremely contumacious (go on, look it up) when you not only force them in the opposite direction, but also expect them to beat the living daylights* out of a drum while they're up there.

* I'm trying to be polite, but it would be more appropriate to say you're beating the crap out of a drum. Albeit with great discipline.

I'm talking about taiko (太鼓) or Japanese drums. Ensemble drumming, called kumi-daiko, has become quite popular in Japan, and as an African I regarded it as my cultural duty to attend a kumi-daiko class. I mean, Africa = drums = cross-beats, right?

Yes. Well. There are African drums, and there are Japanese drums, and they are not the same.

These drums belong to a group called Obiki. I photographed them at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno.

Let me tell you about a typical taiko class. You play on a drum that stands about 1 meter high, and you hit it with sticks called bachi. Your starting position is with arms held straight above your head, bachi pointing upwards, and you're supposed to return your arms to that position after each beat. When you're playing a very fast rhythm it's impossible to do that, but when you're hitting a slower rhythm, your arms have to return to that position. Do that for an hour, and the next morning your arms are paralysed. Everything aches: biceps, triceps, deltoids, brachialis, brachioradialis, extensor carpi radialis longus.

You didn’t know you had muscles like that? I didn't either. Then I played taiko. Every single muscle, sinew and tendon made itself known. Loudly.

I attended my first class about two years ago, and I was greatly amused throughout my experience. It was very Japanese. You don't immediately start hitting your drum, oh no, you spend about ten hours learning how to stand behind the drum, then another ten hours learning how to hold your bachi, and then finally you're allowed to hit your drum once.

All instructions were in Japanese, and I couldn't follow all of it. I had to watch what everybody else did before I could copycat them, and that meant I was perpetually off-beat. Fortunately everybody was a nervous, raw beginner, so we were all pretty pathetic.

I was particularly pathetic. I have a reasonably good brain, at least when I'm not on cloud eleven, but my body has always been very stupid: can't dance, can't do sport, can't do anything gracefully. So I couldn't even get that basic position right. You have to maintain a very specific stance behind the drum: with your legs spread, squatting slightly, and your pelvis tilted down so that you're "centered". (If you're into aerobics, you'll be very familiar with that "tummy tucked in, butt tucked in, pelvis tilted down" position.) We all struggled a bit, since your natural tendency is to push your butt out.

The instructor decided I needed help. "May I?" he asked as he stood next to me. (It's interesting that a Japanese person never touches a stranger without asking permission first. Even a pharmacist who wanted to show me how to wear a hay fever mask asked me whether it was OK to touch my face.)

I nodded nervously.

The next moment this magnificent specimen of Japanese manhood, bare-chested and sweating slightly, put his one hand on my lower tummy and the other one just above my butt, and pushed me into position. Is it necessary to add that the rest of the class was a battle of two minds? In this corner, The Noble Mind who wants to do things as well as possible; in that corner, The Lecherous Mind who believes there is nothing quite as sexy as a smooth, slender, well-toned Japanese male. I really wanted further assistance. Sigh. 

Taiko playing is lots of fun and highly recommended. Excellent antidote for that dreaded upper arm flab that attacks all women of a certain age. If you want to take lessons, it's probably better to have a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, but you could always play dumb and enjoy the extra attention. I went to Taiko-Lab.

Incidentally, although I've tried drumming myself, I firmly believe it's a male enclave. Men can drum; women can't. Sexist? No. Men can park cars, women can't. Men can read maps, women can't. Men can throw a ball effortlessly, women can't. Women, on the other hand, can put up with men, which means we're stronger. We win.

She won't agree with me ...

If you want to see how a master does it, here you go, Kodō drummer Mitome Tomohiro on the ōdaiko. This is the real thing ...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Pepsi Salty Watermelon review

Pepsi releases a special flavor in Japan every summer. This year it's Salty Watermelon. Don't grimace: it's not half as bad as it sounds.

I tried some this morning and I was pleasantly surprised. These special flavours usually have little resemblance to their namesakes, but this one really tastes a bit salty and a bit watermelonish. It's not too sweet, which is good, and it doesn't taste too chemical … at least not until you're halfway through the bottle. Would I buy it again? Probably not, but I'd happily drink it if nothing else were available.

Since I wrote this review mainly for Lina, just because she asked me so nicely, I pretended to be an art director and poured some into a … champagne glass! Oh, why not, it does look a bit like rosé. Then I tried to get a photo of the glass, the morning sun and Tokyo Sky Tree (also for Lina!), but that was less successful because it was shot into the sunlight. Never mind. I had fun.

I hope the neighbours didn't see me.

Past Pepsi flavours

We've had:

pineapple/lemon, called Blue Hawaii, which was OK
cucumber, which was not
shiso (a kind of mint), ditto
azuki (red beans), ditto
a flavor from Africa called baobab, which was quite nice
strawberry milk, which wasn't nearly as gross as the name suggests
Mont Blanc (dessert made of puréed chestnuts and whipped cream), which was ghastly beyond belief

The first tasting of a new Pepsi flavor follows a fairly standard script:

The Hero (after his first sip): GHRUGHRGHAH! What's this? 

Me (after a cautious first sip): Oh, it's not that bad, it's a bit like ginger ale?
The Hero: (Word censored for the sake of sensitive readers.)
Me: Or maybe like orange?
The Hero: (More censorship.)
Me (after a third sip): Eh. Irk. Actually ...
The Hero: This doesn't taste like X at all!
Me: Umm, yes, it's a bit weird.

Suffice it to say I seldom finish the bottle. The first taste is usually not bad, but then it gets very chemical/artificial. So far my favourite has been baobab, which was a bit ginger ale-ish, a bit citrus-ish, a bit grapefruit-ish. 

Salty Watermelon? Try it. The colour's really nice.

Pepsi Salty Watermelon

Sunday, 22 July 2012

How the shitamachi stays cool in summer

Want to stay cool in summer without using air conditioning? Two possibilities: sudare and green curtains.

Sudare (すだれ) are screens made from bamboo or reeds, traditionally used instead of sliding doors or other partitions to provide a better flow of air. It's not entirely clear what their origin is, but they've been used for many centuries: they're mentioned, for example, in the Kagerō Nikki, a noblewoman's diary which chronicles life in the Heian era.

Way back then sudare were used not only to cool down the temperature, but also to protect a lady's modesty. (Or to cool down her suitor's ardour?) When a noblewoman talked to a man who was not from her immediate family, she was shielded from him by a bamboo screen. She could lift the screen if she so wanted, but if he were to do it, it would be a terrible breach of etiquette.

Sudare at a shop in Shibamata. Click on the photo to see a bigger version.

Though they were used in the houses of the nobility in those early days, they only became popular among the common people about 300 years ago. It's believed that they were first sold in Edo by a man called Yamamoto Zembei, who had a shop in Ryōgoku. 

Incidentally, sudare that are used at shrines are called misu. Their edges are usually lined in brocade and they're decorated with tassels. Their main task is not to provide shade, but to prevent outsiders from getting a clear view of the shrine itself. A bit like the lady and the gentleman. Misu are also called ao-sudare or green sudare, since they're made from fresh bamboo and retain their green colour.

Another solution to stay cool is a so-called green curtain or climbing plant, a custom that's become wide-spread since last year's energy-saving efforts. The most popular plant is probably the goya or bitter gourd, since it grows easily, has broad leaves and doesn't attract any bugs. A plant can quickly reach a height of 2,5 meters. The shitamachi, though, prefers to use asagao or morning glory. You can't eat it and it doesn't grow as luxuriantly as goya, but it certainly looks prettier.

The Financial Times reports in this article that those who use green curtains, according to a 2009 survey carried out by Japan’s Green Curtain Support Group, used on average 21 per cent less electricity in summer months compared with the year before. I'd say that makes it worth it.

I took most of these photos with my smartphone as I ambled through our neighbourhood. They're not particularly brilliant, but I hope they can show you our lifestyle.

Sudare at a shop in Kappabashi

Sudare for sale at a shop in Satake Shōtengai 

No trellis in sight, but that plant on the left is a morning glory. You see them everywhere in the shitamachi, since it's our unofficial official flower.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

How I reduced Japan's 12 seasons to 2

It's summer. Well, if you want to be pedantic, not today. Today it's blessedly cool in Tokyo.

However, it's late July, almost August, and that means it's time to kvetch about summer, heat, humidity, Japan's seasons, Japan's quirky habit of asking you whether you also have four seasons in your country and Japan's tendency to mutter atsui atsui atsui non-stop until the end of September. Then it turns into samui samui samui overnight. It's never warm or cool. It's always hot or cold.

Let me make it very clear: Japan does not have four seasons. Bah, humbug. I've had lots of fun compiling various lists of Japan's seasons. Or rather, Tokyo's seasons.

First attempt: six seasons
  1. Cherry blossoms
  2. Hot and rainy
  3. Bloody impossibly hot and humid
  4. Absolutely ghastly appallingly monstrously horrendously hot and humid
  5. Nice for one month
  6. Cold, gray and miserable

 Second attempt: eleven seasons 
  1. Cherry blossoms
  2. Open windows part I
  3. Hot and rainy
  4. Very hot and humid
  5. Abhorrently hot and humid
  6. Absolutely ghastly appallingly monstrously horrendously hot and humid
  7. Still abysmally hot but slightly drier
  8. Open windows part II
  9. Red leaves and stuff
  10. Cold, gray and miserable
  11. Now-I'm-seriously-freezing-my-butt-off cold 
Addendum: Totally atypical weather that causes discombobulation. Occurs in all seasons.

That's eleven. Tokyo has eleven seasons. We're now halfway between "very hot and humid" and "abhorrently hot and humid". Except that it's cool enough for long sleeves today. Please refer addendum.

Third attempt: twelve seasons

This was done in response to a post by Jay Dee. It's one year in Tokyo, with Africa as central reference, starting in January. 
  1. Freezing cold like the Moroccan Desert at night
  2. Very unhappy African
  3. Slow defrost
  4. Cherry blossoms and stuff that we don’t have in Africa
  5. Open windows part I
  6. Congo basin
  7. Just like Uganda on a good day
  8. Just like Rwanda on a bad day
  9. Just like Southern Africa
  10. Open windows part II
  11. Red leaves and stuff that we don’t have in Africa
  12. Cold like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro

Twelve seasons don't phase me at all. I lived in Cape Town, where you get four seasons in one day. All Capetonians keep an extra wardrobe in their car trunks, just in case you either develop heat stroke or the Cape Doctor deposits you amongst the penguins in the Antarctic. (Sarah would like that.)

Final attempt: two seasons

What am I talking about? Japan does not have twelve seasons. It has TWO SEASONS! 
  1. Fishing season
  2. Not fishing season

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Kyoto: a tiny rock garden called Tōtekiko

This is a short post just to get back on track. Two weeks ago I announced that July would be Kyoto month on this blog. Duh. I forgot that July is one of the busiest and most interesting months in Tokyo, so Kyoto had to take a backseat while I pontificated forth about my beloved shitamachi's charms.

Those selfsame charms are now under assault by summer, and that means I'm less enamoured with life in the concrete jungle. Not that Kyoto is any better; as a matter of fact, I understand it can be even hotter than Tokyo, because it's situated in a valley that traps heat.

Anyway. We continue our Kyoto series with another garden at Ryōgen-in, called Tōtekiko (東滴壺), designed by Nabeshima Gakushō in 1958. It's about four square meters, it has only five rocks and it's said to be the smallest rock garden in Japan. (I assume it's the smallest "official" garden. I've seen plenty that are tinier.)

Tōtekiko at Ryōgen-in, Kyoto. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

I've read different explanations of its Zen symbolism: some sources allege that it represents wisdom, which grows like drops in the ocean; a sign at the garden itself says it illustrates a saying that the harder a stone is thrown into water, the bigger the ripples. Whatever it's supposed to mean – does it really matter? – you can certainly stare at it for hours and hours and hours. It's a tsuboniwa, a small enclosed garden, and it's in shade most of the day. However, as the sun moves overhead, the shadows in the raked gravel change until finally, at noon, the garden is briefly illuminated in full.

It was a rainy day during rainy season, so I was lucky enough to have this tiny garden to myself. Happiness.

Bonus photo. This isn't in Tōtekiko. It's just a small detail tucked away in another corner at Ryōgen-in.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Jinja, 2012

Last night I went to the Mitama Matsuri, the festival of the lights, at Yasukuni Jinja. (If you want to go, you have one last chance tonight.) I wrote about the festival here, so this post will focus on photos. I deliberately avoided the impossibly crowded main avenue, despite the fact that it's a spectacular sight, and concentrated on the quieter areas around the main shrine itself. If you know your shrines - and that's one thing this nomad can claim without lying too much - you know where you can squeeze past the smaller Spirit-Pacifying Shrine and find a quiet spot without too many people ...

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

... where you can enjoy the trees, the lights and a surprisingly profound silence - given the fact that it's a festival - entirely on your own. The point of a festival is to celebrate with others, but I wanted a quiet moment with the spirits, and that's what I got.

People line up to pray at the main shrine.

みたままつり, i.e. Mitama Matsuri

The main avenue. It's a spectacular sight, but this year I avoided it in favour of ...

... blessed solitude.


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