Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: August 2012

Friday, 31 August 2012

Pest control for trees, summer version

Have you seen straw mats wrapped around trees in winter? I know it's difficult to remember winter in what is probably this summer's hottest week yet (in Tokyo), but try.

They're called komomaki, they're made of straw and they're an eco-friendly pest control. You see them in parks in winter, but this summer a modern version appeared on a few zelkovas (keyaki in Japanese) in Nishi-Shinjuku. The whole street in front of the Keio Plaza Hotel is lined with gorgeous, towering, massive trees; but the wraps appear on only a small number. Perhaps it's an experiment?

The straw mats protect pine trees against pine moths (マツカレハ or matsukareha, Dendrolimus spectabilis); these modern fabric versions protect zelkovas against an insect called aodougane (アオドウガネ, Anomala albopilosa). 

The mat serves as a trap: it's loosely tied at the top but tightly fastened at the bottom. The insects crawl into the mat for protection instead of burrowing into the tree's bark, and then you remove the mat and burn it with all its inhabitants. Baibai bugs.

Memories of autumn. We'll have to wait three more months to see this glory again.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Sometimes Tokyo reminds me of Africa

It's a highly unlikely comparison – an African squatter camp and modern-day Tokyo – but the other day I spotted an image that stopped me in my tracks and brought a lifetime of memories tumbling into my summer-sluggish mind. Look at this photo of the back wall of a house in the shitamachi, more specifically, in Taitō. It was revealed when the house behind it was demolished:

Now look at this squatter camp (shanty town) near Cape Town:

Photo credit:

No wonder I feel so at home in the shitamachi, but let's put things into perspective:

1) There was a building boom in Tokyo after WWII. American fire-bombing had pulverized the city, and the government had to supply lots of houses, and very quickly. Quantity was more important than quality.

2) Japan likes new houses so much that little attention is paid to renovation. Japanese houses last only thirty years, and lose all their value after fifteen. I don't say that; Nomura does.

3) Land is so expensive, especially in Tokyo, that homeowners don't have much left for the house itself.

4) Construction requirements for wood-framed houses are remarkably lenient; for example, structural calculations aren't necessary. It's a disposable dwelling; not a long-term investment.

5) I'd rather have hardboard fall on my head than bricks during an earthquake. You've seen what happens in Italy, Turkey and Iran when brick buildings collapse.

Please note that I'm talking about residential houses. When you shine the spotlight on skyscrapers, it's a whole different story, as you can read in this New York Times article: "Hidden inside the skeletons of high-rise towers, extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers make modern Japanese buildings among the sturdiest in the world during a major earthquake." 

Old vs new

I used to live in a town called Stellenbosch (50 km from Cape Town), which was founded in 1679. The older a Cape Dutch house in Stellenbosch is, the higher its value. It took a while to get used to the shitamachi. I know it's not a wealthy area and I understand all the reasons for cheap construction, but I'm still taken aback when I see how shoddy some of the old houses are.

So. Let's see. Are Taitō and Cape Town's squatter camps similar?

  1. No. Taitō is a quinquagintilliard times cleaner, safer and more liveable. 
  2. Yes. They'll never feature on the Forbes list of the world's most luxurious homes.

I end with more photos that show you how small the houses in the shitamachi are: barely the size of a single garage. This plot, too, is standing empty after the house was demolished. A new one will soon be built.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A temple for storytellers and a tomb for dead stories

I've found a temple for storytellers!

Could this be my best discovery yet? I think so. It's not the prettiest temple by far, but the very idea – a temple for stories! – is enough to place this at the top of my list of best quirky temples.

Honpōji (本法寺) is a tiny temple in Kotobuki, Asakusa, which is basically my backyard.

May I tell you a bit of history to explain why Honpōji is special? The period before and during World War II was a tough one. Military authorities tried to control public opinion, and one of their methods was to prohibit professional storytellers from telling any humorous stories that could weaken the Yamato damashii (大和魂) or Japanese spirit.

The traditional Japanese art of storytelling is called rakugo (落語). The stories themselves are also called rakugo or hanashi (), and the narrators are known as rakugoka or hanashika. They have a big repertoire, but during World War II, 53 of their stories were banned.

A famous rakugo critic, Nomura Mumeian (野村 無名庵), suggested that the storytellers should erect a tomb for the banned stories, and this was done at Honpōji in 1941. They buried their banned scripts and gathered here every year to offer prayers to their dead stories. When the war ended, this ban was lifted, but the annual prayers at Hanashizuka, the tomb of stories, still continue.

A tomb for dead stories

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

The temple seen from the tomb for dead stories

Nomura himself couldn't attend many services. He was killed in 1944 in the American bombing raids on Tokyo.

The bombing annihilated the shitamachi, and the temple itself suffered considerable damage. Two hundred storytellers got together again and proposed to build a wall around the temple. Each contributed a stone with his name, and today the fence still stands: 2 meters high and 10 meters long. You can read the names of the storytellers on this wall.

The wall outside the temple. Each brick has the name of a famous storyteller.

Why this area? This area, my beloved shitamachi, is where Tokyo's traditional crafts had their heyday and where they're still kept alive. That's why.

I only discovered this temple recently, but since I'm a booklover who believes absolutely in the magic of stories, I'll visit regularly to pay my respects to the dreamers, the wishers, the liars, the magic bean buyers …

If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!
(Invitation, by Shel Silverstein)

You can slaughter people and destroy their cities. You can never – never! – silence their stories.

An Inari shrine next to the tomb for dead stories

Storytellers' names written on the bricks

Symbol on temple's gate

A tiny fox at a small Inari shrine in the complex

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Saturday, 25 August 2012

Sweet potato Häagen-Dazs

Duck! Take cover! Another food post!

I spotted this in our local konbini and immediately thought it was a perfect snack for late summer going into early autumn. Not that there's any sign of autumn apart from a few leaves that are early quitters, but theoretically autumn starts on 1 September.

It's "Häagen-Dazs murasaki imo", in other words, ice cream with a sweet potato flavour.

Ice cream means summer, and sweet potato is an iconic feature of autumn in Japan. I always know that autumn has arrived when I heard the yaki-imo truck that drives around our neighbourhood selling baked sweet potatoes. Its plaintive song awakens instant nostalgia for who knows what. If you want to read more about it, here's an excellent post. I'll also attach a video at the end of my post.

The sweet potato was introduced in Japan about 350 years ago ...

What? You don't really expect me to do a Facebook-type food post that focuses on photos and doesn't include any arcane obscure irrelevant trivia, do you? Shame on you.

The sweet potato was introduced in Japan about 350 years ago from Central American via Europe and China. It has several names: kansho, Ryūkyū-imo, Satsuma-imo and murasaki-imo. Food and/or Japan experts, please help me out: are Satsuma-imo and murasaki-imo the same, or is the latter a special variety with a distinctly dark purple flesh?

Farmers started cultivating sweet potatoes about two centuries ago, mainly thanks to the efforts of a Rangaku scholar called Aoki Konyō, who realized that the plant was suitable for poor soil and would survive when rice crops failed. (He was right, and he probably prevented a few starvation deaths during the Pacific War.) He published a book called Satsuma-imo in 1735; no wonder his nickname was Kansho-sensei or Professor Sweet Potato. 

Remember my recent post about Koishikawa Botanical Gardens? Aoki conducted experiments in sweet potato cultivation at this institute, and to this day there's a monument – resembling a sweet potato, naturally – in the garden in his memory. It was erected in 1921.

Aoki's sweet potato monument (image from Wikipedia)

You want to know what the ice cream tastes like? I've tried sweet potato soft serve in Kawagoe, famous for its sweet potato products, and that was really delicious, but this Häagen-Dazs? It was nice enough, but I think I'll wait for the yaki-imo truck for my next purple fix.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The limit of the heat

According to the traditional Japanese calendar, today is shosho (処暑), the limit of the heat, the day when rice begins ripening.

Quick notes

1) Traditional East Asian calendars divide the year into 24 solar terms. The days that mark a change in the seasons are called the 24 sekki (二十四節気, nijūshi sekki).

2) The traditional calendars and the contemporary Gregorian calendar don't correspond exactly; they're about a month out of sync.

3) After the "limit of the heat", things are supposed to cool down. I have my doubts, but we'll see.

4) This has been a hot-but-easy week. High temperature + low humidity = happy Rurousha.

A tale of two walks

The weather for Saturday 18 August: only 30 degrees, but a humidity of 90%. We had a thunderstorm early that morning, and Tokyo was a soggy swamp. So what did I do? I went walking, and it was the only time this summer that I almost gave up and made an early U-turn. I was drenched in sweat, and even my facecloth was in such a sorry state that I stopped wiping my face and just ... dripped.

I said I "almost" gave up. Two things kept me going: partly cantankerous stubbornness, but mostly the recognition that I would scare commuters if I attempted to get into a train.

I discovered a great little temple, though, so it was worth it. Post to follow.

The weather for Wednesday 22 August: 33,5 degrees, but a humidity of only 60%. I went walking again, this time in Fuchū. No problem whatsoever, except for mosquitoes in the bushes behind Ōkunitama Jinja. What was I doing in the bushes? Flirting with foxes and gawping at a ginkgo that's more than a thousand years old. Post to follow.

Summer's biggest problem: mosquitoes. Japan's mozzies love my hot African blood.

Now it's back to work. August has been easy with lots of free time, but I have to attend my first winter semester meeting next week. Here we go.


This is the limit of posts about summer, heat and sweating. No more. Enough already.

All the photos were taken in Kawaba, Gunma.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Snow in a South African desert

Yes, we have four seasons in South Africa.

Yes, South Africa is generally speaking rather hot, but it can also get very cold. I'm talking freezing point and below.

Yes, it even snows in South Africa!

Granted, not often, and usually on the high mountains, but this winter has been one of the coldest on record. (It's winter in South Africa now. Southern hemisphere? Opposite? Ja?) It even snowed in the Karoo, a semi-desert that covers a large part of the country's interior. This is what it usually looks like:

Image from Wikipedia

This is what it looked like this winter:

The photos were forwarded by another scatterling of Africa, a South African friend in London. I don't know who took them, but I was astonished to see an old klipkerk (stone church) covered in snow. I've seen plenty of mountains covered in snow, but churches in the Karoo? No.

The town where I was born, Worcester, is surrounded by mountains. It's in a wine-growing district, and this is what it looks like in winter. Mooi, ne? Beautiful, isn't it? (I found the photos on the internet. I don't know who took them.)

I end with a video clip of that song I referred to, Scatterlings of Africa. The song and the traditional Zulu dances are performed by Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. I met Clegg when I was a young journalist. He made a profound impression on me. I owe you, Le Zoulou Blanc. Ngiyabonga!

PS: I've also added their song Asimbonanga, which is a tribute to Nelson Mandela. 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A temporal thing called a cicada

I've written about Japan's cicadas (, semi) before, but my blog is getting so many Google search hits for "Japan cicada" that I've updated a story I did last summer with new information.

I'll start with a recent photo of a cicada's utsusemi (空蝉) or exoskeleton, in other words, the empty skin after they molt for the last time and finally reach maturity. Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their existence. Their adult life, when they sing with such abandon, is very short. Incidentally, utsusemi is a homonym for "mortal man" or "temporal thing", written with the kanji 現人. Very appropriate, don't you think?

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

I found this utsusemi purely by chance at a small temple in my neighbourhood. I grimaced when I saw it stuck on a fox statue's face, because it looked a bit creepy: was the fox having the cicada for lunch, or was the mini-monster attacking the fox?

A second utsusemi was attached to the fox's red bib:

If you want to know what they look like alive, I'm afraid I only have a very bad photo that was taken with my smartphone during another walk. As you've probably figured out by now, I'm forever walking. Summer heat? Piffle. What summer heat?

I also have a video of their song, which I'll add at the end of the post. Let me explain this video. While I was walking in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, I discovered a small Inari shrine in the forest towards the back of the park, near the old Medical School building. It was small and unkempt, and it was nestled in a small ravine lined with lopsided fox statues called kitsune () in Japanese.

Now you should know me by now: show me a fox, and my hunting instinct takes over. I decided that I would take a video while I walked through the torii towards the back of the ravine, where smaller torii where stacked haphazardly under a bank of ferns. First I almost stumbled into the pond in front of the shrine, and then I walked into …

Eeek! &%$! Jou bliksem!

(Translation will be supplied upon request. Send me a private email and a KitKat as deposit.)

I'd walked into a thick spider web that was spun across the entire torii entrance. It made me bounce back as if I were a tennis ball on Roger Federer's racket.

I retreated to safety and contemplated my options. Eventually I decided to leave the foxes in peace, mostly because vampire mosquitoes were draining me, and partly because I reasoned if the kami didn't want me in their ravine, I wasn't going to "up yours" them. It was only when I got home that I realized the video wasn't entirely in vain: you can hear cicadas in the background. 

One of the foxes at the Inari shrine. I was worried that this would be
my fate if I ignored the gods' "do not enter" sign.

Wikipedia says an adult male cicada can produce sounds up to 120 dB, "which is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans, should the cicada sing just outside the listener's ear". To compare sound levels: a motorbike is 100, a plane on a runway is 120, a jet engine going full blast is 140.

You can hear many different songs as you walk through Tokyo. Different species sing at different times of the day, and also in different periods throughout summer. The most common one is probably the minminzemi. According to Japanese folklore, the minminzemi chants like a Buddhist priest reciting "nam myōhō renge kyō", one of the central mantras in Nichiren Buddhism. You can hear its song here.

I also like the higurashi, but the champion singer is the tsuku-tsuku-boshi, which can be heard towards the end of summer. You can listen to its bravura performance here and here
(Edit added 6 August 2013: Here's another great site where you can easily listen to their different songs. Just hover your cursor over their photos. Thanks to David at Ogijima for this refererence.)

The word semi also serves as kigo (季語) for summer. Kigo are words associated with a particular season, used in haiku as well as longer poetry forms.

I recommend the websites kimoto and hitohaku for more information about Japan's cicadas; and cicadamania for general information about all species. I end this cicada post with a beautiful haiku by Bashō. You can read more about it here.
閑かさや shizukasa ya        
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimi iru
蝉の声 semi no koe

In the stillness, the cicada's cry penetrates the stone.

The pond in front of the Inari shrine. Below are two foxes at the shrine's entrance.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Help! I'm shrinking!

What's going on? Did I DRINK ME, use the White Rabbit's fan, eat the right-handed size of a mushroom?* Why am I shrinking? Stop this bus and let me get off! It's not exactly as though I have length to spare!

I got the results of my latest annual health check, and it's pretty boring as usual, except that I am now … undeniably ... getting older and therefore smaller.

The Wall Street Journal says in this article:

"It's not uncommon to shrink by 0,6 to 0,8 cm every decade after age 40. Think of a house settling on its foundation. Disks—the gel-like pads between vertebrae—lose fluid over the years and flatten. Muscles lose mass and weaken, especially in the abdomen, which can exacerbate poor posture. Even the arches of the foot flatten out slightly, reducing height by a few millimeters more."

Oh, ignominious life, from freely roaming nomad to sorrowfully sagging house. Sigh.

Here's my feedback. The top row is height. See? I'm getting shorter: from 158,8 two years ago to 158,7 a year ago to 158,5 this year.

AAARGH! and she gives a primal scream of terror and fury.

Did you know that I used to be 1,61 m? Then I had a car accident, rolled down a mountain and crushed a vertebra in the process. After my demolition derby I was 1,59 m, but clearly the gods have decided I haven't sacrificed enough yet.

I wish I could be taller. The other day I explained to Ekaterina why it's not fun to be short:

1) I always feel like asking for a discount when I buy jeans or pants, because I end up cutting off a third of the legs. 

2) Any crowded situation is painful, because you feel even more claustrophobic when you're surrounded by a wall of chests/boobs. You can't see.

3) No, actually it's not nice when everybody always underestimates your age.

The only time I'm grateful that I'm short is during long-distance air travel, but even that offers paltry compensation for a lifetime of frustration because I'm not able to reach the books on the top shelf in the bookshop.

I can feel my disks deflating even as I'm typing. Where is Tomás de Torquemada when you need him? Bring me a rack forthwith!

* Alice got shorter when she did all of that in Alice in Wonderland.


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