Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: December 2012

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Benzaiten and the year of the snake

Snakes alive! It's almost 2013!

It's customary in Japan to visit a shrine or a temple on New Year's Day to pray for good luck, or to go on a mini-pilgrimage to places of worship dedicated to the so-called seven lucky gods. (I wrote about the Fukagawa pilgrimage in this post.) This year I'll walk the Asakusa pilgrimage, and I wouldn't be surprised if Benten-dō – dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten – is the most popular place to visit during this excursion. I also predict a longer than usual queue at other Benten-dō across Japan.

That's because 2013 is the year of the snake, and Benzaiten's messengers or avatars are serpents or dragons. Benzaiten (弁才天, 弁財天was originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī. She was introduced to Japan via China in the seventh century, and over the years she became associated with a Japanese kami called Ugajin (宇賀神), who was the kami of water, agriculture and good fortune. He was usually depicted as a white snake with the head of an old man.


Thus Hindu goddess and Shinto god merged to become Benzaiten, a (mostly) Buddhist goddess of everything that flows – music, art, poetry, water, fertility, fecundity, wealth. Nowadays she's usually portrayed as a woman playing a biwa (a short-necked fretted lute), but you can often spot snakes in the drawing or on the statue. Her temples are always near water, and she remains a major inspiration for artists, a powerful agricultural deity and the only woman among Japan's seven gods of good fortune.

Benten with a dragon, a print by Keisei Aoigaoka

It's not all sweetness and light, though: this female can be nasty. It's believed that she becomes very jealous when happy couples visit her, and it's therefore advised that couples should pray to her separately. I get the impression that many worshippers take this very seriously: I've stood at several Benten temples, watching couples split up as they approach.

Incidentally, I refer to Benten temples, but there are as many Benten shrines. She's another perfect example of the cross-over between religions in Japan. The most famous Benten-dō near Tokyo is probably Enoshima Jinja, followed by Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Jinja in Kamakura (where you can wash coins in water to ensure wealth). Closer to home I'd rate the Benten-dō at Shinobazu Pond the highest, followed by the one at Inokashira Park.

I kept a tight rein on myself while writing this post. There's an old Chinese saying that reads 画蛇添足. It's pronounced as huà shé tiān zú in Chinese; as gadatensoku  (がだてんそく)  in Japanese. It means to add feet to the drawing of a snake, in other words, to add something superfluous, to gild the lily. I would be adding feet to a snake drawing if I tried to say anything more about Benzaiten, because Mark Schumacher's site covers every possible point about this complex myth. If you're interested, read more here.

I tried to find out what's predicted for 2013, the year of the water snake, but as per usual predictions disagree so completely that it's probably best to expect anything, everything or nothing.

Whatever awaits you, I hope it's not this …

South African luislang (Python sebae natalensis) throttling an antelope.
Photo credit:

A luislang can swallow huge prey. You can read the story here,
but I'm afraid it's in Afrikaans.

… but rather this:


Happy 2013, everybody. I hope the year of the snake will be splendid, superb, sterling, sublime, sumptuous, superlative and seriously sensational!

Shinobazu Benten-dō in lotus season

Shinobazu Benten-dō in summer

Shinobazu Benten-dō in spring

Shinobazu Benten-dō in spring. If you look carefully, you might spot the biwa
(lute) behind that big white sign.

Long lines waiting to pray at Shinobazu Benten-dō on New Year's Day

Inokashira Benzaiten in spring

Inokashira Benzaiten

Above is Inokashira Benzaiten, and below are two New Year's posters with snakes

Edit added on 3 January: Here's an interesting recent article in The Daily Yomiuri about snakes in Japan.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

James Bond, I hate you. You kill Beetles.

James Bond, I hate you. How dare you destroy Beetles? Beetles?! The cutest car in the world? Ag nee man. (A literal translation of that Afrikaans phrase would be "oh no man". It's mostly used as an expression of irritation, but it's also an indication of resignation or sympathy.)

I recently saw the movie Skyfall. I'm not a particular James Bond fan – I vaguely recall seeing a Pierce Brosnan movie set in North Korea a few years ago – but I figured a buff Daniel Craig might be a better Christmas Eve option than a metabo Santa Claus. So off I went.

I enjoyed it, decided yet again that London is a great city, marvelled at Scotland's rugged beauty and thanked my lucky stars that I don't have to travel on London's Underground every day. (Are the trains and platforms really that narrow and that crowded? I can't recall.)

However! James Bond kills Beetles! He crushes several Beetles with a backhoe while pursuing a baddie on the roof of a train in Turkey. You can see it in this video if you fast forward to 2:54.

I cringed when I saw that. When I lived in South Africa, I used to have a Volkswagen New Beetle called Hobbit. No, it wasn't just a nickname, it was his official name, as in his registered personalised number plate. I still have it. Here it is:

I first saw a New Beetle in the late 1990s in San Francisco (isn't that the perfect Beetle location?), and it was love at first sight. I had to wait a while before the car was introduced in South Africa, but my name was on a waiting list and I had one of the first New Beetles in Africa. Fact. It was so new in those days that people involuntarily stopped or swung around to look at it, and I received so many spontaneous grins, hallos, waves and "nice car" comments.

My obsession was widely known. I was working at a television company in those years, and our advertising agency decided to surprise me with a birth notice in the classifieds of Jo'burg's biggest English daily when I finally collected my car. He also, in his lifetime, featured as a prop in a few television shows. That – coupled with his number plate and the fame of The Fellowship of the Ring, which was released in 2001 – made him famous.

I had to sell him when I moved to Japan.

When I went to a Volkswagen dealership to drop Hobbit off, my friend Vox (nicknamed after the Latin phrase vox populi) followed me in his own car so that he could drive me home again. I handed Hobbit over, walked to Vox's car, sat down in the passenger seat … and finally lost it, for the first time since my decision to leave home. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was heart-broken and sobbing like a child.

Vox sat next to me, waiting quietly. He's very good with goodbyes. That's why he always gives me a lift to the airport at the end of my South African holidays.

Then he offered me a small pack. "Cigarette?" he wryly asked this ardent, very vocal non-smoker.

That made me laugh, so there I was, a snot-nosed sobbing laughing exhausted wreck.

I miss Hobbit. I miss Vox. I miss …

Ah well.

Here's Hobbit, but unfortunately you can't see his number plates in this photo.

That was my yellow house, which I called Die Piesangpaleis or The Banana Palace for obvious reasons: it was yellow, it was in a banana republic and a banana tree grew next to the front door. I'd already lived in that house for a while when I first learned that Japan's beloved poet Bashō named himself after a banana tree that his students had planted at his house in Fukagawa.

That's yours truly in front of the house. Whenever I see this photo, I start laughing. Look at my pigeon-toed pose! Dear heavens, I was clearly meant for Japan.

I remain hyper-aware of Beetles. I spotted this one at a temple in Nishi-Sugamo a few days ago. Now is this ultra-cool or what? A Beetle, a temple and a tree. Happiness.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tokyo Sky Tree goes red for Christmas

Peter Jackson I'm not, but here's a video of Tokyo Sky Tree's red Christmas illumination. It won't be the best video by far, but I'm relatively sure it's one of the first. I've been ogling Sky Tree since dusk, because tonight is the first of three キャンドルツリー (candle tree) illuminations. You can see this red illumination tonight, on the 24th and on the 25th.

PS added on 24 December: if you want to see photos taken by a professional, here you go; and for more Sky Tree Christmas photos, head over to Dru's Facebook page.

A cosmopolitan Christmas

Christmas must be Western civilization's most successful export product: everybody gleefully gets onto the Christmas bandwagon, regardless of race, colour, creed, origin, nationality, gender, social status, dis/ability or any other category according to which humankind can be classified.

I don't celebrate it as a religious day (I'm a heathen), but I do enjoy what I call the chaos of Christmas in Japan: unbridled commercialism, unbridled lust after your romantic Christmas dinner, alternatively unbridled indigestion after you KFC family bucket dinner, Christmas carols ad nauseum, Starbucks's cranberry bliss bar, "illumination" (as Christmas lights are called in Japan) and the amazing annual metamorphosis when Christmas decorations disappear overnight and are replaced with traditional New Year's decorations.

Here's a happy hotchpotch of seasonal trivia. I start with funnies from Zapiro, a South African cartoonist who should be declared a National Treasure:

Another cartoon that always makes me chuckle is this Madam & Eve one, in which Santa has been mugged and his sleigh has been hijacked. Very South Africa.

I end with a few shitamachi photos: a Christmas tree in front of a Korean restaurant, next to an Indian restaurant with its own tree, near a tempura restaurant with another tree. Whatever your own beliefs, it won't hurt to say Hêppie Krismis (that's what Happy Christmas sounds like in a thick Afrikaans accent) or Happy Holidays or Take That, Mayans, You Got It Wrong!

The prize for best Christmas celebration in the world, though, goes to Hiraoka Jinja in Osaka, where they whoop it up with a laughter festival. I read about it at Green Shinto.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Flummoxed by fonts

I've  been playing with fonts on my blog.

That's after I made a traumatizing discombobulating knocked-for-six discovery that's left me reeling: I caught myself squinting to read the small Arial font that used to be my default. I've been nearsighted since university, but I've never (never!) worn glasses for reading or working on a computer. Now I find myself adjusting my scope, as it were, to find the best distance from a computer screen.

Dang. Doddering dementia has just stepped closer.

Personally I blame air conditioning. My eyes are dry, scratchy and irritated. No wonder everything's blurred.

Anyway. I've decided I prefer serif fonts in print but sans serif on screen, but now the question is, which sans serif?

Arial in a bigger font size?
Maybe Verdana?
Perhaps Trebuchet?
Or how about Calibri?

I confess that I'm rather partial to Calibri, which you should be reading right now provided you're using a relatively new operating system, but it's a font that demands attention because it's not used so often. Have you noticed that when you're reading a site that's written in a so-called web-safe font (i.e the old stalwarts Arial, Verdana, Helvetica, Times Roman, Georgia), you don't even notice the font? However, when it's a less familiar design, your eyes wake up.

I like Calibri because it has a lot of white space.

Typography fascinates me. I think it's a leftover from my days as layout sub. 

Which fonts are your favourites?

Arbitrary mind meanderings

I was playing around, trying to figure out how to do HTML formatting for different fonts. Then I got sidetracked by alphabets and Unicode characters, and then I discovered several fascinating squiggles. 


The first one is Greek, the second and third are Cyrillic. The first one looks like a horse. (It does!) The second one looks like baroque hiragana. That last one, the Cyrillic capital letter Ot, looks as if it's mooning us!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Asakusa's Hagoita-ichi (Battledore Market)

A promise is a promise.

That's why I forced myself up early on Tuesday morning, despite the fact that I had watched YouTube and simultaneously swapped emails with a friend in South Africa (seven hours behind Japan) until 2 am. I had promised Merry Witch that I would attend the Asakusa Hagoita-ichi¹ (浅草羽子板市), so off I went.

Beautiful hagoita of a kabuki actor at the Asakusa Hagoita-ichi

Am I glad I did! I love Asakusa. That's why I live here.

It’s been described as "not what it used to be", tacky, touristy, poor, run-down, kitsch, dangerous. The latter is an accusation I often hear from my eikaiwa colleagues as well as students, who mostly live in Western Tokyo and are wealthy enough to fork out half a million yen for English lessons. They seem to think the shitamachi, especially Yanaka and Asakusa, is "ii naaa" but they don't really want to live here; all other areas, especially Ueno and Adachi, are very much non-U. I'm not sure what their definition of dangerous is, but I suspect it's a synonym for yakuza or perhaps blue-collar neighbourhood.


I love Asakusa. I love its atmosphere, energy, people, humour, alleys, shops, old folk, craftsmen, customs, respect for old traditions, unabashed exploitation of credulous tourists, can-do no-nonsense attitude, pugnacious edge combined with subdued refinement. I love its tacky touristy parts and its quiet back alleys and its rough neighbourhoods and its graceful old houses and its view of Tokyo Sky Tree and above all I love Sensō-ji.

Walking towards Hozōmon, Sensō-ji's inner gate

I love this photo. It's a bit murky, but look at the sunlight on the smoke!
It is said that if you stand in the smoke of the incense, it will protect you
against illness. (Click on the photo to see a bigger version.)

It's a beautiful temple that graciously withstands whatever humankind – and nature – throws at it, and it proudly hosts old Edo traditions like the Hagoita-ichi or Battledore Market.

Ready for a bit of history? The market originated in the 1600s as the Asakusa Toshi-no-ichi (浅草歳の市, Asakusa Year-End Market), a fair that sold kitchen utensils as well as New Year's decorations. That morphed into a fair that focuses on hagoita, a paddle or racket that's used in a New Year's game called hanetsuki (羽根突き, 羽子突き).

I quote from Wikipedia
Hanetsuki is a traditional game, similar to badminton without a net, played with a rectangular wooden paddle called a hagoita and a brightly coloured shuttlecock. Often played by girls at New Year, the game can be played in two fashions: by one person attempting to keep the shuttlecock aloft as long as possible, or by two people batting it back and forth. Traditionally, the longer the shuttlecock remains in the air, the greater protection from mosquitoes the players will receive during the coming year. Although hanetsuki is not as popular as it used to be, decorative hagoita are commonly sold throughout Japan.
The shuttlecock was made from the seeds of soapberry (無患子, mukuroji). The Chinese characters can be read as "no disease child", so it was believed that soapberry seeds would keep children healthy. It was often decorated with feathers. I couldn't determine why feathers; perhaps it was simply a colourful decoration or it assisted in the "flight" of the shuttlecock. Sometimes it isn't mythology; it's just science.

Why this belief that it would protect you against mosquitoes, specifically? Aha. Hagoita used to be called kogiita (胡鬼板). Kogi (胡鬼) is based on an old Chinese word for dragonfly, and a shuttlecock with feathers looks like a dragonfly, and a dragonfly kills mosquitoes that carry diseases. Got it?

You can still buy feathers at the market.

The game hanetsuki became popular during the Muromachi period, when it was played by aristocratic families. Apparently the loser had to drink a cup of sake. Why am I suddenly glad that I'm useless at any kind of sport?

The game itself gradually lost its popularity, but hagoita turned into an elaborately decorated New Year's charm. It reached its zenith during the Edo era: instead of simply painting auspicious pictures of the bamboo-pine-plum trio on wooden paddles, Edo craftsmen used so-called "stuffed pictures" (押し絵, oshi-e) of their favourite kabuki actors.

Kabuki actors remain the post popular decoration, but I saw manga characters, sport stars, Hello Kitty (duh!), Mona Lisa and … Sky Tree! I was so happy to spot Sky Tree that I promptly bought a small hagoita at that particular stall. It's decorated with a snake² and a Daruma doll. It cost ¥1000, and despite the fact that I bought the cheapest hagoita, the stall owners clapped their hands – an old tradition – when I took it.

Bigger hagoita with kabuki actors are expensive: about ¥3000 to ¥5000 and more. My bank account needs TLC as much as I need good luck, so I restrained myself. If you look at the two photos just above this paragraph, you'll see a collector's item worth ¥34 000, which is a heck of a lot of good luck, and my cheap-stuff purchase.

I spent a lovely morning at Sensō-ji; or, as my students would have it, I had a fun. If you'd like to go there, the fair continues until Wednesday, 19 December.


1) I learned more about this topic from Merry Witch after I made a blooper on her blog and confused Hagoita-ichi with Tori-no-ichi, as you can see in the comments on this post.

2) Next year is the year of the snake, according to Chinese astrology.

2013 is the year of the snake, so you see cute snakes everywhere.

Manga characters. No, I have no idea who they are.

Painted wooden hagoita

Sake barrels at Sensō-ji

I love the combination of wood and rope.

Sensō-ji detail

Asakusa detail

I went early, when many of the traditional shops were still closed.

Recognize him? It's a photo of Nagai Kafū in an Asakusa street.
I wrote about him in this post.

Oh, well, why not (part 1)?

Oh, well, why not (part 2)?

The Asakusa Station on the Tsukuba Express Line is one of my favourite shitamachi stations, because it has murals with old photos from yesteryear, plus a mural of a dragon. Isn't it beautiful?

Hanetsuki (source: Wikipedia)


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