Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: March 2013

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Ten things I don't get about Japan

Enough already with pink.  It's time to return to quirky shrines and offbeat temples, but while I'm researching a dozen or so, I offer a list of ten (plus) things I don't understand about Japan.

I'm puzzled by many conundrums, such as the preference for white rather than brown rice and students who describe their hobby as "sleeping", but I can still kinda figure it out.

This list, however ... Japan, I love you to bits, but why?!

  1. Pachinko
  2. Cyclists on sidewalks
  3. Mobile phones as a security blanket
  4. Dragging heels and shuffling feet – all genders, all ages, all social strata
  5. Masks
  6. Unbelievably cluttered homes, regardless of size
  7. Do we really, absolutely and unequivocally need so many vending machines?
  8. Sniffing. I know it's cultural – I know – but wouldn't it be better to blow instead of swallow? (Egad, it sounds as if I'm talking about Kabukichō.)
  9. Karaoke
  10. A tendency to sexualise young girls and infantilize adult women. This could be linked to three more specific things I don't understand either: AKB48, Hello Kitty and an obsession with Disneyland. What I understand least of all is why I've bought Hello Kitty phone charms. I can't even use the excuse that it's merely post-modern ironic-sardonic sociobiological deconstructionist meta-symbolic derealisation.  (Can I throw around liberal arts psychobabble or what?) No. I bought it (with a groan) because I liked it.
  11. Yes, I know I'm way beyond ten, but this is my blog, so I get to count any which way. Number eleven is mother fixation.
  12. Let's make it a round dozen. I don't understand why Japan doesn't tell all its critics, including bloggers who write silly lists, to go jump off a cliff.

It's a remarkably short list. If I had to do an equivalent list for South Africa, it would be even shorter: 
  1. Crime
  2. Violence
  3. Racism

My list for the whole word is succinct: 
  1. The tenacity of stupidity

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sakura 2013: Koganei Park

Am I allowed to do another cherry blossom post, or are you tired of all this pink stuff?

When I realized that I'd have only one more chance for a good sakura sanpo (cherry blossom walk), I dithered between two spots: one in Yokohama, one in Western Tokyo. The former is famous for its three ponds, and who can resist blossoms reflected in water? The latter is a massive park that also has an old C57-186 steam locomotive, built by Mitsubishi in 1946.

No contest. The train won. As Kaori has rightly pointed out, I'm a tetsu-jo (鉄女): iron woman or female train fan. The ponds at Mitsuike Kōen (三ッ池公園) in Yokohama will have to wait until next year; this year I went to Koganei Kōen (小金井公園).

Koganei Park

Brute power and fragile beauty

It's a massive park of 79 hectares, planted with about 1700 cherry trees. It also houses the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, and if there's another magic word apart from "train" that gets Ru going, it's "Edo".

It wasn't that difficult to discover a third reason to go to Koganei: the Tamagawa Jōsui (canal) that starts in Hamura also runs through this area. You may recall that I wrote about the canal in this post, but this particular section in Koganei is one I haven’t followed yet.

Thus the hiking boots were hauled out, the backpack was put on and the road was hit.

Koganei has a long association with cherry trees. The first trees along the Tama River and its canals were planted in the rule of Tokugawa Yoshimune in the eighteenth century. The park itself originated in 1940 as a green area to celebrate the 2600th year since the founding of Japan. After the war, it was a temporary residence for the Crown Prince; and in 1954 it officially became a metropolitan park.

Entry into the park is free, but the museum, called Edo Tokyo Tatemono En (江戸東京たてもの園) in Japenese, costs ¥400. It's well worth a few hundred yen, but I'm not going to write about it today, because it deserves its own post.

The entrance to the Edo Tokyo Open Air Museum.
It was early in the morning, hence few people.

Even if you have zero interest in history, you will love this park. It's huge, clean, well maintained; it has plenty of toilets and food stalls; it's child-, dog- and bike-friendly. I didn't explore one quarter of it, since I focused on the so-called "cherry hill" in the western area of the park. It has many different cherry varieties, which means there are many trees that aren't in full bloom yet. If you go this coming weekend, you should still see plenty of blossoms.

I went there on a rare sunny morning. It was very quiet when I arrived at half past nine; buzzing with activity when I left at one-ish. It was a Tuesday morning, in other words, the park was filled with mothers, children, students and the silver brigade. It's a very different crowd from the urbanites that fill inner city parks, but that adds to its appeal. I may be an old bluestocking, but even I couldn't NOT grin as I watched the kids running under the trees. Just watch out for baseball balls, soccer balls, wobbling tricycles, heavily-laden mamacharis and speeding adult cyclists that arbitrarily screech to a halt to take a photo.

If I may veer off on a tangent: Gentlemen, I understand why cycling gear is necessary, but unless you have a flat stomach, taut gluteus maximus and slender but well-muscled legs … I mean … you do realize what you look like in cycling tights, don't you?!

I took the Chuo Line to Musashi-Koganei, walked to the park and then walked further north towards Hana-Koganei on the Seibu-Shinjuku Line. It's not far: barely three kilometer from station to station, and it takes about twenty minutes to reach the park from either station. It's an easy walk because it's on the Musashino Plain, in other words, as flat as a pancake flatter than okonomiyaki.

It's fractionally easier from Musashi-Koganei: get out of the north exit, walk across the pedestrian overpass in front (and slightly towards the right) of the station, and continue straight up a road called the Koganei Kaidō. It's a pleasant urban road lined with magnolia trees, and you'll cross the Tamagawa Jōsui just before you get to the park.

Beautiful trees at Hana-Koganei Station

Arbitrary asides

1)  This might be my last "sakura 2013" post, unless I get a chance to go to a secret cherry blossom street in Shinjuku on Friday. It doesn't have the mass effect of the big parks, but it's lined with rare multi-coloured weeping cherries. Friday might be overcast, though, which doesn't bode well for photos.

2)  Did you know that Tokyo has 57 steam locomotives? That should provide a few more walkpeditions. Read about it here.

It doesn't get much better than this, does it?

Picnickers, photographers, artists

An old bus in the Edo Tokyo Open Air Museum. Yup, it's still running!

Plum blossom

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom motif along the Tamagawa Jōsui

Cherry blossom tiles on the pavements

Even the manhole covers have a cherry  tree design.

More than just cherry blossoms. I don't know what this flower is called. Anybody?

Beautiful colour. What is it?

Hold still, blossom! I want to take your picture!
(It was a bit breezy on Tuesday morning.)

View Musashi-Koganei to Hana-Koganei in a larger map

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Sakura 2013: Toden Arakawa Line

I'm besotted with trains. I don't know where this obsession comes from, but I've had it since childhood, when I loved travelling on the Trans-Karoo Express, an old steam train that crossed South Africa's arid interior from Cape Town to Johannesburg. When you finally reached your destination, you'd find black grit in your hair, your clothes, even in your locked and zipped-up suitcase.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was in heaven: shinkansen, commuter trains, a subway system, streetcars. I love them all, but I'm utterly entranced by streetcars: they meander through backwater neighbourhoods, amble past kitchen windows, trundle through gardens, stop for pedestrians … all of that at such a leisurely pace that a human could probably outrun it. There are only two streetcar lines in Tokyo: the Toden Arakawa Line from Waseda  in Shinjuku to Minowabashi in Arakawa, a 12 km journey that takes about 50 minutes; and the Tōkyū Setagaya Line in western Tokyo.

Pink train and pink blossoms! Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

The Toden Arakawa Line not only runs through my beloved shitamachi, it also entertains you with cherry blossoms along the way. I had no choice: I had to go on a train journey. Would you like to come with me?

Your best option is to buy an "ichinichi josha ken" or one-day pass for ¥400, which allows you to get off/on as often as you want to. You can buy it from the driver in any of the trains.

We start here, in Waseda, where the Kanda River is lined with gorgeous trees.

The start of the line in Waseda

Then we travel north towards Asukayama, one of Tokyo's best cherry blossom spots. (I wrote about it here.) This is what you see from the streetcar:

After that we turn east towards our final cherry blossom destination, Arakawa Nichōme, where … well … you don't really do anything, you just take photos of trains and blossoms.

It's another cherry blossom experience that's off the beaten track. You won't see thousands of trees unless you stop at Asukayama, and you'll be surrounded by dasai (unsophisticated) neighbourhoods and ancient shitamachi old-timers who've survived more wars and earthquakes that you could ever dream of, but I love this trip.

The drivers say hallo to every passenger, they wait patiently for little old ladies to shuffle up with their rollators, they nod a greeting to every driver who passes them from the opposite side, they smile at the southern barbarian who's standing right behind them snapping photos enthusiastically. When fellow shitamachi fan Cecilia and I wanted to buy tickets, the driver told us he didn't have any day passes left. "That's OK," he said. "Just get off wherever and buy a ticket on the next train."

So we had a free ride.

I don't recommend this for everybody, but if you enjoy history, ordinary folk, trains and cherry blossoms … you're going to love it. (Incidentally, the Toden Arakawa Line is also famous for its roses, which bloom in May. I've included a few rose photos, taken in previous years, in this post.)

Wheee! Three trains together!

Ru's other obsession

The roses bloom in May. It's even more beautiful than the cherry blossoms.

The last part is strictly for train enthusiasts only. The first video shows the old Trans-Karoo steam train, accompanied by an Afrikaans song about the train. (The singer is saying that the train is returning his beloved to the Boland, where she belongs.) This is an Afrikaans version of country music, which I don't like, but ignore the song and watch the scenery.

The second video is about a modern electric Trains-Karoo train crossing the Hex River Pass, the mountain pass that separates the semi-desert Karoo from my heartland, the wine-growing region of South Africa known as the Boland ("upper country"). One minute flat plains covered by succulents, the next minute a patchwork of vineyards nestled between tall blue mountains.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Sakura 2013: Kōtō-ku

Ever since I moved to Tokyo, my friends and colleagues have been trying to persuade me that Meguro is the best cherry blossom spot in Tokyo. It's beautiful, it's upmarket, it has excellent restaurants, it has a great vibe …

I’ll get there, eventually, but why would I be in a hurry to visit an over-crowded, over-priced and over-commercialised area if I can have this?

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Quiet, tranquil, gorgeous … and no crowds. Kōtō-ku.

If I got kicked out of Taitō-ku for whatever reason, I'd move to neighbouring Kōtō-ku … and never mind that it's the most defenceless of all Tokyo's wards. When the big one arrives, and if it were to be followed by a tsunami, the low-lying Kōtō-ku would be hit hard.

That very vulnerability – flatlands criss-crossed by small rivers and neat canals – makes it perfect for walking in all seasons. It doesn't have many train stations, and to most spoilt brat Tokyoites that equals inaccessible, and that means cherry blossom spots that are surprisingly quiet.

This morning was cool but sunny: perfect weather for a walk. It's too early for full bloom, but I could still enjoy plenty of pink. I walked from Sumidagawa to Arakawa and back. I started at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, followed the Sendaiborigawa, turned north at Sendaiborigawakōen till I got to Onagigawa, walked back to Sarue Onshi Park, and then returned to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa.


It's a very easy walk: it's flat and you're walking in a square (OK, rectangle), following rivers.  You can't get tired and you can't get lost. It took me four hours and a bit, but I didn't walk fast and I took many photos. You could probably do it in three.

That's the good news. The bad news – for overweight tourists, giggly girls in high heels and enervated pretty boys – is that you have to walk to get there. Either that, or take a taxi or a bus. There are no food stalls, no chichi restaurants, no tourists, no glitterati and zero fashionistas. It is utterly perfect.

Meguro? Later. Much later. Maybe.

(Addendum: Yes, I walked in Kōtō-ku on a Thursday morning. It's more crowded on weekends, but still not remotely as bad as, for example, Yoyogi Park. You're wondering why I'm lucky enough to have a Thursday morning free? When I don't have university classes, in other words in February, March and August, I have a very flexible schedule. Even when I teach at university, I do mostly afternoon and evening classes. Lots of walking opportunities. Happiness.)

Onagigawa doesn't have cherry trees, but the river is lined with jinchōge
(winter daphne). You're walking in the sweetest fragrance imaginable.

Winter daphne or jinchōge, above and below

Clover Bridge, where two rivers cross. Look what's in the background!

Sarue Onshi Park

I keep telling you: this is the best hanami spot in all of Tokyo!

Raison d'être

The biggest disadvantage of Kōtō-ku's riverside rambles is that you share it
with mamacharis with no manners and no common sense.


Kōtō-ku seems to like statues of nude women. If it's not a somewhat chubby lady, it's a chubby baby or a boy on a dolphin. Ah well. Why not?



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