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A year that's already gone to the dogs

2018 is the year of the dog. I photographed these ema at Hie Jinja, which always has big variety of designs. Indigenous species such as the shiba inu and the Akita inu feature prominently.


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Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Day Zero: when Cape Town's taps are turned off

Sleet in Tokyo, 0 degrees Celsius, possibly colder in my north-facing apartment. Opened tap and warmed hands under running water until I remembered where I'm from. Cape Town. A city without water. They will run out of water ... soon, April, perhaps sooner, and there I was, indolently watching water spiraling down the drain.

South Africa: rich in natural resources, poor in water. Japan: zero natural resources, So Much Water.

I took these two photos of the Theewaterskloof Dam in January 2017, when there was still some water left. Now there's virtually nothing.

Capetonians have been asked to limit their water consumption to 50 liters a day. Here's how it breaks down:

Only a minority is currently following these guidelines. The rest: ignorant or selfish or stupid or all three.

"I can get my head around drinking water: you transport it by truck," I told my family. "I understand that you can do a hospital bath with Wet Wipes instead of a bath-bath. I accept that la…

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.

What do you do with your toilet if there's no water?

This is a follow-up to my previous post about apocalyptic waterless Cape Town. "Toilets! What do?" I asked my friends. Ah, you apply a little rhyme that's now doing the rounds. You apply it everywhere, even in public toilets.

if it's yellow
let it mellow
if it's brown
flush it down

I'm continuing my own water-saving experiment, partly because I'm curious, partly out of sympathy with my beloved Cape Town. It's all very un-serious in my case, of course: yesterday, for example, I put a teabag in hot water and then -- as I do so frequently -- forgot about it. Usually I would've thrown it out. Yesterday I drank tepid tea. Every drop counts.

En as dit nie anders kan nie, is daar altyd Japannese whisky (al die pad saamgepiekel SA toe) en Klippies en plaaslike wyn.

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Water crisis? But ... you've got a big lake!

I should be used to ignorance about South Africa -- or South Shithole, if you prefer -- but my students never fail to shock me into silence.

Office worker in her late 30s. Where are you from? Cape Town. Where is that? Cape Town in South Africa. South America? No, look at this map: this is South Africa and this is Cape Town. How about Cape Town? The latter is studentspeak for "I don't know anything about Cape Town; could you please tell me more; do you like it; if yes, what are you doing in Japan?"

I explain a bit. "Is it very hot?" I explain a bit more, and mention the current water crisis, which means my beloved city will run out of water in April.

The student looks at the map. "But," she says and points, genuinely puzzled, "you have a very big lake!"

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The bamboo grove at Hōkoku-ji in Kamakura

I love bamboo in all its forms: from strolling through a bamboo forest to eating takenoko (bamboo shoots). I also think wind in bamboo is one of the loveliest sounds in the world.

The most famous bamboo forest within reach of Tokyo is in the Arashiyama district near Kyoto, but there's another one – less known, but in a way much more charming – in Kamakura. It's more a grove than a forest, but you can find it at Hōkoku-ji (報国寺)in the eastern part of Kamakura. It's on Route 204 that runs from Kamakura to the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway.

Although Hōkoku-ji is tiny compared to Arashiyama, it's better in one way: it's more intimate. Arashiyama is a big forest, but the bamboo is fenced off and you walk along an asphalt road that's wide enough for a car. Hōkoku-ji is small, but you walk through it on a narrow path made from stones, and the only barrier between you and the bamboo is very low rope. The disadvantage of Hōkoku-ji's easygoing approach is this:

I don'…

Daien-ji, the temple that stops headaches

I've mentioned before that my life can be a pain in the neck. Literally: an old injury, sustained in a car accident, still causes severe headaches. It's called occipital neuralgia, a fairly rare …
What? You didn’t expect me to go for a dead-ordinary garden-variety problem, did you? Oh ye of little faith.
It's a fairly rare neurological condition in which the occipital nerves – the nerves that run from the top three vertebrae up through the scalp – are inflamed or injured, and the end-result is a headache that's a bit not good. When it gets really bad, you can't see, lose your balance, retch violently. It feels as if you're carrying something very, very, very heavy on your head.

I've learned to manage it with physio and neck exercises, but earlier this year it went to hell in a handbasket, and since then I've been struggling to control it.
I was getting so grumpy that I jumped onto websites that list genze riyaku (現世利益) or goriyaku (ご利益) – “this-wordly …

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…