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Monday, 19 January 2015

Konnō Hachiman-gū, a shrine for maths geeks

Never trust an astronomer. They tell you stuff about stardust; tempt you with morsels of celestial beauty; persuade you to ponder the What, the Whence and the Whereto of the universe. Before you can blink, you'll be reading books about maths. Maths! You will understand not one whit, but then again, you barely grasp the phenomenon that is Hello Kitty.

This great crossing of an Einstein-Rosen bridge started …

"It should be possible to continue this path arbitrarily far into the particle's future or past, unless the trajectory hits a gravitational singularity…"

How can you not love that? It's a line from that Wikipedia article. Anyway.

This little adventure started with a calendar; more specifically, this post, in which Massimo writes about "the 364.242190 spins that the planet did in its last revolution around the Sun".

Actually – for this is about science, and one should perforce be precise – it started with this post in February 2012, when I discovered that Japan used to have a leap year, never mind regular leap days.

Then it launched into orbit when I read Massimo's post. I thought of my own, and then I remembered that I'd been wanting to do a Japan astronomy post for aeons. That’s a roundabout way of saying I blame Massimo for this post. Any errors therein, however, are mine, for I am but a humble scribe and not a scientist.

Konnō Hachiman-gū

Look, the point is, there's a shrine for astronomers, or rather mathematicians, but it plays a role in calendars. I know about the connection thanks to a movie about Shibukawa Shunkai (渋川 春海), also known as Shibukawa Harumi (1639 - 1715), who was a Japanese scholar, go player and the first official astronomer appointed to the Tenmongata (Bureau of Astronomy) in the Edo period. During a journey to measure the altitude of the North Star, he noticed errors in the Chinese Hsuan-ming calendar that had been used for 800 years. (It consisted of 354 days. Seven intercalary months were added every nineteen years, but the whole thing was so out of kilter that it couldn't even be used to predict solstices accurately.)

Shibukawa Shunkai (or Shibukawa Harumi).

He started making observations with a gnomon to determine a precise solstice date, but his instruments weren't accurate enough, and he was doomed to fail again and again. He persisted, though, despite resistance from the selfsame court that had appointed him. He eventually revised the Chinese calendar and replaced it with the Jōkyō calendar (illustration below), which was issued in 1684 and calculated the length of the year to be 365.2417 days.

Source: Wikipedia

A book by Shibukawa. Source:

His life was depicted in a movie called Tenichi Meisatsu (天地明察, Insight into the Universe), based on the novel by scifi writer Tow Ubukata and directed by Yojiro Takita, who won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009 for his funeral-business drama Okuribito (Departures).

Now we finally get to the shrine! The novel and movie both start at a shrine called Konnō Hachiman-gū, which has stood at this exact location for 390 years.

The shrine is in Shibuya, named after a family that supported Minamoto no Yoritomo in his uprising against the Taira family of Kyoto, and is dedicated to the Minamoto clan deity, Hachiman. It enjoyed long-lasting prosperity thanks to the patronage of Lady Kasuga, nurse of shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu. Never underestimate the hand that rocks the cradle and the breast that feeds the next ruler.

The shrine was famous for its sengaku (算額 or calculation tablet), wooden tablets that contained geometrical puzzles and were left at various Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as offerings. Members of all social classes participated: the only requirement was that you had to be a maths geek.
You can see the relevant scene in the movie in this video from 3:25 to 6:25, but it's been uploaded without sound, probably to avoid copyright complaints.

You still spot the odd puzzle at the shrine. When I was there, I noticed two. I took one look and hurried off to consult my university (engineering) students. They frowned, muttered a bit and eventually translated/expounded: "The top and bottom surfaces are parallel, the top is a complete triangle, the height is the square root of 2, and the blue plus pink form one big 3D triangle."

That makes perfect sense. Allegedly. (I have to admit that my response to this was, "Oh. That's it? Isn't it Euclidian origami or at least the final answer as to whether P = NP or not?!")

The second ema is a go puzzle, but none of us – students and I – are go players, and we admitted defeat. We visited the website on the ema, but then decided coffee would be a better call. 

So there you have it. It's a shrine for maths, science, geeks and wacky southern barbarians.

Oh! Wait! Talking of barba … non-Japanese … it's also a shrine with a very special priest: Florian Wiltschko, the first foreigner in Japan to officially qualify as a Shinto priest. He studied Japanology at the University of Vienna, Shintoism at the Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, and then began working at Konnō Hachiman-gū, which is run by the family of a former classmate of his at Kokugakuin.

Read more about him here, here and here.

We're almost done. I started researching this post and mountains of books/encyclopaedias later, most of it irrelevant to this post (of course) [this is me we're talking about], here it is. I'm rather chuffed that it was finished without the help of chocolate, in fewer than 1400 words. I want to end with this poem, and I know the person responsible for this post will agree with me. As beautiful as science is, it's not as perfect as the stars themselves.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
–– Walt Whitman

Shibukawa used an astrolabe like this to do his calculations. Source:


1) I've given up with Japanese names: some are first/given/personal name first, some are family name first in this post. It depends on a) how well-known they are outside Japan and b) how pernickety I felt at that particular moment.

2) Maths, British maths, with an s. That ends with a crisp sound, QED. Math peters out into an insipid lisp, like a mouthful of hot porridge, and takes you exactly nowhere.

3) I'm afraid you can't pray for a better head for figures at this shrine, despite its history. (Drat.) Then again, Hachiman is the god of war, and I certainly thought of maths as war when I was at school and especially university. The shrine's Japanese website refers to life's ups and downs, and says the world is a bit of a battlefield. (Ha!) Then it says you can pray, amongst others, for general good fortune, traffic safety and career advancement. It sounds as if the Enterprise NX-01 should pay a visit to Shibuya.

4) Damnit, Massimo!

Konnō Hachiman-gū has beautiful wooden carvings that remind me a bit of Nikkō Tōshō-gū.

Sources and further reading:

Biographical Encyclopaedia of Scientists, Third Edition, edited by John Daintith

Mathematics Across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Mathematics, edited by Helaine Selin

Samurai Art (website)

Self-support of Japanese Astronomy in Edo Period – Seki Takakazu and Shibukawa Harumi by Yukio Ohashi (PDF)

Sumiko Enbutsu, Battle Losses to Fashion Victims (newspaper article)

Co-blogger Sapphire, Calendar-making and math tablets (blog post)

If you're really interested, I recommend a visit to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park. See why I live in the shitamachi? 

Edit added 29 January: More beautiful photos and information at Kaori's blog, Kaori Square Feet.

The entrance to the shrine

This is a different shrine, Tamatsukuri Inari Jinja (玉造稲荷神社), which is just next to the Hachiman shrine.

The Inari shrine

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The god who took off with the tofu

Crumbs, cripes and crikey, but it's difficult to get going and start blogging! Partly because I can't get into this new year, but mainly because I start researching a story about a Tofu Jizō, innocently thinking there's only one, and then I realize oh heck no it's actually a thing and maybe I should visit this other temple as well before I write a story but then what about this one oh look here’s another one but it's in Morioka no Ru you can't go to Iwate aaargh.

My new year's resolution, which might last two weeks, is a) to blog more regularly than last year and b) to return to my first love, quirky temples.

So. Tofu Jizō.

Mukashi-mukashi, a long time ago, a man called Kichibei had a tofu shop in Bunkyō-ku, which, in those days, was a wooded area with many wild animals, including foxes and tanuki.

He had many regular customers who collected tofu and left money in a special box. One of them was a young priest, but he seemed to be a shady character: whenever he'd visited, Kichibei found a leaf in the box instead of real money.

This is not the Tofu Jizō. The criminal is behind locked doors;
this is merely a representative.

The shop owner decided to follow the priest, but as soon as they reached the gate of a temple called Kiun-ji (喜運寺), the priest disappeared.

"It's a fox, a shapeshifter, that’s what it is!" thought Kichibei.

When the priest visited the shop again, Kichibei struck him with a big tofu knife. The youngster immediately disappeared, leaving behind his tofu basket, a chip of stone covered in blood, and a trail of blood which Kichibei followed all the way to … Kiun-ji. When he entered, he saw blood flowing from the shoulder of the Jizō statue at the temple.

There you have it: it was the Jizō who dunnit. Why remains a mystery to this day.

The original temple was burned down in World War II, but the statue remains. Not that you can see it: the original chipped statue is currently hibutsu (秘仏), a term that refers to an icon or statue that is concealed from public view for various reasons. There is a statue in front of the temple, but it's not the naughty thief.


Maybe they're keeping the culprit locked up to prevent further mischief?

It's a rather mundane temple, and there's no opportunity for pretty pictures, and you'd only go there if you had an odd interest in old stories. As a matter of fact, when I arrived, the front gate was closed. I almost left, but then decided to simply enter. (Doors/gates aren't always locked in Tokyo.) Nobody yelled at me or kicked me out or attacked me with a tofu knife, so I guess it was OK. This is, after all, a temple dedicated to a thief.


1) My first headline was "the god who tea-leafed the tofu". "Tea leaf" is Cockney slang for thief, and it's a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a thesaurus must be in want of a new synonym. Also, alliteration and assonance.

2) You recognized that quote, didn't you? Didn't you?! 

3) I have to "gomen nasai" for the rather shabby photos. I visited this temple almost two years ago, and when I finally started scrabbling around looking for photos, this was all I could find. I could swear I took a few of the gate and more of the rather uninspiring temple itself, but … dunno … maybe Jizō pilfered my pix.

Statues in the small graveyard next to the temple
This has nothing to do with the Tofu Jizō, but I needed pictures, so ... tiny Jizō statues at a temple in Chichibu.

More tiny Jizō statues at a temple in Chichibu


History of Tofu and Tofu Products (965 CE to 2013) by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

Japanese website:

Friday, 9 January 2015

Because it's over

Anno Domini Nostri Iesu 2014 is over. Sela. What did it deliver?

1)  Two cracked ribs. Hiking in Nagano. Bones broken. Ego intact.

2)  Two bloody knees. Hiking in Chichibu. Bones intact. Ego not.

3)  A total of 61 posts, a new record in non-productivity.

4)  Zero incidences of violence in class, but it was a close call.

5)  Average of 2 books per week = 104 books, give or take 10. I'm a speed reader and I don't sleep much. Still, not happy with this consumption rate. So many books, so little time.

6)  Number of times I rewatched BBC Sherlock: confidential. Embarrassing. 

7)  Hay fever attacks: zero. I implore the gods to allow me to repeat this achievement.

8)  Silent curses flung at sniffers, spitters, parasols, rude commuters, oblivious smartphone users, a dreary succession of passive students: ad infinitum.

9)  New clothes bought: zero. Meh.

10)  Best flower discovery of 2014: a suburban cherry blossom footpath in Saitama (link).

Best temple discovery: a rakan temple in Chichibu in late December. I haven't written about it yet, but here's a preview of a drunk Jizō and a breast-feeding Kannon who's got the weirdest boobs I've ever seen in my life, and hey, this is Japan, the land of nude onsen, so I've seen plenty. Never plenty on one woman, it must be added, but collectively.

11)  Biggest disappointment: the Sherlock Holmes pub in Kanda, run by Hayakawa Publishing for a limited period of a month (if I remember correctly) [I've deleted details from my Mind Palace]. I wrote a review after I visited it in August, but I ripped it apart so savagely that I didn't publish that post. Here's a shorter, remarkably polite rendition:

I fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock during my school years; love Jeremy Brett's 1980s TV series; am a devoted fan of the BBC's modern adaptation. When I heard there was a Sherlock Holmes pub, I was in a rather chipper mood, but it was not what I had expected. It looked like a school cafeteria, with tables aligned regimentally and chairs packed tightly.

We went to the bar to order food (in Japanese).

Ru's long-suffering friend: "Do you have gin & tonic?"
Bar: "…"
Friend: "Do you have a drinks menu?"
Bar: "?!"
Friend: "Drinks?"
Bar: "You can have beer."
Friend: "What kind of beer?"
Bar: "…"
Friend: "?"
Bar: "Asahi Super Dry."
Friend: "Riiite, we'll have two."
Bar: "You have to order the set menu."
Friend: "What is the set menu?"
Bar: "Food and beer."
Friend: "What food?"
Bar: "Meatballs and beer or tofu gratin and beer."
Ru: "Tofu gratin?!"

Dear Sherlock Holmes pub in Kanda, one word: research. Couldn't you at least have the one food that we see BBC Sherlock eat, and that's chips? (Yes, chips. Not French fries. Chips. British English. Chips.) He also eats Mrs. Hudson's mince pies, but OK, it wasn't Christmas when we popped in. How about genuine pub drinks? Whisky? Guinness? Draft beer? You could also consider the possibility that ¥1500 for fried tofu and one beer might be slightly excessive, even in Abe's inflation-fueled utsukushii kuni (beautiful country).

Final verdict? Bollocks! It was a naff shite poxy cock-up of a place. (Yes, you've just read the polite version. Be grateful I spared you my original rant.)

The only traditional ale in that "pub" was on a towel. Or doormat. Whatever.

12)  Biggest dilemma of 2014 which remains unsolved: what to do on social media. I've been paying more attention to Google+ than this blog, which means more focus on photos and less on writing original content. Google+ is a platform for pretty pictures, not writing, and that is very much a bit not good. I'm trying to write more.

Twitter remains hit and miss, mostly miss.

I started a Tumblr blog mainly as a lark/experiment – it's for science, John! – and it's taken off. [No, you're not interested in its URL. It's a much abbreviated rehash of this blog. I tried it because I didn't geddit, and that's my credo: if you don't grasp it, low-tackle it. I still don't understand what the hell Tumblr is about, apart from porn and GIFs, or porn GIFs, but I have realized that it's like Google+, except that posts have a much longer life. It's easier than Google+ because there's very little interaction: just like, reblog, an endless loop. Post at the right time, draw the attention of Japanophiles, and a single photo launches into outer space.]

Then there's Facebook. Oh, gods, Facebook. I've got I've-stopped-counting-how-many invitations from people to join Facebook. You know how much I hate that idea, but ...

13)  Ru's word of the year: because. Not the Oxford Dictionary's vape, or Japan's dame yo (no way) or shūdanteki jieiken (the right to collective self-defense) or zei (tax). No. Because. That brings us to thirteen, which is good, because ten is dull, and twelve is boring, but thirteen? Thirteen is a because kind of word. Let's make it a list of thirteen.

PS)  I'm fully aware of the ambiguity of the headline. Evil grin. 

14)  Worst habit acquired last year: publish a new post before you respond to old comments. Get distracted for another fortnight. Apply best new emoticon¯\_(ツ)_/¯

PPS)  Shush. Zip it. I've never claimed to be able to count. Fourteen can be thirteen in my universe.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Ja, ja, I'll do this New Year's post just now

Yelp! I'm doing a "Japanese New Year's customs" post on Africa time, six days ex post facto, but I plead your indulgence: New Year's decorations are traditionally removed on the first Saturday of the new year, in other words, I haven't caused deadline mayhem yet.

"Just now", by the way, is a South African expression that means shortly, later, eventually, in a minute, tomorrow, next year, maybe never, probably never, ha ha never, shut up I'm busy. It can also mean a minute ago, a while ago, two hours ago, in my previous life. You can also say "now now", which means as soon as possible, shortly, later, eventually, etc etc etc.

Nakamise-dori in front of Sensō-ji in the New Year's period


Japanese New Year’s decorations are called o-shogatsu kazari (お正月飾り). It’s usually made of natural materials such as straw ropes, pine branches, bamboo and paper. 

They should be put up by December the 28th, since December the 29th includes the number 9 ( ku), which is regarded as a bad luck number because it’s pronounced in the same way as the word for agony or suffering ( ku). You’re still OK if you decorate on the 30th, but the 31st is not acceptable. 

The 31st, in a country in which everything happens exactly on time? No no no. Bad manners, bad timing and bad luck!

As already mentioned, they’re usually removed on the first Saturday of the new year.

Pine and bamboo decoration in front of a temple in Yanaka

Stalls selling New Year's decorations at Chichibu Jinja. Yup, I went hiking in Chichibu,
but that's another story for another day.


A shimekazari (注連飾り) is usually put on the front door to keep bad spirits away and to invite the so-called toshigami (歳神) or New Year gods into the home. The exact components of a shimekazari differ from region to region, but it usually includes: 
  • sacred twisted straw ropes called shimenawa (注連)
  • a small folding fan that symbolizes fertility (spreading your seed)
  • a Japanese bitter lemon or Satsuma orange that represents generations (see explanation below)
  • a fern called urajiro (裏白),  which is an evergreen that symbolizes a long life
  • a lobster that, with its bent back, represents old age
  • seaweed, which is associated with joy
  • sacred white paper called shide (紙垂) that prevents impurities from entering your home

Kagami mochi

During the New Year’s period in Japan you see rice cakes called kagami mochi (鏡餅) everywhere. This traditional decoration has two rice cakes representing the old and the new year, topped with a Japanese bitter lemon or daidai (ダイダイ). That’s because the Japanese word for generation is also pronounced dai, but written with another kanji (); in other words, daidai can be read as “generation after generation”. Japanese loves puns, word play and homophones.

Nowadays, though, mikan or Satsuma oranges are used more often. Incidentally, it’s important that the fruit should still have leaves attached. The top photo, which is home-made mochi photographed in the traditional neighourhood Yanaka, is the real deal. The second photo is mass-produced mochi which you can buy in any supermarket.

You’re supposed to break and eat the kagami mochi during the second weekend of the new year.

PS: Another New Year's tradition is mochi mortality (link). I'd feel seriously sheepish if I departed thus despite numerous warnings in every single Japanese newspaper every single year.

The year of the sheep

According to Chinese astrology, 2015 is the year of the , which can be interpreted as sheep, goat or ram. The Chinese sign includes all similar animals, all called yáng and usually divided into two types: miányáng (sheep) and shānyáng (goats). Japanese also separates these animals into sheep ( hitsuji) and goats (山羊 yagi), but the year itself is written with the Chinese symbol and called the year of the sheep. Read more here

I found the next photo in this Japanese article about sheep shrines in Japan. It was taken at Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) near Isobe Station in Gunma. Sheep shrines! Guess where I’ll be hiking to next?

I photographed the next ema (wooden tablet on which you write your wishes to the gods) at Yushima Tenman-gū. This shrine is exceptionally popular in the New Year’s period, because this is where students pray for success in their entrance exams (written in January and February) as well as academic success throughout the rest of the year. That’s because the god of scholars, Sugawara no Michizane, is enshrined here.

So why does the Chinese New Year in Japan coincide with the Western New Year?
Japan celebrates the (Chinese) year of the sheep, but from the 1st of January (i.e. Western New Year) instead of the 19th of February (i.e. Chinese New Year). The explanation might confuse you even more, but I'll try.

Trust Japan to mix cultures, customs and religions merrily without blinking. Japan initially used a lunar calendar based on the Chinese one, but in 1873 adopted the Gregorian calendar. Old customs remained, though, so now we have a Western calendar combined with old (often Chinese in origin) traditions.

OK. To summarize. There’s no Chinese New Year in Japan, except in a few Chinatowns, but the Chinese zodiac is used. The year starts on 1 January, but you can only be BORN in the year of the sheep if your birthday is after 19 February, except if you’ve turned 20 in the previous year, in which case you celebrate your birthday on the second Monday of January, which is the Coming of Age ceremony.

Right. That’s simple. Isn’t it?!


Most houses and buildings in this eastern part of Tokyo attach a poster to the front door for roughly two weeks. Each neighbourhood has its own design. The one of the left is a Mitsui Real Estate poster on the front door of one of their apartment buildings; the one on the right is in Higashi-Kuromonchō near Ueno. The posters all include sheep in their design, because it’s the year of the sheep.

Deadline dilemmas

What's the next big event in Tokyo? Cherry blossoms? Perhaps I should start writing a cherry blossoms post immediately; perhaps I will then be able to publish it by next Christmas.

I took this photo at Sensō-ji. That pine branch on the right is part of their New Year's decorations.
The smoke is from an incense burner. It's believed that the smoke will protect you against illness.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Verbal selfie

Trinity College Library, Dublin

Below, a video, with the relevant part from 0:22.
Mycroft is my spirit animal.

Funny but painfully true BuzzFeed explanation

This is what happens on a cold winter's day when everything in Tokyo is closed and I'm too lazy to go on a walkpedition.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy Year of the Sheep (or Goat) [or Ibex]!

"Come on then! What are you waiting for? It's a new year and there are mountains to conquer and horizons to cross! Just follow me!" 


It's 2015. According to Chinese astrology, it's the year of the , which can be interpreted as either sheep, goat or ram. "Sheep" – the thing that goes baaah and is frequently barbecued in South Africa  is written as  in Japanese, but the year of the sheep is written as .


The Chinese sign includes all similar animals (sheep, goats and antelopes), all called yáng and usually divided into two types: miányáng (sheep) and shānyáng (goats). Japanese also separates these animals into sheep ( hitsuji) and goats (山羊 yagi), but the year itself? That's written with the Chinese symbol and called the year of the sheep.

As per usual, the Japanese language is simple, straightforward and crystal clear. Right?


When I was Googling, as I am wont to do, in an effort to figure out why the year isn't named after lamb chops with rosemary, I got steadily more baffled. Eventually I decided sod it all, let's use a photo of an ibex, and let's make it a female ibex. (That's the first photo; the second photo is a mountain goat.) I prefer goats they're so naughty and mischievous and stubborn and traitorous and lecherous – and ibex are …

Wait, hang on, what's the plural of ibex? Ibices (like apex/apices) or ibexes (like crux/cruxes) or ibex (like sheep and fish and stuff)?

Well, never mind, an ibex and another ibex and all their friends are über-cool.

Happy 2015, everybody! May we reach that faraway mountain with a hop, a skip and a grin.

1) This article explains the name of the year.
2) If you want to see more stunning photos of goats on cliffs, here you go.


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