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Showing posts from April, 2011

Tokyo questions

Why is it always the women with the ugliest legs who wear the shortest skirts? I accept that it's de rigueur in Japan to go as short as impossible, but some lasses truly suffer from excessive confidence. A little body dysmorphic disorder might be in order.
Why do men think it's OK to wear white socks with black shoes and a black suit?
Why do women not realize that they should keep their knees together when they sit down in a short skirt? Or do they simply not care? That reminds me: even men should take into account that if you sit in a crowded train, you really don't have to spread your legs a meter apart. It doesn't prove that you have balls.
Why do people bolt past you near a train station and then stop dead in their tracks at the ticket gates, fumbling for their ticket or Suica? How long have you known that you're on your way to the station and just possibly conceivably might need your ticket at the gate?
Why do middle-aged men force themselves past you and stand ri…

I can't get rid of Roppongi

Ah, the irony. Barely a fortnight after my bitter complaint about Roppongi, I get two regular assignments, both in you-know-where. (I work with words. I write them, I edit them and I teach them. Mostly, but not only, English.) Twice a week I'll be living the high life as an awkward impostor in luxury offices on the top floors of Mori Tower and Izumi Garden Tower. I was born under a very odd star. How else does a plaasjapie (country bumpkin) always end up in these unlikely situations?
My first startled thought when the Mori Tower job was confirmed: "What if there's an earthquake while I'm up there?" Then I tried to reassure myself that I would probably be safer in Mori Tower with its ultra-modern technology than in many two-story houses in Tokyo. A person who works in the building has assured me that the swaying during a quake is "very slow and very gentle". This was said in such a serious, solemn fashion that I almost look forward to my first heavenly af…

What, exactly, stops at Tanashi?

You can take the girl out of copy-editing, but you can't take copy-editing out of the girl. It's a curse: I flinch when I see an incorrect apostrophe s. I flinch a lot. Especially when it's my own mistake.
I have high standards for public English in native speaker environments, but here in Japan I enjoy the quirky, creative and at times unfathomable version of English as she is spoke. Here’s an example of not-quite-clear usage that would send any copy-editor into a tizzy. It's an announcement on express trains on the Seibu Shinjuku Line to Hon-Kawagoe: "Next stop Tanashi. It stops at all stations after Tanashi."
Each time I hear this, I get an overwhelming urge to rush up to the conductor. "What? What stops? Our universe stops hurtling through space for a brief pause at all stations?"
Yes, I know, I'm being silly.

PS: Should that be native-speaker environments with a hyphen? You see? It's a curse ...

The labyrinth that is Shinjuku Station

I have no sense of direction. That might explain why I started in Africa but ended up in Japan. When I'm outdoors in the wilderness, I can track the sun's movements or read the constellations at night, which means I know north from south and east from west, but a city confuses me. No animal tracks or elephant dung or bird calls to lead you to the nearest water hole.
Just kidding. I may have been born in Africa, but that does not make me a Khoisan tracker. Seriously, though, I'm easily bewildered in a big city, especially if I have to use underground passages. When I resurface, I can't distinguish between my left and my right hand, never mind the four main directions.
I'm familiar with Tokyo's transport system and happy to travel without a map, but Shinjuku Station remains a labyrinth with Medusa hissing in every air vent and the Minotaur snorting in dark corners. (I wonder if there's an equivalent in Japanese mythology? Something to research. *)
Every time I …

Easter in Japan

I only realized it was Easter when I received an e-card from South Africa. Unlike Christmas, which is celebrated with capitalist glee, Easter doesn't register in Japan at all.
That intrigues me, since all those bunnies and Easter eggs and marshmallow chicks provide an unlimited opportunity for kawaii-ing. The association of rabbits with eggs would cause a great deal of confusion, but never mind, there's already an assumption that Santa Claus is Jesus Christ's father. Let's not split hairs. (Well, do you know the familial relationship between Izanami and Kagutsuchi? Then don't laugh if this part of the world doesn't know about the three hypostases in one ousia.)
Japan loves bunnies so much that Beatrix Potter is probably better known than Sei Shōnagon. Wherever you go, you're confronted by Peter Rabbit on cups, towels, doilies and dish cloths, which is OK, and alarmingly often on grown women's bags and clothes, which is definitely not OK.
So why do they ig…

Mistress Maypole saves electricity

We're trying to save electricity in Tokyo, due to Tepco/Tōden's problems at the Fukushima power plant. The current reality of a limited power supply is déjà vu to me: South Africa experienced rolling blackouts, called "load shedding", for several years. It started in December 2005, when a generator at Koeberg, a nuclear power plant near Cape Town, was damaged. Not by a tsunami, but by a loose bolt that had been left inside during routine maintenance. I jest not. This forced a shutdown which resulted in a power shortage in the Western Cape. Further nationwide blackouts – caused by a lack of skills, planning and maintenance – followed in 2007, when I had already moved to Japan.
My main concern in 2005 was the possibility of break-ins at my house when the security system was disabled; my main concern in Tokyo is a disruption of the commuter train services. Another potential nightmare is a lack of aircon during Tokyo's insufferably humid summers, traditionally the per…

A rice cake in a drawing

I learned a new Japanese expression today:  絵に描いた餅 (e ni kaita mochi). It means "a rice cake in a drawing", in other words, a rice cake you can't eat. It's the equivalent of "pie in the sky" or "castle in the air".

And yet the books will be there

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
"We are," they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
 — Czesław Miłosz

Happiness is whole-grain bread

Happiness is walking into the depachika in Matsuzakaya, intending to buy that fluffy French stuff that's called "bread" in Tokyo, and screeching to a halt in front of a special promotion by Linde Bäckerei, a German bakery in Kichijōji. I'm well aware of Linde, but they're too far from my home for regular visits, which makes their one-week promotion (only one week? drat!) in the shitamachi an extra special treat.
I bought two whole-grain loaves, healthy and heavy and heavenly. This is the kind of bread that puts your teeth in mortal danger: crunch down at the wrong angle, and it's bye-bye crowns. Such an incident would be unfortunate, since a loaf is roughly the same price as a crown, but who cares … I could eat whole-grain bread of the wholest variety. Happy.
PS: Depachika is a contraction of depaatoor department store plus chikaor underground. Food halls in Tokyo's big department stores are usually in the basement.

Tokyo glimpses 2

Pansies. Everywhere in shitamachi alleys, pansies in flower boxes, on window sills, in front of doors, nudging through bicycle wheels; red, yellow, purple; smiling, grinning, laughing. Also cyclamen in every shade of pink.
Japan's cherry blossoms are beautiful, but in many ways I prefer the period just after the popcorn explosion, when trees are covered in young leaves of the softest green. It's a time of so much promise.
What is it with old people and boiled sweets? An old-timer sits down in the train, and within seconds you hear rustling cellophane and baby suckling sounds.

A cuckoo's call

As you've probably gathered by now, language is my first love. The Hero, on the other hand, is my last love, but I digress.
The haiku of Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉) and Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶) hold a special place in my affections partly because they're so beautiful in the original Japanese, and partly because they provide an absorbing study of the challenges of translation. Here's an example of a haiku by Bashō in Japanese, followed by a literal translation and two creative translations (found here and here):
郭公 / 声横たふや / 水の上 hototogisu / koe yokotau ya / mizu no ue cuckoo / voice lie still / on the water
cuckoo: its call stretching out across the water 
the voice of a cuckoo dropped to the lake where it lay floating on the surface
When I read it, the wordsa cuckoo's call lingers on the lake popped into my head, but I'm not a translator!

I hate Roppongi

There's one area in Tokyo that I've always avoided: Roppongi. The area tried to go upmarket when the massive commercial/residential complex Roppongi Hills was completed in 2003, but it could never hide its sleazy soul. Go there on any evening and you will see the greedy and the desperate; the Goldman Sachs types who believe that virility equals bank account; and the women who pretend that they believe it, too.
I've been invited to restaurants in Roppongi, but the first time I went there voluntarily was on a public holiday to visit Tokyo City View, the observation deck on the 52nd floor of Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. It was a clear day and I wanted to see Mount Fuji. I also wanted to take photos of Maman, the giant spider sculpture by French sculptor Louise Joséphine Bourgeois.
So off I went. Ag nou ja. Some excursions are more pleasant than others.
I arrived early to take spider shots, but the Roppongi Hills plaza was cordoned off. I wandered around the complex, killing tim…

Nuclear spill vs coffee spill

Give me a glass of red wine and I'll spill it, usually on a white tablecloth. Coffee? I'm guaranteed to slosh it all over myself, the carpet and any human within splatter distance. I dropped a full cup of café mocha from Excelsior Caffé on the floor at my new workplace within a fortnight of starting there. I can't even blame it on a quake – Namazu was taking a catfishnap at that particular point. (You can see great Namazu woodblock prints here.)
My big fear is not a nuclear spill, but another coffee spill, and that has governed my behaviour during recent biggish aftershocks. I was at the office yesterday morning when a 6.2 quake struck Chiba, south-west of Tokyo, just after 8. Since I had arrived early (I start working at 8:30), I was sitting at a small table tucked away in a corner behind a pot plant, reading a book. My coffee stood on the table in front of me. Our regular cleaning woman was vacuuming a nearby office.
Then Mr Chiba Tremor arrived with a ribs-rattling jol…

Wisdom is a butterfly

I'm not sure why I'm thinking of so many favourites from yesteryear - maybe all these aftershocks are making long-forgotten memories fall from my brain's cobwebby cupboards - but here's another beautiful excerpt, this time from the poem Tom O'Roughley by W.B. Yeats: 
An aimless joy is a pure joy … And wisdom is a butterfly And not a gloomy bird of prey.
I wish my niece in faraway Kleinmond could illustrate this poem. She's a children's book illustrator.

The heart's porcelain is fragile

This morning I thought of an Afrikaans poem that applies to Miyagi, where so many people lost their homes. It was written by Ernst van Heerden in 1975, and it describes a man's emotions as he watches movers packing his possessions. The residents of Miyagi had a very different experience that was anything but their own choice, but don’t you think the poem's last line is particularly poignant?
The poem is called 'n Tyd van verhuising (A time of moving). This is a very free and not professional translation at all, and I deleted line breaks, but here we go:
To the movers
Carry softly, friends, because knickknacks and pottery, plates and fine glass contain a lifetime of dreams and desires;
Carry softly, colleagues, because bed, table and desk press against the chest's thin skeleton;
Carry softly, judges, because your verdict of my tiny industry is captured in pictures, books and my old easy chair;
Carry softly, gods, because the heart's porcelain is fragile, vulnerable and …

Give that fish some Valium!

Yesterday at 11:46 pm we had our strongest aftershock to date. The Japan Meteorological Agency rates it 7.4; the United States Geological Survey has downgraded it to 7.1. Either way, it's the biggest so far. When my friend Sara heard about it, she decided somebody needs to give the catfish some Valium. I said maybe we should add Ritalin, too.
I was at home and wide awake, reading the classic 1959 book Meeting with Japan by Italian author Fosco Maraini, who was interned in Japan during the Second World War. When the rattling started, I didn't even get up from my zabuton, though I did stop reading and I did skrik a bit. (Skrik is an Afrikaans word that means to become frightened or to be startled.) I guess my definition of "big earthquake" has changed forever. What would've scared me badly a month ago now has little effect. The aftershock didn't stop me from sleeping like a baby …
I never did understand that expression. That's the last thing babies do!

Japan sinks (日本沈没)

March has not been a good month for Tokyo, not in the last 100 years.
The American air raid of 9 to 10 March, codenamed Operation Meetinghouse, was one of the most destructive bombing raids in history. According to the World War II Database: Night of 9-10 Mar, Operation Meetinghouse:279 B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs and destroyed 267,000 buildings and homes or 41 square kilometers of Tokyo. Americans estimated 88,000 killed, 41,000 injured, and 1,000,000 displaced. Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department estimated 124,711 casualties and 286,358 destroyed buildings and homes.The bombing raids were so effective that the American air command concluded by July 1945 that no viable targets remained on the Japanese mainland. Read more here.
Then, on 11 March 2011, at 14:46, the Tōhoku earthquake struck. It destroyed the Tōhoku coast, but it has also had a lingering effect on Tokyo.
Japan sinks
This morning I discovered a mov…


I have a new favourite Japanese place name: Wakamatsu-kawada 若松河田. My favourite used to be the trip-off-your-tongue word Takadanobaba, but now I prefer the lilting rhythm of Wakamatsu-kawada. It's a residential area in Shinjuku as well as a train station on the Toei Ōedo Line.
The four kanji in Wakamatsu-kawada mean young pine tree 若松, river 河 and rice paddy 田. That's beautiful, too.