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Showing posts from May, 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree, minus one crane

As Songda flees over the horizon, scowling in black clouds, Tokyo Sky Tree is visible again. They're currently disassembling the giant cranes, allowing us to see the tower's slender silhouette with fewer construction props. More photos here.

I need you, knee! Don't act up!

A recent development is frightening me: my right knee, which got hurt in a car accident yonks ago, is making its presence known. It's not misbehaving. Yet. It's not refusing to cooperate. Yet. It just regularly gives a tiny squeak that turns into a proper yelp when I'm going down stairs. This is not good. I love walking. I need that knee. 

Talking about aches and pains, Tokyo's old-timers have been given a break. Certain vital services, including hospitals and Tokyo's train network, have now been exempted from compulsory power cuts. That means that most station escalators are operating again, and the silver brigade can travel a bit more easily. The rest of us, too. I got stuck behind a nonagenarian on a stairway in rush hour a few times. Herd of wildebeest encounters tortoise. Tortoise wins.
Since my daily commute is mostly on the Toei Ōedo Line, the newly energetic escalators fill me with deep (literally) gratitude. The Ōedo Line is one of the deepest lines in Toky…

Chapu-chapu, teru teru bozu!

Please allow me to repeat myself: I could live in Japan for ten thousand years and I would never stop marvelling at all this water. It's been pouring non-stop for several days thanks to typhoon Songda. Or rather, tropical depression Songda, since it's not strong enough to qualify as a typhoon anymore. Isn't that a perfect expression? Tropical depression. The tropics are feeling so down in the dumps that they've collapsed in a flood of tears.
It certainly causes depression. Tokyoites mope, mutter and mumble about heat, dampness and inconvenience. Me? I go for walks.
I did that yesterday, hoping to spot a teru teru bozu so that I could take a photo, but it's perhaps too early in the squishy season for that. A teru teru bozu (てるてる坊主, shiny shiny Buddhist priest) is a traditional hand-made doll that supposedly has magic powers that ensure good weather. Years ago they were made by farmers; now kids make them the day before an excursion, for instance, when good weather is …

Happiness is rain, ivory towers, jam and power cuts

Happiness is ...
Rain. I've mentioned before that I love rainy season. It hasn't officially started yet (in Tokyo) because the Japan Meteorological Agency hasn't officially announced it yet. This is Japan. Rules are important and being on time is of the essence and never mind that it's bucketing down rainy season shall follow the rules and shall arrive on time according to said rules so there. I love this place. Where wos I? Rainy season hasn't officially started yet, but typhoon Songda is approaching. It's raining softly, relentlessly, gloriously.

*** Correction added 30 May: Oh dear. I got that wrong. It officially started on 27 May. Naughty naughty rainy season: it's 12 days early!
Teaching at university. Universities in Japan usually start their new academic year in April, but this year, due to the big quake, several postponed the start of the new semester to May. It's good to be on campus again.
Setsuden! I will undoubtedly change my mind when August …

The colour of smoke

I've just realized that I can apply traditional Japanese colours to my blog. I simply have to use the correct hex triplet. My current background colour is susuiro (煤色). Susu means soot, but I've also seen susuiro described as "the colour of smoke". Isn't it a beautiful, quiet shade? You can read more about Japan's traditional colours here.

Tokyo glimpses 4

She was walking in front of me down a narrow alleyin Taitō, pulling an obaasan cart: those lightweight trolleys that old women use for their purchases and probably as a walking aid, too. She was bent forwards, with one hand supporting her lower back. Every time she shuffled past flowers in pot plants, she stopped to look at them. Occasionally she touched the petals with a soft, brief caress. I saw my future self in her, and I wondered about the special relationship between older women and flowers.
One of my neighbours, fussing over his plants, dressed in pyjama pants and too small geta. I'm never quite sure what the dynamic is: either the shitamachi alleys belong to everybody, so anything goes; or the alley surrounding a particular house belongs to that house, so the owner can do what he wants. When I go on my early-morning walks, I see some very bleary-eyed individuals in some very unflattering outfits, watering plants or hanging up washing. I always get a cheerful smile when I gr…

Tokyo Sky Tree photo blogs

You may have noticed that I'm rather fond of Tokyo Sky Tree. "I'm a helpless victim, m'lud. I plead coercion. It's clearly visibly from this apartment. Whenever I look up, I see it. I've been indoctrinated."

I've included a few shots on my photo blog, Sanpokatagata, but I'm just a bumbling amateur. My favourite Sky Tree blogs are these three:

512colors (great photos of Tokyo)
Smell of oldies (photos of old, and sometimes a bit run-down, Tokyo)
Sky Tree and trains (photos that combine Sky Tree with my other passion, trains)

All three are Japanese blogs, but photos speak an international language. Enjoy!

A riot of roses along the Toden Arakawa Line

I love trains. Preferably not during rush hour, but at all other times I'm besotted with these iron beasts. I have no idea where this interest comes from, unless it was awoken by what a train represents: travel, history, romantic journeys, technology, unknown destinations. Why then trains, not cars or planes? I don't know. I just love travelling by train, listening to its hisses and groans, swaying with its movements.
I'm equally entranced by streetcars: they meander through backwater neighbourhoods, amble past kitchen windows, trundle through gardens, stop for pedestrians; and they do it 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 Minowabashi in Arakawa to Waseda in Shinjuku, a 12 km journey that takes about 50 minutes; and the Tōkyū Setagaya Line in western Tokyo.
The Toden Arakawa Line is famous for an attraction that has nothing to with trains: roses! The section of the line in A…

May, the swampy month with the darkest nights

When Japan was still using its old lunar calendar, May was called Satsuki(皐月). That first kanji is obsolete, but it means swamp or shore.Nowadays March is rather prosaically called Gogatsu (五月, fifth month). Spring rain is still called satsuki-ame (五月雨, fifth month rain), also pronounced samidare. Then there's fine weather during rainy season, satsukibare (五月晴), and a dark night in the rainy season,satsukiyami (五月闇). It's allegedly darker than any other night. Why? I have no idea. To me, a dark night in rainy season is lush and voluptuous.
This morning we had satsukibare, but this afternoon it's raining heavily. I think tonight might be satsukiyami.
Incidentally, rainy season officially starts in June. These days the Japan Meteorological Society announces when the season has started, and the day varies a bit each year; but according to the old lunar calendar, the first day of rainy season was on 11 June, and it was called nyūbai (入梅, the rainy season enters). It can also be …

The hopeless quest to find a nice bra in Japan

Many Western women complain that clothes in Japan are too small for them. I don't have that problem. I'm 1.58 m, the average length of women in this country, and I'd have to consume a lot of chankonabe to tip the scale at 50 kg, but that doesn't mean clothes fit me. My body shape is all wrong. Japanese women tend to have longer upper bodies and shorter legs, Western women vice versa. It's also my perception that Western lasses have a bigger waist-hip ratio, regardless of their total body weight.
I'm small, even boyish, but it's not that easy to find clothes in Japan. When I try on a dress or a coat, the waist sits on my hips, and pants look very awkward. It's a joy to buy skirts that are small enough, shirts with short enough sleeves and shoes that don't fall off … but pants are a lost cause.
My main frustration, though, is bras. Why do all bras have to be padded, underwired heavily enough to support Japan's national debt, padded a bit more, beri…

Eskimo snow words vs Japan's rain words – Japan wins!

There's an enduring belief that Eskimos, or Inuit if you prefer, have hundreds of words for snow. That supposedly indicates that they have a different world view. They don't simply see generic snow; they see a vast difference between "snow that falls at night" and "snow that is 50% sleet and falls in forests" and "snow that sneaks under my fur collar and is icky against my skin". Their verbal promiscuity, in turn, allegedly proves that language determines thought. This belief is called linguistic relativism, as proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the early 1900s. It fell out of favour for many years, but it flares up again and again.
The theory has to ignore the fact that English isn't exactly niggardly with snowy words, either. See here. If you would like to read more about the Eskimo snow meme, I recommend thisthis and this.
The Japanese could claim a few linguistic records themselves. Look up "rain" in a Japanese dictio…

Tokyo questions 2

Why is Japan so infatuated with sound trucks? I'm not even talking about the gaisensha of the far right movement. The black vans are limited to specific areas/events and it's relatively easy to avoid them. No, I'm spewing vitriol about the little trucks with loudspeakers that travel around the neighbourhood in an endless loop, announcing that they will fix your pasokon or terebi, or collect your sodai gomi. Please, for pity's sake, are there so many broken computers and old televisions in Taitō that daily announcements for several hours are justified? Shut up and go away! Last weekend we had two trucks competing against each other. One had announcements in a syrupy burikko (AARGH!) voice; another used a bored man to persuade us to part with our possessions. It gets even worse during local elections, when candidates use these sound trucks to tell us their names yoroshiku onegai shimasu, ad nauseam, from 8 am till 8 pm. AARGH!
Why have I had a dull, persistent headache fo…

Tokyo, you're a spoilt brat

Dear Tokyo
This summer's buzz word is setsuden (節電) or energy conservation. Due to all the disasters that have hit us – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, governmental ineptness and big business bungling – we don't have enough electricity in Tōden's supply area, and consumers have been asked to save as much as possible. I've been pondering this dilemma for two months since the quake struck, and here's my conclusion:
Tokyo, you're a spoilt brat. You have a long history of recovering from destruction, whether it was earthquakes or American bombers. You have a great spirit of ganbaru (perseverance) and jishuku (self-restraint). Yet right now, in the summer of 2011, you're a spoilt brat.
Yesterday I travelled to Akasaka on the Ginza Line. There was no air-conditioning on the train, only ventilation. It was hot. After I'd arrived in Akasaka, I walked past a pachinko parlour. Migraine-inducing noise and arctic air typhooned from open front doors. I've …

Dutch and Afrikaans: laughing at each other

I'm reading a hilarious book called The UnDutchables, an observation of the Netherlands, its culture and its inhabitants. It has its own website. I'm not Dutch, but I have Dutch ancestors, hence my interest in the country.
Dutch and Afrikaans speakers understand each other, sort of, but we usually end up laughing our heads off and switching to English. To the Dutch, Afrikaans sounds like a child learning to speak; to the Afrikaners, Dutch sounds like a quaint relic spoken by men in breeches and periwigs. Dis geen probleem om Nederlands te lees nie, maar dis 'n bietjie lastig om daarna te luister. It's easy to read Dutch, but it's a bother to listen to it. I find it much easier to follow Flemish.
Dutch and its younger sibling Afrikaans share several characteristics: both love diminutives (Is jy lus vir 'n ou koppietjie teetjies? Do you feel like a little cup of little tea?), and both sound like a throat disease thanks to their fondness for gutturals. If I want to …

Gogatsubyo: feeling blah in spring

"April is the cruellest month," said T.S. Eliot, "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain."
Here in Japan the cruelty arrives one month later. It's called gogatsubyo (五月病) or May sickness.
All over the world, spring is responsible for more suicides than any other season. If you're unhappy, it's easier to cope in winter when everything is gray and wretched, and everybody around you is moping and feeling miserable. Then spring arrives, and the contrast between your own numbness and the vitality around you becomes too much.
Gogatsubyo is a well-known phenomenon in Japan, a country where many activities start on 1 April: the new financial year, the new academic year, new recruits, new promotions, reshuffling in companies. The theory is that in April, everybody's adapting to new circumstances as well as looking forward to Golden Week. Then May arrives. Your daily routine resumes. You realize tha…

Rainy season, barley tea and blue flowers

Japan's rainy season (梅雨, tsuyu) is the result of the cold Siberian winds that float over the warm Pacific - an encounter that produces overcast skies and light but constant rain. It usually begins in June, but the humidity starts increasing in May.
I can't wait for tsuyu to arrive in its full glory. I'm probably the only person in this city of millions who's not perpetually petulant about the heat and humidity, but I love the soft yet relentless downpour. You could say that tsuyu rain walks very softly but carries a very big stick. It creates a wonderful ambience: secrets in shadows, will-o'-the-wisps on flowers, a mirage in every puddle.
Make no mistake: rainy season drains your energy. I reserve the right to start bellyaching about the selfsame humidity I've just praised to high heaven. It gets a bit much towards the end of June, when Tokyo turns into a foul fetid festering oozing sweating sweltering swamp.
I read this bit on a tourism website: "The main p…

Japan's wealth of water

There's an Afrikaans word, "dorsland", that means "thirsty country". It's an apt description for South Africa with its large, arid interior. Water is scarce, and I grew up with water restrictions that meant we couldn't wash cars or water gardens. Perhaps that is why I love tsuyu (梅雨), rainy season, a sopping wet period that is often detested or, at best, grudgingly tolerated by Tokyoites.
Japan's wealth of water remains a miracle to me. I will never forget – not even when I'm an old woman with a faded, frayed memory – my first sight of Yuzawa's water-covered rice paddies (水田, suiden). Every flat surface is a mirror that reflects the clouds, mountains and houses. Niigata turns into a water world.
My Japanese friends often refer to Japan as a poor country, referring to its lack of natural resources, but they usually add "except water and people".
Typhoon rain
Earlier this week it was bucketing down, since typhoon Aere was moving past Ja…

A riverside ramble in Kōtō-ku

Tokyo has historically been divided into two main parts: the eastern shitamachi or low town where merchants, artisans and the hoi polloi lived; and the western side where the samurai, aristocracy and upper classes resided. That distinction continues to this day: eastern Tokyo is poorer and never appears on the list of most sought-after suburbs, yet it is generally agreed that this is where the spirit of old Edo lingers. The eastern side has history, traditional customs and "hard-headed but sentimental characters who are fast to anger but first to laugh about it", in the words of Donald Richie. Western Tokyo, on the other hand, is wealthy, upmarket and cosmopolitan.
No prizes for guessing which side I prefer. I love the shitamachi, and my only frustration is that even if I could live in this area for a thousand years, I would never be able to explore all its alleys and secret places.
Different sources draw different borders around the shitamachi, but it usually includes the phy…

Songs of Africa

A rare occurrence: feeling homesick. Listening to Mali musicians Ali Ibrahim "Farka" Touré performing Diaraby and Salif Keita singing Folon. Outside tropical storm Aere is approaching in a downpour; I'm listening to the music of Africa's vast deserts. Here's a video of Folon, but be warned that the audio inexplicably disappears towards the end. That's Africa. Tonight I'm so homesick, I'm even missing the usual muddles.

The unfortunate traveller

"A traveller must have the back of an ass to bear all,a tongue like the tail of a dog to flatter all, the mouthof a hog to eat what is set before him, the ear of a merchantto hear all and say nothing."
– Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

Tokyo glimpses 3

I saw her as I walked into Tokyo Station. She'd made her home just outside the Marunouchi South Exit, in a corner formed by a wall and a pillar: she had stacked carton boxes around her, was sitting in a sleeping bag on a flattened box, and was serenely rubbing lotion into her hands. She was in her 60s or older, not dirty or unkept, not obviously batty, sublimely indifferent to the crowds surging around her. Tokyo has its homeless people, but most are men. This woman looked as though she'd be at home in Mitsukoshi, a luxury department store that makes Harrods look like Pep Stores. What is her story?
Young girl standing in front of me on a train: chubby, heavy make-up, short pink skirt, purple sheepskin boots (it was a bright sunny day), curling her eyelashes with a medieval torture instrument. How she managed to avoid permanent disablement, only she will know.
Young couple sitting opposite me on train: in their 20s, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, both reading thick books, but the…

Untōan: the Yeah Thank Sauce Temple

My favourite temple in Japan is the Yeah Thank Sauce Temple.
Untōan is the biggest Zen temple in Echigo, as Niigata was known in old times. It's tucked away in a forest in the mountains, which means it's wonderfully tranquil. If you enter 新潟県南魚沼市雲洞660 in Google Maps, you'll see that it's not exactly at the centre of a thousand roads.
When you arrive at the main gate, called Aka-mon or Red Gate, you first see a pair of giant straw sandals, which indicates that it's a pilgrimage temple. The sandals are covered with ema, small wooden plates, on which pilgrims write their wishes. Aka-mon also has a sign that reads 雲洞庵の土踏んだか / Untōan no tsuchi funda ka / Have you tread on the soil of Untōan?
It refers to the stone-paved approach from the Red Gate to the Main Hall. The Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular Mahāyāna sutras, is inscribed on stones, one character per stone, which are embedded at a depth of 1 meter beneath this path. Legend has it that walking down the path wil…

Cry havoc and let slip the parasols of pique

Oh dear. It's getting hotter, and that means the parasols have been released.
Japanese women are besotted with parasols. It isn't even summer yet. The sun – well, compared to Africa's - is a sickly wimp. Come August it will be a terrifying beast, but right now it's just a puny puppy. You could lie naked in this sun for a full day and your only problem would be a Vitamin D deficiency. So what do our dainty damsels do? They haul out their parasols. They don't go anywhere without these frilly, ridiculous, cumbersome and in everybody's way! contraptions.
I should explain that Japanese women are paranoid about sunlight: in summer, they wear parasols, long sleeves and elbow-length gloves. I could never be that concerned about my appearance, but I must admit, it clearly contributes to their beautiful skins and youthful looks. I just wish they'd rather slap on SPF 50+ sunblock. I don't like parasols. Stupid affectation.
So why don't I complain about umbrellas…

The train that turned into a man-eater

I once travelled in a train that turned into a man-eater.
We'd just pulled into Tokyo Station when the train jerked to a halt. "We've applied the emergency brakes," the announcement said, "due to a human accident."
Human accident.Jinshin jiko.人身事故. I was exasperated rather than shocked. If it was a desperate human being who jumped, why did he have to choose the Yamanote line (one of the most crowded lines) at Tokyo Station (one of the busiest stations) at 9 pm (heavy traffic)? Why did he choose my train?
Callous? Perhaps, but you reach saturation level with train suicides and what should've been horror gets reduced to mere irritation.
After we'd stopped, the train's doors remained closed. So we watched people on the platform watching the commotion, and fidgeted as policemen ran past our windows. A bit of Googling revealed what had happened. Yamanote Line Train Number 2120G, time of incident 21:20 exactly. The jumper, a male, was decapitated by…