Skip to main content


Showing posts from July, 2011

So here I am, trying to use words

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years–  Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –  There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
– From East…

Kita-in's 540 rakan ... one of them looks just like you

It is said that you should visit the statues at night and touch all 540. They will be cold and mute, but one – just one – will be warm under your fingers. That is the one that resembles you the most.
I didn't go at night and I didn't touch each statue, but I found one that resembles me nevertheless. He sits at the end of a row, with his back turned to his closest neighbour, fully absorbed in the open book on his knee. His world consists entirely of his book: he is reading through the centuries, unaware of his surroundings, his companions or the curious visitors who stare at him and sometimes, like I did, leave a coin in his lap for good luck.

He is one of the 540 rakan at Kita-in Temple (喜多院) in Kawagoe, Saitama, about an hour from Tokyo. Rakan (arhat in Sanskrit) is a Buddhist term for "worthy one", and is used as an epithet of the Buddha himself as well as his enlightened disciples. These statues were carved by a priest between 1782 and 1825. They sit outside Kita-i…

Katsunuma, the heart of Japan's wine industry

Katsunuma in Yamanashi is the heart of Japan's wine industry. I visited the town to attend a wine tasting at Katsunuma Winery, and discovered that there's one thing that South Africa does better than Japan: wine. Look, Hugh Johnson I'm not, but I grew up with wine and I lived in Stellenbosch, which arguably makes South Africa's best wines, for many years. I'm not an expert, but Japan has some catching up to do.
Winemaking in Japan
Grapes have been grown in Yamanashi for many centuries, but the first attempt to produce local wine was in the 1800s. It remains a very small industry. The winemaker at Katsunuma Winery told us that wine is enjoyed regularly (at least once a week) by only 3% of Japan's population, and Japanese wines make up only 35% of that 3%. Wine know-how increased in the 1980s, and Yamanashi recently started a trend of "Japanese wine using Japanese grape cultivars". There's increasing interest amongst French winemakers in Japanese wine…

Lotus flowers: when Buddha danced on Shinobazu Pond

It is said that wherever Buddha stepped, lotus flowers bloomed. If that is true, he's certainly spending this summer tap-dancing on Shinobazu Pond.

According to Buddhism, the lotus is the symbol of purity, since the flower remains pristine although the plant itself grows in mud. It has a luminescence that I haven't seen in any other flower: even in early-morning shadows the flowers glow with an inner light.
Its beauty has in interesting effect on people, especially photographers. I've photographed all of Japan's famous seasonal flora in various locations – plum blossoms, camellia, cherry blossoms, peony, azalea, wisteria, iris, hydrangea, morning glory, chrysanthemum, autumn leaves - and photographers usually do their own thing, ignoring each other but surreptitiously competing for the best spot. Then it's lotus time, and the rules change: random people call me or walk over to tell me to follow them, because look, over here, here's a beautiful open flower glowing…

A bellyful of barium at my annual health check

Before my first annual health check in Japan, many years ago, I was happy and healthy. Afterwards I was miserable and as sick as a dog. Blame the barium.
The health check itself – required and paid for by my company – was conducted with meticulous Japanese precision at a clinic in Shinjuku. I was warned about it, and had to confirm a suitable date, four months before I had to go. Two months before my appointment, I received a full kit consisting of a booklet that explained the health check, a long form to complete and mail to the clinic at least two weeks before my appointment, and two mysterious plastic tubes. Everything was in Japanese, but with my Japanese teacher's help, I completed the form and its comprehensive questions about health, diet and exercise. (The Hero took one look at the form and shoved it back at me. "This is woman's stuff." Then he did a double-take, read the section about the barium test and started chuckling evilly.)
Warning: If you're squeam…


Typhoon Ma-on was a non-event in Tokyo. After that anti-climax, the only remaining question is,  "Aaksurulauqsimajjaajunniirasugittailigitsi?"That's Inuktitut. It means, “When will the next change (of weather) be?” If only, oh, if only it could stay as cool as it is today. I've decided the perfect temperature is anything between 22 and 26 °C. Anyway, I found that Inuktitut expression inSpoken Here: Travels Among Threatened LanguagesbyMark Abley.
PS: And I thought agglutination was a headache in Japanese ...

Miscommunicating in Iwate dialect

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend's father, who's from Iwate. He's in his 80s and he speaks a fairly thick Iwate dialect, which is very different from standard Japanese. I was aware of this difference; so aware, in fact, that I ended up over-compensating with some unexpected results.
Iwate is known for folk songs called min'yō. After lunch I asked the old-timer to sing me a song. Which he did. When he tried to explain it to me, we had a severe cultural misunderstanding. I understood it was a song about farmers who travel to the sea to collect salt, but one word stumped me. He kept saying /kaʊ/. First I thought he meant kau, Japanese for "to buy", as in "to buy salt", but then I wondered if he was using an unusual regional word. Here's our conversation:
Me: Hai, wakarimashita, shio o kaimashita. (Yes, I understand, they bought salt.) Otōsan: Iie, iie, /kaʊ/.  (No, no, /kaʊ/. This was followed by a rapid-fire explanation that escaped me.…

Typhoon Ma-on is coming. Hide your belly button.

It really is quiet before a storm: a deep, breathless, all-encompassing silence that is so thick you could float a feather – an ostrich feather – on it. It's so still that it sets your teeth on edge. The scientific explanation probably has to do with electricity and barometric pressure, but it really feels as though the sky is lower and heavier. The primordial nether regions of your brain are screaming non-stop warnings that this is Bad Stuff.
It's difficult to understand this stillness if you've never experienced a typhoon, or more specifically, the few hours before it hits. You know all hell will break loose. You can see it approaching in the thickening black clouds. You can sense it in the first soft breeze, or was it your imagination?, that feels like an ant crawling across the hairs on your forearm. A single leaf trembles briefly, and then … it arrives. Raijin (雷神), god of thunder, cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of celestial war.
Raijin is also called Kaminari-sama …

A foreigner's biggest fear

It's what I've always feared the most: a call from my sister in South Africa. "Mom is in hospital. Congestive heart failure. She's in ICU now, undergoing tests, but her doctor said she should be able to go home in a few days."
Heart failure? Some quick Googling reassured me that failure doesn't meanstop, it meansweaken, but still …
Now starts what I call the foreigner's dance: forwards, backwards, sideways, spin. Go or stay, run or wait, buy a ticket or don't overreact. Jump whenever an email arrives on your mobile phone. Realize that this could continue for a while or end in a wink. Know that you can't respond to every alarm and go home every time – neither your bank account nor your employer would allow that. Worry about expenses and feel guilty about your selfish concerns. Pile on more guilt because your sister has to cope with the logistics of transport, doctors, medicine and caretaking. Accept that whatever you do, it might be the wrong decisio…

A gokiburi ghost story

Once upon a time a spirit followed me home. I'm not entirely sure that it was benevolent, but I suspect we gave each other an equally big fright.
Last year I went to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Parkfor tōrō nagashi,when lanterns are lit and floated on rivers, lakes or the ocean to guide the spirits home during Obon. It’s one of the most beautiful ceremonies I've seen in Japan: simple yet powerful. It's impossible to remain emotionally detached, not if you have a shred of imagination. While priests chanted, the lanterns were released and soon hundreds of lights were dancing across the black water of the pond, with Tokyo's neon-lit skyscrapers in the background.
After the event, still filled with thoughts of spirits and other worlds, I walked home through Taitō. The night was alive with energy and whispers and the gentlest of breezes. You may laugh at me, but there there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The boundary behind the…

Summer's sullen silence

Heat has settled on the city in sullen silence. It slithers off the glass walls and sulks angrily in the narrow alleys. It scowls from rooftops and coils into corners and wraps itself around damp bodies. It clings. It sticks. It suffocates. It isn't even August yet ...
I recently learned two new words that will probably haunt me throughout this summer. An extremely hot day of 35+ degrees is called mōshobi (猛暑日). The three kanji mean fierce/strong/wild, hot and day. So it's a furiously hot day. Then there's entenka (炎天下). The kanji mean fire, heaven and under; in other words, under a blazing sun.
I wonder ifthere are any job openings at the University of Iceland. Average July temperature inReykjavík is 11 degrees. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Tōrō nagashi: the lights that guide the spirits home

Japan is a place that creates memories, and the best ones are not mega-massive extraordinary oh-wow-awesome, but brief intervals that bring a quiet smile. This week I had such a moment as I watched paper lanterns floating down the Chidorigafuchi moat, bobbing on black water underneath a full moon, small flames calling the spirits home for Obon.
There, for a few minutes, I could forget that I live in the middle of a megalopolis, offspring of a cynical rational post-modern deconstructed world. The tectonic plates between realities shifted, and the night was filled with energies that we cannot, and should never attempt to, explain.
Tokyo is currently celebrating Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits. It is believed that the dead return to their birthplaces in this week. Family members clean graves and light fires or paper lanterns to help the spirits to find their way home. The fires that guide the spirits from the graves are called mukaebi, and those that are lit t…

Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Shrine

It's O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, in Tokyo this week. Other parts of Japan celebrate O-Bon in August. Blame the change from the lunar to the solar calendar during the Meiji era for this confusion.
One of the biggest O-Bon festivals in Tokyo is the Mitama Matsuri, Festival of Lights, at Yasukuni Shrine. The festival was inaugurated in 1947 for the consolation of the souls of the nation's war dead, who are invited to celebrate with the living on these evenings. (Mitama 御魂 is an honorific title for the soul of a dead person. The name of the festival is written in hiragana, not kanji, as みたままつり.)
It's a magnificent sight: 30 000 chōchin or paper lanterns line the broad road leading towards the shrine. The name of the person or company who donated a lantern is written on it, and the lanterns form a wall of light in the blue-black sky.
The lower part of the road, where the food stalls are, is usually packed beyond capacity with a Shibuya crowd high on beer and summer heat. Hang…

Awa-odori at the Kappabashi Tanabata Festival

This Japanese guy is hot! I mean that literally. Mind you, he does have rather sexy legs, so I'm not complaining, but I'm actually referring to real body temperature.
When I saw him for the first time in 2010, I dubbed him The Karate Kid for his ability to balance on one leg. He did it a lot more gracefully than Ralph Macchio ever did (can't comment on Jaden Smith; don't want to see the remake). One year later, and I'm happy to report that he hasn't lost his moves. Neither has the rest of his ren or dance troup: they danced up a sweat storm at the Kappabashi Tanabata Festival despite a blazing heat that turned festival-goers into limp, soggy, sluggish wrecks.

This street dance, performed throughout Japan in summer, is called awa-odori. Its origin is the Bon-odori, a dance performed during Obon or the Festival of the Dead, but awa-odori is a lot more energetic. It differs from other traditional dances in one important aspect: dancers keep their hands above their …