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Showing posts from August, 2011

If the gods can't save you, try the AED ...

What in Amaterasu-ōmikami's name is an automated external defibrillator doing at a tiny neighbourhood shrine? I know there are many old people around here, but ... huh? I haven't seen an AED at any of the other shrines and temples– and there are dozens– in this area. The irony is that this particular shrine is locked most of the time to prevent Taitō's homeless from gatecrashing the gods. It's only open for an hour in the morning and on special Shinto dates. If you're planning a heart attack, may I therefore suggest that you coordinate it with the shrine's schedule?

Is it possible to lose your mother tongue?

If you stop speaking your mother tongue, do you lose that ability completely?

I was chatting via the internet with my friend Vox, who lives in Stellenbosch in South Africa, about Hurricane Irene.
"What is hurricane in Afrikaans?" I wondered. "Orkaan," answered Vox. "What? What a silly word. Never heard of it," I replied. "It's orkaan," repeated Vox patiently. Then he continued: "Do you realize that the phrase 'my penis is in my hand' is written exactly the same in both English and Afrikaans?" (I have strange friends. That's why I love them.)
He succeeded in distracting my attention from hurricanes to a somewhat smaller topic, and I forgot that I'd forgotten the word, but a few hours later a thought suddenly popped into my head: Die Held laat 'n kamer gou-gou lyk asof 'n orkaan dit getref het. (When The Hero enters a room, it soon looks as if a hurricane has hit it.) I did know the word; I simply hadn't rememb…

The colour of sooty bamboo with a wisp of willow

The current blog colours are "willow sooty bamboo" ( 柳煤竹, yanagi-susu-take) for the background and "black green" (黒緑, kuro-midori) for the titles. Still greenish for summer, but I'm gradually returning to my beloved blue-grays. Though, come to think of it, I'll have to try yellow, red and brown in autumn. A brown blog?  Hmmm. 

Gon, the Little Fox (ごんぎつね)

I wrote about a recent visit to the Jinbōchō Book House here, but I've decided there's a book that justifies its own post. If you only buy one Japanese children's book in your life, buy Nankichi Niimi's Gon, the Little Fox (ごんぎつね, Gongitsune), but be warned that unlike most Western children's books, this one doesn't have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, if it doesn't make you bawl like a baby, you're an evil human being.

It's the story of a little fox that causes all kinds of mischief, steals food from a farmer, feels guilty about it, returns with a gift of food, and … is shot by the farmer. It was also made into a movie. The video I've embedded is the last part of the movie, but if I were you, I'd watch it all. It's in Japanese but you'll follow it easily if you read this English summary on Wikipedia. I've also chosen the last part because it contains the beautiful theme song by Yuki Katsuragi. It's called 心からイエスタディ (Koko…

Tokyo's fireworks festivals

Is it my imagination or was last night's Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai an anti-climax? I watched it from home – this apartment is on the 11th floor and it gives you a good view of both venues – but I was dreadfully disappointed. Last year it was a spectacular 90-minute display of non-stop light, colour and noise; this year it was a sporadic, half-hearted attempt. It started late. We had to sit through several long interruptions. There was no dramatic finale.

Every year many shitamachi residents watch from their balconies and rooftops. Usually you can hear a collective "aaah!" floating upwards when there's a particularly dazzling display, and occasionally the entire neighbourhood bursts into spontaneous applause. This year? Nothing. I caught myself watching the helicopters circling in the sky instead of the fireworks. I also noticed that many neighbours left their observation posts halfway through the event, as if they'd lost interest.
I think the best fireworks festival…

A sanctuary amongst books

August has been a rough month with a mother whose health is failing, rocketing frail care expenses and a looming budget deficit that makes Japan's national debt look like a small change trifle. I briefly considered chocolate as an anaesthetic, but my firmly established migraine objected. There was only one solution: I had to visit my spiritual sanctuary in Tokyo, Kitazawa Books (北沢書店) in Jinbōchō, on the second floor of Jinbōchō Book House.

I buy most of my books at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku, but Kitazawa is where I go to restore my sanity. It sells used and antique books, mostly English, but also Dutch, German and French. It's very quiet, with real wooden shelves, muted lighting and an appropriately solemn atmosphere. This is, after all, a place of worship. The two regular staff members are adorable: they're a Ritalin version of Dr Emmett Brown, complete with fuzzy hair and a subdued but still feverish gleam of devotion in their eyes, in other words, total book boffins.
I went…

Ayu fishing in Niigata

Summer means ayu. That's when you catch it and that's when you eat it. An ayu is a small river trout that's indigenous to Japan and is famed for its sweet flesh. It's written 鮎 in Japanese; its scientific name isPlecoglossus altivelis. It can be caught in three different but equally traditional ways: using a cormorant, building a small weir (簗 yana) of wood and stones or using another live fish. The latter technique is called ayu no tomozuri (鮎の友釣り) or ayu decoy.
Ayu are extremely territorial: if they see another fish in their area, they will immediately attack it and try to drive it away. Fishermen exploit this by attaching hooks to a live fish (through its gills) and releasing it in a river. When other fish attack this live bait, they get hooked and you have your lunch. This website explains it in pictures.
When you go fishing in Niigata in summer, you see ayu fishermen everywhere. If you're lucky, they might invite you to join them for an ayu barbecue: just skewer…

Massive nuclear reactors and small shrines

Kashiwazaki is a town in Niigata that's probably best known for the nearby Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear generating station in the world (by net electrical power). When it's going full blast. Which it hasn't since the 2007 Chūetsu Earthquake, which caused radio-active gases and a small amount of water from the spent fuel pool to leak from the plant. 

The incident damaged tourism in the area very badly, but it's a beautiful region with interesting sites like the old village Kayabuki-No-Sato.
The town lies on the Nihonkai, the Japan Sea. I've included a few pictures of a very hazy sea on a very hot day in August, a quirky sightseeing spot called Lover (sic) Point and a small shrine that's built in the ocean.

Thoughts on photographing people

Last week I was roped into taking photos at a work-related party. I'm not a particularly good photographer and I'm a hopeless social photographer – I prefer landscapes – but I knew I'd take better photos with my DSLR than other partygoers would take with their mobile phones, so I agreed.
Before I continue, I should confess that I'm not a party animal. I'm an asocial hermit who'd rather spend an evening ensconced in a book than quaffing beers and making small talk. A small get-together with a few friends, great. A noisy shindig with random strangers, ugh. The bigger the bash, the more awkward I get. If you force me to attend a social function, I usually hide behind the nearest pot plant and observe my fellow humans. I love watching people almost as much as I love reading.
So there I was, thrown into the fray, wondering how soon I'd be able to leave. That's when I discovered that a camera is much better than a pot plant. You can go anywhere, intrude everywh…

Those tiny pesky bugs that live in tatami

It's summer? You're itching? Tiny, red, angry-looking blisters? Hello, dani! 

Dani, tiny bugs that live in tatami, are unique to Japan. They thrive in temperatures between 25-30 degrees Celsius, humidity between 60-80% and poor ventilation, in other words, they adore Japan's summer. They multiply rapidly when the rainy season starts and then frolic merrily until autumn arrives. Their bites are apparently very common. You can get rid of them with pesticides, constant vacuuming and regular airing, but they're a fairly fierce foe. The most popular weapon against them is an aerosol spray with a small needle that is inserted into a tatami mat at evenly spaced points, each point receiving a 15-20 second injection.
Since there's no tatami in my apartment, I don't worry about dani, but I have to battle another summer problem: mildew. We love steamy baths in Japan, so you really have to watch your bathroom very carefully, even in a modern building with built-in air vents …

The best bread in Tokyo

I've died and gone to heaven, surrounded by voluptuous loaves of fragrant bread. This is real bread. Not a conbini concoction created in a chemical factory, or that fluffy French stuff sold at countless patisseries in Tokyo. I don't want that. I want farm-style goodness instead of faux sandwiches and chichi fashion. Rye bread as big as a pillow. Five grains bread chewy enough to wear down your jaw bone. Spelt bread as yummy as it gets.
If you agree with me, I recommend the bakery Le Pain Quotidien in Shiba-Koen near the Prince Hotel Tokyo. They opened earlier this year. All their breads are handmade by artisans, and that means real yeast, a very slow rising process and no artificial agents. They also sell desserts, jams and olive oils; and you can eat in their restaurant at their "communal table".
Think it's too good to be true? It is. You may not break a tooth on the grains, but you'll probably choke on the price. A large five grains bread is ¥2800. The two ze…

I have a Fuji on my forehead!

This week, while I was talking to a Japanese woman, I pushed my fringe from my forehead and tried to make it stay on top of my head. It was hot and I was trying to cool down, but my action had unexpected results.
"Eeeh! Fujibitai!" she exclaimed, pointing at my head.  "What's that?" I asked. I had no idea what she was talking about. "Look, look, your head!" "What's wrong with my head?" I asked, alarmed.  "No, no, your hair!" "Heh?" "Look!" she said, and drew an M on a piece of paper. "Your hair looks like this. Fujibitai! Sugoi!"
Aha. Fujibitai means "Fuji forehead", in other words, a widow's peak. The Japanese believe that this distinct point in your hairline resembles Fuji, hence its Japanese name. Forehead is hitai 額, but when it's combined with another word, the h is pronounced as b. Fujibitai is written 富士額.
During the Edo era, a Fujibitai was regarded as one of the qualities of a bea…

Mōshobi - a very hot day when the sky glowers

Today will be 35 degrees Celsius in Tokyo. Such a hot day is called a mōshobi (猛暑日), which means a fiercely hot day.
My personal planetarium showed early signs that it would be a scorcher: it shimmered in a hazy, sullen-looking sky. A morning like this reminds me of harmattan, a West African trade wind that blows from November to March, filling the air with fine dust particles that it picks up in the Sahara Desert. It's a cool wind, but it also turns the sky into an opaque, blurry, ill-tempered scowl.
Air conditioners will be going full blast today. Let's hope Tepco can cope.

The horrors of a heat rash + an air con rant

It's August. It's hot. It's miserable.
I've developed a familiar Tokyo ailment: asemo (汗疹) or heat rash. Ase (汗) means sweat, so it can also be called a sweat rash. Incidentally, I've seen 汗疹 transcribed as kanshin. Same meaning, different pronunciation.
Well. I think it's a heat rash. It could be measles, but that's unlikely, since I had it as a child. It could be an exotic African virus that's been mutating in my body for several years, but as they say, when you hear the sound of hoof beats, look for the horse before you look for the zebra. Whoever said that never lived in Africa, but we're in Japan now, so ... I think it's a heat rash.
It's a nasty-looking red rash that itches like mad and is prevalent in those areas where the sun never shines. A bit of Googling revealed that it's a common problem in Japan in summer, thanks to the high humidity. There isn't any cure. You can try ointments or talc, but the only real solution is to coo…

The colour of insects

Summer means insects. That's why my blog's new colour scheme is summer insect green (夏虫色, natsu-mushi-iro) and a shade that roughly means "opaque insect colour" (虫襖, mushi-ao). As I've mentioned before, green is not my favourite blog colour, but I can't help but love these subtle, complex tones.

Niigata's bright light rice

The best rice in Japan is produced in Niigata, specifically the Uonuma area. It's also one of the most expensive rice varieties in the world. It's called koshihikari, written 越光 in Japanese. Koshi  越 is the old name of this area, and hikari 光 means light. Hence: the light of Koshi. 
I've read that some people have started stockpiling rice from last year, since they're worried that this year's crop might have high radiation levels. Me? I'd be very happy to eat the light of Koshi, 2011 vintage, that's ripening in the fierce summer heat as I write this.

All these photos were taken near Uonuma. Click on a photo to see a bigger version.
PS: Bright light rice? Now there's a tongue twister.

Japan's cicadas - loud enough to split rocks

They should irritate me immensely. They're noisy, they're everywhere and they have zero sympathy for a pounding heat-induced headache. They're not cute and they drop their clothes on the floor and the males are totally one-track minded. Yet they're irresistible, and summer wouldn't be summer without them.

Cicadas. They're called semi (蝉) in Japanese; sonbesie ("little sun animal") in Afrikaans. They're ubiquitous in Africa, but I didn't develop an interest in them until I came to Japan and realized what a wide-ranging repertoire these mini-Pavarottis have. Perhaps I never noticed them in South Africa when I was surrounded by "very many nature", in the immortal words of my students, but they're so unexpected in a big city that I'm more aware of them.
That explanation doesn't make much sense, does it? Let's continue.

Wikipedia says an adult male cicada can produce sounds up to 120 dB, "which is technically loud enou…

The miseries of the great outdoors

One of the joys of summer is the great outdoors. One of the miseries of summer is the great outdoors. Especially the creepy crawlies.
I'm convinced Africa's armour-plated monsters are the worst, but the members of Familia Japonica are not to be sneered at. They're a nasty nuisance, especially during hiking excursions in the mountains. Stand in a river in Japan's sodden summer heat and you’re soon surrounded by mosquitoes, gnats and midges, all determined to turn you into tabehodai (as much as you can eat). Worst of all is the dreaded black fly, which I wrote about here.
I've tried various Japanese insect repellents, but they remind me of Japanese deodorants: not particularly powerful. I prefer a South African doepa (magic potion) called Tabard. It's basically diethyltoluamide, or DEET, which is used in a thousand similar products, but I swear on my entire book collection that Tabard is better. I also like it because it's not sticky and it's very easy …

The Japanese slave in South Africa

A Japanese slave in South Africa? It cannot be proven beyond any doubt, but it's possible.
Here's the story. South Africa – or rather the old Cape Colony – was built with the help of slaves captured by the Dutch East India Company and taken to the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope (modern-day Cape Town).
These slaves were mostly from the Indian Ocean, which was the main trading domain of the Dutch East India Company. Whereas the United States had mainly black slaves, the Dutch slave colony was a cosmopolitan collection that could be divided in four equal parts: Africa, Madagascar, the Indian sub-continent and the East Indies.
If you look at the Cape's old records, you'll find references to a mysterious man called Anthonij van Bengal de Later van Japan. It is possible that he was born in Japan and taken to the Dutch base Dejima near Nagasaki in the 1600s. There he became the slave of a man called Zacharias Wagenaar, who worked at Dejima from 1656 to 1659. When Wa…

The colour of summer

I haven't changed my blog colour for a long time, so here we go: I've used "willow colour" (柳色, yanagi-iro) for the background and "thousand years green" (千歳緑, chitose-midori) for the titles. I happen to think green isn't the best colour for a blog, but it's mid-summer, so what the heck.

Wisdom from a tree

If you can't get through it, go around it.

The brain-obliterating month of August

Today it's August 1st, the start of the energy-sapping, spirit-draining, feet-killing, backbone-demolishing, courage-shattering, hope-destroying, brain-obliterating month of ruthless, savage, searing heat. We've been lucky so far: typhoons and heavy rain have given us remarkably cool weather. It cannot last.
Soon everybody's standard greeting will be not hallo, but a reference to the heat. "Atsui desu ne!" ("It's hot, isn't it?") When summer is over, some inexplicable communication via osmosis takes place and suddenly, without warning and for no apparent reason, everybody says, "Samui desu ne!" ("It's cold, isn't it?") Please note that it's either very hot or very cold, that this amazing transition takes place overnight, and that everybody changes at exactly the same moment like a flock of birds swerving in the same direction. One day it's "atsui" at 22 degrees and the next day it's "samui&qu…