Skip to main content

The day I turned into an old woman

I'm that rarest of creatures – a woman who doesn't like shopping – but recently the sorry state of my office clothes forced me …

Wait. Let me qualify that statement. I don't like shopping for clothes. Books? Different story altogether. I lament the fact that bookshops don't have shopping trolleys for their customers.

We continue. I've had to admit that maybe I need more than one black skirt, and that perchance you can't fool people into believing that black jeans are actually tailored pants. I mentioned in a conversation with a friend that I needed office clothes. She promptly invited me to go shopping with her in Yokohama.

So that's what we did, in the station area, on a Sunday, just before Christmas. Japan has a too low birth rate? Really? Really?! I felt like that poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Struggled the two brave women into the teeming masses of millions.

I wanted to escape to a library within 5 minutes of entering the underground shopping arcade called The Diamond, but my friend Miho ruthlessly dragged me ever onwards.

The advantage of buying clothes in Japan is that everything fits me. The disadvantage of buying clothes in Japan is that there is a universe of difference between what Japanese women like to wear and what I like to wear. You see, I believe that mini-skirts and hot pants went out of fashion in the 1960s and should, please!, remain out of fashion. If you feel absolutely compelled to wear it, you should preferably be younger than 20, and my 20th birthday is but a foggy memory.

So then. I don't like short pencil skirts. I prefer mid-calf skirts. My favourite style, as unpractical as it may be, is the 1947 Christian Dior New Look silhouette: a tightly fitted jacket, a cinched waist and a flaring skirt. I would never wear it myself – I love my Levi's too much – but oh, it's gorgeous to look at. This odd, old-fashioned belief complicates shopping in Japan. 

Miho took me to several shops. I started sounding like an old LP record that got stuck: "It's too short!"

Finally Miho stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of seething hordes of frenetic shoppers and observed me with a shrewd, calculating look.

"You want long skirt? OK, we go shop for senior person," she instructed in English.

"I'm not senior person!" I protested.

May the gods have mercy on my soul, but I've started speaking Japanese English. I drop articles with abandon; I blithely ignore the singular s; I form questions not by changing the word order, but by tucking a question mark at the end of a declarative sentence.

"You're not senior person, but you want senior skirt!" she said, crossly.

"I don't want senior skirt! I want long skirt!"

"Then we must go senior shop. This way."

So we went to Noge Mariya, where I happily bought a long woollen skirt with knife pleats after I finally proved to the shop assistant that not all foreign women are big. I suspect her thoughts proceeded as follows: foreign woman = tall + big hips = large size. Stereotype trumped empirical evidence. She gave me a skirt with a 66 cm waist to try on, and then as an afterthought also a 71 cm waist.

"Try both," she said. 

"It's too big," I said.

"It's the correct size," she said.

"It's too big," the LP record got stuck again.

"Try the 71 cm waist first," she said.

You have two options in a situation like this: throw a tantrum or play along. I took the skirt, put it on, walked out of the fitting room and called the shop assistant. She goggled at me. "Eeeeh! Gomen, ne! Eeeeh!" Then she fetched me a 61 cm waist. It was a bit loose but I don't like tight clothes, so I bought it.

"I'm Japan-sized," I admonished the shop assistant. "Eeeeh! Gomen, ne! Eeeeh!" she repeated. Silly old biddy.

Yes, she was old. She mos works in a senior shop.

I really have to teach you that Afrikaans word mos. It's used in a sentence that announces an obvious, self-evident truth. It's roughly equivalent to "indeed" or "as you know", and it has the same role as tag questions in English. When I say that she mos works in a senior shop, what I really mean is: "Well, of course she's old, isn't she, because I've already told you that it's a shop for old women, so the chances are pretty good that the shop assistant will be mature as well, use your common sense, she's hardly going to be sweet 16, is she, so stop asking stupid questions and shut up and let me finish my story."

After this successful purchase we had a lovely lunch at a restaurant called Ottimo Seafood Garden in the Lumine centre. A pleasant surprise awaited me at Ottimo: they served a South African bubbly called Villiera Tradition Rosé Brut NV. Look, 1995 Krug Clos d'Ambonnay it's not, but it's a satisfying, easy-to-drink, inexpensive sparkling wine: pink but dry and not overly sweet, with just enough acidity to balance the fruitiness.

So, all in all, a good day. I found a nice skirt that wasn't expensive, I had a taste of home and then I popped into Yurindo Books to recover from the trauma of old age. That's mos happiness.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Dear Dad, this one's for you

Dear Dad,

You would've been 100 years old today. I didn't do anything lawyerly on your birthday, but ... I've never told you ... but three years ago, when I was on holiday in the United Kingdom, I spent a day in the Temple area of London, visiting the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice. It was so easy to imagine you there. I would've enjoyed your company, and I wish we could've popped into a pub to talk. Or argue. Probably. Happy century, Dad. I hope you still have tennis, and rugby, and books, and a veld for a walk.

Miss you!

The daughter who was born last

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.