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Showing posts from July, 2012

Fireworks at Tokyo Sky Tree

When the fireworks start, you know ... now it's really summer.

Here's a very amateurish video of the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival near Tokyo Sky Tree. If you don't want to watch the full two minutes, fast forward to 1:05 to hear the entire shitamachi give a collective gasp when there's a particularly spectacular explosion. You could hear the whole neighbourhood go "aaah!" because everybody was standing on balconies, rooftops and stairways. There we were, all of us children, staring in awe as the sky exploded into a thousand fiery flowers. (The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi, flowers of fire.)

The crowds started gathering towards late afternoon, and women in butterfly-coloured yukata could be seen everywhere in the streets. I fled upwards, grabbed my camera, poured a glass of champagne and grinned like an idiot for the next 90 minutes. Yes, champagne, not Pepsi Salty Watermelon. One has to maintain one's standards.

PS: I wrote in more detail about …

Nuclear protesters, you have to learn how to toyi-toyi!

Africa isn't known for its civil obedience: it can claim many revolutions, coups d'état and brutal civil wars. My own country, South Africa, didn't get rid of a white nationalist government by following rules. I myself belonged to a forbidden student union when I was at university, published a few controversial articles in a student newspaper and got thrown in jail, but that's another story for another day.
Protests aren't pretty, and in Africa they often end in bloodshed. I'll add a scene from a movie calledStander, depicting aprotestin 1970s South Africa against Afrikaans in high schools (Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressors) at the end of this post. 
So when I hear "protest", I think of toyi-toyi, a military-style song/dance/march routine. These days toyi-toyi gatherings aren't stopped with guns anymore, but they still happen regularly. I'll add a second video that teaches you how to toyi-toyi.
I had to give a fairly long intro…

I thought Africa knew about drums. Then I played taiko.

I've always known about biceps. They are those particularly attractive gibbosities (go on, look it up) on male upper arms, and they work quite hard if you're a bookshop assistant, as I was, and have to carry lots of books. What I didn't know is that they rather like hanging from your shoulders, and that they get extremely contumacious (go on, look it up) when you not only force them in the opposite direction, but also expect them to beat the living daylights* out of a drum while they're up there.
* I'm trying to be polite, but it would be more appropriate to say you're beating the crap out of a drum. Albeit with great discipline.
I'm talking about taiko (太鼓) or Japanese drums. Ensemble drumming, called kumi-daiko, has become quite popular in Japan, and as an African I regarded it as my cultural duty to attend a kumi-daiko class. I mean, Africa = drums = cross-beats, right?
Yes. Well. There are African drums, and there are Japanese drums, and they are not the s…

Pepsi Salty Watermelon review

Pepsi releases a special flavor in Japan every summer. This year it's Salty Watermelon. Don't grimace: it's not half as bad as it sounds.
I tried some this morning and I was pleasantly surprised. These special flavours usually have little resemblance to their namesakes, but this one really tastes a bit salty and a bit watermelonish. It's not too sweet, which is good, and it doesn't taste too chemical … at least not until you're halfway through the bottle. Would I buy it again? Probably not, but I'd happily drink it if nothing else were available.

Since I wrote this review mainly for Lina, just because she asked me so nicely, I pretended to be an art director and poured some into a … champagne glass! Oh, why not, it does look a bit like rosé. Then I tried to get a photo of the glass, the morning sun and Tokyo Sky Tree (also for Lina!), but that was less successful because it was shot into the sunlight. Never mind. I had fun.

I hope the neighbours didn't see…

How the shitamachi stays cool in summer

Want to stay cool in summer without using air conditioning? Two possibilities: sudare and green curtains.
Sudare (すだれ) are screens made from bamboo or reeds, traditionally used instead of sliding doors or other partitions to provide a better flow of air. It's not entirely clear what their origin is, but they've been used for many centuries: they're mentioned, for example, in the Kagerō Nikki, a noblewoman's diary which chronicles life in the Heian era.
Way back then sudare were used not only to cool down the temperature, but also to protect a lady's modesty. (Or to cool down her suitor's ardour?) When a noblewoman talked to a man who was not from her immediate family, she was shielded from him by a bamboo screen. She could lift the screen if she so wanted, but if he were to do it, it would be a terrible breach of etiquette.

Though they were used in the houses of the nobility in those early days, they only became popular among the common people about 300 years ago.…

How I reduced Japan's 12 seasons to 2

It's summer. Well, if you want to be pedantic, not today. Today it's blessedly cool in Tokyo.
However, it's late July, almost August, and that means it's time to kvetch about summer, heat, humidity, Japan's seasons, Japan's quirky habit of asking you whether you also have four seasons in your country and Japan's tendency to mutter atsui atsui atsui non-stop until the end of September. Then it turns into samui samui samui overnight. It's never warm or cool. It's always hot or cold.

Let me make it very clear: Japan does not have four seasons. Bah, humbug. I've had lots of fun compiling various lists of Japan's seasons. Or rather, Tokyo's seasons.
First attempt: six seasons Cherry blossomsHot and rainyBloody impossibly hot and humidAbsolutely ghastly appallingly monstrously horrendously hot and humidNice for one monthCold, gray and miserable
Second attempt: eleven seasons Cherry blossomsOpen windows part IHot and rainyVery hot and humidAbhorrentl…

Kyoto: a tiny rock garden called Tōtekiko

This is a short post just to get back on track. Two weeks ago I announced that July would be Kyoto month on this blog. Duh. I forgot that July is one of the busiest and most interesting months in Tokyo, so Kyoto had to take a backseat while I pontificated forth about my beloved shitamachi's charms.

Those selfsame charms are now under assault by summer, and that means I'm less enamoured with life in the concrete jungle. Not that Kyoto is any better; as a matter of fact, I understand it can be even hotter than Tokyo, because it's situated in a valley that traps heat.
Anyway. We continue our Kyoto series with another garden at Ryōgen-in, called Tōtekiko (東滴壺), designed by Nabeshima Gakushō in 1958. It's about four square meters, it has only five rocks and it's said to be the smallest rock garden in Japan. (I assume it's the smallest "official" garden. I've seen plenty that are tinier.)

I've read different explanations of its Zen symbolism: some sour…

Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Jinja, 2012

Last night I went to the Mitama Matsuri, the festival of the lights, at Yasukuni Jinja. (If you want to go, you have one last chance tonight.) I wrote about the festival here, so this post will focus on photos. I deliberately avoided the impossibly crowded main avenue, despite the fact that it's a spectacular sight, and concentrated on the quieter areas around the main shrine itself. If you know your shrines - and that's one thing this nomad can claim without lying too much - you know where you can squeeze past the smaller Spirit-Pacifying Shrine and find a quiet spot without too many people ...

... where you can enjoy the trees, the lights and a surprisingly profound silence - given the fact that it's a festival - entirely on your own. The point of a festival is to celebrate with others, but I wanted a quiet moment with the spirits, and that's what I got.