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…
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…
I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's
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
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…
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. C…
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!
"I can't do this
anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung,
but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid
Android. He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint
as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that
saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen
of goodwill. Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural
job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may
never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours.
If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji
whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping. I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that
university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague,
I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.
Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready? August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours
ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this
week. Since otherworldly beings are
wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan. Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching
apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a
slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're
going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder,
betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan. It's called
Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談),
and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a
woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real
event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after
their divorce, various misfortunes be…
I'm floundering. I
don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from
this collection below? The decapitated
head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the
vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called
the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara.
The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some
extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living
breathing pony.Birds protect it
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?
Why Kanda Myōjin? Let's be boring
and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking
distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda,
blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed
How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk
long this road …
over this pass …
wearing straw sandals?!
Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō
Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.
It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so
much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal:
following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and
high-speed railways, but you can still walk
along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and
Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea
levels should warn you that it's a steep route. I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the
old Tōkaidō, and returned along…