Wednesday 31 May 2017

Sticky, Sultry, Humid Japan: Coming Soon

Early summer (shoka =初夏) is a lovely cool season in Japan; today was a perfect 26℃ with a cool breeze blowing and beautiful blue skies. But this is the calm before the storm  - literally - since the rainy season, which started in Okinawa on May 13th, will see a lot of rainy days in Tokyo from early June for four or five weeks.

A picture of shikke tori packs whcih soak up moisture on sale outside a pharmacy
Shikke tori packs which soak up moisture on sale now!
The worst thing though is not so much the rain - it doesn't rain every day by any means - but the humidity. Whereas the Japanese winter is very dry, the Japanese summer, especially the rainy season, is very damp and sticky. The average humidity level (shitsudo =湿度) in January in Tokyo is around 50% while the average for July is close to 80%. Consequently, a humidifier (kashitsuki =加湿器)is great for skin and avoiding sore throats during the winter while a de-humidifier or joshitsuki (除湿機) is indispensable in the summer (most air conditioners in Japan also have a "dry" joshitsu function). The former adds (加) moisture (湿) to the air while the latter removes (除) moisture (湿)from the air.  Small talk about the weather in summer - which the Japanese love almost as much as the British - will typically include phrases that describe the climate as jime-jime (damp/clammy) or mushi-atsui (humid/sultry), the latter combining the kanji for steam and hot (蒸し暑い).

If you're worried about mouldy futons, damp shoes, and clothes never drying but concerned about your electricity bill, help is at hand: small plastic cartons called shikke tori (しっけとり=湿気とり) which absorb moisture can be picked up very cheaply at pharmacies (see picture above) and placed in closets and living spaces. An added bonus is that they usually absorb bad smells as well!

Monday 29 May 2017

Million Yen Melons in Early Summer

A whole Quincy melon with a QR code sticker
A Quincy Melon with QR Code to check the sugar content

Japanese tend to be very conscious of the changing of the seasons and seasonal food - at least compared to the British - and produce in supermarkets does seem to change a lot depending on the time of year. Now is early summer or shoka (初夏), the breezy, warm, and very comfortable period before the rainy season. One of the foods you're likely to see more and more of in the supermarket are melons.

The picture on the right shows a Quincy Melon (クインシーメロン) from the Village of Asahi in Ibaraki Prefecture, apparently Japan's leading melon producer. The Quincy Melon has juicy orange flesh, is high in beta carotene, and is beautifully sweet. In fact, one can check the exact sugar content (tōdo=糖度 - the first kanji is the in satō which is the Japanese word for sugar) of this particular melon by scanning the QR code on the melon (pictured). This brings up the screen below showing the sugar content (15.1%), the date it was harvested or scanned, and the name of the farmer, as well as information on how to know when it is just ripe for eating and how to store and eat it. In terms of price, this melon cost ¥721 (£5/$6) which is actually quite reasonable: last week saw a pair of Yubari melons sell for ¥1.5 million in the annual auction which marks the arrival of early summer in Hokkaido - half the price of last year's record high of ¥3 million (£21,000/$27,000)!

Thursday 25 May 2017

Bites, Stings, and Fearsome Bees

A dead over 4cm long giant Asian hornet
A (hopefully dead) suzume-bachi or giant Asian hornet
The weather has turned much warmer these past few days - Sunday hit a high of 27 degrees - and the summery weather has seen the emergence of bees. Bee in Japanese is hachi (蜂) while honey is hachi-mitsu (literally bee nectar). While the honey-bee (mitsu-bachi) is pretty harmless, a sting from the fearsome suzume-bachi (スズメ蜂), known in English as the yellow-jacket or Asian/Japanese giant hornet, can be very painful. Acutally, while their size is fearsome - 4 or 5 cm long with a 6mm stinger (see picture right) - even suzume-bachi are not particularly aggresive, certainly not compared to the British wasp, and will only attack if their nest is threatened.

The sign below warns walkers to be careful (chūi =注意) of these bees. It advises backing off slowly if one hears the hum (būn) of buzzing wings and advises against brushing them off with your hand (te de harau =手で払う). It also warns against going into the bushes (yabu)!?!

 In terms of vocabulary, animal stings and bites are pretty similar to English: the verb sasu (刺す)meaning to pierce, stab, or prick is used to describe bee and jellyfish stings, though it is also used for mosquitoes where English would use "bite." "Suck" is also used in Japanese to describe mosquito bites (as in "I was sucked by a mosquito"). Fleas, ticks, spiders, and snakes are also the same as English using "bite" (kamu or 噛む in Japanese). One rather interesting difference though is for inanimate objects, such as nettles and rose thorns. Whereas in English one would say "I was stung by a nettle" or "I was pricked by a rose", this would be strange in Japanese since logic dictates that this is not an intentional action. Instead, the Japanese would say a rose thorn or nettle hair pricked/stung them. In the same way, Japanese would say they were stung by the hair of a caterpillar rather than a caterpillar stung them (again on the very logical premise that the caterpillar didn't sting the victim on purpose!). These differences are summarised in the table below. 

Table showing the Similarities and Differences in the words used to describe bites and stings in Japanese and English

Tuesday 23 May 2017

The Mystery of the tiny Buddha (Jizō)

Walking down the Kodaira Green Road the other day, I discovered a tiny Buddha (Ksitigarbha) statue, right (called Jizō or Ojizō-sama in Japanese) hidden in a crevice at the base of a large tree (shown left). In Japan, Jizō statues are rather a common sight on roadsides, mountain paths, temple grounds, or graveyards. Since they are traditionally seen as the guardian of children, in particular children who died before their parents (including stillborn, miscarried, or aborted children), they are often decorated with red bibs and surrounded by offerings of children's toys or sweets. The picture below shows a group of Jizō wearing such garb on Mount Takao (rather mysteriously arranged behind a line of the Seven Lucky Gods or shichifukujin =七福神). In the case of the "tiny Buddha", candies and small flowers, such as daisies and dandelions, have been placed next to the figurine by passers-by who have noticed the statue.

The tree itself is a rather special one, one of a hundred trees selected as an "old tree of historical interest" (meiboku =名木) to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Kodaira City (see plaque left). These are listed on two wonderful maps available here. This specific tree (No. 3) is a Konara-oak which was apparenty chosen because the oak is the symbol of the city and also because it is a giant tree (kyoboku =巨木) and an old tree (koboku =古木). As discussed in an earlier post, old trees are often considered to house spirits which might provide a clue to the reason for the Buddha's presence? If any readers can shed any light on the mystery of the tiny figure, I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday 21 May 2017

Bentō Lunchboxes, School Lunch, and the Gendered Division of Labour

The bentō (弁当) or lunchbox is a familiar word both inside and outside Japan. In Japan, it usually contains rice with a variety of small compartmentalised side-dishes (okazu = おかず) such as meat, fish, pickles, or vegetables which may be eaten warm or cold. The picture below right shows a typical bentō shop which promotes "one coin" (ワンコイン) lunchboxes (advertised left), that is lunchboxes for ¥500.

At the vast majority of public elementary and junior high schools (as well as many kindergartens) lunch, known as kyūshoku (給食) - literally "gifted" or "granted" food - is provided. This is typically shuttled in from an outside factory to each school though some municipalities (like Kodaira) prepare the meals in the schools themselves. Students will take it in turns to be the kyūshoku tōban, that is the person who brings the lunch to the classroom and dishes it out to their classmates (usually decked out in smock and hat). Generally, students will take their lunch (with milk) back to their table and wait until everyone has their meal before starting. The teacher usually eats with the students too. Many private schools, however, and all high schools will not have kyūshoku so a bentō has to be prepared at home (again, usually by the mother) or (for high-schoolers only) a cafeteria or convenience store lunch may be an option.

Whether a school has kyūshoku or not can be a key point for a busy working mother for whom preparing a bentō each morning can be a thankless task that requires getting up early and producing a lunchbox that is both nutritious and will stand up to the scrutiny of teachers, classmates, and even other parents. Indeed, for some parents, making the perfect bentō can be a point of pride and bentō pictures are a mainstay on social media. Pressure to make a kyaraben or character bentō, a lunchbox featuring a popular cartoon character (such as Hello Kitty or Pikachu) or perhaps an animal (pandas are popular), partly for the purpose of encouraging a fussy child to eat, can put extra pressure on already over-worked mums. Japanese Cookpad has over 30,000 recipes for kyaraben.

Click to preview on amazon
For an academic analysis of the bentō , see chapter 4 in Anne Allison's Permitted and Prohibited Desires (2000) titled, "Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus." In this chapter, she describes how the social pressure on mothers to prepare bentōs and perform other domestic and family work perpetuates the gendered division of labour that effectively limits women to low-paying, part-time jobs.

Thursday 18 May 2017

Dandelions, Tampopo, and Noodles

A yellow Kantō-Tampopo showing the tightly closed ring of leaves under the flowerhead
Kantō-Tampopo found in Japan in the spring
I was recently asked by a Japanese if we had dandelions in the UK and certainly we do. The picture on the left shows a close-up of a local dandelion which has the delightful name of tampopo in Japanese. Tampopo is the child's word for a small hand-drum (tsuzumi) and came to be the general word for the flower during the Edo period. On a recent visit to Sayama Park in Higashiyama City, I learned an interesting difference between the Japanese and Western versions from the park pamphlet. Two kinds of dandelion are illustrated in the pamphlet (below): Kantō-Tampopo (Taraxacum platycarpum or Korean dandelion common in the spring months) and the Seiyō-Tampopo (Taraxacum officinale or common dandelion - literally Western dandelion - seen in Japan in the summer). The illustration in the pamphlet highlights the fact that on the former the ring of leaves under the flower-head is tightly closed (tojiteimasu = 閉じています), while on the latter they are turned downwards/bent backwards (sorikaeteimasu = そり返っています, literally "thrown back", as in to throw back the head, shoulders etc).

As a final aside, one of the all time classic Japanese films is also called Tampopo (1985). Directed by the legendary director Itami Juzo, it is difficult to categorise but is basically a comedy not about flowers but (Japanese) food, especially ramen (Chinese noodles). Tampopo is the name of the female noodle restaurant owner. The film was restored and re-released last year in spectacular 4K - check out the trailer here.

An illustration showing the two kinds of dandelion common in Japan: one with a tightly closed ring of leaves under the flowerhead, the other with the same leaves thrown back
Description of Kantō and Common Dandelions in the Sayama Park pamphlet, "Ikimono no Mappu" (Map of Living Things) .Illustration by Yaguchi Nao  (NPO birth)

Monday 15 May 2017

Kabuki on the Cheap

The front of the famous Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza,dwarfed by skyscrapers behind
Skyscrapers towering over the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza (Kabukiza)
Kabuki (歌舞伎) - which combines the kanji for singing (utau =歌う), dancing (mau =舞う), and skill/art (waza, similar to the gi in gijutsu=技術) - is enjoying something of a boom among both Japanese and tourists these days. Sometimes called "bizarre" theatre, it is a marvellous hotch-potch of wild and restrained acting styles, extravagant costumes, traditional instruments, dynamic stage sets, shouts from the audience, and men dressed as women (see the description on the official kabuki English site).

But ticket prices can be prohibitively expensive - a first floor box for the morning (matinee) performance (3 acts or maku =幕, literally "curtain") at Ginza's Kabukiza (pictured above) will set you back ¥20,000. However, there is a cheaper way - queue up and buy tickets on the day!

In May, the first of the three morning acts (hiru no bu =昼の部) starts at 11:00am, and if you queue up early (say around 10:00) to the left of the grand main doors (pictured left) you will almost certainly be able to buy tickets when they go on sale at 10:30. Here, you have a choice: you can simply buy a ticket for the first maku (¥1500) which is almost 90 minutes. However, you can also buy tickets for the second (¥1000) and even third (¥1500) acts at the same time and stay in your seat between acts (it's fine to eat in your seat during the intermission). In other words, you can watch three and half hours of Kabuki (albeit from the fourth floor - see picture below) - and probably catch some famous names - for just ¥3,500. The same system works for the evening sessions - see here for more details. As for language, no need to worry: subtitles, including cultural explanations, are available on a special tablet ("G-Mark Guide") which can be borrowed for ¥500! For more detailed information on plot lines, actor names, and kabuki families though, the Yomiuri's weekly Kabuki ABC column is a must read.

Looking down from the 4th floor to the stage of the Kabukiza Theatre
The view from the 4th floor of the Kabukiza Theatre before the start of a show

Saturday 13 May 2017

Love Hotels and Disappearing Children

A picture of a love hotel with prices listed outside for long and short stays
One of Japan's ubiquitous love hotels
Love hotels are pretty much everywhere in Japan and despite their seedy image in the West are seen as convenient and practical over here. Rooms are clean, cheap, and often gorgeously decorated, with various services on offer such as wi-fi, room service menu, hot tubs, and costume/game rental. Furthermore, both short stays (up to 3 hours) and overnight stays are possible (as shown in the rates in the bottom left of the picture). They are used by a range of people, from travellers looking for a cheap place to stay to married couples looking for a little privacy. One reason for their popularity amongst the latter demographic is because Japanese houses are often small with thin (sometimes, literally, paper thin) walls; moreover, children often sleep in the same room as their parents well into primary school. Even older kids are likely to stay at home into adulthood, earning them the rather unpleasant label "parasite singles."

The Japanese population itself is in steep decline; newborns numbered under 1 million for the first time in 2016. The declining number of children is known as shōshika (少子化) in Japanese and has become a serious social problem. One reason is that more and more young people are shunning marriage; a recent survey found that 12.9% of women and 21.6% of men in their twenties did not wish to marry. After financial challenges, the reason most cited was that it was easier "to be on my own." Even those who do get married are less likely to have children: the same survey found that 21.9% of those in their twenties did not wish to have a child, more than double the previous survey. In sum, there is a growing feeling among young people, particularly men (so called sōshoku danshi, literally "herbivore men") that romance is "bothersome" and children no longer an automatic choice.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Walking around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

A signboard with a map of the route around the Imperial Palace and a list of nine rules which walkers should follow
The "rules" for walking around the Palace
Recently, I walked around the Imperial Palace (kōkyo=皇居, lit. the emperor's residence) in Tokyo which is built on the site of the old Edo Castle. Only a short walk from Tokyo Station, it is a lovely 5km stroll around the moat. The walk takes you past a number of interesting landmarks such as the National Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives of Japan (currently holding an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the Constitution), and the British Embassy. The Diet (Parliament) Building is also visible in the distance on the west side. In inimitable Japanese style there are nine rules or "manners" clearly outlined (the first four are shown left) including the golden rule of walking around anti-clockwise. This is actually important since the number of joggers make it something of a health hazard to walk against the flow (the only people walking clockwise that day were foreign tourists!).

A picture of one of the plaques in the ground around the 5km walk around the Imperial Palace. This shows Gunma's prefectural flowe, the Japanese azalea
Japanese azalea (renge tsutsuji)
One interesting feature are the plaques in the ground spaced at 100m intervals, each plaque showing the flower of one of the 47 Japanese prefectures. The picture on the right shows Gunma's prefectural flower which is a Japanese azalea (renge tsutsuji) which was introduced in a previous post as poisonous! The highlight of the walk though, and the most crowded section, is in the area looking over what is commonly known as the Nijū-bashi ("double bridge"=二重橋) which leads to the main gate of the palace. This bridge is widely mixed up with the double-arched Megane-bashi or "Spectacles Bridge" (pictured below left) which is actually in front of  the Nijū-bashi, officially called Ishibashi ("Stone Bridge"). All very confusing!

Views from the 5km circuit around the Imperial Palace, including the Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge) left

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Counting, Numbers, and "Peace"

Numbers are very easy to learn in Japanese since 1-10 is pretty much all you need to know: 11, for example, is simply 10+1(jū-ichi = 十一) while 20, 30 etc. is just two 10's (ni-jū = 二十), three 10's (san-jū = 三十)  and so on. After that, all that remains to learn are 100 (hyaku = 百), 1,000 (sen = 千), and also 10,000 (man = 万). The latter can be a little confusing since 50,000 would be 5 ten-thousands (go-man = 5万) never 50 thousands (go-sen?!?). There is no separate word for million - it is simply a hundred ten-thousands (hyaku-man). The existence of the 10,000 unit - there is also a ¥10,000 bank note - is such an ingrained way of conceiving numbers for the Japanese that even the advanced Japanese learner struggles with saying large numbers correctly in English.

An open palm with two fingers from the other hand signifies seven in Japan
Seven in Japanese...
Gestures used to express numbers are also interesting. Japanese start counting with the index finger, like the British and North Americans, not the thumb like Europeans. But they also have a novel way of counting to ten using one hand which begins with an open palm and then folding the thumb into the palm for one (see the video below). Finally, when signalling numbers from one to ten across a noisy area (like a market), the numbers 6 to 9 are shown by placing the fingers of one hand onto the palm of the other (the picture to the right is seven, for example). Incidentally, sticking up the index and middle fingers is not rude in Japan; indeed, it is a staple of photographs taken by young girls (especially JK or female high-school students) - see here for an example. The origins of this "peace-sign" are unclear and hotly disputed.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Golden Week, Boy's Day, and Koi-Carp Streamers

Blue (small) , red (medium), and black (large) koi carp streamers flapping in the wind on Boy's Day (May 5th)
Koi-nobori streamers flying on Boy's Day (May 5th)
Friday was the final day of the series of bank holidays known as "Golden Week", a day which marked the "U-turn rush" back home for all those Japanese who took the opportunity to take a break either inside or outside Japan during this holiday period. April 29th was "Showa Day" (the birthday of Emperor Hirohito), May 3rd was "Constitution Memorial Day", May 4th "Greenery Day", and May 5th "Children's Day."

Although Children's Day, as the name implies, is supposed to celebrate the happiness of both boys and girls, it was originally Boy's Day (Tango no Sekku=端午の節句), one of the traditional five seasonal festivals (go-sekku =五節句) that used to be celebrated at the Japanese imperial court. The windsock-like carp streamers (known as koi-nobori or climbing koi in Japanese), which are often flown from balconies and rooftops at this time of year (picture right and video below), supposedly represent the energy, power, and determination to fight (much like koi-carp battle their way upstream or against the current). The qualities were traditionally thought to be desirable in boys - and also explain the popularity of koi tattoos. Thus, when a baby boy was born, koi-nobori were often bought as a gift; in the case of a baby girl, however, a set of dolls would be gifted to the family, for example by grandparents, which would then be displayed on March 3rd known as Hina Matsuri (The Doll Festival) - another of the big five seasonal festivals mentioned above and known as Momo no Sekku (although this day is not a national holiday). In recent years, however, perhaps reflecting more mobile families and changing gender roles, these customs are slowly disappearing (when I first came to Japan, koi-nobori were rather common; this year I had to search to find them).

For those interested, aside from Girl's Day (March 3rd) and Boy's Day (May 5th), the other three traditional go-sekku festivals are Nanakusa no Sekku (January 7th), Tanabata (July 7th), and Kiku no Sekku (September 9th). See here for a summary in table form (in Japanese) and here for a short explanation of each in English. These festivals are famously featured in a series of five beautifully coloured scrolls (五節句図) which can be viewed here (underneath the Monet and Renoir paintings).

Friday 5 May 2017

Bonsai Boom

A number of exquisitively pruned bonsai trees on show in front of a house in the neighbouhood
A neighbourhood collection of carefully pruned bonsai on show
The International Bonsai Convention recently returned to Japan after 28 years: the eighth World Bonsai Convention opened last Thursday. Bonsai (盆栽)  are potted miniature trees grown in a pot or tray (=bon) and have been grown in Japan for over a thousand years. While typically a hobby associated with elderly men - the trees displayed in front of a house in my neighbourhood (right) are carefully tended to by a male retiree - in the past few years there has been something of a bonsai revival, especially among young people, women, and foreign tourists. Riding this wave, the world's first public bonsai museum, the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, opened in Saitama (about 20 minutes from Tokyo Station) in the spring of 2010. For information on trying your hand at bonsai in Tokyo see here.


Flowers blooming on the bonsai trees which were bare the previous month
The same bonsai as above pictured in late May - note the flowers blooming

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Amazing (and poisonous) Azaleas

A line of red azalea bushes running off into the distance
Red azaleas along a local boardwalk
After the sakura and together with the wisteria, the most common flower this time of year are the azaleas (tsutsuji), typically large white or pink flowers that are a member of the Rhododendron family. The flower is quite amazing close up since one petal (usually the top) has an incredible pattern which looks like it has been stamped or imprinted on the flower, and this pattern overlaps slightly with the two petals either side (see picture right). Nezu Shrine in Tokyo, which has a beautiful 300-year-old azalea garden, is currently holding an azalea festival (tsutsuji matsuri) - poster below.

Smaller and late blooming Satsuki azaleas (June 3rd)
There are actually two closely related plants in Japan, the tsutsuji which bloom from mid-April and the shinier and smaller satsuki (Satsuki azaleas - pictured right) which are native to Japan and bloom later from mid-May (hence the kanji 皐月/五月 which means fifth month in the old lunar calendar). Since they are both closely related types of Rhododendron, most Japanese have a hard time distinguishing them. Apparently, in the past in Japan children use to twist off the tsutsuji flower and suck the sweet nectar from the bottom of the bloom. This would seem to be rather dangerous "old-fashioned kid's play" (mukashi asobi) given that one variety (renge-tsutsuji or Japanese azalea) is poisonous enough to cause convulsions and breathing problems!