Sunday 30 July 2017

Fireworks, Deceased Spirits, and Teruteru-bōzu

In the UK, fireworks are associated with autumn/winter, specifically Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th as well as some New Year's Eve events. However, in Japan they are, like ghost stories, firmly a summer thing and every weekend in July and August there will be a hana-bi (花火, literally "flower-fire") event going on somewhere. The oldest and most popular event, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, was held last night and boasted 22,000 fireworks and, despite the rain, 748,000 attendees. I attended the smaller Tachikawa Showa-Kinen Park festival which went ahead despite a torrential downpour that left everyone soaked to the skin, including the many who turned up wearing yukata, a light cotton kimono (left). The conditions were so bad that the fireworks were barely visible at times (picture top right) and led to severe criticism of the organising committee (and gallons of unsold kaki-gōri shaved ice). See the video below for an idea of what it was like (note the smiley faces, hearts, and other images which illustrate the high-level of Japanese firework craftsmanship). Note to future self: don't pay ¥6,000 for a prime spot on a ground-sheet which is no better than sitting in a puddle if it rains. Second note to self: don't trust the traditional Japanese teruteru-bōzu (a hand-made white paper doll shaped like a Buddhist priest which children hang to pray for good weather: pictured right) - it most definitely doesn't work.

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In terms of history and cultural significance, the “Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks” festival dates back to 1733, the precursor to today's Sumida River event. At that time it was a suijinsai (水神祭) or water-god festival to comfort the souls of the many people who had died of famine or plague during this period. Even today, there is a spiritual aspect to fireworks not surprising given the main religious festival in Japan in the summer is Obon (August 13th to 15th this year) whose focus is to honour the spirits of one's ancestors who are said to return to their earthly homes for a brief visit during this period. Thus, it is not uncommon to see white chrysanthemum (shiragiku =白菊) fireworks at festivals which in Japan are a symbolic flower of condolence (never take these as a gift when visiting someone in hospital in Japan!). People even attach special symbolic significance to the smaller fireworks which you can buy at convenience stores (pictured above) and light by yourself in parks or on the beach: this writer waxes lyrical about these kinds of sparklers as a "traditional symbol of the ephemerality of things in Japan." If she'd been at Tachikawa last night, I doubt she would have been quite as effervescent...

Thursday 27 July 2017

Keeping Monster Mosquitoes at Bay: Katori-senkō and Katori Shingo

A picture of a 10 pack of mosquito coils with the green curly coils below
A mosquito coil 10 pack
Back in the day when I spoke only broken Japanese - I arrived in Japan in 1992 knowing little more than konnichiwa - I remember somebody telling me that mosquito coils (pictured left) were good for killing the pesky mosquitoes that abound in Japan at this time of year. So I duly headed to my local store and asked for katori shingo only to be greeted by the familiar panicked stare of a shop assistant who wanted to be anywhere else than dealing with this clearly deranged foreigner. Trying to explain that I wanted them to deal with mosquitoes (ka), realisation suddenly dawned on the face of the assistant - I wanted katori senkō (蚊取り線香)! Katori means "taking (=killing) mosquitoes" while senkō means incense. It turns out I had inadvertently asked for a member of the (recently disbanded) idol group SMAP (pictured above right) whose singing, though pretty terrible, was probably not sufficient to drive away those huge stripy monsters that always somehow manage to squeeze through the bug screen (amido =網戸) and get into your bedroom at night, keeping you awake during the sticky Japanese summer nights. Needless to say I never forgot the word for mosquito coil again...
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Katori senkō are a common sight this time of year, a portable mosquito repellent carried by anybody working or walking outside: they are particularly popular amongst campers, gardeners, and hikers. As the video below shows below, they can either be placed on the small metal stand and positioned in a fixed place or else put into a round case with holes in (a jumbo size one is pictured left), secured on top of a bed of glass wool, and hooked on one's belt. Either way they burn for hours, giving off smoke that is very effective at keeping mosquitoes at bay. Sales increased following Japan's first Zika virus infection last year: "bilingual" warning signs popped up all over Japan in parks and even on Kodaira's Green Road (pictured above). The fact that their main ingredient is pyrethroid (ピレスロイド) , namely allethrin, the first synthesised pyrethroid, which is highly toxic for bees, cats, and fish, doesn't seem to put any Japanese off, though perhaps it should: one piece of research noted that exposure to the smoke of mosquito coils "can pose significant acute and chronic health mosquito coil would release the same amount of PM(2.5) mass as burning 75-137 cigarettes." On second thoughts, maybe I should just play SMAP songs and hope for the best!

Monday 24 July 2017

Grilled Eel Meat - and Deep-Fried Bones - as a Summer Pick-me-up

One of the ways to prevent heat-stroke, avoid natsu-bate (heat fatigue), and generally survive the fierce Japanese summer heat is to eat nutritious, stamina-boosting foods. Traditionally, foods beginning with "u" are said to be good: umeboshi (pickled plum), uri  (gourd), udon (wheat noodles - pictured left as a summer gift set known as ochūgen =お中元), uni (sea-urchin), umibudō (sea-grapes), and most famously unagi (eel, pictured right). In fact, there is a special day for eating eel known as doyō no ushi no hi (土用の丑の日) or "day of the ox" (ushi refers to the second sign of the Chinese zodiac, i.e. the ox). This year doyō no ushi day falls on July 25th, and 2017 also boasts a second "eel" day on August 6th (the reason why some years have one day and some two is rather complicated - see the link at the end of this paragraph). Although doyō for most Japanese means the height of summer and doyō no ushi day signifies eating eel around the end of July, there are in fact four doyō no ushi days throughout the year, one for each season, with the July date marking the count-down to autumn (in the old calendar): see here for a simple explanation and a table.

Multiple packs of eel kabayaki style lined up in a supermarket
Eel on display in a local supermarket on doyō no ushi no hi at ¥980 (£7/$9) a pack

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Eel may seem like a slimy and rather unappealing food (not helped by the infamous English cold jellied eel!) but when prepared kabayaki style - cut length-wise, skewered and dipped in sweet thick soy-sauce based tare sauce, and grilled - it is mouth-wateringly good (and also full of vitamin E and B plus omega-A oils). It is usually sprinkled with Japanese pepper (sanshō) and eaten on top of rice, a dish which is called an una-don (in the case of a regular bowl of rice) or an una-jū (when eaten in a fancy lacquer-ware box). And if you want a healthy pick-me-up between meals? My favourite are deep-fried eel bones (right), crunchy, salty, and one of the most more-ish snacks you'll ever find. Guaranteed to shake off the summer blues!

Saturday 22 July 2017

The "Japanese is Difficult" Reality: How to Read and Type Kanji

The image of spoken Japanese as difficult is certainly without foundation, as discussed in an earlier post (incidentally the most read post to date!). On the other hand, the image of written Japanese as difficult is spot on and partially justifies the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranking of Japanese as "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers." Take a typical newspaper (picture left) for example: a regular article will contain a combination of kanji (ideographs adapted from Chinese characters) and characters from the two phonetic alphabets known as hiragana and katakana (the latter used mainly for foreign loan words). How many kanji are required to read a newspaper? Generally, just over 2,000 will be enough, namely the 2,136 jōyō (=daily use) kanji (常用漢字) specified by the Ministry of Education. The good thing about reading kanji, though, is that you don't necessarily have to remember the pronunciation: because the characters and combinations of characters are pictographs it's possible to get the gist of an article without perfect memorisation. And if there is a kanji you really don't know - or a kanji whose reading you would like to check - any electronic dictionary (denshi jisho =電子辞書) worth its salt will have a touch panel allowing you to directly write the mystery kanji onto the screen. Failing that, the Google Translate ap will quickly de-mystify any image you point your smartphone camera at!

Kana keyboard on an iPhone
Writing, though, is a completely different matter. Avoiding kanji and relying on the syllabries will make you look like an elementary school kid (not to mention that it'll be horrible to read - there are no spaces between "words" in Japanese). Luckily, no-one seems to write on paper anymore so you can cheat when writing e-mails and text messages. Whether computer or smartphone you can choose between entering text using a kana keyboard (iPhone keyboard pictured right) or qwerty keyboard. Then, as you write you can use the henkan kohō (変換候補) button - typically the space bar on a computer - to select the kanji "candidate" (kohō) you want. This may sound rather cumbersome but a teenager can type incredibly fast on a smartphone (see video below) using a kana keyboard - by far the most popular input method - helped also by self-correction (jidō shūsei) and predictive text (yosoku henkan =予測変換). The kana keyboard using the "flick" (フリック) input method is the secret here: while it is possible to repeatedly tap one kana to get the character you want (e.g. tapping あ quickly three times will get you う), most Japanese use the "flick" method. For example, to get う with this input method you place your finger on the あ button, thereby bringing up  the あいうえお crosspad (pictured right) and then swipe or "flick" up to enter う. This system is being constantly refined: see KDDI's new Fleksy for example (video here).

But if the struggle to conquer written Japanese seems too difficult, don't despair. Despite studying kanji for 12 years (assuming they went to high school) any Japanese venturing outside Japan will inevitably be struck by a terrible affliction called kanji dementia, where they are gradually able to recall less and less kanji. Symptoms include desperately drawing kanji with their forefinger on their palm or in the air, refusing to be separated from their smartphone, and avoiding other Japanese. Luckily, we Japanese language learners are immune!

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Extremely Hot Days and Tropical Nights: Keeping Cool during the Fierce Japanese Summer

Weather forecast from the July 9th Yomiuri Shimbun ©
The official end of the rainy season (tsuyu ake =梅雨明け) has just been announced - though, worryingly, we didn't actually have much rain - but already the fiercely hot summer days known as mōshobi (猛暑日) have started. If the temperature reaches 35℃ (95℉) or above it is officially a mōshobi and, rather surprisingly, we have already had a few of these (see left - the high for Tokyo, third line down, on this day, July 9th, has a red rectangle to signal a mōshobi ). Often on such days, the temperature doesn't drop below 25℃ (77℉) - so-called "tropical nights" or nettaiya (熱帯夜) in Japanese - which makes for a double whammy of sweltering heat during the day and a hot, humid, and sticky night.

Heat-stroke counter-measures (Kodaira City Newsletter July 5th)
A key social problem is heat-stroke (necchūshō =熱中症). In the week July 3-9 over 4,000 people - 50% of them elderly - had to be taken to hospital by ambulance (kinkyū hansō =緊急搬送) suffering from heat-stroke. Last year, 50,412 people were carried to hospital in total, 462 were injured and 12 died from heat-stroke. Now local governments are beginning to ramp up their prevention campaign. The leaflet right, for example, lists a number of strategies to prevent heat-stroke including (1) drinking fluids before one gets thirsty, (2) protecting the body from the sun with a hat or parasol, and (3) eating properly.

In sum, everybody is saying that this summer will be a scorcher, perhaps surpassing the agony that was eight consecutive mōshobi days in a row set in August 2015, a new record (2015 had 11  mōshobi in total, just behind the record of 13 set in 2010). While the highest official recorded temperature in Japan is 41℃ (106℉) in Kochi (Shikoku) in August 2013, the unofficial record is 42.7℃ (109℉) in Adachi, Tokyo, in July 2004. In other words, the northern suburbs of Tokyo are among the hottest regions in the country due to their low elevation and long distance from the coast not to mention the heat-island effect. The city's all-time official record high remains 39.5 C (103℉) set on July 20, 2004 - but I wouldn't bet on that not being surpassed this year.

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Luckily, there are lots of traditional ways to cool off in Japan from kakigōri (shaved ice or snow cone - see machine bottom right) and folding or non-folding fans (sensu, pictured bottom left, and uchiwa respectively) to summer kimonos (yukata) and watermelon (suika - pictured left). Even the sound of the summer wind-chime/bell  (fūrin) is supposed to make us feel cooler as it tinkles gently in the breeze. On top of that, summer in Japan is the time for spine-chilling goose-bump inducing ghost stories (right) and haunted houses (obake yashiki) are popular! But assuming one manages to avoid heat-stroke and succeeds in keeping cool it is more difficult to escape the dreaded natsu-bate (夏バテ) or "summer heat fatigue," an affliction that sees many Japanese sink into a lethargic summer funk during the "dog days" of summer. Bate is from the verb bateru meaning exhausted or worn out. Which brings us back to the kanji mō in mōshobi which is the same kanji used in mōken (猛犬) - meaning fierce or savage dog!

Sunday 16 July 2017

Unmanned Vegetable Stalls: Reflection of a Honest Society?

A mujin-hanbai- unmanned vegetable kiosk
Central Tokyo may be a bustling concrete jungle but over in Western Tokyo we're spoiled by greenery. In particular, various local produce from neighbourhood fields (hatake =畑)is often sold by the roadside at unmanned stalls called mujin-hanbai-jō (無人販売所). The one pictured right (expanded below) sells tomatoes on the top tier (including red and yellow aiko, an unusual kind of elongated mini-tomato) and on the bottom tier (from left to right) pīman (green pepper or capsicum), more tomatoes, nasu (aubergine or eggplant), and daikon (white radish). Everything is notably cheaper than the supermarket at ¥100 each or per bag. Note the white plastic bags hanging top right and the red money-box (chained to the frame) bottom right to deposit your coins.

The grower may or may not be around but if not payment is based on trust. Indeed, Japan is commonly seen as a relatively crime-free society, with people as generally honest and trustworthy (returning lost wallets or phones, for example). This stereotype became even stronger following the Tohoku Earthquake of March 2011 when the media, especially the Western media, highlighted the lack of disorder and looting (which actually wasn't altogether absent). This image was further promoted by Christel Takigawa in her Olympic 2020 presentation; she noted that more than $30 million in lost cash was turned in to Tokyo police stations the previous year. However, an alternative to the "Japanese national character" explanation is that lost-and-found systems are extremely efficient and police-boxes (kōban) prevalent in Japan, making it easier to turn in lost property (see the experiments carried out by Mark West testing whether Japanese and American's turned in lost wallets detailed in Chapter 2 of Law in Everyday Japan, and summarised here).

Certainly, not all vegetable sellers are equally trusting, especially in busier areas. For example, near my local station there is a farmer who sells local produce who is present early morning but later leaves and deposits the vegetables in small-coin lockers (pictured above right) into which you have to insert a coin if you want to retrieve the item inside. More evidence that the Japanese are perhaps not so honest as the stereotype suggests is the stall pictured above left (selling tsukemono or pickled vegetables amongst other things). A closer inspection shows a number of written warnings about taking vegetables without paying - or without paying the right money - noting that such people are simply thieves (dorobō) and appealing to their conscience. A timely reminder that we need to very careful when making generalisations about Japanese society being "crime-free" or Japanese people being inherently "honest."

Friday 14 July 2017

Glory Flower: Smell vs Aroma in Japanese

Bright purple buds of the Glory Flower with one pink flowwer opening early
The buds of the Glory Flower with one flower ahead of the pack
Here's a striking shrub that took me a while to find the name of: Clerodendrum bungei or Benibana Kusagi in Japanese (as discussed in an earlier post benibana means safflower while the colour beni itself is scarlet). In English it is variously called Glory Flower, Rose Glory Bower, Mexican Hydrangea, and Cashmere/Kashmir Bouquet. The last name might reflect the fact that it is native to India, and China too - it is not a native Japanese species. The buds (left) are bright purple and attract ants (see video below); in contrast, the light pink flowers have star-like five-pronged pink lobes and lure butterflies. In Japan, the leaves are sometimes boiled to make tea and even eaten like a mountain vegetable (sansai =山菜); they are also used for dyeing.

The pink five-pronged petals of the Glory Flower in full bloom
The Glory Flower in full bloom (click to expand)
At first I thought the name kusa-gi was simply plant or vegetation (草木) but it turned out to be 臭木 meaning smelly/stinky since the shrub is famous for giving off a strong musky smell! It is a variant of the Clerodendrum trichotomum​ (just Kusagi in Japanese) which is sometimes called the Peanut Butter Tree because the leaves smell like peanut butter when crushed. The kanji kusai (臭い) can also be pronounced nioi which is usually translated as smell, but the unwary English speaker will soon realise it has a somewhat narrower range of usage than the English term. My wife will grimace a little when I say ii nioi (いい臭い) to describe perfume or roses  - ii kaori (香り), meaning fragrance, scent, or aroma (and also a popular girl's name), is apparently much better! Important lesson here: dictionaries will give us a rough word-for-word translation but they won't tell you how broad or narrow the actual word usage is. A great example is the Japanese word asobu (遊ぶ) which the dictionary tells us means "play", but is actually far broader than the English "equivalent." Japanese teenagers, for example, will go and "play" with their friends or an adult might pop over to their friend's house "to play", a usage which is pretty much restricted to small children in English!

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Entry Prohibited! Remembering Kanji through Everyday Signs

Tachi-iri kinshi (no entry)
Returning from a trip to the UK, I will never forget the moment I reached my one-room apartment in Japan only to find a big red sign stuck to my door and tape criss-crossing the door frame, like something from a crime scene. Had someone died inside while I was away? Panic is definitely not conducive to reading kanji - it was late, I was jet-lagged, and I was worried about where I was going to sleep that night - but after I had recovered from the initial shock I began to decipher the four-character compound, known in Japanese as yoji-jukugo (四字熟語). I had seen the last two characters quite a bit on signs in the neighbourhood and knew they were read kinshi (禁止) meaning "forbidden/prohibited." The first two were beginner level kanji: 立入 (tachi-iri), literally "stand" and "enter." So basically, standing and entering (=going into) was forbidden. Maybe there was a dead body inside...

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Fortunately, the whole thing turned out to be a huge misunderstanding, but it did help to burn that particular compound phrase into my brain. The fact is that Japan is a very rule oriented society and rules are written (and spoken) everywhere (though not always enforced). An earlier post referred to Yoshio Sugimoto's characterisation of Japanese society's framework of control, regulation, and regimentation as "friendly authoritarianism" and he (2014: 326) notes how power is made "highly visible and tangible." This is maybe not great from a democracy/human rights perspective but for the Japanese kanji learner, it can be a boon. For example, a short walk with my dog the other morning found four variations of the XY-kinshi (XY-forbidden) four-character compounds plus a shiyō-chūshi (使用中止=use suspended) compound (all pictured below).

From left to right (1) shiyō chūshi (2) fuhō tōki (illegal dumping) kinshi (3) tsūkō (thoroughfare) kinshi (4) shin'nyū (entry) kinshi (5) mudan tachi-iri (admittance without permission) kinshi
Karasu Shin'nyū kinshi

On a lighter note, it was something of a relief to find a humourous kinshi sign (left) - this was placed in the rubbish collection point of my apartment. If you need a hint, karasu were covered in this post and shin'nyū means incursion or invasion! In summary, observing and understanding the signs around you (important in unto itself) has the added benefit of teaching and reinforcing everyday kanji, thereby "killing two birds (or crows?) with one stone" - rendered in Japanese as isseki nichō (一石二鳥), a compound of the characters for one/stone/two/bird! Who says Japanese is difficult...

Sunday 9 July 2017

Wagyu, Matsuzaka Beef, and Kobe Beef: What's the Difference?

The official MAFF Wagyu mark
A tour guide friend requested today's post (thanks A!) noting that one of the most common questions she is asked by foreign visitors is the one in the title. So what is Wagyu and what's the difference between the various kinds of beef? The first thing to note is that the kanji in Wagyu (和牛) is made up of the characters for Japan/ese and "cow" (the on reading of cow or ushi is gyū). Wagyu covers four breeds, with the Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu=黒毛和種) by far the most common. So Wagyu is basically Japan-produced beef  - fattened cattle born, bred, and slaughtered in Japan - that (a) is one of these four breeds (that is purebred cattle) and (b) is registered and traceable. Of course, other countries, notably Australia, also promote their own Wagyu-style beef, but this is not strictly Wagyu: Australian Wagyu, for example, includes crossbred cattle whose purebred genetic content is 50% or more of the total (they are also fed wheat and barley in contrast to only corn in Japan). Within Japan, certain regions are famous for their cattle production, and these include Matsuzaka (Mie), Kobe (Hyogo), Omi (Shiga), and Yonezawa (Yamagata). Kobe beef in particular has strong brand recognition outside of Japan and the association has a very swish website in Japanese, Chinese, and English including an excellent FAQ page (which tells us that only virgin cows and bullocks can become Kobe beef!). For an explanation why Kobe beef historically became the dominant brand outside of Japan, see here

The sign outside the Kuroge Wagyu Restaurant Hachi in Ometesando advertising a Japanese prime beef 150g sirloin steak for 3,700 yen
Kuroge Wagyu Restaurant Hachi (Omotesando)
There is also a grading system, made up of a letter (A, B, or C) and a number from 1 to 5. The letter refers to the yield - the amount of primal cut meat retrieved from the carcass, that is the meat to weight ratio - and bears no relation to actual meat quality. The number is based on four criteria - marbling (the streaks of fat known as shimofuri in Japanese), colour, firmness, and colour and quality of the fat - with the lowest of the four becoming the final grade allocated to the meat (5 is highest). You will often see A5 promoted on high-class restaurant menus and signboards (such as in the picture right - click here to see the menu of this restaurant) but in recent years  there has been some debate whether this is indeed the most delicious. Specifically, if the fat ratio is around 50%, the meat will certainly melt in the mouth but the actual meat taste may be lacking.

A picture of a Matsuzaka Wagyu 169g steak on sale in a local supermarket costing 2163 yen
Sendai Kuroge Wagyu in the supermarket
The interesting thing about Wagyu is that it is probably more commonly eaten (and talked about) by non-Japanese than regular Japanese: the grade 4 or 5 meat which make up most of the Wagyu exports are scarce in Japan. Wagyu itself is rarely sold in supermarkets and when it is (pictured left - note the lot or tracking number on the label) it is prohibitively expensive (¥1280/100g in this case). If a Japanese wants to splash out they may treat themselves to domestically produced (kokusan =国産)beef (¥594/100g in the picture above right), but Australian or American beef is far cheaper (¥198/100g for the latter when I went shopping the other day). Why so expensive? A common view is that it is because the cows are pampered with beer, music, and massages, though this is simply a myth; indeed, since 2015 Halal Wagyu has been available (presumably not possible if the cows were fed beer!), though the prices for this are astronomical: amazon sells one 200g Halal Kobe beef sirloin steak for ¥12,960 - or ¥6480 (£44/$57)/100g!

[UPDATE:  Just heard of a new Wagyu sandwhich shop recently opened in Meguro, Tokyo, that sells a range of Kobe beef deep-fried cutlet sandwiches, including one for ¥20,000 (£140/\180)! For more details see here]

Friday 7 July 2017

Snake Road and the Last Shogun: Tokyo Nostalgia Part 2

The Tsuiji-bei wall made of mud and tiles stretching off into the distance
Kannonji Temple's Tsuiji-bei old mud wall
After visiting the Shitamachi Museum I was curious to see how much of the "old" Tokyo remained today and set off to walk around the Yanaka (谷中 - literally "middle of the valley") area in the Western part of Taito Ward, one of the classic places to experience the atmosphere of days gone by.  A good place to start is Nezu Station (map bottom left) : head north into the small alleyways and see if you can hook up with Snake Road (Hebi Michi =ヘビ道) - highlighted with a yellow rectangle on the map below. I stopped at a small cafe along this route (to cool off with a mango smoothie) and was lucky enough to meet Prof Sakamoto from Tokyo University who gives walking tours of the area. He explained that Hebi Michi - which winds and turns like a snake - was originally a river! He recommended I continue north up Hebi Michi until the traffic lights on 452 and then turn right and head towards Choan Temple/Kannon Temple which would bring me to what he considered one of the Shitamachi highlights - the Tsuiji-bei Wall (築地塀), constructed some 200 years ago from layers of hardened mud and tiles (pictured right). After that a short walk through Yanaka Cemetery - which has Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian graves including that of the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (marked with a red star on the map) - will bring you to Nippori Station (map top right)

So what are the characteristics of Shitamachi? Below I list eight features, adapted from the excellent blog "Exploring Old Tokyo"(which also has walking maps):
  • Nagaya (長屋) terrace (tenement) housing - wooden houses all joined together in a row
  • Very narrow twisty alley-ways (delivery companies use push-carts and bikes here - see the middle picture in the series above!)
  • Small studios and workshops (アトリア) as well as art galleries
  • Flowerpots and plants in the street in front of the houses (not on window-sills)
  • No fences either in front of or between houses
  • Stray cats (though I didn't actually see many!)
  • Lots of shrines and temples
  • Tight-knit, friendly, warm neighbourhood bonds
Many of these features can be seen in the pictures above; the route I took is illustrated in the map below. So what's stopping you - go and explore the "old Tokyo"and feel some Tokyo nostalgia!

Shitamachi Walking Map of Yanaka and Uenosakuragi in Taito City
Shitamachi Walking Map of Yanaka and Uenosakuragi in Taito City (Map data ©2017 Google Zenrin)

Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Shitamachi Museum: Tokyo Nostalgia Part 1

Narrow Shitamachi alleyway in the museum
Shitamachi alleyway
On the edge of the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park is a tiny but delightful museum - the Shitamachi (下町) Museum. Shitamachi - literally "under town"  - refers to the physically lower lands east of the Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace) where the common people, such as artisans and merchants, lived. This area contrasted with the higher land west of the castle where the upper-classes resided, known as the Yamanote area (now the name of Tokyo's famous train loop). However, Shitamachi is less a fixed geographical area and more a culture and lifestyle, a slice of nostalgia from the "good old days" of the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1989) eras. The opening of the museum in 1980 marked the start of a "Shitamachi boom" (in movies for example) which continues to this day, a yearning for a "real" or "authentic" Japan with warm community bonds and people who are "honest, forthright, and reliable" (Buckley, p. 529).

A colourful Dagashiya neighbourhood sweet and toy store in the museum
A colourful Dagashiya sweet and toy store
A ¥300 entry fee gains you access to the two floors of the museum - and a free English guide to show you around if you like! The exhibits are very interactive and you can walk through an alleyway, a coppersmith's shop, a merchant's house, a living room, a bathhouse, a kitchen, and a sweet shop (dagashi-ya =駄菓子屋) - pictured left - all the while picking up and touching objects that were in use at the time. The upper floor is even more hands-on with a toy area where you can play with traditional Japanese omocha such as the kendama (cup-and-ball game) and korinto gēmu (bagatelle). When I visited, there was a large group of elementary school students enjoying the toys - pictured above right in their white hats!

Sunday 2 July 2017

The Last "Real" Samurai? Saigo Takamori

Bronze statue of Saigo Takamori dressed in Yukata with his trusty hunting dog by his side
Statue of Saigo Takamori, with trusty hunting dog, on Ueno Hill
Just a stone's throw from Ueno Station is a statue of Saigo Takamori (right) sometimes called the last  "real " or "true" samurai and the model for the protagonist in the semi-factual film The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise (also the name of a serious academic book). Saigo was a key figure in the upheaval at the end of the Edo era and the start of the Meiji period which saw the Tokugawa Shogun resign and the return to power of the emperor in 1868 in what is known as the Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin=明治維新). He laid the foundations for the return of the emperor, led the imperial forces in crushing the rebels, and then finally became a rebel himself against the central government in the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) - the climax of the film. Interestingly, the statue shows Saigo wearing a traditional Japanese yukata despite portraits from the time invariably showing him in Western, especially French-style, military uniform. This re-creation of Saigo as the epitome of the Japanese male mirrors the way the samurai image itself was appropriated and re-constructed to support the period of rapid modernisation following the Meiji Restoration.

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The success of this "samuraisation" of Japanese society can be seen today by the fact that so-called samurai values - such as courage, loyalty, virtue, nobility, humility, and perseverance - dominate surveys on the qualities which best represent the characteristics of the Japanese. This is an incredible achievement given that the samurai were a spent force of perhaps some 5% of the population by the end of the nineteenth century, an elite and (for two centuries) militarily idle class who drank, gambled, and worked as bureaucrats or teachers. The fact that the samurai image has come to personify the Japanese spirit reflects how bushidō (武士道) was used as an ideology to unite the country during the process of nation-building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an idealised image of a few pushed onto the nation as a whole, what academics call an "invented tradition." Nitobe Inazo's 1899 Bushido (pictured left), written in English as a form of cultural PR to explain Japan to the Western world, was a key text in the bushidō boom of 1898-1914 which formed the cornerstone of modern Japanese identity.

The altar of the Tomb of Shogitai Warriors, front, with offerings, and the actual tomb behind
Tomb of Shogi-tai Warriors, Ueno Hill
Returning to the statue, a few hundred meters away from the figure of Saigo is another monument, the tomb or graveyard of the Shogi-tai (彰義隊) warriors who fought to the last for the Tokugawa Shogunate, the very samurai rebels that Saigo tried to put down after the Meiji Emperor's restoration. Indeed, Saigo led what is known as the Battle of Ueno (上野戦争) on July 4th (May 15th in the old calendar) 1868 and his statue stands on the spot where the battle started (the Black Gate or Kuromon of Kan'ei-ji Temple). Although the sides were almost evenly matched, the imperial troops were victorious thanks to the use of Western cannons and guns which decimated the Shogi-tai ranks. As the picture right shows the altar at the front of the tomb is still tended and has flowers, water, sake, and a small jizō (note the kanji on the gates at the top of the stairs, the same gi = 義 as in Shogi-tai which means righteousness, justice, morality, honour, or loyalty). Thinking of the death and devastation that was the Battle of Ueno makes walking around the Hill at night quite an unnerving experience.