Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Japanesiness of Japan and other stuff

This a going to be mainly a blog about the little things that we notice in Japan. Some are funny, some weird  some maddening and and somethings like the first one quite poignant.

Rachel is reading a book called Grave Song by Graham Lancaster. The story is about a character looking for somewhere different and how they traveled all over America but didn't find it. Then they visited Japan and observed the Japanese ways...

"(Learning of) the constant effort to make harmony prevail over confrontation. (Learning) the Confucian approach to a society of relationships based on trust, obligation and a commitment to loyal action on behalf of others. All so very different to the Western pursuit of personal achievement."

So true!

The other day we watched one of the few tramps we have come across in Japan. He approached a public bench near the river and, even though it was cold, took off his shoes to lay down .... out of consideration for others!

The Ota river which flows by our flat is generously peopled with Koi (all sizes but mainly about 300mm in length). Generally they float about on their own but several times now i have seen a group of them all facing one another in a circle chatting.

Hiroshima Swim 11th January

The Hiroshima midwinter swim is a yearly event where a few people (about 40) strip off and go swimming in the river by the A bomb dome. For some reason they swim ‘Edo’ style. The Edo period was a time in Japan’s history and is celebrated here by people carrying samurai swords, doing calligraphy, twirling fans or ornate umbrellas, firing bows or doing strange swimming as they would have during the Edo period.  
I obviously heard wrong so showed off and promoted our fundraising efforts for Nepal. I could have sworn they said Ego. Anyway we pitched up at 11.00 and met our friend Lee Ridgewell who had agreed at last minute to do it with me and after a few formalities like a prayer, warming up exercises and some drum banging we got in. Weirdly although its mid winter and similar to England in temperatures it wasn’t that bad. My legs felt the cold to the point of aching for a moment or two but there was no gasp as testicles, stomach etc hit the water. The current carried me down stream and as I was treading water I wrote “it’s cold” on a board advertising the appeal. 

Coming out again some 25 metres or so later there was applause from the onlookers and suddenly Lee and I are being papped big style. TV cameras, interviewers, newspapers, tourists and locals all crowding round to get a picture of us or with us. Getting our names, ages, where we were from, why we were doing it. Fantastic fun…I even think I forgot to hold my stomach in! A good thing to do, a good story to tell and a good memory to have. One final thing that was funny. Once the crowds had moved away a little and it was time to strip off my costume and don my undies there were still a couple of Japanese men lurking around trying to click pictures – Don’t know why with the cold water and everything there wasn’t much to see!  

Gym etiquette
Gymnasium equipment always has a little towel affixed to it so the user when finished wipes down the machine. This is assiduously done and it can sometimes take a minute of cleaning before the locals are happy to leave it. The toilets of the gym have super large toilet shoes in the doorway (slip on mules for giants) so that you do not need to remove your trainers. Often they are speckled with drops of pee on the top cover. Finally, on leaving the gym, many people turn round in the doorway to face back in and bow to the room saying "shitsureishimasta" roughly meaning "Excuse my interrupting you"

Miwa San (Rachel's Japanese teacher) made a mini Osechi box for her. Osechi is the name for certain preparations of food that is eaten at new year. This box contained Omelette - yellow colour of gold so good luck for wealth. Kuromame - black beans for a prosperous work life. Daicon, fried tofu and citrus peel - for mystic powers and purity (health). And little tiny fried sardines with chopped almonds - for a successful harvest. (The fish used be used as fertiliser for the rice just before harvest).
She was also given some chopsticks (ohashi) to eat with. These are generally the chopsticks that you would use for the three days when you may be celebrating the new year. These particular chopsticks had both ends shaped, not square at the top. This is so that when you eat God eats with you.

Traffic wardens
Traffic wardens move about the city in pairs on bikes and wear a light green uniform. For obvious traffic parking violations a ticket is issued but for the more contentious ones they take photographic evidence and whip out tape measures to ascertain clearance from curbs, road widths and god knows what else. 

Sport for the old
There is a game played by the aged populace here called 'Gateball' It is a cross between croquet and golf. Mallets are used instead of clubs and the playing area is divided up into greens (like a golf course) except that they are only a bout 40 metres long and 5 metres wide. Balls are teed off as in golf, but to get the point you need to get it through the final gate. Interestingly there is always a portaloo or two on the small 9 hole courses (incontinence can be a bugger for a sportsman/woman).

Cabs are black sedans and resemble the MIB car. Cabbies are also dressed like Tommy Lee Jones but additionally wear a black peaked cap and white gloves. If stopping a cab on the street he will pull over and the back door opens automatically to beckon you in. Similarly, when dropped off the money is paid before the door is automatically opened by the driver.... no runners for them! If you book a cab to collect you from your home it will (without fail) arrive 5 minutes early and the cabbie will be waiting beside the car and bow as he opens the door.

Generally there are few accidents on the fast road as drivers are considerate, indicate their intentions, drive at sedate speeds and are calm. In towns, however, I have seen numerous dinks occur at traffic lights. In Japan all the traffic lights a long a stretch of main road will change at the same time so you will see a long row of red or green lights stretching away in the distance. If you choose to turn off a main road you will invariably have to cross over a pedestrian crossing (also controlled by pedestrian lights) but, because they are walking in the direction of the green lighted traffic you have to wait. It is rare that a week goes by when a car is turning and suddenly a bike zooms across and he has to stop or a pedestrian is crossing unnoticed and brakes get jammed on. The result being that the car following the turning car rear ends them. This makes turning left pretty scary but its downright  terrifying turning right with traffic speeding coming up outside lanes towards the back of your car and you having to judge whether you can cross over the oncoming traffic and avoid mowing down pedestrians or cyclists on the other side.

Mount Misen - Omoto route

We have been to Miyajima many a time (we said our marriage promises there). The thing is every time we go to this sacred island just off the coast of Hiroshima we discover something else about the place. This time, on a day of blue skies and puffy white clouds, we found the Omoto route which is without doubt one of the most beautiful temple/nature walks we have done. Crumbling, moss covered steeps wend their way backwards and forwards up the mountain. Passing the whole time through forests whose leaves have dropped and littered the ground with leaves. Large boulders of granite stand out her and there. Some huge and dimpled and covered in lichen, others craggy and sharp and smooth. Little shrines adorn the walk and small piles of stones (cairns) sit atop rocks. The walk itself is fairly tiring as you must climb 2500 or more steps but once the peak is reached - komagabayashi - then the climber is rewards by a large stone plateau on which you can sit, rest and drink in the fantastic fews across the islands forests to the sea and islands

Door to door selling
Several times a day a weird cartoony song echoes around the neighbour hood as yet another van selling something, anything. We don't know what all we do know is that its screechy.

Health and Safety
I think we have mentioned the baton waving associated with the roadworks in Japan and how there is always plenty of people detailed to alerting drivers and pedestrians that danger is afoot. Today we saw the ultimate in H&S provision. The picture is the Ota river. it is wide and straight and runs through part of the city of Hiroshima. They are doing some work on one of the bridges and one of the archways (there are 7) is not navigable. The river itself is blocked by weirs about a kilometre up river so there is virtually no river traffic but either side of the bridge - about 500 metres either side is a little man in a boat waving a flag and a baton.

Monday, 4 January 2016

All I want for Christmas is ...... Mariah! (love that song)


Today is the 23rd December and it's the Emperors birthday. So after a rousing chorus of “Happy birthday to you” we quickly dispensed with any further mention of Royalty. This evening went to watch the spectacle that is Kagura. I think I have mentioned it before in the blogs so will only quickly recap. Kagura is a theatre event that depicts ancient plays with formalized dances, fabulous costumes, vigorous drumming and flute playing and some audience heckling/participation. There is no speaking but plenty of screeching and Japanesey noises – Aaaaiiiii Yoooooh Wahhhh Geeee etc.

This evenings performance was a very popular tale and being as it was in the Christmas period virtually a sell out. You can’t book seats – you have to queue. Once you are let in, an hour or so before the performance, you rush to grab the best seats you can. Leave various possessions that denote the seat is taken then leave the theatre to go get food or a coffee.

This play was spectacular with demons (oni) fighting with warriors and soldiers battling with spider kings. Huge streamers (spiders webs) flung into the audience to capture us and marauding demons wandering the aisles to elicit cheers or boo’s from the theatre goers.

Throughout the play the pace is controlled by three musicians whose flute blowing and drum beating modulate the proceedings on stage. It is truly electrifying and hypnotic watching the base drummer beating out a tribal tempo for many minutes at a time. Whilst dancers whirl around impossibly fast. Themselves revolving around one another and making amazing costume changes by pulling hidden ties that allowed folded garments to cover others. A feat that tricks and confuses the eye and leaves one (Rachel and I anyway) looking at one another in wonder.

We finished the evening at a restaurant called Sante whch we had often tried to get into but had always found it full. Sort of wish we had gone elsewhere since the dishes were obscure things like uterus and rectum in tomato sauce. Still. It was a bit of an adventure wondering what might turn up on our plates.

Christmas day

No fry up with champagne and orange juice this year. Once we had exchanged the final few presents we had under our origami tree and looked at the Christmas cards on our origami fireplace we donned warm clothes jumped in the car and drove to the Akiyoshi-dai plateau. 

About two hours away the Akiyoshi plateau is an immense area up in the mountains that contains limestone karsts (pointy grey chunks of stone standing independent of one another all over the landscape). The orange/yellow dying grass covers the hills with only the occasional hardy windswept, stumpy tree to break up the vista. Still, the sun shone and as far as we could tell we were probably one of only a handful of people in the hundreds of hectares of countryside.

Our Christmas lunch of bento box for Rachel and Ham sandwich in French bread for me was washed down with squash. Our bodies sheltered from the cool breeze by the karsts which warmed by the sun, in turn, warmed us. It was really quite lovely and outdoorsy and different. The afternoon (the bit where bellys ache, headaches begin and queens spout hope to the nation) was spent several hundred metres below ground in the vast cave system. The caves are extensive, spacious and sympathetically lit. unlike any others we have visited this one has a fast flowing river cascading through it which adds a degree of excitement and, because the 1.5 km walk has got good info points and examples of natural stone formations we spent a couple of hours down there.

New Years Eve

The streets on New Years Eve were emptier than we had ever seen them. It was a damp, misty and bitingly cold evening and we very nearly opted to stay in. But since we were determined to go to the temple later on we forced ourselves out to make an evening of it. The foreign residents in Hiroshima are relatively few and since New Years Eve is not a big Japanese thing it was not that surprising that the bars were all quiet and not a mouse did stir. Molly Malones (a good ethnic crossover bar) was just about jolly and we met some Aussie girls and their mum who were on holiday. From there we moved on to the Southern Cross a very blokey Aussie pub which although held only a few people, the people it did hold were loud and drunk as were we quite quickly (too quickly for me with a swirling head and need to be left alone a bit). 


About 1.00 am we rode our bikes to Hiroshima castle with Rachel first, nearly toppling in the moat, and later crashing off the pavement into a scooter (neither accident leaving her with more than a bruise and shocked expression thankfully). The castle has a temple in its grounds and it is traditional for the younger crowd to pay respects from 12 oclock onwards. There are numerous stalls selling food and alcohol (come on C of E this is surely the way forward) and the atmosphere is one of jolly comraderie. We wandered, ate, drank and spectated for an hour or so until finaly the cold started to sink in and our beds beckoned. What a great way to finish off the year. Well done Japan

A really important thing about writing a blog is that it should be written as soon as possible to the time when the events took place. They should be written as if it is the first time you have written about the thing you are seeing (not: just another sunset) and they should be written with as much passion as you felt when seeing it. Leaving the writing of a blog for a few weeks or months and trying to recapture the essence of the time is near on impossible and certainly shows in the writing. This then is my new years resolution…..I wonder whether I will last till the end of January?

Today was s surprising day.  Sensui jima is a small island 5minutes from the mainland and town of Tomo. Tomo is a charming place with small alleyways and quaint old building scattered around the small port. Unfortunately time dictated that we left before much sightseeing as the ferry arrived.

Fantastic! The ferry looks like a pirate ship!! It’s just a small passenger ferry boat but someone with an eye for whimsy decided to give it redundant masts, spars, rigging and birds nest. A retractable forward bow and paint the whole thing an ominous black. I especially like it since the ferry pilot and crew member give no hint of pretending the boat is anything other than a ferry. No “Welcome aboard me hearties” from them; no fancy dress; no ruffling of young boys hair or acknowledgement of their wonder. Bizarre but quite wonderful

Arriving on the island we took a charming 2.7km path along the coast that meanders along and among the craggy shoreline rocks of many colours. It's a civilized walk with sturdy old weathered wooden fences keeping us from danger on one side and with the rockface on the

Eventually the path runs out and most walkers stop there. We however carried on across a beach and found a further rather dilapidated trail running up a hill to a great view point where we could look out over the sea which so mirrored the sky that where one started and another stopped, you could not see. After a short stop we carried on along an even more obscure path going through a bamboo forest. The bamboo (in the grass family) towered ten to 15 metres above us and our line of sight was cut into vertical fragments with occasional diagonal slashes formed by toppled trunks. Quite surreal. More so since most sound is obscured apart from birdsong. We followed the trail through scrub for a further 30 minutes until the steepness of the path and the undergrowth beat us and we returned, via a hidden beach back to the port.

Near to the port is the main beach of the island (an island which, incidentally, is a national park so has no apparent residents). The beach has a hotel, a deserted campsite, some closed shops and an onsen in the corner of the bay. It is a rare thing in Japan but this was a mixed Onsen. Most offer hot baths for either men or women but here we could co-exist in the same waters.

We paid our entry and were given Ginger tea to encourage sweating, issued with polo shirt and shorts, a face and body towel and (the ever present in Japan) small bag in which to carry everything in. We then headed down a number of steps to the outside pools and sauna. Extraordinary. There was a chart detailing the 8 steps we were to take at our time in the onsen and these alternated between lying in the hot pools of varying degrees of heat to having saunas, to running down the beach and jumping into the icy January 3rd sea. The saunas were unlike any we had seen before. There are three each with a different aroma (all natural) one is damp charcoal smell, one is seaweed flavored and the last is pine leaves. Each sauna is entered on hands and knees through a 3ft square door that scraped the floors and had to be tugged or kicked to open or close. Thick reed mats were on the floor with troughs in in the middle containing the aroma – lumps of seaweed etc. the 3m x 2m sauna was rough hewn rock painted black and besmirched with soot so touching anything other than matting or bamboo reed left its mark. The saunas were also pitch black apart from a small flickering light. All quite spiritual. 

Out of the sauna and into a pool, out of the pool and into the 2nd sauna, out of the 2nd sauna and lounge in a warmer pool with floating neck support to allow you to just drift around the shallow misty waters, RUN down beach, heart pounding and splash, dive into the freezing waters, scream, loose all feeling in your legs and struggle out to get back up the beach and into a warm pool again. People from the public beach looking at you like you are loonies. We spent 90 minutes going through these processes – interspersed with drinking interestingly flavored teas and having stilted conversations with other onsen goers. The sun shone all day, wispy clouds floated by, the sun set with pink clouds. A perfect day that even the laborious drive of 2.5 hours did not ruin due to nice music, chats and pub quiz questions on Rachels phone. Life is so good.