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Friday, 26 June 2015

Froggy fire protection in Azabu-jūban

I'm a commoner, a peasant and a pleb. I'm also a socialist; as a matter of fact, the older I get, the redder the colour of my personal flag.

That's one of the many reasons why I prefer to live in the shitamachi, the poorer working-class area of Tokyo. Tokyo's sought-after wealthy suburbs either bore me (Daikanyama; what in heaven's name do you do there except shop?) or scare me (Den-en-chōfu is an American suburb and Shōtō in Shibuya is Johannesburg) [both feel like a psychopathic virtual reality game].

However. There's one upmarket area that does appeal, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's Azabu-jūban, which happens to be right next to my pet hate, Roppongi. Perhaps it's the suburb's village-like atmosphere thanks to cobbled streets and a giddy mixture of fru fru cafes and traditional shops. Maybe Asakusa would look like that if it were wealthy.

Whatever the reason may be, I'm always happy to return, as I did this morning when I went hunting frogs. I've started stalking toads …

The two frogs that can stop fires

Woa. Just thought of something. What's the difference between a frog and a toad? LiveScience says, "You can tell most toads and frogs apart by the appearance of their skin and legs. Both amphibians make up the order Anura in the animal kingdom, but there are some key differences. Most frogs have long legs and smooth skins covered in mucus. Toads generally have shorter legs and rougher, thicker skins."

Aha. Frogs are western Tokyo; toads are eastern Tokyo.

I've started stalking these ribbiting* creatures because never-mind-it's-a-long-story. I'm also looking for snail temples, but I haven't been successful yet. I'm sure I will be. If it exists, Japan has a temple for it.

You often see frog statues at shrines and temples because frog in Japanese is  (kaeru), which is a homophone for 返る (kaeru, to return). Whether you want to return to your home town or you want love, money, success, lost items or your own lost youth to come back to you, ask a frog.

I've written about frogs before (link, link), but the froggy shrine in Azabu sounded interesting enough to lure me early on Friday. (I arrived hours before the shops opened. I keep telling you, shopping anaesthetizes me.)

It's called Jūban Inari Jinja (十番稲荷 ), and it’s a tiny but delightful and surprisingly busy place. Two statues of two frogs, allegedly parent and child, lurk in a shadowy corner next to the shrine. According to legend, a frog appeared out of a pond called Gama-ike (がま池) during the great Bunsei Fire of 1821 and started spouting water from his mouth. This killed the flames and protected the area, and the frog was immortalized at Jūban Inari.

Jūban Inari Jinja in Azabu-jūban

Jūban Inari Jinja

The shrine also has a statue of the seven lucky gods.

One last comment about statues in that area: you can also see Kimi-chan, a statue of the main character in the children's story Red Shoes (赤い靴 Akai kutsu) by Noguchi Ujō (野口 雨情). You'll find her in a small square in Patio Street. Read more about her story here.

The shrine is right next to Exit 7 of Azabu-jūban Station.


This looks like a toad, not a frog. 



The seven lucky gods at Jūban Inari Jinja

The statue of Kimi-chan is in this small square.

Above and below, Kimi-chan


* Ribbit? I don't know what sound this thingamajiggy is making, but ribbit it's not. This is what I look/sound like when I'm forced to go to (heh) shopping. I get very angry, too.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Murder attempts and burqa hot pants

I used Japan's EMS service to mail documents to South Africa. 

Monday 8 June         mailed from Tokyo
Thursday 11 June     arrived Johannesburg
Friday 12 June          sent to Cape Town
Monday 15 June       arrived Cape Town
Thursday 18 June     "retention"
Friday 19 June          delivered

It takes South Africa longer to deliver documents from the Cape Town Central Post Office Depot to an address in Cape Town than it takes Japan to send those documents 13 536 km, almost halfway around the world.

Ai, Suid-Afrika. It's not that difficult!

Blah

This hasn't been a very rainy rainy season. It's been mostly a blah dreary gray skies season. It hasn't even been very hot: low twenties. I haven't used my air con yet. I have sent roughly 643 LINE messages to my friends complaining about cold trains. The Oedo Line is so cold that it's painful.

Biggest advantage of rainy season: hydrangeas.


You're going to have to try harder to kill me

Japanese pharmacist (giving me OTC hay fever* medicine): Take one, twice a day.
Me: OK.
Japanese pharmacist: Only two a day. Don't take more.
Me: OK.
Japanese pharmacist: This is very strong.
Me: OK.

Goes home. Swallows four. Does not die.

Ten years in a country that loves to believe it has a very delicate constitution, and I know exactly how much attention to pay to pharmacists. The medicine had zero effect. I had to get some weapons of mass destruction from my British doctor.

(If you're curious, the pharmacist gave me Alesion10.)

* Yes, I have hay fever in rainy season. Yes, I know. Shut up.

Inhaler, nasal spray, anti-histamines: counterinsurgency measures against a body that's decided rainy season
is the perfect timing for hay fever. Dunno what's going on. Spores? Fungus? Grass?

Oh, to be a wealthy housewife

This morning I walked past a Minato-ku yochien (kindergarten). It was just before 9. The mothers had arrived, dressed to kill in suits and high heels, or designer gym wear. It's highly unlikely that they are working mothers. This is Japan, and that was Minato-ku. I spotted a Porsche and a BMW X5. Ah yes. We most emphatically need an SUV in Tokyo. Terrible roads. Potholes the size of Grand Canyon. Hoards* of marauding tourists from China.

These women's lives consist of dressing up, making obento and having salad in overpriced restaurants. Possibly sex with their husbands once a month, but I wouldn't count on that if I were you.

What's it like to have such a life?

I think of my own, which has been a combination of feast and famine. Feast while I had a senior job at a television company; mostly famine since then for various complex reasons. Famine, I hasten to add, according to a Tokyo definition, not an Africa one.

Not always easy.

Yet. Yet …

A lifetime of total independence, making my own decisions, accepting responsibility for a few very bad ones, 七転び八起き, nanakorobi yaoki, fall down seven times and get up eight. Years of different cultures in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and now Japan. Adventures, memories, stories, countless books and a tiny handful of loyal friends and family members who've forgiven me more times than I've read books.

Do I want to be those housewives?

Ye gods no.

* You may prefer the more conventional spelling, hordes, but I believe hoards isn't entirely inappropriate in this particular context.


Students

Male. Fifties. Has been studying for a year, and still can't get the basic SVO order right. Has lived with his mother all his life.

First-year student. Divorced parents. Writes in an essay that she doesn't like her father, but he's important, because he provides money. Describes her mother as "my life" and adds that they sleep together in one bed every night.

Young housewife. Married less than a year. No kids, not pregnant. Husband has been transferred to Vietnam. When are you joining him? I'm not going to Vietnam. Why not? It's too dangerous.

Modern Japanese society.

I have a solution!

I have a solution for Japanese women and their sun phobia. Instead of the hats, sun visors, scarfs, elbow-length gloves, parasols and SP 7003.41 … why don't you just wear a burqa? You could turn it into micro-mini, since you never seem to be concerned about sunburn on your legs, and you could liven things up with a Hello Kitty pattern along the hem.

So. Burqa hot pants!

(You think I'm joking? Google it. I dare you.)

Friday, 12 June 2015

A private tour of the Toguri Museum of porcelain

Seven thousand pieces of antique Japanese porcelain. About one hundred on display at any time. A surprisingly humorous journey into the past.

Well, it surprised and amused me. When I think of antiques, I think of very serious boffins ponderously pontificating on the authenticity of some hideous objet d'art that reminds me rather ominously of the three flying ducks on my grandmother's sitting room wall. It was next to a brass relief of a Cape buffalo. The room also had a riempiesbank and a jonkmanskas and a stinkwood table and other stuff that we thought were uncomfortable and old-fashioned, but were, in fact, quite valuable (eventually) because it was so old.

Imari, Edo period, first half of the 18th century

Anyway. Antiques sound a bit, umm, dusty, so it was a delightful surprise to discover that old equals funny. Serious, beautiful, fascinating, all of that, but also funny: lopsided early pieces full of dirty bits when Japan was still taking baby steps in porcelain production, a fingerprint left in clay, a flop tea cup pragmatically squashed into a water dropper for calligraphy.



I saw these objects, and learned about their history, at the Toguri Museum of Art in Shibuya when I attended a talk delivered by AliceGordenker, who's well-known for her articles in The Japan Times.

I was unaware of this museum, which has one of the best Japanese porcelain collections in the world. I was equally ignorant of the suburb that surrounds the museum, Shōtō (松濤), which is apparently one of the most upmarket in Tokyo. It's only ten minutes from the insanity that is Shibuya Station, but it's a different universe.

I felt right at home. Immediately.

No no no. I'm the exact opposite of upmarket, but … phew! … huge houses with 6-foot garden walls, massive gates, electrified fences and security cameras. Glimpses of German logos in 3-car garages. Architecture that confirms an international truth: money and good taste aren't necessarily happily married. It felt just like Sandton in Johannesburg. The only things that were missing were Armed Guard Response warnings and Rottweilers with rabies.

Imari, Edo period, 17th century. Have you noticed the strings that hold the porcelain in place?
Earthquake country ...

Anyway. Porcelain. I can't do this as well as Alice does, so I'm simply going to quote from an article she wrote (link): 
Businessman Toru Toguri (1926-2007) started collecting Japanese antiques in the 1960s in response to what he saw as an overwhelming influx of Western culture into postwar Japan. Concerned that the country's indigenous culture would be irrevocably lost, he sought to preserve for future generations what their ancestors had achieved. In the process, he developed a particular interest in old porcelain. By 1987, he had amassed so many fine pieces that he decided to open a museum. The Toguri Museum of Art focuses on Edo-era Japanese porcelain; its collection now amounts to nearly 7,000 pieces of which about 100 are on display at any one time … As the museum does not lend or borrow, all the pieces you'll see can't be seen anywhere else.
 Porcelain is a type of ceramic made with special clay and fired at very hot temperatures. Japan was a latecomer to porcelain manufacturing, compared to China and Korea, because it initially lacked the right clay and necessary know-how. But in the 1610s, using technology introduced from Korea, porcelain manufacturing started in and around Arita …
 Now under the direction of the founder's son, Osamu Toguri, the museum is making an effort to become better known outside of Japan. Captions for all works include basic information in English, and while the explanatory panels in the exhibits are in Japanese only, you can pick up a handout in English at the ticket counter that summarizes the current exhibition and points out a few highlights. The museum recently started guided tours in English, which are free with museum admission. The next scheduled tours are November 22 and December 13. For details, please see the museum's website.
 If you're interested in English tours, you can get in touch with Alice via her blog.
  
Guests who attended Alice's private tour were allowed to take as many photos as they wanted, of whatever they wanted. I'm going to stop talking now, and simply show you photos.

Thank you, Alice, and another thanks to the man from Tabriz and Shahrud. He knows why.

This is the clay that porcelain is made of.


See how lopsided it is, and the impurities in the porcelain? This is a very early piece.


Can you see the impurities in this early dish? See the explanation below.


Nabeshima porcelain. Read more about it here.

The high stand (foot, base, whatever you prefer to call it) is characteristic of Nabeshima porcelain.
It's called mokuhai-gata in Japanese.

This water jar from the early 17th century is unusual because its lid survived. That's very rare.

Cute started early. See? Cute rabbits above and below.


I'm including this one because it's called 瑠璃, ruri, lapis lazuli. It was an early Japanese word
for blue, and it happens to be the name I've given myself in Japan: Ruri. Blue eyes
and all that. It's partly where Rurousha comes from: Ru Ru Ru.


More humour in an early piece: if you look closely, you can see fingerprints top and bottom.

A hand probably slipped and caused that little oops.

The garden at Toguri Museum

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sōji-ji, the centre of Zen in eastern Japan

Sōji-ji is a bit of an odd duck, but it's a very calm, cheerful, wood-chopping, water-carrying duck.

It is, after all, one of Japan's two main Sōtō Zen temples. The famous one is Eihei-ji, which has everything one would expect: remote mountain location, mysterious forests, deep snow. Sōji-ji, on the other hand, is smack-bang in the middle of Tsurumi near Yokohama. It's an industrialized zone with identical apartment buildings and big companies like Toshiba, Nissan, Kirin and Asahi Glass. Not exactly conducive to shikantaza.
That's why I was a bit skeptical when I visited it, but … it won me over very quickly. It's a training temple, and monks carry on with their duties despite a steady stream of visitors. I'm used to Zen temples and monks who ignore you – vow of silence and ascetic seclusion and what-not – but not this bunch! Every one of them greeted me with a cheerful "konnichi wa" and a wide grin: the guys working in the garden, the guys sweeping the paths, the guys hurrying along the beautiful Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor, the guy ringing the big temple bell while joking with his friends.

I've never seen discipline combined with so much … not sure what word to use. Delight? Radiance? Gaiety? Even two visiting kindergarten groups – dear Buddha, toddlers are noisy – couldn't kill my ever-widening smile as I ambled, marvelled and explored for two hours.

History

I'm not going to retell the history in detail, because it's already been done to perfection on this website. (I linked to a cache, because the website itself seems to be down. I hope it's temporary, since that website is a goldmine of information about especially Kamakura's temples.) Essays in Idleness also has a very nice post.

Here's my own brief summary:

The founder of Sōtō Zen is Eihei Dōgen, who brought the religion from China to Japan during the 13th century and established a temple called Eihi-ji in Fukui.

The long corridor

It remained a fairly small, elitist faith until a monk called Keizan Jōkin started popularizing it and spreading it throughout the country and among all levels of Japanese society. Keizan established a temple called Sōji-ji on the Nota peninsula in Ishikawa, but the temple burned down in 1898. Zen leaders then decided to move the temple to eastern Japan, since western Japan already had Eihei-ji. I've read that Yokohama was chosen because it was a port with a thriving foreign community, and even back then the leaders wanted to give Zen a more international following.

That, gentle reader, explains why Sōji-ji is now located in Tsurumi. It opened in 1911, and it shares the responsibility of main Sōtō Zen temple in Japan with Eihei-ji. Today the religion has 15 000 sub-temples and 8 million followers throughout the world.

The buildings

It's a massive complex of 190 000 square meters, and as soon as you enter the main gate, you step into a forested area alive with bird song, chanting and … screaming toddlers. Fortunately they left relatively quickly, and there were few other visitors. Tranquility.

The complex has the required shichidō garan as well as several other buildings, a small Jizō temple, an Inari shrine and a Kannon statue.

The long corridor with a gate called Mukaikaramon (向唐門) in the background

My favourite structure is the Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor that stretches from east to west. It’s called the 100 ken corridor: ken is an old unit of length of 1.8 meters. Monks polish the floor by hand every day, which has made the wood as smooth as glass. You can see how they do it in this video, at 1:45, and yes, that's Sōji-ji.

The corridor has two parts: a raised wooden floor and a lower dirt level. It's also interrupted at certain places so that you can pass through. So simple, so beautiful.

The long corridor's floor is as smooth as glass.

Unsui statues

I'm quoting this from the asahi.net website
Unsui is a word that consists of un (cloud) and sui (water). It denotes a mendicant priest, travelling across the country in search of Buddha teachings or great Zen masters. They go anywhere just like drifting clouds and flowing water. The statues [at Sōji-ji ] were carved in 1973 by Torao Yazaki (1904-1988), a famous sculptor in Japan, who studied sculpture in France under Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967). A replica also stands at Bois de Vincennes in Paris, donated by the Temple as a token to show friendship between Japan and France.


Ha! There's an Ossip Zadkine statue in Tokyo, too, on Chūō-Oohashi, a bridge across the Sumida River. It's called The Messenger, and it was donated to Tokyo by Paris. I wrote about it here.

More laughter

I arrived at the Big Temple Bell (to the left of the main entrance) just as it was rung, and again it was done with more laughter than I'd expected. It clearly requires effort, and the monk was grunting – and laughing – without inhibitions. He also has to shout / chant while he does it, and I could hear his voice cracking.

The big temple bell

I recorded him surreptitiously from a hiding place near a smaller Inari shrine. You can clearly his grunt and their laughter:


Go. You won't be sorry.

It's a beautiful temple, albeit in a very austere Zen way. You can join a guided tour, but it has to be booked the day before. English tours are available on Saturdays, but again it has to be booked prior to your visit. The temple itself is free; the tours are ¥400 per person.

The temple is very easy to get to: barely five minutes from Tsurumi Station on the Keihin-Tōhoku Line.

It's not as commercial as Sensō-ji, and there aren't exactly a thousand shops, but you'll receive the most beatific hellos this side of hippy heaven. Highly recommended.

The rest of the post is simply a collection of photos, starting at the entrance of the temple and progressing roughly chronologically through the complex. I didn't take any photos of interiors except the wide open corridor; I've never been comfortable photographing the interior of holy places.

The main entrance

Outer gate

The massive main gate, Sanmon

Sanmon seen from the hill on which the temple bell stands

Mukaikaramon (向唐門)

The long corridor

Praying at the Buddha hall

Main reception hall




Above small Inari shrine tucked into a corner of the complex, and below Jizō statues at a small Jizō temple


The neighbourhood around the temple isn't exactly pretty.

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