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Friday, 20 November 2015

Todai ginkgo report 2015: dismal prospects

I interrupt my self-imposed (and still continuing after this post) hiatus to bring you bad news. Todai's glorious ginkgos will not be at their best this year; as a matter of fact, it would be a waste of time to go. The trees were pruned ruthlessly earlier this year. I assume there are good reasons, but it means that this year there are no branches, and therefore no leaves, left. To wit:

The photo above shows the road leading to Yasuda Auditorium. The trees are skeletons. If you want to give it a go anyway, your best option is the road behind Aka-mon. See below.

The Yayoi Campus is another possibility. However, the trees are still mostly green. It's been an unusually warm autumn so far, which might mean a later-than-usual change. Peak time will be towards the end of November. Maybe.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Temporary hiatus

Hello, all!

I'm putting this blog on ice for about two months. (Not that I've been very active this year, but ... ja ... ) I'll be in London this month, and when I get back* I'll crash head first into the new winter semester. I'll be busy.

Enjoy autumn up north and spring down south, read a few books, have a few glasses of red wine. I'll be back in time for another edition of Tokyo's Glorious Ginkgos.

* Yes. Well. The last time I went to a foreign country on what was supposed to be a 3-week holiday, it turned into a 10-year stay. Things tend to go off track when Ru starts wandering across borders. However. I do have a return ticket. So. Enjoy the peace and quiet, because it won't last.

またね!Mata ne! Till later!


Sunday, 16 August 2015

Shopping? Meh. Let's rather go grave-crawling.

I'm not normal. Not in any way, but especially not compared to your average Japanese personage.

I've taught hundreds of students, and I don't know of one who's gone to London without visiting Harrods. The female of the species inevitably spends a full day at the store, and regards it as the highlight of the trip. Just last week I talked to a father who's taking his daughter (a university student) to London. Their holiday is 5 days: 2 days travelling, 3 days in London. Day 1: Harrods. Day 2: some Harry Potter theme park thing somewhere. Day 3: shopping for omiyage. Then back to Tokyo. I give up. What's the point of a tour like that?

Neither has one student ever praised London's food, which is, to the Japanese palate, the worst in the world.


Reads books. Peruses websites. Stares at maps. Considers limited time. Harrods? Meh. Let's rather go to Highgate Cemetery.

Reads more books. Peruses further websites. Drools over maps. Considers limited time. Cheese cheese cheese scones scones scones clotted cream clotted cream clotted cream. Pubs. Pubs that serve gin and tonic. Pubs that are centuries old and hosted the world's greatest writersBacon! Most vegetarian-friendly city in the world. (Oh shut up. Bacon isn't meat. It's what I've  been dreaming about for 10 years.) 

Why? Why do Japanese tourists think British food is awful? What do they eat when they're there? Heh. They're probably unhappy because they can't eat Japanese rice three times a day.

No rice.

Thank God.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Rapunzel becomes Samson

Yesterday I cut off my hair. I went from long flowing Rapunzel locks to a pixie cut. It's 60% liberation, 40% "oh shit I've lost myself".

Random additional information follows:

Yes, it's a big deal. Any woman who's gone from long to short will confirm that.

I've always had more brains than beauty, but my hair is an exception: fine, soft, wavy, gold-brown with natural sun-bleached stripes. I have a lot of hair. A lot. It was my signature, especially here in Tokyo. It was exceptionally easy to meet anybody in a busy public space, even somebody who'd never seen me before. "I'm the one with the hair." "Heh?" "Don't worry. You'll see me."

So why did I cut it?

1) Comfort zone. Always, always, break out.

2) Bored.

3) It's a glorious, defiant, "up yours!" celebration of middle age. Long hair is a sign of youth, fertility, desirability, blablabla. Older women are expected to cut their hair and take care of their grandchildren. So I've done what society expects me to do, but I did it my way: I went punk. If you want to cut your hair, you might as well make a statement. Oh, and sorry about the grandchildren, but I don't like babies.

4) It will make my September traipse through England a heck of a lot easier.

5) I've done this several times in my life: gone from very long to very short. Yesterday's ponytail got added to two others I've kept. It's mind-boggling how my hair has changed throughout my life, entirely by itself, from wheat-coloured & very straight to light brown & wavy.

6) I initially wanted to do an Imperator Furiosa cut (hey, Charlize Theron is South African, too!), but thought that UK Immigration might skrik a bit if there was such a difference between visa photo and real life. I ended up showing my hairdresser a photo of Jamie Lee Curtis. "This," I said. "Cut it off and let it go grey eventually."

7) I've been toying with this idea for a long time, but you know what tipped me over? A recent conversation with a female student. She's a member of a group, low level, all from the same company, who comes to my eikaiwa. We were practicing "can/cannot" with the meaning of "may/may not".

Now where I hail from – the land of pernickety sub-editors – can equals ability and may equals permission, but in my eikaiwa's textbooks and in the lingua franca of 99,9% of English-speaking humanity, it's not so cut and dried. So. You can drink water in class but you cannot, regrettably, especially for the teacher, drink whisky. That kind of thing.

The woman struggled, partly due to linguistic limitations, partly due to other reasons. Finally she said, "I can cosmetics office. I cannot no cosmetics." Translation: "Female employees are required to wear make-up at the office. A bare face is not allowed."

"So," I said, and I knew I shouldn't, but sod it all, Japan! "So," I said, and pushed my fringe off my face, "I cannot work for your company?"


"Look. No make-up. I never wear make-up."

"Yes. You cannot work." Said as gravely as if at a state funeral.

"What about him?" I asked and pointed at a male student. "He's not wearing make-up."

Baffled silence.

I looked at the 40-something woman, impeccably groomed, coiffed, manicured, pedicured. A woman who's perfectly sweet, has never travelled, has no opinion that she's willing to express in class, whose response to every question is muzukashii (difficult).

I let it go.

Then I cut off my hair. Ganbatte, Japan. You'll now have to cope with a bare-faced, short-haired, shorter-tempered, sharp-elbowed, sharper-tongued African barbarian auntie. You have been warned.

PS: Women are still expected to look pretty and keep quiet in Japan, which remains stuck in the 1950s when it comes to gender equality. Interesting articles here and here.

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!


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.


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.)


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