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Thursday, 26 February 2015

When yucky becomes yummy

When I first heard about a KitKat that could be baked, I snorted. "Bah humbug gimmick hmph," I muttered. When I realized it had a cheesecake flavour, I choked. Ugh.  Baked cheese chocolate?! 

Then I innocently walked into a Natural Lawson, spotted a pile of them and once again -- the story of my life -- became a victim of my own curiosity. I bought one ...

Yes. Well. I bought two. One has to research these matters properly. The whole point of science is that you need an experiment that can be duplicated in order to verify your data.

Anyway, I bought two, baked them and now I'm in love. This could very well turn into my all-time favourite flavour.

The chocolate melts quickly and turns brown on top. It doesn't taste like cheese at all; as a matter of fact, it reminds me of condensed milk. I love the warm, gooey, sweet mess that it turns into. Yum.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Narrow land, narrow homes

Japan is not a small country, despite a widespread belief that this is gospel. It's the 61st biggest country in a list of 234, which ain't too bad. You can see the full list here, but I include a brief summary in km².

Vatican City                  0.4
Netherlands          41 543
Great Britain      229 848
Germany            357 022
Japan                  377 960
California           423 971*
South Africa    1 219 090
Australia          7 692 024
Russia            17 098 242

* Not a country, but my students are always telling me very proudly that Japan is smaller than California. Duh. California has to be big to accommodate all those Hollywood egos.

So, the statement "Japan is a small country" is not entirely correct. What is correct is that its habitable land surface is only 33% of the country; the rest is mountains. 33% of 377 960 =
124 726.8 = just bigger than North Korea, which is number 98 on that list. (I'm pedantic. It's an INTJ thing. Live with it.)

What is also correct is that it's a narrow country, in more ways than one.

I show these stats to my students, and I can see their brains stutter to a stop. Japan is a small country, period, their geography teacher said so in elementary school. Small, poor in resources, vulnerable.

South Africa, on the other hand, is generally assumed to be a very rich country by said students.

I give up.

Doesn't matter anyway, does it, since size doesn't count?

Hell, yes, it does. When it comes to houses, it does, and this is where Tokyo fills me with a combination of respect, horror and terror. Mostly terror.

Tokyo has a population density of 33 000 people per square kilometer. (I try not to think of this, because I'd go mad.) A total of 42.53% of Tokyo's population lives in single households. (Therein lies another story.) That means a lot of small houses. Suffocatingly tiny if you're a child of Africa's wide open savanna.
I lived in an apartment of 18 m² when I first arrived in Tokyo. I now live in just under 50 m², which is a tad expensive, but either my bank account dies or I die. My current apartment has other advantages: it's almost square, which increases the impression of space; it has unusually big windows; and it's on the 11th floor with no tall buildings in front of it. It's ludicrous compared to the 250 m² house and 500 m² garden I had in Stellenbosch, but it's the best I can do in Tokyo.

During the past three months, I've been observing the construction of a house in my neighbourhood with interest and alarm.

It's a house. Presumably it costs more than an apartment. It's the size of three single garages on top of each other. Basically.

Here's the empty plot after the previous house was torn down. 

Then they started construction. There's a bit of concrete at the bottom; the rest is wood and what seems to be a kind of plastic. The bathroom seems to be on the bottom floor, the second floor is probably living space, the top floor seems to be a loft-type thingie or perhaps storage space. It has burglar bars, which is unusual.

I marvel at this house. It cannot be cheap, and it's so small, and it offers zero privacy, and gadzooks it must be cold in winter. It's also noisy, with those thin walls, right on the street, next to a yochien (kindergarten), and near a park and an elementary school. 

Yet somebody wants to live there, and is undoubtedly very proud of this sparkling new house, and that brings me back to my own conflicting emotions: do we admire Tokyo residents for their small carbon footprint and ability to make do in limited spaces, or do we run screaming into the desert to sleep under the great Andromeda?

PS: I'm hopelessly late with comments on other posts. I'm currently operating on a scale that's a few aeons behind Africa time. I think my 6-dimensional Calabi–Yau manifold has collapsed. I don't know when I will get to everything. It depends whether Ω > 1 or Ω < 1.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Tamagawa Daishi, a temple for sheep and godly guts

I promised you a sheep, so here’s your sheep. Or rather, here are your sheep, since there are two of them.

This is the year of the sheep, according to Chinese astrology, which means temples and shrines with a sheep connection, however tenuous, will be more popular than usual.

Yes, dear hearts, of course there are sheep shrines and temples!

Because Japan.

Sheep statue at Tamagawa Daishi

The two shrines that got the most attention in the media at the beginning of the year were Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) in Nagoya and Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) near Isobe Station in Gunma. = the zodiac sign of the sheep. Read more about them here.

Tokyo itself has two places of worship with a sheep association, Ōkunitama Jinja (大国魂神社) and Tamagawa Daishi (玉川大師), but the connection requires a bit of explanation. Hang in there; I'll keep it short.



Ōkunitama Jinja

The god that is enshrined at Ōkunitama Jinja is Kunitama, a very old deity that's regarded as the spirit of the land. He's associated with the sign of the sheep, for reasons that I haven't been able to figure out, but several Japanese sites refer to this connection (link, link, link).

I wrote about Ōkunitama Jinja at length in this post.

Tamagawa Daishi

This temple is associated with sheep because … this is getting embarrassing … I'm not sure, but I know it's a Shingon temple and all Shingon temples are associated with the sign of the sheep.

Furthermore, the temple has an underground corridor that symbolizes the intestines of Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来), known as Vairocana in Sanskrit, who's the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. He's also associated with the sign of the sheep.

Don't ask me what the link is between gods and guts and quadrupedal, ruminant mammals. I know not. All I know is that Tamagawa Daishi has two sheep statues, so instead of fretting over reasons, let's just accept that lambs doth gambol here.

Tamagawa Daishi

Sheep statue at Tamagawa Daishi

Thus we went walkpeditioning

What a demotion: the intrepid elephant huntress was in pursuit of sheep! To add insult to injury, in an area that she tends to avoid at all costs: Futako-Tamagawa. I enjoyed my little excursion, though, since FT (I keep wanting to write pffft!) is an amusing place.

It's as Western as it gets in Tokyo: a plethora of European/American brand name shops, French restaurants and hair stylists. Crikey moses, there are many hair stylists in FT, but I guess the Ladies Who Lunch have to look their best. Talking of which, it's an impressive collection of coiffed, coutured, manicured and pedicured females. They all look exactly the same: camel-coloured coats, black pencil skirts, black tights, black stiletto boots that would kill me in 13 seconds flat, bangs, long hair layered and curled just so around the face, generous lashings of face powder, false eyelashes, false nails, probably falsies as well.

Meantime I was marching along in my beloved hiking boots and faded 20-year-old Levis and too big coat-that-looks-like-a-blanket, with a haphazard ponytail and a red nose (it was cold!) and, as per usual, zero makeup. Probably, as per usual, with a scowl as well.

Especially when I walked past a very noisy elementary school. Japan has a birthrate problem? Really? Not in FT, where the Ladies Who Lunch clearly devote some of their energy to begetting, producing and dressing-in-Dolce&Gabbana the next generation.

Why are kids so loud?

Anyway. Sheep. We're supposed to talk about sheep.

Tamagawa Daishi, built in 1925, is primarily famous for the twisting 100-meter corridor underneath it. This corridor, symbolizing the intestines of Dainichi Nyorai, includes 300 Buddha statues, 33 Kannon statues and a chamber with 88 statues that represent the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage.

You gain access by entering the temple, depositing ¥100 and then plunging into the guts of the earth. Or the god. Whatever, it's pitch-black, and you have to feel your way around by keeping a hand on the walls.

It might surprise you that I was totally OK. I get claustrophobic in crowds, not in small spaces. There were a few other people – all of us semi-giggling, semi-stumbling and semi-cursing – but not enough to make me panic.

Nevertheless, I didn't exactly linger, and I was very happy to get excreted, as it were, into the icy wind that was blowing from the Tama River. (It was so strong that it made commuters stagger on the FT Station platform, which is almost above the river. I wanted to take a picture of the river, but dang, it was too cold.)

You're not supposed to take photos in the corridor, and the ill-mannered, law-breaking, dangerous criminal from the darkest continent obeyed that request. Other law-abiding Japanese citizens felt more adventurous. I found some photos on the internet, which I'll share here. You can also take a look at this.

Nope, not mine.

You can read another account of capering through the god's guts on Terra's blog. Since she's also a lawless furriner, she didn't take pictures inside the tunnel either.


List of sheep shrines/temples, given in Japanese because you'll find more Japanese than English information about them: 羊神社(愛知)、大国魂神社(東京)、玉川大師(東京)、法輪寺(京都)、 教楽院大日堂(宮城)、唐招提寺金堂(奈良)、高野山金剛峯寺(和歌山)、 全国の真言宗の寺院。

Statue of Kūkai (空海), also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師)

Memorial to pets

Incense sticks. I was playing around with focus in this photo.

Oh, looky here, Fudō Myōō (不動明王), the wisdom king!

Ema with Kōbō-Daishi

Sunday, 15 February 2015

An open letter to Ayako Sono

Dear Ms Sono 
One of this country’s largest newspapers took the occasion of the Founding of Japan holiday earlier this week to publish a column by a noted author who advocates apartheid. Japan should solve the problem of a dwindling population by bringing in foreign workers, she wrote, but it should make sure that they live segregated from the natives.
I read that excerpt in The Daily Beast. You can read the full article here.

As a South African currently living in Japan, I'd like to remind you that in apartheid South Africa you would’ve been classified as non-white or, at best, “honorary white”.

Japanese people were counted as honorary whites. Why this special status? When Yawata Iron & Steel Co purchased 5 million tons of iron from South Africa in the 1960s, worth more than $250 million, the South African government realized that it might not be a good idea to ban Japanese trade delegates to black townships. All Japanese people would henceforth be regarded as white, and they had almost the same rights as whites, except that they couldn’t vote, were exempt from conscription and couldn’t have sex with white people. If you’d like to read a complete report, I recommend this paper called "The Policy of Apartheid and the Japanese in the Republic of South Africa" by Seiro Kawasaki.

Would you approve of your own secondary status in South Africa, Ms Sono, or does the very idea of living in the third-world country that you wish to emulate actually scare you to death? Oh, the dirt, the crime, the black people!

Also, what about mixed marriages and – further horror! – hafu children? Currently 5% of marriages in Japan are international (link, link, link). It's a small percentage, but the number has been rising steadily. Roughly 80% of these involve Japanese men marrying Chinese and other Asian women. (Perhaps Japanese women aren't marrying because they don't subscribe to your other belief that women should quit working as soon as they have children. Who knows?) Would these international couples live in segregated areas and enjoy conjugal rights every Saturday night? Can't be Friday. That's izakaya night.

Or would your next logical step after segregated living areas be apartheid South Africa's other monument to greatness, the Immorality Act, which was abolished in 1985? Heard of that? It was a law that forbid sex between white and any other race. You can read about it in English here, and in Japanese here.

I assume you'd love to enforce that law: pure Japanese marriages with pure-blooded, unsullied Japanese babies, ensuring a truly beautiful country. You want us to clean your toilets and teach you English, but Amaterasu forbid anything else.

Incidentally, I'm fully aware of the fact that the Sankei Shimbun is a far-right publication, but it's closely aligned with Prime Minister Abe's administration, and by publishing this opinion on National Foundation Day, the newspaper gives (as Jeff Kingston says in the article in The Daily Beast) "a prominent platform to the country’s lunatic fringe".

So. Here's an open invitation to you: Come with me to South Africa. Let me show you the legacy of apartheid, let me tell you about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, let me invite you to a brawl in our parliament, let me entertain you with Karoo lamb chops and Klippies & Coke, let me take you to areas where everybody will immediately assume you're Chinese and/or Taiwanese, let me watch as you listen to Jackie Chan jokes or comments about prostitu …

Mind you, you're a bit mature for that. Ah well. You can be the madam.

Let me know when you'd like to go.

Die uwe,

Ru, die barbaar uit die suide

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Twitter Japan, you offend me

Dear Twitter Japan

I'm offended by the advertisements you're inserting into my Twitter feed. Not because you're including ads – for we shall always have taxes, egocentric politicians and moronic ads with us – but because you seem to think that my raison d'être is to lose weight.

I don't know whether you're targeting all customers with these ads, or whether you've picked up, through some Turing test, that I'm female, but your attempts to persuade me that visible hipbones, a concave stomach and a thigh gap are a woman's ultimate aim are getting tedious in the extreme.


First of all, you bloody idiots, I'm an old woman. I don't care about my looks anymore. I never really did, except possibly for one week when I was 14, but now that I'm in my dotage my interest in my own appearance is truly minus zero.

Secondly, I happen to be cursed – you would say blessed – with genes that have given me a small, restless, I-need-mountains-NOW body. You want to know what I weigh? 5 kg. That's my brain's weight. Yes, I'm from Africa and I'm an elephant.

Slender is one thing; weighing less than women did during the war years might be over-enthusiastic (link, link, link).

Look. I geddit. I'm not naive. I know advertising is a part of life, that I can't complain since Twitter is free, that it's easy enough to ignore ads, that not every woman is a book-addicted bluestocking, that some individuals do need to lose weight, but I hate everything your ads imply: that woman = appearance, that acceptable = skinny, that I have no choice whatsoever in what ads I get to see.

Instead of not eating, how about tweeting, thinking about and working towards gender equality? Hello?


The examples above are a small selection of the tweets I received in the last few days.

Go away. Leave me alone. I'm eating chocolate and reading a PhD dissertation about Islam in Japan. The latter is a relatively relevant topic nowadays.

Yours in extreme irritation,
Ru the southern barbarian

Friday, 30 January 2015

A Hello Kitty birthday breakfast

I was halfway through the chocolate when it struck me: I was eating Hello Kitty chocolate. I was eating Hello Kitty chocolate for breakfast. I was eating Hello Kitty chocolate for breakfast on my birthday.

I almost choked. Then I thought, oh hell, why not? So I finished it.

It's all for science, research and quality blogging.

Valentine's Day is approaching, which means shops are full of chocolate, which means any responsible blogger should do decent reportage, which means fearless, hands-on, empirical knowledge of the matter under discussion. It's called investigative reporting.

You can buy very expensive designer chocolate in specialist stores or department stores like Isetan, or you can opt for cheaper stuff – usually of the cute variety – in convenience stores. I bought the Hello Kitty and Snoopy chocolate at, umm, can't exactly remember, but I think it was a Ministop. Both contain eight small chocolates in the shape of the relevant character, and cost roughly ¥400.

The chocolate itself is remarkably tasty.

Right. You have questions. That plate? I didn't buy it myself! It was a present from my local konbini obachan, who’s adopted me as a charity case. See? It says Lawson at the bottom.

I will continue my Valentine's Day research for the greater good of humankind. Expect more updates.

How to make a South African happy

Want to make a South African really, really, REALLY happy? Give her Marmite, Klipdrift Brandewyn (brandy) and Amarula cream liquor. All three were presents. The book underneath (can you see it?), Good Morning, Mr. Mandela by Zelda la Grange, was also a present.

Klippies and Coke is the ultimate South African drink. Sophisticated? Heck, no. Perfect for rugby or a beach barbecue or as doepa against morons like Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema? Ooo, yes.

Amarula? Nectar of the gods. 

I've received so many wonderful gifts from all over the world in the last few months, ranging from chocolate to books to Klippies. You know who you are. Thank you, and kanpai! 


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