方違神社 Hochigai shrine   1 comment

This weekend, almost exactly a year after our return from Japan to Ireland, we’ll finally be moving into our new house. Our search for a permanent home in Dublin has not been an easy one, but that’s a story for another time.

Once again, our home is piled high with boxes as we pack up all our possessions ready for the move. The same boxes we used a year ago for the move from Japan to Ireland (in some cases, battered veterans of the earlier journey from Ireland to Japan) now find themselves reconstituted, taken out of flat-stored retirement and pressed into service one more time for the much shorter and easier move from Cabinteely to Leopardstown.

Houchigai jinja in Sakai city is a shrine that specialises in house moves. At the end of our recent visit to Japan we went there on our bikes to seek good luck and success in our forthcoming move.


The shrine was built 2000 years ago at the boundary of three ancient provinces: Settsu, Kawachi and Izumi. To this day, the area is known as 三国ヶ丘 Mikunigaoka, meaning 3-country hill. The tradition arose that as the shrine itself, being at the boundary and therefore not being part of any of the 3 countries, is not oriented in any direction, so a traveller by visiting the shrine could avoid unfortunate or wrong directions. The name 方違 houchigai reflects this tradition.


The water basin and well have old-fashioned characters written from right to left. The character for “country” in 三國山 is the same as I saw used in Taiwan; in modern Japanese writing it is simplified to 国.

Although the shrine is along the main road, it is a very tranquil place. Around the car park are camphor trees and a stand of wisteria, the trunk of which looks ancient and gnarled.



The shrine backs onto a wide moat surrounding a steep wooded island, which is a keyhole-shaped tomb or kofun, off-limits to human visitors.



We brought with us a charm that we had bought on a previous visit to this shrine; a charm that had since then clocked up many air-miles and suffered much abuse in cargo holds and baggage carousels, as it travelled back and forth across the world attached to suitcase handles.


The tradition is that when a charm has done its job of keeping you safe, you bring it back to the shrine where it will later be destroyed in a special fire. For the moment it just gets dropped unceremoniously into this used-charm receptacle:



We bought an identical replacement charm for 500 yen, and then Yuko did o-mikuji.


Her fortune was good.

鳥居 torii—shrine gate   Leave a comment

There is a very special and important shrine called Fushimi Inari Taisha in the mountains near Kyoto.


What makes it special is its thousands and thousands of torii shrine gates.


The shrine includes the whole mountain, and the paths and steps leading all the way to the summit are lined with these gates.


There are so many torii mounted so close together along the path that in many places it feels like walking through a tunnel.



At one point we came across a couple having wedding photos taken.

(My smartphone camera seems to have coped poorly with the unusual colour of the setting, compensating for the predominantly red surroundings by giving the daylight a bluish tinge. The photos taken by Yuko using her DSLR came out better, so we can hope the couple’s wedding photos turned out well also.)


Why are there so many gates? The reason is that this is an Inari shrine, a shrine dedicated to the god of fertility and industry. People show their gratitude for success in business by donating a gate to this god. The name of the person and the date are inscribed on the uprights of the gate.


The gates are painted or lacquered in a colour called 朱色 shu-iro—vermilion. There is variation between the shiny finish of the newest gates and those that have faded over 5 or 10 years to a pale whitish pink. We didn’t see any gates older than about 20 years.

As well as torii gates, Inari shrines are very strongly associated with foxes. Every Inari shrine, however small (for example the one on the roof of my office building in Osaka), has a pair of stone fox guardians, usually holding symbolic objects like a scroll or a sheaf of rice.

As the foremost of all the Inari shrines in Japan, Fushimi Inari shrine has lots of fox statues.

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There was also a statue of a horse god housed in a small wooden building. The floor was covered with business cards.


The fox theme is interactive—visitors are invited to draw faces and write wishes on wooden fox masks, which are hung up and displayed outside the shrine building. WP_20140419_009 WP_20140419_010

The railway station also picks up the theme.


Visitors typically walk up the hill behind the main shrine building, which meets a circular path that brings you to the summit. The walk is about 2 or 3 kilometres, and it can be a bit tiring walking up steep steps. I recommend you wear comfortable walking shoes. However it is worth the effort as there is so much of interest to see along the way, in terms of both religious significance and the beauty of the natural environment.


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Photo credit: As usual Yuko took the beautiful photos using her Nikon DSLR. Some of the photos were also taken by me using my smartphone.



だらだら dara dara—idly   1 comment

My name doesn’t have good connotations in Japanese. In one local dialect on the Sea of Japan coast, dara means “idiot”. (Perhaps fortunately, I have yet to visit that area.) It also features in the word 堕落 daraku, which refers to a moral lapse or descent into apostasy, corruption, sin or depravity. And in the word darake which refers to being completely covered in something (generally something bad, like mud or blood), or filled with mistakes.

And then there is this phrase dara dara, meaning slovenly, idly, slowly, lazily.


This biscuit tin features a very popular character called “Rilakkuma” (relax bear) looking characteristically relaxed, with the slogan (written in Roman letters) “kyou mo minna de daradara goron”, which means something like “today also, everyone idly idle about”. I bought the biscuits because I felt the word dara dara was being used in a nice, positive context.


dara dara is one of hundreds of gitaigo, so-called mimetic or onomatapoeic words in Japanese. For example:

  • They were seated bara bara (separately);
  • The stars were shining kira kira (glittering and sparkling);
  • She was laughing kusu kusu (giggling);
  • She was laughing gera gera (loudly and boisterously);
  • She was laughing hera hera (condescendingly);
  • He speaks English pera pera (fluently);
  • Rain can fall zutsu zutsu, shito shito, pota pota, potsu potsu, depending on the intensity.

This aspect of Japanese is really hard for the learner. Japanese is simply filled with these words: people sleep guu guu, they eat mogu mogu, they lick pero pero, crunch food gari gari, stare jiro jiro, get nervous doki doki or impatient ira ira

Even with flash cards and other learning aids, they just seem to defy memorisation. Part of the reason must be that, despite being known in English as onomatapoeia, they are mostly not in any meaningful sense mimetic, but rather seemingly arbitrary. Another possible reason is that these words somehow don’t “feel like” real, proper Japanese, but like some kind of add-on, possibly childish or slangy. (For example they are always written in kana, not kanji.) This feeling is incorrect; they absolutely are an integral part of the language, including the literary language, but it’s hard to shake it off.

Together with another type of adverb (of the form bikkuri, yukkuri, shittori, pittari, kussuri, ukkari…), countless hours of effort are spent trying to memorise these vocabulary items for the JLPT exams. Effort which is mostly wasted, since this kind of knowledge (lists of arbitrary items learned by rote memorisation) is only shallowly rooted in memory and is quickly forgotten once the exam is over.

It’s different, however, when you learn one of these words in “real life”; somehow hearing it used even once in the context of a conversation anchors it in reality and instantly makes it much more memorable. And once you use it yourself, it’s with you for life.

Posted April 27, 2014 by daraconnolly in Uncategorized

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Taipei old and new   Leave a comment

At 509 metres high, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in East Asia, and for a few years held the title of tallest in the world.


In an otherwise low-rise city, it stands in splendid isolation as the city’s premier landmark. Its vertical rhythm differentiates it from other tall buildings, and is intended to suggest the form of a bamboo plant.


While Taipei 101 has now fallen to number 3 in the world height rankings, it retains a number of records, including the world’s fastest elevator.


Travelling at a speed of over 1 km per minute, it whisked us to the 89th-floor observation deck in double-quick time. Although there was no real impression of speed inside the lift car, there was a helpful illuminated display to let us know how high we were and how fast we were going.


The 91st-floor outdoor observation deck was closed today (no explanation was given) so we viewed the city through the floor-to-ceiling glass of the indoor observation deck. Taipei tends to be very hazy, limiting the visibility of more distant areas, but there was a great view of the area of the city closer to the tower.


World Trade Center


Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial


The 2 General MacArthur bridges over the Keelung River, and Yang Ming Shan mountain in the background

At the heart of Taipei 101, a huge metal ball forms part of a tuned mass damper, protecting the building from excessive movement in high winds and earthquakes.


This ball is 5.5 metres in diameter and weighs hundreds of tonnes. It is the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one open to view by the public.

The lower floors of Taipei 101 are given over to an upscale shopping mall. The exposed structural elements of this atrium seem to combine a 19th-century Industrial Revolution aesthetic with a science-fiction sensibility.



After visiting Taipei 101, we hopped on the metro for a visit to Astoria Café. Astoria was founded by a Russian exile in 1949, and was the first western-style bakery and café in Taiwan. The White Russians, who had formed a community in Shanghai having fled the Russian revolution, were forced to flee yet another Communist revolution in 1949 and found themselves in Taiwan.

When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted “lunch or café”. As it was a bit too early for lunch, we opted for café. The menu had an extensive range of coffees and teas. The prices were very high, especially by Taiwan standards ($180 for a cup of coffee, equivalent to around €4.50). I chose a Russian blend coffee and Yuko went for a cold longan tea. (Longan is a delicious local fruit, quite similar to lychee.)

The menu didn’t feature any cake, only drinks. We wondered if we were supposed to buy cakes from the bakery downstairs and bring them up. But we asked the waiter and he brought us a cake menu. The cakes were good value at $50 per slice (€1.25). Yuko had a millefeuille and I had a coffee cake.

The décor is charmingly old-fashioned, with various significant items on display including old photos, samovars and a collection of matryoshka dolls.



The old-world style of the Astoria stands in delicious contrast to the Temple of the City God on the other side of the narrow street. This was the view from the window seat as I sipped my Russian coffee and nibbled my cake.


台湾 Taiwan   1 comment

In just a few short days, Taipei has become one of my favourite places. It’s a wonderfully manageable city and very easy to get around. This is largely thanks to the MRT metro system, which has a dense network of underground lines in the city centre and extends all the way to the distant suburbs. The service is very frequent and easy to use; we haven’t had to wait for more than a couple of minutes for a train. Fares are $20 to $30 (about €0.50 to €0.75) which is extremely reasonable.

When we arrived in Taipei on Monday, we each bought an EasyCard and loaded it up with $500 worth of value (approx €12.50). This can be used on buses, metro, suburban rail and the Maokong gondola (which is not a boat but a cable car).


The “Hello Kitty”-themed cabins fail to make the ride any less terrifying

The main advantage of the EasyCard is that it makes it much more convenient to hop on and off buses and metro, since you don’t have to buy a ticket each time. You buy it (and top it up) from a machine at any metro station, and then when it’s time to leave Taipei, we can return the EasyCard and they will give us back any money that we haven’t used.

The EasyCard can also be used to hire a bike from the “YouBike” service. This did not work for me, however, as the registration process requires a mobile phone number and it would not accept my Irish phone number. However I was able to hire a bike at the kiosk using my credit card.

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Cycling turns out to be a very enjoyable way to get around Taipei. The streets don’t have cycle lanes as such, but cyclists are well catered for, and there are dedicated cycle ways along all the city’s river banks. The one thing to be careful of is drivers (including taxi drivers) turning right without indicating.


One of the major sights in central Taipei is the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial, dedicated to the memory of the former president of the Republic of China.


In front of the central monument, which houses a huge statue of CKS at the top of a steep flight of steps, there is a paved area flanked by two impressive public buildings (a library and a museum) built in the form of temples. On a more human scale, there are also attractive gardens north and south, with trees, ponds and wildlife.


Another impressive building in Taipei is the Presidential Palace (formerly the Governor General’s office).


Ximending is an area of youth culture, and I stopped to watch this band rehearsing on an outdoor stage at the “red house”, an octagonal red-brick converted warehouse building in Ximen. Here’s a short video.


I got thirsty cycling around in the heat, so I bought a can of Hey Song Sarsaparilla from a vending machine. I was curious, because we don’t have sarsaparilla drinks in Ireland. I liked it. I also liked the fact that the drinks in the vending machine only cost $20 (€0.50).


通り抜け toorinuke—cherry blossom viewing at the Osaka mint   Leave a comment

The Osaka mint dates back to the 1870s, a time when Japan was opening up to outside influence after centuries of self-imposed isolation. There is an Irish connection – some of the buildings were designed by an Irishman called Thomas Waters, including this elegant reception hall, the Senpuukan, which was built for the visit of the Meiji emperor, who came here in 1872.



The tradition of toorinuke (cherry-blossom viewing at the mint) dates back almost as far – for 140 years people have come here in mid-April to “pass through” the tunnel of cherry trees when they are in full bloom. This is called 通り抜け toorinuke (from a verb meaning to pass through).

The cherry-blossom route is around 500 metres long, and comprises hundreds of carefully-tended trees of over 100 different varieties. They are osoizakura—late-blossoming cherries; while the cherry trees in the various parks around Osaka reached their brief moment of glory 2 weeks ago and have since shed their flowers in a flurry of pinkish petals, at the mint the cherry trees are only now in full bloom.








Yuko suggested that we should get up early to beat the crowds, and she was right. Even at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, we were among hundreds making our way from the metro station to the entrance gate.


The toorinuke operates as a one-way system (south to north), with staff-members with megaphones constantly exhorting people to keep moving along the route and not to stop.


However, only the first 100 metres or so of the route was congested, after which it freed up a lot and it was possible to enjoy the experience in a more relaxed way.


Carved into a rock alongside the route is a short poem about the toorinuke:


大阪に 花の里あり 通り抜け

oosaka ni hana no sato ari toorinuke

In Osaka is found the home of flowers—toorinuke


During the toorinuke, the Mint museum and buildings are closed to the public. However I would like to come back here another time to visit them.

ラーメン ramen   6 comments

I don’t really mind long flights. The packing, the travel to and from the airport, the check-in, the security checks, those are exhausting. But once on the plane, the fact of sitting quietly in a seat for 11 hours doesn’t bother me. If anything, it offers a rare opportunity to slow down, to read a book or watch a film, or just do nothing at all, while every so often people come and bring you food and drink.

Pro tip: I find a gin and tonic at the start of the flight is a very good way of getting into the right frame of mind.WP_20140410_001

Business class is a nicer experience, of course. But while you can usually get an economy class ticket for between €800 and €900 return, the business class fare is more like €2500. For two people, that amounts to an extra €3000, which would buy you an awful lot of comfort on the ground. As in, you could stay in a luxurious hotel for 2 weeks for that price. For that money, I will happily put up with the economy class experience for 11 hours. Hell, for that money I would spend the flight in a cage in the cargo hold with the animals. Or tied up face down on the floor with an hourly kicking from the cabin crew.

Anyway, when we arrived in Japan we went out to the supermarket to get something for lunch. I got sushi.



This sushi selection, freshly made this morning, cost 410 yen. That’s about €3. For a selection of 10 delicious nigiri-zushi.

For dinner, we decided to go to a local ramen place: Tiger and Dragon.WP_20140411_010

They do “Hakata-style” ramen noodles, with a fatty, almost silky broth made with pork bones.


The sign below says that you can help yourself to fiery-hot (chili) mustard greens, sesame mustard greens or benishouga (red pickled ginger). I had to look up the word for mustard greens: 高菜 takana, as I wasn’t able to read it. Or rather, I was able to read it but wasn’t sure how to pronounce it or what vegetable it referred to. If that makes any sense. Such are the vagaries of the Japanese writing system.


 Benishouga is a typical accompaniment to Hakata ramen. And by the way, the fiery-hot mustard greens really are.




Posted April 12, 2014 by daraconnolly in Uncategorized

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