注意 chuui – Caution

Warning signs are ubiquitous in Japan. Some of the signs have wonderful pictures illustrating the terrible fate that will befall you if you ignore the sign.

Here we see a grinning figure of death emerge from the swamp and grab an innocent child, evidently with the intention of dragging him/her down to a watery demise. Even the fish looks horrified. It’s an old sign, so the writing あぶない “Danger” has faded almost to nothing, leaving only the exclamation mark clearly visible. Which seems appropriate.

This sign warns us in bright colours and stark fonts: “DANGER! Beware of the CROWS.” The exact nature of the danger is not made clear, although it’s a little alarming to note that the crow in the picture has demonic red eyes. It’s a poster that sets you to wondering why, exactly, the collective name for crows in English is a “murder” (and why you never wondered that before). Having said that, I can’t have been too scared, because rather than fleeing in terror from the talons of the demon corvids, I stopped and took this photo.

This big chuui says 電線注意: Beware of the electric cables.

Another classic drowning image, extensively faded and battered but still disturbing. The boy’s eyes have been replaced with a big X, reminiscent of the kanji 殺 meaning to kill. Originally, the doomed boy is shouting たすけて ”HELP”. But the writing has faded to white and we are left with the appearance of his life force escaping out his mouth.

This more modern image spares us some of the horror but none of the drama. We meet this boy at the very moment of splash-landing in the water, but the expression on his face tells us all we need to know about his chances of survival. In a few minutes there will be a big X where his eyes used to be, and he knows it.

Take a close look at the picture in the bottom left of this sign. It seems three people (or possibly two people and a seal) have been caught in a whirpool and are going around and around. One of them has had the foresight to put on a life-belt before venturing in, so he’s not going to drown. He’s just doomed to go round, and round, and round. Not drowning, but waving. But that’s not the strangest thing about this picture. The strangest thing is that there are numbers, dollar and cent symbols, as well as a percent sign floating on the surface of the water. What can it mean? Were these foolhardy people lured into the water by money, only to drown in their own greed?


Note on the word of the day:

注意     chuu-i  is written with kanji that mean approximately “concentrate” or “direct” and “attention” or “mind”.


南花田 Minami-hanada

So where do we live? What is it like?

Well, Sakai city is a city of about 850,000 people. Historically, it was important as a trade port and a link to early European contact, including Portuguese Jesuits such as St Francis Xavier. It is known for the production of knives and blades, and was the home of the inventor of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyuu.

The name 堺 Sakai means border, referring to the city’s location at the border of three ancient kingdoms.

This area of Japan, the Yamato plain, was the cradle of Japanese civilisation, and the priest-kings of Yamato became the Imperial line of Japan, unbroken for at least 1500 years. These early emperors left extraordinary monuments in the form of the kofun keyhole tombs or tumuli, which deserve to be better known and will serve as the subject of a later blog.

Sakai is in Osaka prefecture, and is a suburb or satellite city of Osaka. I will be working in the centre of Osaka, in the Osaka Gas Building in Hira-no-machi. This is a 25-minute journey on the subway from our local station, Shinkanaoka, which is about 10 minutes’ walk from here.

Sakai city is divided into villages, or cho, and one of them is Minami-hanada-cho, where we live. Other nearby villages are Shinkanaoka-cho (where Yuko’s dad lives) and Nakamura-cho.

Most of this central area of the village is developed with low-rise housing, schools, light industry, shops and restaurants, all jumbled together in a maze of narrow streets. While this may seem haphazard, I think it is far preferable to the sterile uniformity of a “well-planned” suburb, and makes for a far more liveable and human environment. It’s a great place for getting about on foot or by bicycle, with little vehicle traffic on most of the small roads.

Many of the houses in our immediate neighbourhood are large modern houses with traditional features.

On this gate-house of a large older traditional house, you can see the 焼杉 yakisugi charred cedar boards typical of the exterior of Japanese houses. This charring is a means of preserving wood, instead of using creosote.


And everywhere there are remnants and evidence of the previously rural character of the area. Among the modern houses are many traditional farm-houses.

Many rice- and vegetable-fields are still being farmed, tucked in among the houses and shops.

The network of drainage ditches with their sluice gates was formerly a network of irrigation channels for the rice fields.

And the network of narrow streets, many too narrow for vehicles, was once a network of farm lanes for field access.

Further east, the landscape is still predominantly agricultural, although new houses are progressively taking over.

Behind our house is a shrine called Yasaka jinja–eight-slopes shrine,

and there are two temples locally.

But the star attraction is the park. At the end of our street, just 50 metres from our house, is the largest park in Sakai city, おおいずみ緑地公園 Ooizumi Ryokuchi kouen.

Every morning I take the dogs for their early-morning walk in the park. It’s about 1 km wide and 1.5 km long, so a complete circuit would be around 5 km. So far we have only visited the northern half. It has lots of features and areas to explore, including lakes, forests and flower-gardens.

When the cherry-blossom comes, it is a favourite location for o-hanami–flower-viewing.

East of the park, on the borders of Nakamura village, is a large cemetery.

This explains the number of stone merchants on the main road (check out the pig-faced guy):

Also along the main road are our local hardware store, コーナン Kohnan, and our local konbini, Family Mart:

and this All-American shop and café:


Note on the word of the day:

南花田Minami-hanada is made up of 3 kanji: 南minami–south, 花 hana–flower and 田ta–field. So the meaning of the place-name is simply “south flower-field”.

和室 Washitsu–Japanese-style room

Our house, although modern, has one traditional Japanese-style room.

This room can be used for sleeping, and then when all the bedding is rolled up and put away in the closet, as a general living area, for eating, reading, etc. It is a pleasant, uncluttered and calming space, with little or no furniture. In our case, this is not just tradition; we don’t (yet) own any chairs or a bed, so sitting and sleeping on the floor is our only option.

Bedding in the closet

The flooring is made of tatami mats. These are rectangular woven straw mats that present a slightly yielding surface to stand, sit or lie on, smooth and cool to the touch. Footwear is not worn in a Japanese-style room. The dogs are not supposed to come in here, in case they damage the floor or the paper doors.

As well as being a floor-covering, the tatami mat is a standard unit of measure of floor area. For example, this room is 4.5 tatami in size. The standard is different between Osaka and Tokyo, but our mats are around 180cm x 90cm.

The ceiling is lined with wood panelling, and the walls with some kind of cork-board.

The sliding doors to the rest of the house, and to the closet, are decorated with screen-prints showing a relaxing scene of trees in the mist. These sliding doors can be easily lifted out and put aside, opening up the space.

There are paper screen doors to the outside. In a traditional house these would lead to a beautiful  scene of a secluded garden with raked gravel, bonsai trees and moss-covered rocks. In our house it just leads onto the car-parking space, noisy children playing in the street, and a view of the neighbours’ houses across the street.

Some of the paper panels were damaged when we arrived. The landlord refused to repair them on the basis that our dogs would probably damage them again.

I intend to repair them using this roll of paper that cost 348円 from the local hardware store.

Actually there are four layers of door: the paper screens, the glass sliding door, a mesh screen and a metal roller-shutter.

Note on the word of the day:

The word washitsu consists of the kanji 和 wa, which is a very old word for Japan, and 室 shitsu meaning room. Wa is used as a prefix in words like washoku–Japanese food, wafuku –Japanese-style clothes, etc., to distinguish from 洋 you meaning western, as in youshoku, youfuku, etc.

A Word From Japan

Welcome to my blog, A Word from Japan.

Over the course of a year in Japan, I will use this blog to share my experiences with my friends around the world.

Each post will be based on one Japanese word that I feel reveals something interesting about life in Japan (and especially my life in Japan).

I hope you will enjoy it, and I would very much welcome your comments, feedback and discussion.