朝 asa—morning

Every morning I get up at six and take the dogs for a walk in the park.

Almost everywhere, dogs have to be kept on the lead. Dogs in Japan rarely if ever get a chance to run freely. Which is sad. But there is this place that I call the “future park” – it’s a newly-developed extension of the big park, and there are no signs (yet) about dogs and leads… So we go there and the dogs can have a run.

On the way back through the main park, with the dogs on the lead, I see the old people playing “gateball” (it looks like croquet). It’s amazing, they are out there every single morning at 6.

We come home at around 6:40 and I have a wash and get dressed for work. No tie, because of Coolbiz. Breakfast is oats or granola and a cup of tea, maybe some toast, and then it’s time to leave for work. The dogs and Yuko come to the screen door to see me off.

My route to the station takes between 10 and 15 minutes, bringing me around the edge of the park, then along a footpath lined with zelkova trees.

I usually arrive at the subway station at about 7:55 or 8 and swipe my ticket.

I’m not in a rush – there are trains every couple of minutes so even if I hear a train arriving I don’t bother to run.

Even though it’s only the second station on the line, all the seats are already taken, so it’s standing room only.

But despite the well-known impression of Japanese public transport, it’s not actually that crowded. In Dublin, on the Luas, everyone is pressed tightly together. On the subway in Osaka, there is normally room to stand without touching anyone else.

On the journey I can listen to Japanese lessons on my phone, that I download from japanesepod101.com, or I can read the New Yorker. It takes about half an hour, and then I emerge into the morning sunshine of Midosuji Avenue.

From the station, it’s only about 2 minutes’ walk to this very elegant 1930s building, where I work.

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese for morning is 朝 asa.  The same character appears in the word for “tomorrow” 明日 ashita, just as we might say “in the morning”.  To wish someone “Good morning” you say ohayou gozaimasu.

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最高 saikou—highest

The highest point in Osaka prefecture is on Mt Kongou (金剛山). Not at the summit (1125 m), which is in Nara prefecture, but a short distance away on the south-east slope, at a height of:

On Saturday morning we set off in our new car and drove to the mountains. It was our first time to go hillwalking since before we left Ireland, so we were impatient to get out on the hills again. Although Mt Kongou is higher than any mountain in Ireland, it is considerably less challenging and less dangerous than the Kerry mountains or the Wicklow mountains.

It was a delightful contrast to the previous evening in the shopping streets of Shinsaibashi. Two very different aspects of Japan, only a relatively short distance apart.

These mountains are lushly forested all the way to the top – the tree line here is at about 2600 m.

 

As you ascend the path you are surrounded by the sounds of the forest. There were many nightingales in the trees, filling the forest with astonishing melodies. In one area there were thousands of frogs – we could hear them but we couldn’t see them.

We didn’t see snakes either, although we did see this sign warning of poisonous snakes. Or rather, “POISONOUS SNAKES!”:

We also saw this cute sign involving firefighting monkeys and a bird, and the slogan “Let’s protect the green mountain from fire”.

I was interested to spot a carnivorous pitcher plant:

And these bright pink azaleas added a dash of colour:

There is a well-maintained forest path all the way to the summit, paved for part of the way.

Our first destination was the highest point in Osaka.

After that we continued to the true summit of Mt Kongou, about 1 km further on. On the way we passed this “welcome” god, whose halo looks a bit like he is aflame. To be honest, he didn’t look all that welcoming:

Occupying the very summit of Mt Kongou, at a height of 1,125 m, is a large shrine. So the last few meters of the ascent involve climbing some steps.

Altogether we ascended about 500 metres over a distance of 4 km each way.

Note on the word of the day:

最高 saikou literally means “highest” although it is often used figuratively to mean “that’s fantastic!” The character 最 has the meaning “superlative” and combines with other characters to give meanings like 最悪 worst, 最低 lowest, 最初 first, 最後 last, etc.

心斎橋 Shinsaibashi

After work on Friday evening, I met Yuko in Shinsaibashi.

Shinsaibashi is a busy crowded area full of shops and restaurants, not far from where I work. At its heart is Shinsaibashi-suji, a pedestrianised covered shopping street, stretching block after block for more than half a kilometer. This kind of covered street or arcade is called 商店街 shoutengai in Japanese.

It’s very enjoyable just to stroll through the area, enjoying the buzz and the atmosphere.

We thought it was funny that this shop was called “Womb”.

It was a little alarming however to discover that Womb was having a “Mail member only fair”, with “15% off”. Or maybe it’s “only fair”.

Shinsaibashi dates back hundreds of years as a shopping, restaurant and commercial area, and has a lot of history. Tucked away at the back of some narrow alleyways is the Hozenji temple.

Hozenji temple has a very special statue – it’s thickly covered with a verdant layer of moss. By tradition, each visitor pours water over the statue to encourage the growth.

Just across Shinbaibashi bridge is the iconic “Glico man” neon sign, which has been advertising Glico candy for almost 100 years. After the Great East Japan earthquake in March last year it was switched off for a few weeks to save power, but I thought it was supposed to be illuminated again now?

Shinsaibashi is also home to Murphy’s pub, the first Irish pub in Japan. We called in for a drink there after our meal.

Note on the word of the day:

心斎橋 Shinsaibashi takes its name from one of Osaka’s many bridges (橋 hashi  in Japanese). The canal that the bridge crossed is long gone, but some of the architectural features of the stone bridge were reused in the modern pedestrian overpass at the same location, such as the iron lanterns seen in this picture.

The character 心 shin means “heart”. 斎 I’ve never seen before, but it apparently means “religious purification”. So the meaning of 心斎橋 might be something like “purification of the heart bridge”.

 

車 kuruma—car

We’ve bought a car!

It’s a 2009 new-model Prius, dark blue, in very nice condition inside and out (Japanese people do keep their cars clean!)

Before we were allowed to buy a car, we had to prove that we had a parking space. Yuko had to get a document from the landlord, and have it certified at the local police station. The size of the space is indicated, and you are only allowed to buy a car that will fit the space.

If you live in the centre of Osaka, it can cost over 30,000 yen (over €300) per month to rent a parking space! For many people, parking is the single biggest cost of motoring. So we’re lucky to have our own space in front of our house, that we can use for free.

Lots of cars over here have a particular shape that you don’t see so much back home. Cars of all sizes, from tiny “kei” cars to huge people-carriers, are high and boxy, with an almost vertical rear end and a very short nose.

It’s not a great look, but I have a theory about why that shape is so common. If the limiting factor on the size of your car is the length of your parking space, then it makes sense not to waste any of that length with front and rear overhangs and curves. Aerodynamics? With a speed limit of 60 km/h most places, who needs aerodynamics? Just a rectangular box will do nicely, thank you.

I discovered something about the economics of second-hand cars here. Let’s say you’re looking at the prices of second-hand cars on autos.yahoo.co.jp and you see a car that takes your fancy. This 2003 Mazda RX-8, for example. If you look closely you will see two prices listed:

本体価格(税込)68.0万円 — Basic price (tax included): 680,000 yen (approx €6,750 at today’s lousy exchange rate)

支払総額(税込)86.7万円 — Sum total (tax included): 867,000 yen (approx €8,600)

So what’s going on? What’s the extra €1,850 that I have to pay? Well, it’s the cost of reregistering the car and various other administrative stuff. But here’s the kicker. That €1,850 isn’t a percentage – it’s the same for every car regardless of value. So if you go to buy an old car with a sticker price of €1,000, you’ll end up paying almost €3,000! That’s a huge disincentive to buying an old car – who’s going to pay €3,000 for a car worth €1,000?

Note on the word of the day:

On its own, the kanji 車 kuruma means car. Or maybe in the old days some kind of carriage. In compounds it usually has the Chinese pronunciation sha, and it appears in the name of all sorts of wheeled vehicles. 自転車 jitensha—bicycle; 電車 densha—train; 自動車 jidousha—vehicle; 人力車 jin-rikisha—rickshaw (literally “human-power-vehicle”, and of course that’s where the English work rickshaw comes from).

My favourite 車 word is 猫車 nekoguruma which literally means “cat car” but really means wheelbarrow.

金環日食 kin-kan nisshoku—annular eclipse (2)

Viewing conditions for the eclipse this morning were unexpectedly favourable. After our usual early-morning walk in the park, we set up in the washitsu to watch it through the front window.

Yuko had a piece of paper with holes in it, which she taped to the window to create a pinhole camera effect. This allowed us to monitor the progress of the eclipse without looking directly at the sun.

We managed to take a couple of photos, placing the dark glasses over the camera lens. But the photos fail to do justice to the splendour and beauty of the phenomenon.

After watching the eclipse, I was still in time for work! What an amazing privilege and good fortune, to be able to witness a rare event like this from the comfort of our own front room.

 

 

金環日食 kin-kan nisshoku—annular eclipse

There’s lots of excitement here about tomorrow morning’s annular eclipse. It will be visible from many of Japan’s population centres, including Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka (the partial eclipse will be visible from everywhere in Japan). The track of the eclipse extends across the Pacific to the US, terminating in Texas.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon is slightly further away from the earth than usual, so its apparent size is not big enough to completely cover the sun’s disc. The moon will block out the central portion of the sun, but there will still be a ring of sun visible around the outside. For any given point on the earth’s surface, this is a very rare event.

Unfortunately, it’s raining now so it seems we won’t be able to see it properly. But we will go out and watch in the hope of a break in the cloud.

[Update (21st May): We were able to watch it! We were very lucky to get a break in the cloud and we could watch the whole sequence from our front room. It was a really beautiful sight.]

Next month there will be another rare astronomical event – a transit of Venus. After this year, there will not be another for over 100 years. In the 18th century, scientists travelled to many remote parts of the world to observe the transit, and use the opportunity to measure the distance to the sun. The legacy of these multi-year expeditions extended far beyond this central measurement, helping to shape the European understanding of the world in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and happening at a formative moment in the relationship between European people and other cultures.

Note on the word of the day:

金環日食 kin-kan nisshoku literally means “gold ring eclipse”. The word for “eclipse” is written with the characters 日 sun and 食 eat, bringing to mind old ideas about the sun being eaten by a dragon.

One difference between learning Japanese and learning a European language is that, in many European languages including English, technical terms are often derived from the same Latin or Greek roots. So even if you haven’t learned the French or Italian word for “annular eclipse”, you could probably make a reasonable guess at how to say it, and you would assuredly understand it if you heard it. Whereas in Japanese, such technical words are usually of Chinese origin, and therefore unfamiliar to English speakers.

A huge benefit of living in Japan for a year is the opportunity to learn words like this in the course of events, which you would be unlikely to come across in a classroom or textbook back home.

バラ bara—roses

Yesterday, Yuko and I went to a rose festival in Utsubo Park, near where I work. So even though it was Saturday, we took the subway into the city together.

Utsubo Park (which was once a military airfield, but no trace of that remains, except for its long narrow shape) has a huge, beautifully laid-out rose garden, and this weekend the roses were in full bloom.

You can see that lots of people are carrying umbrellas – not because it’s raining, but because it’s sunny!

To celebrate, there were stalls, music, dancing and entertainment, as well as lectures and guided tours. One stall had a device to test your squeezing strength. It seems I’m not very strong, but my excuse is that my hands were a bit slippery with sun-cream.

Outside the rose garden this cow was making a balloon animal for a child:

This dancing stilt-walker was entertaining the children:

While music was provided by this high-school band and dancers:

There was also a large group of people dancing to traditional Jewish music.

 

We left Utsubo Park and went to another rose garden, on a river island called Nakanoshima in the centre of Osaka. It’s a lovely part of the city, with some fine buildings and lots of open space.

Each of the roses had a plaque noting its country and year of origin, and the name of the grower. Several of the roses were credited to a grower called “McGredy” from Northern Ireland.

Note on the word of the day:

The Japanese word for rose, bara, is written with the kanji characters 薔薇. This is famously difficult to write, and the word is commonly written with the katakana characters バラ, as I used for the title of this post. But nowadays when you are writing on the computer, you don’t really need to know how to write the characters anymore—the computer knows. So maybe complicated kanji like 薔薇 will be seen more often.