指輪 yubiwa—ring

I lost my wedding ring today. It’s at the bottom of the cold clear water of a fast-flowing stream in the mountains of Nara prefecture.

However, it could have been worse – much worse. We nearly lost one or both of our dogs.

This morning we decided to drive up to the mountains and go for a walk in the Mitarai gorge (mitarai keikoku). This is a famed beauty spot where the Dorogawa river tumbles down through a series of cataracts and waterfalls.

The walk through the ravine is spectacular, with lots of steps and bridges.

Actually, in places it’s quite scary but all in all it’s an exhilarating place to visit.

We decided to go swimming. It seemed like a good idea at the time, although the water was a little chilly.

Within seconds of Shiro entering the deeper water, he was carried away by the current. I tried to catch him.

He started moving downstream faster and faster, turning around and vainly trying to swim upstream against the current. I swam after him, trying to catch him. His face was only inches from mine, and he looked terrified. I lunged forward, once, to grab him, but missed. I lunged a second time, and managed to throw my arms around him and hold him tightly to me. As we made our way towards the bank, bruised and bleeding, I was horrified to see…

…a second white shape being swept downstream past me. Miffy had followed me into the water! I felt helpless – I was holding Shiro and had to get him to safety before I could go after Miffy. By that time, who knows where she would have ended up. But happily, Miffy managed to find her own way to the shore and clamber out, so we were all safe, albeit sore and bleeding from banging into the rocks.

At that point, I discovered that my ring was gone. I searched for a while in the shallow water near the bank, but knew that it had almost certainly come off in the deeper water when I was trying to catch Shiro. I eventually had to concede that it was gone. Ordinarily, this would have been very upsetting, but in the context of what had just happened, both Yuko and I knew that we would far prefer to lose the ring than either of our pets.

Note on the word of the day:

結婚指輪 kekkon yubiwa is a wedding ring. kekkon means marriage or wedding, yubi means finger, and wa means circle.

In kekkon (wedding), we see the character 結 ketsu meaning to tie, or knot, reminiscent of the English expression “to tie the knot”. This is the same character as in kessoku bandocable ties.

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蛍 hotaru—fireflies

A couple of weekends ago, just before the start of the rainy season, we went out after work to see fireflies. There are certain places where it is traditional to see them on evenings in early June, such as sugawara jinja here in Sakai city.

We decided to go to the Umeda Sky Building in the centre of Osaka, because it’s just more convenient to get to. The sun sets at around 7 or 7:15 at this time of year, and the peak time for firefly viewing is around 8. There is a special area with a pond and overhanging trees, and it is crowded with people watching the fireflies. It’s not really possible to take a photo of fireflies (at best it would look like a greenish-white dot on a dark background), so we don’t have any photos of those. But we do have photos of the Sky Building, which is a very impressive structure. At 173 metres high, it is apparently the 12th-highest building in Osaka.

Image

The East and West towers link at the top in what is called the “Floating Garden Observatory”, a circular walkway that is mostly suspended over open space. The name is misleading because it is not an actual garden. But it’s got great views over the city. There is a charge of 700 yen each to go up there.

Other links between the two towers, such as this pair of escalators strung vertiginously between the 35th and 39th floors, give the overall structure a strangely mechanical or futuristic appearance. You can also see a stand-alone glass elevator shaft.

Note on the word of the day:

蛍 hotaru contains the character for insect or bug: 虫. The top part is simplified now – one can easily imagine it as representing the light of the firefly (hotaru no hikari) shining out. But in its original form 螢 the meaning was more explicit; it contained the symbol for fire 火, twice.

水田 suiden—rice field

My colleague Mr Hattori has a farm. Last month he spent one weekend planting rice. He has about 1 hectare (10,000 square metres) of rice fields, from which he expects a yield of around 4 tonnes to be harvested in September. He proudly explained to me that while brown rice (genmai) is 30% polished, and normal white rice is 60% polished, his family’s rice is 70% polished. So I guess it is super-white rice. The variety he grows is kin-hikari, which is typical of Kyoto prefecture.

There are lots of rice fields in our local area. During the past month, they were flooded with water and then planted with rice seedlings, before the start of the rainy season. The houses across the road back onto a rice-field, which has become home to hundreds of frogs. The collective sound of the frogs is just amazing, especially at night; hard to believe that such small animals can be so loud!

This is what the rice-field looked like last month, before it was flooded.

Then, at the start of June, I noticed that it had been flooded, in preparation for planting:

There is a dense network of irrigation and drainage channels throughout the area, with sluice gates like this that allow the water to be directed into the field.

The rice seedlings are delivered neatly packed in trays, ready to be planted by machine:

Each field has a concrete ramp, or “slipway” to allow access for the tractor. I only got one shot of the planting in action, and it’s from the distance, so unfortunately you can’t see it very clearly:

The farmer mounts the trays of rice seedlings on a device at the rear of the tractor, that somehow takes the seedlings and plugs them into the mud at set intervals.

This is what our local field looked like just after planting, with neat rows of rice seedlings:

Most rice in Japan is grown on relatively small holdings, and increasingly by older people as the younger generations have moved off the land and sought more profitable work. There is a lot of hard labour involved, notably in maintaining the aze, the waterproof mud field boundaries or levees, which have to be weeded and restored every year before flooding. For this field, now surrounded by roads and houses, there is no aze to maintain.

Note on the word of the day:

水田 suiden literally means “water field”, what is often referred to in English as a paddy field. These two 1st-grade kanji are familiar to beginner learners of Japanese.

I discovered while writing this post that, by coincidence, the first character in 玄米 genmai (brown rice) is the same as the first character in 玄関  genkan (hallway), which was the subject of yesterday’s post. I’m not familiar with this character and don’t know what semantic connection (if any) there is between these two words.

玄関 genkan—hallway

In Japan houses are mainly made of wood. Which makes me think they learned nothing from the tale of the three little pigs. Especially when you look at the weather map and see this:

Anyway, a house made of timber may not make you feel particularly secure, especially in a land with more than its fair share of natural disasters. But on the plus side, they build them incredibly fast.

A neighbour’s house was recently levelled, and a replacement house is being built on the same site. Yesterday, it looked like this:

Imagine my astonishment when I passed the same spot on my way home from work this evening (just 24 hours later) and saw this:

All the beams were in place and the roof was already on. I was interested to see that the roof consists of sheets of plywood. It’s a single storey house, smaller than the one it replaced, possibly to suit the needs of an older couple.

 

When the old house was knocked down, they also removed a small shrine that stood in the corner of their property. I was a bit shocked; I assumed they would leave the shrine in place, as removing a shrine essentially means leaving a god homeless. Perhaps they had some kind of ceremony.

If you look at the floor-plan, you can see two areas without wooden floors:

Just inside the front door is an area called the 玄関 genkan. This is a part of the hallway that is physically inside the house, but symbolically outside.

You walk into this tiled area with your shoes on, and then take off your shoes before stepping up onto the wooden floor of the hallway proper. There is lots of storage space for shoes.

With sufficient practice (i.e. living your whole life in Japan), you will take off each shoe and step up onto the wooden floor without either foot touching the tiled floor, and your shoes will be facing in the right direction for when it’s time to go out again.

I don’t know whether it’s acceptable to sit on the wooden floor while putting on and taking off shoes.

 

Behind the newly-built house, there is a covered well.

 

Now, ordinarily one might be tempted to lift the cover and peek inside. But, remember, this is Japan. The well is almost certain to contain one or more of:

SADAKO

 

The jazz-loving narrator of a Murakami novel

 

Or perhaps Okiku.

So, probably best to leave that lid on.

 

 

 

修験道 Shugendo—mountain asceticism

The Oomine mountains of Nara prefecture, east of here, are sacred places of worship to the practitioners of Shugendo. These people undertake feats of physical endurance in the mountains (including very long treks through the mountain ranges of Mie, Nara and Wakayama prefectures), in order to become close to the mountain gods.

As a lover of high places myself, it is not so hard to understand their chosen form of devotion. However a practical problem for me and Yuko is that some of the sacred mountains are off-limits to women. This rule is called 女人結界 Nyonin Kekkai. For a while, we thought that one of these banned peaks, Oomine-Sanjo, was the highest mountain in the region, and I was quite annoyed that we would not be able to visit it (or at least, Yuko would not – I could go alone if I wished).

However I was relieved to discover that there had been some confusion about the names of the peaks in the area, and that the actual highest peak, 八経ヶ岳 Mt Hakkyou (1915 m), is accessible to women.

We drove up and up a narrow, winding roadway following a river valley for tens of kilometres into the heart of the mountains, until we came to a parking area at the western end of the Gyojakaeri tunnel (it means the “Pilgrim’s Return”), which was the starting point for the climb.

As this was already over 1100 m above sea level, the ascent to the summit of Hakkyo would be around 800 metres.

While Yuko filled in a form to put in a box, stating our planned route, I went to the tunnel entrance to try to find a geocache.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site called “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range“.

The first section of the walk was the most difficult (and even more so on the way down!) Over 1 km distance we gained 500 metres in height, in fairly rough, jungle-like terrain. Progress was slow and exhausting. That first kilometre took more than one hour, and we began to realise that we may not be able to get to the summit and back before dark. We certainly did not want to have to make our way down in the dark; it would be extremely difficult and dangerous.

Compared to the humans, the dogs had no difficulty with the ascent (they have the advantage of permanent 4-wheel drive).

There was a constant sound of birdsong and some wonderful flora, including this amazing plant:

Although this appears to be a “fungus that looks like a flower”, it is in fact a “flower that looks like a fungus”: Monotropa uniflora, the “Indian Pipe”. It is a vascular flowering plant that completely lacks chlorophyll, does not photosynthesise, and is parasitic on Russula fungus (which in turn is parasitic on the tree among whose roots it grows).

After the initial steep climb, we emerged onto the ridge, joining the main pilgrimage route. There were many religious artifacts and signs of devotion along this route.

First we came to 弁天の森 Benten no mori—the forest of the god Benten, at a height of 1600 metres. This is one of several locations where people have left wooden notes. I don’t know the significance; perhaps they are requests for favours from the god.

Here is a bronze statue of a monk at shoubou no shuku.

Eventually we reached the summit of 弥山 Mt Misen. This is only a short distance (750 metres away) from Mt Hakkyo, and only slightly lower (1895 metres as opposed to 1915 m). This would have to do for today, because we were running out of daylight and the weather was turning bad.

This is the highest point that Miffy has achieved, so far. Yuko and Shiro and I have all been higher, in the Alps.

At the very summit of the mountain is a shrine. By this time it was becoming very misty and there were flashes of lightning and loud rolls of thunder booming up the valley, so we decided to get off the mountain and return to the car as quickly as possible.

The final 1 kilometre of steep descent was very difficult, and took over one hour and a quarter, at times progressing at only 10 metres per minute. It was quite a relief to arrive back at the car.

Note on the word of the day:

The three characters 修験道 mean “study – test – way”.

The 道 dou of 修験道 shugendou is the character for road, or way (Japanese pronunciation: michi). This is very familiar to English speakers from martial arts like judo, aikido, and kendo. In Chinese it is pronounced “Tao” or “Dao”, as in Taoism.

Irish Curry

At lunchtime today we went out for Irish curry. Sounds like a joke, right? But it’s real. Since 2008.

If you like Irish pubs, and you like curry restaurants, you will love Irish Curry. You can eat in or take away.

At Happy Hour (5 to 7 p.m.) all beer is 200 yen off. Which means a pint of Guinness costs “only” 800 yen.

We went inside and ate at the counter. Here’s the menu:

Even if you can’t read Japanese, you will notice that “Guinness Beer” features in the menu descriptions.

All three of us ordered sasami curry (chicken breast fillets) which may or may not have involved Guinness Beer. It was delicious; the chicken was tender and the breadcrumb coating was crisp.

They even serve it with some cabbage leaves to make me feel at home!

 

瓦 kawara—roof tiles

Some weeks ago, I cycled to see a “roof-tile stupa” – a 7th-century earthen mound or pyramid covered in roof-tiles.

This stupa was constructed by a monk called Gyouki who helped to promote Buddhism in Japan in the 7th century, and also did lots of works to help the poor, such as building clinics, carp ponds, and irrigation (as well as stupas).

Anyway, you can see the ceramic roof tiles from 1300 years ago. The design is simple: alternating rows of hemi-cylindrical convex tiles and quarter-cylindrical concave tiles.

Ceramic roof-tiles (kawara) are still a distinctive and appealing feature of Japanese houses, and they have evolved lots of interesting features to reward a closer look.

Nowadays the convex marugawara and flat hiragawara are usually combined into a single tile, creating an elegant, wavy roof surface. The house below features both styles.

At the end of the ridges on the upper roof, you can also see the scary faces of onigawara – ogre tiles.

The pendant discs on the end tiles are gaitou, and they often have a particular circular pattern like tadpoles or commas.  This very ancient symbol, called tomoe, is reminiscent of Celtic forms such as the triskel.

Lots of roofs have other decorative features, such as turtles, fish, dragons, gods…

Note on the word of the day:

In an earlier post, I remarked on the fact that the Japanese word for gas, normally written in katakana as ガス, can be written using kanji characters: 瓦斯. This is very unusual for a loan-word from English.

Anyway, the first character in is 瓦, which is the character for roof-tile. In this case it is merely being used for its sound value “GA” (the Chinese pronunciation of 瓦). When a kanji is used purely for its sound value, this is called ateji.