庭 niwa—garden

I’ve posted a few times about our little garden, and our efforts to cultivate it and grow fruit and vegetables. We’ve had mixed success. Cucumbers have been our most successful crop, in terms of both quantity and size. Yuko has pickled some of our surplus.

On the other hand, we have had numerous setbacks. Many of our early plants died from various causes, and some of our surviving plants never bore fruit.

This courgette (zucchini) plant has grown many small fruit (strictly, ovaries), but the female flowers never open. They remain closed, so they don’t get pollinated, and the baby fruit rot from the tip. I have tried actually tearing open the sepals slightly to introduce some pollen, but it hasn’t worked.

We have had similar lack of success with our pumpkin plant. It has grown to a prodigious height, and sported dozens of spectacular flowers, all male. Until recently, there were no female flowers at all. There are a few now, but I fear it is coming to the end of its life.

Other plants have had some limited success. A mini-paprika plant has borne 1 paprika, a piman (Japanese pepper) plant also has only one fruit,


and likewise our aubergine (eggplant), whose single fruit looks misshapen and discoloured, but we’ll wait and see how it develops.


This sunflower was among the first plants we planted back in early April, and finally bloomed this week.

We’ve also harvested some beans, and some strawberries. But if we depended for food on what we have managed to grow, we would have meagre pickings indeed!

Over the last three months, I’ve continually replanted, replacing any plants that died, and reusing the space as efficiently as possible. This weekend I planted rows of broccoli and brussels sprouts for harvesting in winter.

We also have some corn plants that are looking quite promising.

Over in the park, I realised this week that what I had thought were crazily overgrown water-lilies are actually lotus plants (hasu). You can see the closed buds of the lotus flowers in the photo. The water surface is completely hidden by the wild profusion of growth.


In this photo you can see the characteristic round lotus seed pod. Lotus tubers (renkon) are a popular vegetable in Japan.




夏 natsu—summer

It’s hot. Now that the rainy season is over, we just have relentless sunshine, heat and humidity.

Daily maximum temperatures are around 35°C (95°F). Now, I don’t have much experience with high temperatures, but I wouldn’t have thought that sounds too hot. I mean, it’s maybe 10° hotter than a hot day in Ireland, but it’s not like it’s in the 40s. But humidity is a big factor in the comfort level, and it is very humid here. So when you open the door and go outside, it feels like stepping into a sauna. Another factor is that there is very little shade, at least around midday.

So is it tolerable? Well, yes, up to a point. But it’s limiting. Yesterday I walked for about 1 hour in the sunshine and started to feel dangerously overheated. Today I was doing some light weeding in the garden, and after about an hour I was pouring with sweat and glad to come indoors. The hot weather slows you down, makes you feel lethargic (natsu-bate—summer lethargy), means that you don’t feel like going outside, and when you do you have to be careful.

Another issue is that the daily minimum temperature is around 26°C. That is to say, the temperature dips to 26°C just before sunrise, and by 6.30 a.m. when I am taking the dogs for a walk it is already a sticky 28°C. This means that it’s too warm to sleep without air conditioning, and permanently too warm for the dogs to be comfortable outdoors. But they need their exercise.

A couple of weekends ago I made the mistake of taking the dogs out to Tsurumi Ryokuchi park in the middle of the day. Tsurumi Ryokuchi is a very large, wonderful park in the east of Osaka that hosted an international “Flower Expo” in 1990, and still has many features left over from that event.

At the time of the Expo, each participating country was invited to create a pavilion representing their country. The country pavilions remain, and despite 2 decades of neglect, it is still interesting to see the different designs.

This is the gate-house of the Korean pavilion.



and Spain:


I didn’t get a photo of the Irish pavilion, because the dogs were really suffering from the heat and it was a dangerous situation for them. They took every opportunity to cool off in the various lakes.

In the Bulgarian pavilion they jumped right into a shallow stone trough that had once been a water feature, and tried to immerse themselves in the greenish, brackish water.


It was time to go back to the car and go home.



Isn’t this building incredible? This whimsical fantasy is the work of an Austrian architect called Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

This is one of two huge buildings, designed by Hundertwasser, on the island of Maishima in Osaka’s port area. They are waste treatment (incineration) plants. Their façades, rich in detail and humour and primary colours, seem to rebel against the forces of sterile modernity, efficiency and maturity. They seem to say “Why not?” and never fail to bring a smile to my face.

The chimneys are gold-topped minarets.  With portholes.

Trees are planted at various levels on the exterior of the buildings, and on a helical ramp encircling the lower levels of the chimneys like ivy.

Clearly Mr Hundertwasser had a great love for windows (and no desire whatever to make any two the same).

I reached the island by walking across this bridge, one of an incredible number of suspension bridges that criss-cross the harbour area, linking all the artificial islands. It was a very hot day for this kind of walk!

While walking across, I felt the bridge shaking up and down under my feet in a way that felt a bit alarming. But looking back at the structure from underneath, and seeing how thin the deck is, it’s not so surprising that it flexes along its length.

The incineration plant apparently has a garden that is open to visitors—I wonder what fanciful delights are to be found within?

Unfortunately by the time I reached this point after walking for an hour, with precious little shade, I was getting dangerously overheated and couldn’t risk staying any longer in the open.

Here’s an information plaque with a picture of Mr Hundertwasser.


花火 hanabi—fireworks

Yesterday we went to see the Tenjin matsuri summer festival in the centre of Osaka. So did a million other people.

This tradition goes back over a thousand years and is very spectacular, taking place both on land (a procession through the streets) and on the water (a boat parade on the Yodogawa river). There is also a firework display, with the fireworks being launched from boats on the river.


These murals on Tenjin-bashi bridge show images of the festival from the Edo period.

Here is one of the boats in the modern-day festival. (Sorry about the poor focus.)

Tenjin-bashi bridge itself was lined with people cheering the boats passing underneath. In hindsight, we should probably have stayed  there.

As the procession moved off, we tried to follow and get a glimpse of it. But there were too many people, and the police were directing us away from the route. We tried to get ahead of it, but it went in a different direction and we lost it.

There were huge crowds at the festival, and many of them had dressed up for the occasion in traditional costume of colourful yukata robes and geta wooden clogs. Young people especially had taken the trouble to dress up.

The festival is enormously popular. The streets and bridges were closed to traffic and filled with people.

We wanted to go to see the fireworks, and we found ourselves moving with the flow of tens of thousands of people towards the river. The street was lined with police, directing us (or so we thought) to where we could see the fireworks. In fact, their only concern was crowd control, keeping people moving through the streets, and preventing a dangerous crush, rather than facilitating the people to enjoy the festival.


We reached the river at Sakuranomiya bridge, from which it was possible to see the fireworks. However, the police were insistent on keeping the crowd moving. “Do not stop on the bridge. It is very congested. Keep moving. Keep moving. Do not stop on the bridge.”

So, having been herded through through the hot city streets for a mile to a spot where it was possible to see the fireworks, we were only able to see them during the 5 minutes it took the crowd to shuffle across the bridge. They looked pretty good.


After crossing the bridge, we decided to get some food at the festival stalls. But after 5 minutes of trying to make our way through the crowd and making very little progress, we gave up.

So, our experience of Tenjin matsuri wasn’t altogether successful (although we did see a lot of interesting things). What should we have done differently? I think if we were doing it again, we would just arrive early, stay at the green area on the tip of Nakanoshima island, and watch the boat procession from there. And maybe it would have been possible to see the fireworks from there too, I don’t know for sure.

Note on the word of the day:

花火 hanabi means “flower fire”. Isn’t that nice?


潮 shio—tide

In yesterday’s post, “橋 hashi—bridge” I wrote about the first part of our trip to Awajishima island. Our goal was the famous Naruto whirlpools at the southern end of the island.


In the map, you can see how Awajishima (circled in red) almost completely closes off the Inland Sea from the open waters of the Pacific. Twice a day, the rising tide filling the Inland Sea has to make its way around the island through the narrow channels of the Akashi Strait (to the north) and the Naruto Strait (to the south); twice a day the falling tide has to make its way past in the other direction.

The Naruto Strait in particular experiences one of the fastest tidal currents in the world; at 10 knots supposedly the fourth fastest after two locations in Norway (including the famous maelstrom that claimed Captain Nemo’s Nautilus) and one in Nova Scotia.

The Naruto Strait is crossed by the Great Naruto Bridge—not as long as the Akashi bridge but still an impressive and beautiful structure with a central span of 876 metres.


We drove across this bridge to the island of Shikoku; the smallest of Japan’s 4 main islands. It was my first time to visit Shikoku.

We had timed our visit for the maximum tidal current; the mid-falling tide at 2:00 pm. We parked the car and walked up to a spot overlooking the strait, to enjoy the show.

お茶園 means “tea garden”—it seems the local lord had a tea-house here long ago.

Our elevated viewing place overlooked this little island: Tobishima.

The whirlpools never really materialised. Clearly, there was a huge amount of turbulence and overfall as the water rushed under the bridge at high velocity, but it didn’t develop into the kind of hollow vortex that we imagined, and that we had seen in the pictures.


The best indication of the speed and vorticity of the water came from watching the boats that were bringing tourists out for a closer look (I imagine they buy sick-bags by the pallet-load). Boats coming under the bridge with the current attained amazing speeds, then when they entered the turbulent area they were spun violently around.

As usual, our poor dogs were suffering from the heat. They love the snow and the cold weather, but in the height of the Japanese summer there is no escape from the heat and humidity, day or night. Even the ground gets uncomfortably warm for them. Here you can see they are wearing bandannas packed with ice to keep them cool.

After watching the whirlpools (or rather, the turbulent waters, the whirlpools having failed to materialise), we went down to the souvenir shop area for some lunch. We got Naruto noodles. The swirly design in the Naruto fish sausage represents the whirlpools.

Note on the word of the day:

潮 shio, meaning tide, is pronounced in the same way as 塩 shio, meaning salt. The character breaks down into semantic and phonetic elements as follows:

The three strokes on the left (semantic) side are a reduced form of 水 meaning water. This element is found in hundreds of characters with meanings related to water, such as lake, wash, sea, swim, wave, and so on. The right (phonetic) side 朝 means “morning”, but here it is just used for its (Chinese) pronunciation chou. So together, the character contains the information “a water-related word that sounds like chou“.

橋 hashi—bridge

Awajishima is an island in the Inland Sea not far from the cities of Osaka and Kobe. Although it is not one of the 4 main islands of Japan, it is not tiny either, being over 50 kilometres long.

At the north end of Awajishima is the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world; at the southern end, the world’s fourth-fastest tidal current generates the famous Naruto whirlpools. Today, we saw both.

The central span of the Akashi-Kaikyou bridge is 1,991 metres long, and the total length of the bridge is 3,911 metres. The bridge was built in 1998 as part of a project to link the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku by road.

Like any large suspension bridge, its elegance and lightness of form belie the extraordinary scale and mass of its towers and pillars.

At the north end of Awajishima island, an expressway service area is very popular with sightseers for the views it offers over the bridge, the strait, and the city of Kobe on the other side.

There were warnings to beware (“chuui“) of tonbi (kites) when eating and drinking, as they have been known to swoop down and steal food.

Later, at Naruto, Yuko took some photos of kites.

At the service area there was also a display of a section of main cable from the bridge, serving as a reminder that each of those cables strung in an elegant catenary above the bridge deck is actually a complex construction about a metre in diameter, weighing thousands of tonnes.

Like many expressway service areas in Japan, this one had a dog run, where the dogs can run off the lead and socialise with other travelling dogs.

There was also a mascot or character called “Wataru”.

Wataru’s purpose in life is to serve as a platform for self-timer cameras, so that visitors can take a photo of themselves with the bridge in the background.

A note on the word of the day:

The left-hand side of the character 橋 hashi is the element 木 meaning wood. On the right side I like to delude myself that I can make out the form (in cross-section) of some vehicle crossing a bridge over a river. That’s not really how it works, but it was good enough for me as a mnemonic when I had to learn to recognise the character. In reality, the right-hand part is a phonetic element kyou, representing the “Chinese” pronunciation of the character. So, the left-hand (semantic) element says “something made of wood”; the right-hand (phonetic) element says “something pronounced like kyou“; put them together and “Aha! it’s hashi, a bridge!”

I think I like my way better – squint until you can convince yourself it looks like a bridge!

回転寿司 kaiten-zushi—conveyor-belt sushi

On Sunday evening we went out with my father-in-law to our excellent local sushi restaurant: Kuroshio.


Although it is easy walking distance from our house, we went by car because we drove to pick up Yuko’s dad on the way.

Kuroshio is a 回転寿司 kaiten-zushi restaurant, where the food rides around on a conveyor belt and you pick up anything you fancy as it passes by. In this case, however, they mostly don’t put out the food, and what actually travels around on the conveyor belt is pictures of the food. This ensures that the food is freshly made to order.


As well as choosing from the belt, you can order directly from the menu. There are dishes at various prices from 100 yen up to 500 yen.


The colour of the plate is different depending on the price. At the end of the meal they count all the plates of each colour to determine the total cost.

Typically, a meal with 4 or 5 plates and a drink comes to around 1500 yen (€15) each.

You can choose to sit western style at a counter or a booth, or Japanese style at a low table. If you choose this option, you take off your shoes on the way in, and sit or squat on a cushion on the floor.


One of my favourite Japanese foods is gari or pickled ginger. Yuko makes very nice gari. In the sushi restaurant, it’s provided free for you to help yourself. Eaten between courses of different kinds of sushi, it is supposed to clean and freshen the palate. This one is pale; sometimes it is coloured pink or has a natural pink colour.


Also provided on the table are various kinds of soy sauce and wasabi. You pour the soy sauce into a bowl and then mix in the wasabi with your chopsticks.



Then when you pick up each piece of sushi, you dip it into the mixture before putting it in your mouth.

(It’s probably a good idea to put the whole piece in your mouth at once even if it seems big – any attempt to bite it in two is likely to lead to dropped food and loss of dignity.)

Not all sushi is raw: there are lots of “aburi” or grilled options, such as this grilled trio (the one on the left is eel, in the middle is a scallop, not sure about the other one).


These two types of fish are both called “yellowtail” or “amberjack” in English. In Japanese they are buri and hamachi.


Finally, my father-in-law ordered this, which is exactly what it looks like; a plate of fried bones:


In a country where no food is wasted, it makes perfect sense when you have removed and served the fillet, to deep-fry the bones and serve them too. It’s called hone-senbei—bone crackers. To my amazement, it was crispy and delicious and did not at all have the unpleasant texture of fish-bones.

Note on the word of the day:

The name of the restaurant, kuroshio (literally: black tide), is the name of a current, the Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream, that transports warm tropical water along the shores of Japan. It is of great importance for Japanese fisheries.