クリニック clinic

Healthcare is surprisingly cheap in Japan. I went to see the doctor this morning with a throat infection. Arriving at the clinic, after explaining my symptoms, I had a brief conversation with the receptionist:

“Is this your first time coming here?”

“No, my second” (I showed her the card I had been issued last time)

“How did you pay last time?”

“I paid cash. I don’t have insurance, so I will be paying cash again this time.”

(looking worried) “You realise you will have to pay the full amount?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“You will pay 100% of the cost.”


Now this conversation would have been quite alarming, except that I knew from experience that the bill would not be very expensive, and certainly didn’t warrant this level of drama.

In the event, I had a consultation with the doctor, he issued me with some tablets (4 types: a course of antibiotics, some painkillers, expectorant and cough suppressant). The total bill, including the medicine, was ¥2980. About €30.

On a previous visit to Japan, Yuko had suffered from severe food poisoning. She was taken to hospital in an ambulance, put on a drip and kept in overnight for observation. Again, we paid the full bill. The ambulance, hospital stay and treatment cost less than €100.


Yesterday evening after work, I went to the pharmacy to try to find a Japanese equivalent of Lemsip, a medicated hot lemon drink that does wonders for cold and flu symptoms. I tried to explain to the pharmacist, in croaky voice and limping Japanese:

“I have a sore throat and have lost my voice. In my country, we have a warm drink we take when we have cold or flu.”

“A warm drink?”

“Yes, a warm drink with lemon flavour.”

“A warm drink?”

“Yes, it’s powder and you make it up with hot water.”

“A warm drink?”

At this point it was clear that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. The fact that I could hardly squeak the words out may not have helped.

“So, do you have something like that in Japan?”

“Ah, no, I don’t think so.”

I bought some cough syrup, and picked up some lemons and honey on the way home.

Note on the word of the day:

The word クリニック kurinikku is just the English word “clinic” rendered in katakana. As is so often the case with borrowed words, there is a perfectly good Japanese word 医院 i-in meaning clinic but Japanese is a profligate borrower of foreign vocabulary even when a Japanese word already exists.


山 yama—mountain

天保山 Tenpozan is the lowest mountain in Japan. And that’s official.


At 4.53 metres above sea level (hey, every centimetre counts!) it is undeniably low. You don’t need to worry about altitude sickness, when standing at the summit of Tenpozan. The picture shows a cartoon representation of the mountain, wearing a sash saying “日本一低い山”—Japan’s lowest mountain— and looking very pleased with this honour.

On the other hand, you may object, how exactly does it qualify as a mountain? Well, the answer is, I don’t know. But we climbed it today, and we were issued with a certificate to prove it. Just like Fuji, various routes to the summit are shown.


I say “climbed” but it was really more of a stroll than an ascent. Arriving at the summit, we found a stone trig point marker embedded in the pavement:

We also found a wooden summit marker and a metal sign from which the writing had all faded away over the years.

There is also a monument from the 1920s commemorating the creation of the island some 60 years before:

and nearby a statue of a Mr Nishimura who was involved in the development of the harbour area in the early Meiji era; a study in Confucian serenity amid cherry trees and black pine. In Japan, black pine trees are traditionally an important aspect of beach-front scenery.

Tenpozan is in the harbour area of Osaka. The whole area is interesting to me because it has been steadily reclaimed from the sea. This island was originally created in the Meiji era using material dredged from the Aji River. Further islands continue to be created, including Maishima (featured in an earlier blog post), Sakishima (home to Osaka’s tallest building, the World Trade Centre), Yumejima, and an island-in-progress, so far known only as “New Island”.

Kobe city, to the west, is engaged in similar development, and you can almost imagine as both cities continue to extend their tendrils into the bay, Osaka Bay will eventually fill up with land and the two cities meet in the middle, leaving only channels wide enough for shipping to access the (now inland) ports.

While the most obvious reason for building new islands is to create new land, in a country where space (especially flat space you can build on) is scarce and valuable, the more immediate reason is a little more prosaic and unlovely: garbage disposal.

Each of the islands starts out as a wall enclosing an area of sea. (Two examples are visible in the Google Earth image above.) Over the next 15 years, this area gets filled up with the city’s building rubble, dredged material and household waste. Finally, it is ready to be landscaped and becomes a new town where people can live, work and play.

A wonderful side-effect of the profileration of artificial islands is the many spectacular bridges that now link them, on a scale that would take your breath away, each one of them both a thing of beauty and a triumph of engineering.

The islands are low-lying, which puts them at risk of flooding if a tsunami comes up the bay. Protective walls have been constructed enclosing the built-up areas, with heavy steel gates that close in the event of a tsunami warning.

Here we see gates 11 and 12. If a tsunami came, the area outside (the park) would be unprotected. There are signs in several languages, saying “In the event of a strong earthquake, please immediately head for the area within dikes!” Just in case you were not inclined to take this warning seriously, the sign includes a picture of a person running with a wave lapping at their heels.

Tenpozan is not the only very low mountain in Japan, or even in our local area. In Sakai’s Ohama Park, we have Sotetsu-yama, which also claims to be the lowest mountain in Japan. At 6.9 metres, it is considerably higher than Tenpozan, so it must be pinning its claim on a definition of the word “mountain” that disqualifies Tenpozan. Just to be on the safe side, we have climbed Sotetsu-yama also, and are in receipt of a certificate issued by the local shrine.

And in our own local park, where I take the dogs for a walk every morning, there is this summit marker at the top of  双子山 futago-yama (Twin Mountain), all of 33.3 metres high.

Next week, we will be making our third attempt to climb Japan’s highest mountain, 3,776 metres high. But for now we can at least say that we have conquered the lowest.

Note on the word of the day:

低い hikui—low is the opposite of 高い takai—high. Just as 最高 saikou (literally, “highest”) is used metaphorically to mean “great”, “the best”; so also 最低 saitei (literally, “lowest”) is used with a metaphorical meaning to condemn someone’s behaviour as being contemptible.

古墳 kofun—keyhole tombs

In Sakai city is a complex of ancient tombs which deserve to be known as one of the wonders of the world.

They are the burial places of ancient Japanese emperors and their consorts. The largest is larger than any other tomb anywhere in the world, including the Pyramids. They are known as 古墳 kofun—ancient graves, and consist of a huge mound of earth in a “keyhole” shape, surrounded by a moat. They are best appreciated from above. Here is a satellite view (image from Google Earth):


In the centre of the picture is Daisen kofun, the burial place of the Nintoku emperor. Officially the Nintoku emperor reigned in the 4th century, although the chronology in this period is considered “legendary” and little is known for certain about his reign, including the dates.

The central island of this kofun is exactly 500 metres long, and the overall length of the tomb precinct is 800 metres. This kofun has a double moat. The scale of  the earthworks required to create this tomb is hard to imagine.

The burial chamber itself is said to be inside the circular part of the mound. Because the Imperial Household Agency considers all 740 of these sites to be sacred, as the burial places of the direct ancestors of the current emperor, the public is not allowed to enter, and only very limited archaeology has been permitted, so they remain somewhat mysterious.

However, some few kofun have been investigated, and archaeologists have found colourful frescoes painted on whitewashed walls, as well as stone coffins and objects that were buried with the emperor.

At the lower right of the picture is the tomb of the Richuu emperor, eldest son and successor to the Nintoku emperor, who supposedly reigned in the early 5th century.

From the ground, of course, it is not possible to make out the keyhole form of the tomb. Instead you look across the moat at the thickly forested hill that forms the central island.

Because the islands of the kofun are declared off-limits and nobody goes there, they are extraordinary havens for wildlife, having remained as intact patches of wilderness as the city and suburbs have spread and built up around them.

An example is the family of tanuki who live on the island of Itasuke kofun. I posted about these guys back in April.

Which leads me on to another question, that I don’t know the answer to.

It seems that back in the 50s, the intention was to level Itasuke kofun for development. There was opposition to this plan, and the work did not go ahead. The concrete structure on which the tanuki is standing in the above picture is the remains of a bridge that was put in place at that time to allow construction vehicles to access the island.

Similarly, today we visited a kofun that had in fact been partially demolished for housing. This is Chinooka kofun.

Without the stone marker (above), it might be hard to recognise what remains as a kofun at all. There is no sign of the moat, and the trapezoidal part of the “keyhole” has been largely levelled. What remains, hemmed in by housing, is a mound that was formerly the round part of the keyhole. The relative paucity and youth of the trees on top suggest that it may have been cleared of vegetation 50 years ago or so. Excavations in the 1970s revealed a sandstone coffin and some precious objects such as bracelets. This is the oldest of the kofun in the area, dating from the 4th century.

What I am wondering is, how could this have happened? If the Imperial Household Agency can assert ownership and authority over all the kofun now, to the extent of not allowing anyone to enter, how was it the case in the 1950s that the partial or complete destruction of several kofun could be proposed?

I don’t know enough about Japanese society and the changing role of the emperor in the years since WWII to hazard an answer to that question.

Note on the word of the day:

The first character in the word 古墳 kofun is 古 ko or furui meaning “old”. The second character 墳 fun or haka meaning “mound” or “grave”, is not one that I know. Another way of writing haka meaning “grave” is the similar kanji 墓.

堺事件 Sakai jiken—the Sakai incident

In 1868, a French corvette, Dupleix, anchored off the coast at Sakai and put a boat ashore. It was a time of great turbulence in Japan, with the country divided between the forces of the deposed shogun and the supporters of the emperor.

The 11 sailors were killed by the Tosa samurai guarding the city. Some tellings of the story state that their deaths were due to some kind of misunderstanding; a failure of communication or protocol. But it’s also true that the French and the samurai were on opposing sides in the conflict;  the French military expedition, sent by Napoleon III, was training the shogunate forces, while the domain of Tosa was among those fighting for the Meiji emperor.

A monument commemorating the event stands at the river mouth in Sakai.

The French government demanded reparations, and 29 samurai who had fired their weapons in the incident, as well as their leaders, were sentenced to death by seppuku (ritual suicide).

Rather than kill so many, a lottery was held to identify 20 to be killed. The ritual killings took place at nearby Myoukokuji temple.

It is said that the condemned men threw their own intestines at the horrified French observer as an expression of contempt for his role, and that after 11 men had died he called for a pardon for the rest. It was felt that honour had been satisfied, 11 Japanese having died in return for the 11 dead Frenchmen.

[Except that the number of Frenchmen killed was actually 12: 11 “sailors” and one “midshipman”. I’m not sure what a midshipman is; is he not a sailor? Did the French government consider his death less important, so that, unlike those of the sailors, he did not need to be avenged?] =Thanks to europemeetsasia for providing clarification on this point – see comments below.

Anyway, to our modern sensibilities, it is a horrific tale. The temple has a monument at the location where the 11 samurai died:

Inside the temple’s treasure room, where we were not allowed to take pictures, we were shown various relics of the incident, including the tantou knife that the samurai used in turn to take their lives, and the table on which the knife was placed, which was still stained with the blood shed over 140 years ago.

Other treasures are items that were rescued from the temple on the two occasions it was destroyed by fire: during the Age of the Warring States, and in the air raids of July 1945. The temple courtyard contains a cycad tree that is supposedly 1100 years old, having survived both fires, and is a national monument.

We were told many interesting things on our guided tour of the temple and its treasures. Unfortunately, we were told these things in Japanese, and I understood little enough of what was said, so I had to wait for Yuko to give me a summary in English after we went back outside.

It seems that in centuries past, the head monk, Nichijou, had a dream in which a dragon came to him, revealed himself as the guardian deity of the temple, and offered three wishes. Nichijou created a shrine in the temple grounds to house the deity.

Does it seem extraordinary that a Buddhist monk, in charge of a Buddhist temple, should inaugurate a Shinto shrine inside the temple grounds, to honour a dragon-god? In Japan it doesn’t seem to be considered contradictory or surprising, and people freely draw from both religious traditions in their beliefs and practices.

The purification font has this wonderfully modern dragon-head water-pipe.

More surprising, perhaps, is to find these characters in the temple grounds:

Does Minnie Mouse have Buddha-nature?

音楽 ongaku—music

We were surprised to find a band playing Irish traditional music at the Sakai fish market today. They were really very good.

The band is Knit, and they are local to Sakai. The fiddler is a real virtuoso. He was in Ireland for two months this summer (sorry, “summer”) playing in Galway and at the Willie Clancy festival in Miltown Malbay. He told me he had learned the fiddle from famous Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples.

I took some video footage using my phone and uploaded it to Youtube. You can watch it here and here.

You can also check out their full studio-produced sound (including flautist) at their official YouTube channel.

After their set, I got chatting to the fiddler, Kenji, and told him I had enjoyed the music, and how surprising it was for me to hear Irish music played at the Sakai fish market.

He was equally surprised and delighted to hear that there had been an Irish person in the audience, and we chatted for a while in Japanese.

Afterwards he tweeted 堺にもいました! アイルランドの人。 異国で聴く祖国の音楽。”Guess who was in Sakai? An Irish person! Hearing his home country’s music abroad.”

A funny thing happened at the end of their set. After the band had played a full set of Irish music, and talked about Ireland and Irish music before and after every single song, the lady acting as announcer took the stage and said “That was Knit, playing the music of Argentina”.

Kenji objected, saying, “No, Ireland. Completely different. Ireland in Europe.” She looked confused and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at keeping maps in my head”. It was clear she had never heard of Ireland.

Note on the word of the day:

音楽 ongaku—music is written with characters 音 meaning “sound” and 楽 “enjoyable”.

お盆 o-Bon

Next week is o-Bon, and it’s a very important time of year in Japan. Trains, planes and hotels will all be booked out and roads will be crowded as millions of people take time off work and travel to their home towns to honour their ancestors and deceased relatives. The belief is that the ancestors visit their home towns for 3 days.

One of the biggest traditions is the 盆踊り bon odori—Bon dance. Music is performed on a platform (yagura) in the middle of the village square, and people dance around it in a circle. Some of the dances have very complicated steps, some less so. The awa-odori dance of Tokushima prefecture is famously elaborate, especially the men’s version.

[Update (19/08/2012): I’ve uploaded a video of bon odori to YouTube. It’s from the neighbouring village of Shinkanaoka.]

Other o-Bon traditions include visiting graves and lighting lanterns.

This morning we watched the yagura platform being decorated in the square in front of our local shrine, Yasaka jinja.

The square was strung with red and white paper lanterns.

As night fell, hundreds of people arrived and the area was illuminated. Lots of people were dressed in traditional yukatas for the occasion.

However, just at the very moment the band took the stage, it started to rain very heavily. Everyone ran for cover. We felt sorry for the people who had worked to organise the event. But it didn’t last long; after half an hour it stopped raining and the festival continued in full spirits.

The musical performance was by a local celebrity called Teppou Hikaru and his band. Teppou sings kawachi ondo, which isn’t easy to appreciate if you don’t understand Japanese. It is a very improvisational, recitative form, often telling stories of historic characters.

When it came to the dancing, I hung back at first, too shy to join in. I didn’t know the steps, I wasn’t wearing the traditional dress, and I felt a bit out of place as a foreigner. But I also felt that if I did not, I would regret the missed opportunity. So I gathered my courage and joined the dance.

Did anyone mind, or think it was strange that I was dancing? I don’t know. I was concentrating too hard on trying to follow what the other dancers were doing. Round and round we went, sweating in the hot night air. I am an ungainly dancer at the best of times, but felt I was starting to get the hang of it.

It was just a small local o-Bon festival, but it’s a part of the fabric of Japanese life and culture, and I’m glad I was briefly a participant and not just a spectator.

Note on the word of the day:

From Wikipedia:

Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana (Japanese: 于蘭盆會 or 盂蘭盆會, urabon’e). It is Sanskrit for “hanging upside down” and implies great suffering. The Japanese believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the “Urabanna”.

Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful for his mother’s kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or “Bon Dance”, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

高い takai—expensive

Some kinds of food in Japan are very expensive. Not everything, but certainly things like fresh fruit and vegetables and dairy products are much more expensive than at home.

These Fuji apples are 198 yen each. (Around 2 euro or 2.5 US dollars.)

Now, I want to be clear about something. This is not one of those sensationalist stories about fancy $100 melons in a fancy department store. That’s a different aspect of Japanese culture. This is the ordinary price of ordinary apples in an ordinary supermarket. If you want to eat an apple or an orange in Japan, this is how much it costs.

On the shelf directly above, you can see some more expensive “Sun Fuji” and “Jonagold” apples, about 5 euro each. These ones are individually wrapped. (The top shelf has 2 nashi pears for 7 euro, and to the right we see two peaches for 5 or 6 euro.)


So, how can this be? How can an apple cost 2 (or 5) euro? How can you spend 10 euro per pound for butter, or 10 euro per kg for oats?

Well, the first thing I discovered is that Japanese people don’t consider that fruit and vegetables are expensive here. For a Japanese person, that’s just the normal price of an apple. And if you think about it, why should they use Irish prices as a baseline? I’m sure you can buy an apple for a few cents in India or Cambodia, but we in Ireland don’t judge our prices against those.

Secondly, every apple (every item of food) is perfect. Japanese people’s standards for food quality are so exacting, that each item has to be perfect, and has to be delicious. An imperfect or mediocre apple is literally unsellable. For this reason a lot of fruit is actually grown inside bags, to protect it from insect damage.

On a related note, Japanese people tend to be very suspicious of any food produced outside Japan. This suspicion is justified to some extent, because nowhere else has the same dedication to producing perfect and delicious food. But producing food in Japan is very expensive, for various reasons.

Recently, Japan’s supermarkets have been stocking Australian beef (from Tasmania). It is very good beef, but is automatically considered inferior (and is sold at half the price) because it’s not Japanese.

So, having got over the initial shock, you are faced with a choice. Either you decide you won’t eat fruit, or you find a way to rationalise the price. And it turns out to be quite easy to rationalise.

First of all, in first-world countries, food accounts for 5 to 10% of the typical household’s income. So even if everything costs double, it may be a shock, but you just have to make adjustments elsewhere.

Secondly, you change your attitude to food—to buying it, and to eating it. In a good way.

If you buy a bag of apples for a euro in Ireland, you may or may not eat them all. Some may end up going wrinkly in the fridge. When you eat them, you don’t particularly enjoy them. It’s just an apple.

In Japan, the apple costs 2 euro (or 5). You buy an apple (1 apple, not some unthinking random number) because you really want to eat one. Not only that, but do you really want to eat a whole apple? In reality, when you eat an apple, you are pretty satiated after a few bites. So you can happily cut an apple in two and eat half each. And when you eat it, you have high expectations. You give it your attention. You think, yes, this is a delicious apple, I am enjoying it. So you are more present in the moment.

You end up buying less food, and wasting less food, and appreciating food more.

And gradually, you discover that you have adjusted your expectations of what food “should” cost. That turns out to be a meaningless concept; all that matters is what it does cost, and it’s up to you whether you choose to pay that or not.

One thing I thought was funny is that they price tomatoes by the unit, instead of by weight. This lonely (but perfect) tomato costs about 1.3 euro.

But, again, it’s a big tomato, and you may well find that half a tomato is all you really want on your plate. Again, no waste: you buy a tomato because you intend to use it that day, not a bag of tomatoes “to have in the fridge”.

Check out the individually wrapped enormous carrots (only 68 yen each, not bad). And you can buy a neatly wrapped quarter of a pumpkin, because after all you don’t really need a whole pumpkin.

Anyway, as I said at the start, not everything is super-expensive. Pasta, real Italian imported pasta, for some reason is no more expensive than it is in Ireland. Fish and shellfish are cheap, as are eggs and mushrooms. And even fruit and vegetables are a lot cheaper when they are in season. Cucumbers, aubergines (eggplants), piman peppers, and beans, for example, got (briefly) very cheap at certain times during the early summer.

Note on the word of the day:

高い takai has two related meanings: “high” and “expensive”.

This character caused me a lot of confusion when I needed to send an e-mail to a colleague, Mr Takamoto. I thought his name was simply this character 高 taka with another very common character 本 moto: 高本. But no matter what I did, Outlook would not recognise his name. I sought help from a colleague, who showed me that it was actually written with an almost identical character with the same pronunciation, like this: 髙本. Can you spot the difference? Neither could I.