だんじり danjiri—festival float

Our village is getting ready for the autumn festival next weekend. The people will parade through the narrow streets of the village, pulling a danjiri (a wheeled float or portable shrine).

4 children will ride in the danjiri, playing bells (kane) and drums (taiko). Yesterday morning they were practising in the square in front of the shrine. They had a pretty good rhythm going. Each village has its own signature rhythm. You can hear them playing in this short video.

In this area, there are two kinds of float: danjiri, which is on wheels and pulled through the street using ropes, and futon daiko, which is carried through the streets on people’s shoulders. In the southern part of Osaka prefecture, south of the Yamato river (the ancient province of Izumi, where we live) there are a lot of danjiri festivals, some big shrines having dozens of very elaborate danjiri.

Our village shrine has one danjiri, and it is small; it is a kodomo danjiri—a children’s danjiri. The danjiri is traditionally made of keya-no-ki zelkova wood without the use of a single nail.

The children take off their shoes before climbing into the danjiri.

All the other children of the village sat patiently in the square, waiting for their turn.

Early this morning there was a dress rehearsal, and the danjiri was brought along the parade route. Here they are arriving in our street.

People were already in a festival mood, and our neighbours all came to their doors or windows to watch.

While the children sit inside the danjiri and play the bells and drums, some adult participants stand precariously on top. During the festival, they will perform feats of balance like spreading their arms wide and standing on one foot.

The danjiri is guided and steered through the street to the sound of a “heave-ho” that sounds like “sorya … dorya“, led by the man standing on the front of the danjiri.

Note on the word of the day:

I have no idea of the origin of the word danjiri.


島 shima—island

I like islands. Each feels like a little self-contained world with its own character, waiting to be explored.

A short sea crossing adds to the appeal, helping to emphasise the fact that you are temporarily leaving the everyday world and going somewhere different, somewhere whose identity is defined by its separation from the mainland. All the better if you happen to be the only people on the island at the time.

A visit to Oshima, in Fukui prefecture, doesn’t require a sea crossing. It is connected to the mainland by a very attractive  pedestrian bridge, a few hundred metres long.


The part of the island in the photo is facing Tojinbo (see my previous blog post) and has the same columnar basalt.

Unfortunately, when we went there on the Saturday of our holiday, this is what we found:

The bridge was closed for maintenance, and the island inaccessible, until the end of November. I was very disappointed.

But when we returned the next day, there was nobody working there on a Sunday, so we were able to visit the island after all. Yay!

This guide map (the inset part, in the top left) shows the general layout of the island and some of its attractions. Its a steep-sided island, with a mix of different habitats and different rocky substrate. It’s a couple of hundred metres wide and long, and the walk is 1.2 km.

The pictured attractions are “magnetic rocks” (1), a fresh-water well that is supposedly so cold that if you put a cucumber into it, it will break (3), and the yabunikkei (Japanese cinnamon) forest (4). I couldn’t wait!

Here we are, about to set off across the sea to the island:

Arriving at the island end of the bridge, we were greeted by a torii shrine gate, stone lanterns and two stone koma-inu guardians.

Passing through the shrine gate, the path led straight into the forest and up a steep path. Turning right, we passed through the cinnamon forest. These trees are close relatives of the camphor trees (kusu no ki) I wrote about before.

Emerging from the forest onto the northern, rocky shore of the island, we arrived at the magnetic rocks. I decided to test the rocks using my compass. Sure enough, the compass was deranged about 40 degrees by the magnetism in the rocks.

This looks like it started out as layers of sedimentary rock—maybe these rocks were lifted and cooked by the extrusion of basaltic rock that formed this island, and somehow the process of heating and cooling caused them to be magnetised?

Leaving the magnetic rocks behind, we went to Oominato shrine, which is in a little clearing near the landward side of the island. The wooden structure is apparently very old.

One of the striking features of this shrine is the torii “window” framing the view across the sea to Tojinbo.

Finally, we went to the southern part of the island to track down the famously cold water spring. It’s rainwater that falls on the island, and percolates along horizontal faults in the rock, emerging at low level near the sea shore.

After clambering over the rocks, we finally found it. It didn’t seem that impressive, and when I tested it with my foot (I didn’t have a cucumber handy) it didn’t even seem excessively cold. But a fresh-water source on a small island is a precious thing, and I could see how it would have been significant in times past.

Shiro waited nearby, wondering why we were showing such interest in a pool of water.

At the top of the rocks I found sea-grapes growing:

We ended our tour of the island with a visit to the lighthouse.

The brass plaque over the door says it was built in Showa 29, which is 1954.


Note on the word of the day:

If you compare the character for “bird”: 鳥 tori with the character for “island”: 島 shima, you can see that they are identical apart from the very bottom part. In the “bird” character this is made up of 4 dots that, in the original pictograph, represented the bird’s feet (yes, I know birds don’t have 4 feet!). In the “island” character, these 4 dots are replaced by the symbol for a mountain.

What’s the connection between “bird” and “island”? I’m not sure. The modern Chinese pronunciations are similar (dao for island, and diao for bird), so that might be the reason; maybe they were originally pronounced the same.

Anyway, whenever you see a Japanese placename containing the word “shima” (or “jima”), you know it means “island”.

崖 gake—cliff

Tojinbo (東尋坊) is the name of a spectacular seaside cliff feature in Fukui prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast. It is composed of vertical columns reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, formed by volcanic activity over 10 million years ago. We visited last weekend.


At Tojinbo, you can wander freely out onto the top of the rocks. From that vantage point, the danger isn’t fully apparent.

However, the next day, from the island of Oshima, we took this picture looking back towards Tojinbo (the horseshoe-shaped feature with the tiny people on top).

If you look over the edge, right beside where people are walking around and posing for photographs, you can see the completely unprotected vertical drop of around 25 metres all the way to the sea below.

Sadly, this is traditionally a very popular suicide spot. In fact, for many of my colleagues this was the first thing that came to mind when I said I was going to Tojinbo. It is said that around 20 people take their lives at this spot every year.

In response to this human tragedy, a retired policeman named Yukio Shige has taken to patrolling the cliffs and persuading people not to jump. He claims to have saved hundreds of lives in this way.

We stayed a safe distance from the edge and kept the dogs on the lead.

We made our way down to the base of the cliffs and paddled in the warm sea-water.

There is a horrendously tacky complex of souvenir shops right at the top of the cliffs. Quite a contrast from the Giant’s Causeway.

This is a view of the beautiful coastline extending around the bay towards Oshima island. You can see the red bridge to Oshima on the left of the picture.

This may have been a sea-cave, formed by the action of the waves, whose roof eventually collapsed. I love the colour pattern of the sandstone layers.


トイレ toire—toilet

Our toilet has lots of advanced features, accessed using a little control panel alongside the seat.

Colloquially, this kind of toilet is often referred to as a ウォシュレット “Washlet”, but strictly speaking Washlet is a trade mark of Toto. Not “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” Toto, nor “I bless the rains down in Africa” Toto; the Toto that is the main manufacturer of toilets and bathroom furniture in Japan. (Originally Touyou Touki—Oriental Ceramics).

Because our Washlet is produced not by Toto but by Matsushita (National) it is not marketed as a Washlet but as a “Clean Showare”.

The main features of the Washlet/Clean Showare are a heated toilet seat and the ability to direct a powerful and highly-focused jet of warm water at your nether regions with uncanny accuracy.

Anyway, you can see the control panel in the photo above. From right to left we have:

  • a 節電 setsuden button for saving electricity. Actually I’ve no idea what that does.
  • 2 buttons for regulating the temperature of the warm water spray and the temperature of the seat;
  • a pair of buttons for increasing and decreasing the water spray pressure;
  • a button labelled “bidet” to direct the water jet in a more forward direction (Is it my imagination or does the woman in the diagram look a little surprised?);
  • a button labelled “backside” for a more rearward direction of spray (this one also has a “rhythm” option);
  • and a “STOP” button.

Another feature unique to Japanese toilets is the facility to use the water flowing into the cistern to wash your hands, thus saving water. Unfortunately, only cold water is available, so if you want to wash your hands with hot water you still have to go to the bathroom wash basin.

Of course, no Japanese appliance would be complete without a warning sign 注意 chuu-i, and the toilet is no exception.

The operation of the heated seat and spray are governed by two microswitches – one pressure switch in the seat, so that if nobody is sitting on the toilet seat it won’t activate, spraying water all over the room; the other in the lid, so that if someone is sitting on the toilet with the lid closed, it won’t spray onto the underside of the closed lid. You see, they’ve thought of everything. In Boolean terms, the permissive for operation is “A AND NOT B”.

Of course in Japan, nothing stands still, not even in the world of toilets, and new features are always being added. For example, at work the toilets (genuine washlet, in this case) include a “Powerful Deodoriser”. (Sorry, I don’t know why this photo came out so bad. Maybe I was self-conscious about taking photos in the toilets at work.)

During the summer months, there has been a sign on the wall prohibiting the use of the heated seat, in order to save electricity.

On a recent weekend away, the inn that we stayed in had toilets so advanced that they were fitted with infra-red motion detectors that detect your approach and automatically raise the lid for you. The seat was also raised and lowered by means of a button on the (very complex) control panel.

I notice that this one offers an intermediate position between “backside” and “bidet” called yawaraka. This is not a word I am familiar with, and I didn’t try it. It also has a hot-air dryer.

While all these features are great, the hotel guest on a late-night visit to the toilet may not particularly feel like wrestling with this level of complexity (which button to raise the seat? 3 different flush options?). He may start to feel nostalgic for the more traditional washiki Japanese-style  toilet, which looks like this:

Note on the word of the day:

トイレ toire is probably just a Japanese abbreviation of the English word “toilet”. Of course, like English, Japanese has lots of words for toilet; 便所 benjo, お手洗い o-tearai (literally: hand washing) and various other old-fashioned or euphemistic words.

海女 ama—diver

Yesterday morning before breakfast, we walked from our hotel to the nearby rocky seashore, where Shiro and Miffy and I paddled in the warm sea water amid the breathtaking beauty of the “Echizen Matsushima” shoreline.

As usual Shiro swam around for a while, while Miffy mostly just stood in the shallow water and barked at the sea. While she has never yet succeeded in making the sea go away, she has not given up trying.

While we were there, a very ancient lady in a wetsuit came to the shore pushing a half-barrel on a wheelbarrow. Without a word she walked straight into the water, towing the barrel behind her.

When the water was deep enough, she started swimming out to sea, pushing the barrel in front, until she swam out of sight.

The lady was an ama, a diver for shellfish. This is a traditional activity in Japan that is mainly done by women. Many of them are very old. They are free-divers; they use no breathing equipment. They hold their breath for long minutes while working underwater, making brief visits to the surface every so often to deposit their catch in the floating barrel.

Later that morning, a little further along the coast, we saw another ancient lady returning to shore with her catch. The dogs were very interested.

There was a strange disconnect where, on the one hand, she was too old and feeble to carry the net of shellfish up the steps by herself, while on the other hand she swims out to sea every morning and uses a big knife to dislodge shellfish from the sea-bed while holding her breath, then carries them home on a moped. Like some weird combination of granny and superhero.

I asked her whether I could help her. She didn’t understand what I said. I asked her if she needed help bringing the heavy load up the steps. She didn’t understand. I asked her about the shellfish in the bag, whether they were sazae. She couldn’t understand a word I said. Wakkaran, wakkaran, she repeated, shaking her head. Another disconnect, this time between my ability to speak Japanese and her ability to hear or understand. A Japanese man came along and together we helped her to carry the barrel and the shellfish to the top of the steps.

Note on the word of the day:

ama is written with characters meaning 海 “sea” and 人 “person”: 海人; or 海 “sea” and 女 “woman”: 海女.



自転車 jitensha—bicycle

Cycling is a very popular way of getting around in Japan. For short journeys, many people find it easier and more practical to travel by bicycle than to take the car. It’s not restricted to any age group; old people, housewives, children, young adults, families all travel by bike.

The local shopping mall has a big bicycle park in front, where you would expect to find a car park. The picture shows just a small part of it – it extends for about 150 metres, with thousands and thousands of bikes.

Nearly all the bikes you see are of a similar, very practical, basic design. They have a single gear, a basket on the front, and sometimes also on the rear (for carrying shopping and small dogs).

They usually have a drum brake in the rear wheel hub, and come fitted with a built-in wheel-lock, a stand, a dynamo-driven front lamp and a bell. Typically they cost less than €100. It is really rare to see other types of bicycle, such as the hybrid road/mountain bike that is a popular commuting choice in Ireland, or a racing bike.

Having no selectable gears, they don’t go very fast, but whizzing along at around 20 km/h (12 mph) they are very competitive with cars in the suburban environment.

Of course, with so many bikes around, you can’t just park anywhere; the place would be completely cluttered. There are indoor bike parks near the stations, that cost around ¥100 for all-day parking.

Here are some pictures of the underground bicycle park at Nakamozu station:

Yuko’s bike is parked on the upper level.

She reaches up and pulls back the slide,

then lowers it to the ground.

Leaving the bicycle park, there is a narrow conveyor belt running alongside the stairs, to assist with rolling the bike up the ramp.

Unfortunately, neither of us realised until we had reached the top that the conveyor belt only helps if you use the brakes! We felt pretty stupid.

In Japan cyclists share the footpath with pedestrians. This sounds like a recipe for accidents, especially because cyclists travel in both directions on the same footpath. However it seems to work very well and I haven’t seen any collisions.

It’s very common to see a parent cycling with one or two small children on the bike. The school run is normally done by bicycle, until the child is old enough to cycle to school alone, which happens at a very young age. Having children doesn’t mean you have to buy a people-carrier or an SUV!

When it’s raining (and, for some women cyclists, when it is sunny) it is common to see people holding an umbrella while cycling. In fact a lot of bikes have a clip on the handlebar for holding an umbrella or parasol.

One thing I didn’t get a picture of, is the large number of young people who cycle while using their smartphones. I am both impressed and appalled by this. If I tried to cycle while focusing on a 4-inch screen, I wouldn’t get 50 metres before crashing into a lamppost or another cyclist, or just falling off. But they seem to be able to cycle at full speed while reading and typing messages.

There is also a bit of a unicycle craze among young girls. I first noticed it two years ago, and now two of the little girls in our street have unicycles.  Here’s one I saw in the park:

Also in the park I came across these bikes, belonging to a group of “silver workers”. Lots of retired people take on part-time jobs such as security, car park attendant or park maintenance. I don’t know to what extent it’s out of choice or necessity.

Sakai city – this city – is the home of the bicycle in Japan. It is here that bicycles were first introduced from Europe 140 years ago, at the end of the Edo period. To this day, 40% of all the bicycles in Japan are made here. Local company Shimano produces an amazing 50% of all the bicycle components in the world. There is even a bicycle museum, which sounds interesting but we have not yet visited.

In homage to the importance of Sakai as a centre of bicycle production, the annual Tour of Japan cycling competition, held in May each year, starts with a short stage in Sakai city.

Note on the word of the day:

自転車 jitensha is written with characters meaning “self” “revolve” “wheeled vehicle”, which is a reasonable description of a bicycle. A very common slang word is チャリンコ charinko or just chari. A typical functional bike with a basket on the front is sometimes called mama-chari. When I heard this word, I assumed it was borrowed from English “chariot”, and that the word meant “mama chariot”, which is a kind of nice image. Sadly, it’s not. The real etymology is uncertain, but some sources say the name comes from the sound of the bell “charin, charin”, while others say it is borrowed from Korean.

Edited to add (2nd Sept 2012): A knowledgeable friend points out that

“nko” adds the meaning of littleness/cuteness to certain nouns/adjectives/adverbs such as yukkurinko (slowly) and bacchirinko (perfect) that are normally used by gals…