バリカン barikan—hair clippers

Every month I go to QB House to get my hair cut short.

QB House (I guess it stands for “Quick Barber”) offers a simple and straightforward deal: they will cut your hair in 10 minutes for 1000 yen. Slogan: “10 minutes Just Cut”.


Just inside the door is a ticket machine: you put in a 1000 yen note, take your ticket, and wait your turn.

At this price, you might expect a “no-frills” service, but in fact the service is really friendly and professional. They will cut your hair any way you want, and trim your eyebrows if you want, with no feeling of being hurried or subject to a time limit.

There are little TV screens at customer knee level showing headline news, and a retractable vacuum hose to remove all the stray cut hairs so they don’t end up down the back of your neck.

Maybe it really does only take 10 minutes, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

I like going to QB House for a number of reasons. By now, the lady who cuts my hair, Kishinaka-san, remembers how I like my hair cut, and I enjoy chatting with her. She speaks in a way that I find easy to understand, and being able to sustain a conversation in Japanese for 10 minutes gives me a badly-needed sense of accomplishment.

Here is a picture of the QB staff, who kindly agreed to pose for my blog. Kishinaka-san is in the middle:

Note on the word of the day:

I get my hair cut short all over with an electric hair clipper. In Japanese this is called a バリカン barrican. This is clearly a loan word, but I’ve no idea what language it came from. It’s just one of those mysterious words like ホチキス hotchkiss meaning stapler. I mean, it looks like an English word, and sounds like an English word, but that’s just not what it’s called in English. A real pitfall for Japanese people learning English.

The hairdresser asks me to specify the length of cut in millimetres. Now, back home I get a “number 3 blade”. As it happens, the blades are numbered in eighths of an inch, so a number 3 corresponds to 3/8″ or about 10 millimetres. But here I ask for 12 mm, which is almost a no. 4.

Another important word is 丸刈り marugari, literally meaning “round cutting”; in my case not quite “skinhead” but “same length all over”.


花 hana—flower

There was a big flower Expo in Osaka in 1990. The site of the Expo is now a beautiful park, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

In the park you can see the pavilions that were created by different countries for the expo. For example, this one from Korea.

It’s fascinating to tour this collection of architectural and landscaping features from all over the world, and to see how each country chose to represent itself. For example, Canada created this mini-Niagara:

Somehow on my last visit, I had been unable to find Ireland’s pavilion, and I was determined to track it down today, curious to see what Ireland had chosen to do with its little patch of Japan. Well, we found it, and I was not disappointed!

In the Ireland pavilion was a miniature version of Newgrange.

Noticing the gap over the lintel, we wondered if it “works” (i.e. is it aligned with the winter solstice sunrise, so that the first rays of sun illuminate the passage?) Reading the plaque, it seems the answer is “yes”!

At 8:58 a.m. on the morning of the solstice, the sun shines in 19 metres along the passage. I think we should try to go there on that date and experience it for ourselves!

In addition to the model of Newgrange, they had built a beehive hut, of the kind that hermit monks used to live in, and a central water feature with stepping stones, intended to evoke the story of the Children of Lir. Dry-stone walls were used for the boundary.

Of course, the various countries’ pavilions have stood for 22 years and will gradually deteriorate over time. In the case of the Irish pavilion, the stone structures have weathered well.

At this time of year, the park features a display of cosmos flowers.

In Spring, this little hill is planted with tulips, and the effect is topped off by a full-size Dutch-style windmill.

Tsurumi Park is a very popular place for photo-shoots. As you walk around, you see lots of people dressed up like manga characters, accompanied by a serious looking photographer, on their way to the photo-shoot location.

On our way to see the cosmos, we met a man cycling with a parakeet. The parakeet sat contentedly on Yuko’s shoulder while we chatted.

At one point, the bird started nibbling on her earring, but she was able to distract it with some sunflower seeds. Apparently the parakeet is over 20 years old. By the way, this Orla Kiely top is now available in Japan.

There was also a “kids’ festival” with children playing drums. They had a pretty good rhythm going, for such young kids.

Today, we saw the first sign of autumn colours. This maple is just starting to turn from green to red.

In the next couple of weeks, we will be able to experience the full glory of the Japanese 紅葉 kouyou—autumn leaves.

Over to the west of the park, we spotted a temple with this fabulous pagoda.

Note on the word of the day:

The character 花 hana meaning “flower” is also found in the word 花火 hanabi—fireworks (literally “flower fire”).

花 is a good example of how Japanese characters typically encode both sound and meaning. The top part艹 (it’s called the “grass crown”) tells you that it’s a kind of plant or herb, and is also seen in 茶 cha—tea and 草 kusa—grass, among many others. The bottom part is 化 which has the Chinese reading ka. So the character represents a plant with the Chinese reading ka, namely a “flower”.

パレード parade

Last weekend was the annual Sakai festival. On Sunday afternoon we got on our bikes and went to watch the parade. It was a beautiful sunny October day.

People (both children and adults) dressed up in costumes from different periods of Japan’s history. There were priests:

Elegant ladies in traditional dress:

and in western dress:

There were musketeers from the time of the Warring States:

and samurai:

There were representatives of the Vietnamese community, dressed in colourful national costume:

And Korean dancers, also in beautiful colourful costume:

Sakai is also a city of bicycles, and some strange and wonderful antique cycles (or replicas) featured in the parade:

A highlight of the parade was this ship, honouring Sakai’s historic role in the nanban boueki—trade with Europe, to which I will return in a later post:

Other aspects of Sakai that were featured include the historic wooden lighthouse, a scale model of which was driven along the street,

and the “Chin-chin train” – the Hankai tram that runs from Sakai to Tennoji.

兎 usagi—rabbit

The white rabbit of Inaba

The story goes that long ago, a rabbit found himself trapped on an offshore island, and hatched a plan to make his way back to the mainland by tricking some sharks. He challenged the sharks, saying “let’s see who has the most friends! Everyone line up so I can count you.” Once the sharks were in a line, he leapt from one to the next, using their backs as a bridge to reach the mainland.

But, unable to contain his pride at his own cunning, just as he was leaping off the back of the last shark, the rabbit blurted out, “I tricked you! I just wanted to get back to the mainland.” The shark was angered and grabbed the rabbit in his teeth, stripping him of his skin and fur.

The rabbit, suffering great pain, met some cruel men who advised him to wash in seawater. But this just made him suffer more. Then the brother of the men, the kindly god Daikoku, gave better advice: to wash his wounds in fresh water and wrap them in the fluff of bulrushes. Following this advice, the rabbit recovered.


When we were in Tottori prefecture last weekend, we visited the white rabbit shrine (白兔神社 hakuto jinja). I knew the story, but I had not realised it was associated with Tottori. Inaba is the name of an old province that now forms part of Tottori.

The whole area of Hakuto beach, not far from Tottori city, is full of white rabbit imagery. Hakuto is another way of pronouncing “shiroi usagi” which means “white rabbit”. We arrived just at sunset, and the coastline looked very beautiful against the evening sky. As you can see, some surfers were also enjoying the last of the daylight, unworried by sharks of ancient legend. You can also see a shrine atop the offshore rock, silhouetted against the sky.

The shrine

Here is the torii gate of the Hakuto (white rabbit) shrine. On the left and right of the gate, you can see steles with the characters 白兔神社 written vertically. Behind the gate, steps lead up through the trees to the shrine itself.

On the left at the top of the steps, we passed a shed with a sand carving depicting a scene from the tale.

There were many small white stones, each with a character stamped on it in red ink. These represent wishes by visitors to the shrine (probably wedding-related wishes). The path was lined with stone statues of rabbits in various postures, many with a white stone offering balanced on its head.

Further on, we passed the pool where, according to tradition, the rabbit washed itself in fresh water. It is called 御身洗池 “wash body pool”. In the photo, it is down to the left, but is too dark to see.

Finally, we arrived at the main building of the shrine. There was nobody else around.


Daikoku-sama, known as Ookuninushi no mikoto in Japanese, is one of the 7 lucky gods. There are many shrines devoted to him, including the important Izumo Taisha. The Osaka branch of Izumo Taisha is not far from here, and there is a bronze statue of Daikoku-sama and the rabbit just inside the gate.

As there are two rabbits in the statue, I guess that it represents a “before and after” narrative read from right to left, with a plaintive injured rabbit on the right and a happy healed rabbit on the left. Maybe.

Anyway, yesterday after the tea ceremony, we went walking in Daikokucho, a suburb of Osaka that is named for the god Daikoku. There we visited his shrine, and discovered that in addition to rabbits, he is also associated with rats or mice.

We’ve seen various species of shrine guardians before, most typically lions, lion dogs (koma-inu) and foxes, but this was the first time we had seen rats in the role. The rat on the left is holding a hammer, and the one on the right is holding a bushel of rice, his tail draped protectively over it.

One painting in front of the shrine shows a young Daikoku-sama with the white rabbit. (Sorry about the poorly-focused picture.) On the table is a cute little stone statue of a rabbit (and somewhat mysteriously, also a real dead turtle. Maybe the turtle is filling in for the shark.)

A second painting shows an older, more rotund and extremely contented-looking version of the god with rats and rice, and holding a hammer.

Note on the word of the day:

Was the rabbit bitten by a shark (same), or an alligator (wani)? The Japanese version of the story refers to wani, which normally means alligator, but for some reason they are always referred to as sharks in English translations. A version of the tale printed on a local signboard at Hakuto beach called them wanizame—alligator sharks. I don’t know what an alligator shark is, but I definitely don’t want to meet one.

The Japanese word for rabbit, usagi, is normally written in katakana: ウサギ. It was only on this trip that I came across the kanji character 兎 (variant 兔) and learned that its Chinese pronunciation is to. Hence: 白兔 hakuto—white rabbit.

お茶 o-cha—tea

Yuko and I were invited to experience the tea ceremony. My colleague Meg-san accompanied us to my company’s social club, where the tea ceremony club meet weekly for training and practice.

“Tea ceremony” is an inadequate description: 茶道 sadou is literally “the way of tea”. On the one hand, every aspect of the ceremony is highly formalised and prescribed, each action laden with symbolism that takes a lifetime to master, and so I had to be instructed in minute detail what I should do and say at each moment. On the other hand, as with any human activity, each individual tea ceremony event is a unique and passing experience, to be tasted and cherished fully. So, like other Japanese arts, the way of tea combines a Confucian ritual formality and a Zen wabi aesthetic.

On entering the room, each guest first looks at and appreciates the calligraphic scroll and the flower arrangement. My appreciation of the scroll was sadly limited by the fact that I couldn’t read it at all.

Then one moves in a prescribed path to the furo, which is the pot used for heating water for tea, and appreciates the furo, the glowing charcoal, and the furosaki (the wooden panelling around the furo). There is a lot of bowing during the tea ceremony.


Once each guest has entered and appreciated the scroll and the furo, we all sit seiza and we are served sweets. The sweets are very beautiful, each one designed like a little fruit. They are very sweet, to counteract the bitterness of the green tea.

 Our hostesses prepared and served tea for each person, one at a time. The tea is prepared and served in pottery bowls, each unique and in a different style. The process of taking the tea is complex. Certain words had to be said to the hostess and the company, and to the guests on my left, while bowing at the appropriate moments.

The cup is lifted in a certain way and rotated in a certain direction (to avoid drinking from the “front”). First you inhale and enjoy the scent of the tea, then drink it.

The tea was delicious, with a creamy texture from having been whisked in the bowl. There were two or three mouthfuls in the bowl, and I was encouraged to slurp the last mouthful to taste it all.

After drinking, I wiped the rim of the bowl and rotated it again, looking at and appreciating the form and design. The idea is to admire it in the knowledge that you may never see that bowl again. Then you place the bowl on the ground in front of you and admire it further, before passing it back across the black boundary that symbolically divides “your” area from the communal area of the room. More bows are exchanged at each stage.

During all this time, the other guests are awaiting their turn.

Normally, there would not be a lot of talking during the tea ceremony; there would be periods of silence to allow the guests to relax and appreciate the experience and their surroundings. But because of my lack of knowledge, I needed constant instruction.

After I had taken my tea, Yuko had her turn:

and then Meg-san:

Finally I was offered another cup, and gratefully accepted. But of course I didn’t remember all the procedure and had to have it explained to me all over again.

The tea ceremony can last for an hour, or for several hours. In this case, my colleague Meg-san requested that it be kept to one hour, out of concern for my ability to sit seiza for a long period. I actually didn’t think this would be a problem, but after about 40 minutes, I realised to my alarm that I had no sensation in my feet; they were completely dead. This was not an immediate problem, but I feared that when it was time to stand up, I would almost certainly fall over.

I tried to shift my weight discreetly to relieve the pressure on my feet. Somehow this did result in my toppling over to one side, noisily and dramatically. As everyone expressed their concern and I assured them that I was fine, I cursed my western clumsiness.

At the end of the ceremony, utensils are passed to the guests to admire. We were shown the cha-ire (tea container) and cha-shaku (wooden tea scoop). The utensils should be handled very respectfully, as they may be very old or valuable. Yuko explained to me that a fine example of a carved cha-shaku could be worth up to €100,000.

Before leaving the room, there is another opportunity to admire the scroll and the furo, and then one slides out of the room on one’s knees.


This city, Sakai, is the hometown of the man who invented the tea ceremony, Sen-no-Rikyu.

If you visit Sakai, you can see the site of his house, where he lived in the 16th century. The house is gone, but you can still see the well from which he drew water for tea.

I learned recently the manner of his death: having served as tea master for many years to both Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit suicide.


The Japanese and the Irish occupy first and second place in the world rankings of tea drinkers. The most popular blend in Ireland is Irish breakfast tea, made with African and Indian black tea; a full, strong flavour designed to be drunk with milk, and unavailable outside Ireland. It is almost a cliché that Irish people abroad miss their tea from home, and the image of a homesick Irish emigrant enjoying a cup of Barry’s or Lyons’ Gold Blend, while reading a letter from a loved one back home, is a staple of Irish tea advertising.

We never thought for a minute that we would be like that. Japan is the land of tea, after all. With the astonishing wealth of tea available here, how hard could it be to live without our familiar Irish tea? How wrong we were! When it came to making a nice pot of tea to relax with, no other tea was quite “right”. Nice as they were, they each tasted somehow watery, insipid and ultimately unsatisfying. Eventually we had to cave in and have a box of Barry’s Gold Blend sent from home. And when we made that first pot, it tasted so good!

Note on the word of the day:

茶 cha means tea. Of course it means tea in English too – many people in Britain and Ireland say “a cup of cha“. Japanese people usually add the honorific prefix o- and say o-cha. Western-style red or black tea is called 紅茶 koucha—red tea.

The name of the tea ceremony is 茶道 sadou, where 道 dou is the character for “road” or “way”, familiar from judo, aikido, kendo, bushido (the way of the samurai) and so on. 花道 kadou is the study of flower arranging (the way of flowers), also known as ikebana.

A word I heard numerous times during the ceremony was 拝見 haiken. Haiken is a humble polite verb meaning “to look”, but I’ve translated it freely above as “to admire”, “to appreciate” and so on, because I felt that was implied. The first character of haiken is 排 meaning “worship”.

砂 suna—sand

We drove to Tottori prefecture on Saturday, to see the famous Tottori sand dunes.

The dunes look like a sandy desert, stretching a couple of kilometres inland from the shore, and many kilometres along the shore.

It’s not a desert, of course; there is plenty of rainfall and various plants manage to grow there.

Needless to say, the dogs loved it. We were able to let them run free off the lead.

The sand is quite firm underfoot, and it’s a very nice feeling to take off your shoes and socks and walk barefoot across it. At least at this time of year, when the sand is not burning hot underfoot (I heard it can be more than 60ºC in summer).

Of course this gave Shiro the chance to play his favourite “I steal your sock and you chase me” game, which he never tires of.

There is a main tourist area with a big car park and bus park, and lots of tourist attractions such as a museum of sand carvings, and camels that you can ride on and pretend you are in the Sahara. We parked quite far away from there, at a different part of the dunes. That wasn’t intentional on our part, but it turned out to be a good idea, as we were able to experience the beautiful and strange landscape without being surrounded by crowds of other tourists.

Here you can see the one hill where all the tourists congregate. They walk to the top of this hill and then walk back to the car park. We, on the other hand, had miles and miles of sand almost entirely to ourselves. I don’t mean that to sound superior; it’s just the way it worked out for us.

Here are some people taking a camel ride:

Paragliding off the dunes is a popular activity:

There is a kind of tethered version available for tourists, where you ascend briefly to about 6 metres off the ground. It looks like fun!

We walked about 1 mile from the car to the coastline.

Arriving at the beach, we were amazed to discover a lot of items that had washed ashore from faraway places. This bottle had floated from Taiwan, and had been in the sea so long that it had grown a fringe of seashells along one edge.

“Nantong Speciality” tea from China:

The waves were rolling in from the Sea of Japan, and I rolled up my jeans for a paddle. Needless to say, I got pretty wet.

As usual, Miffy was angry with the waves.

Note on the word of the day:

In Japanese, the sand dunes are called 砂丘 sakyuu, literally “sand hills”. The first character is 砂 suna, meaning sand. Sand is a fairly easy character to remember: the left side is 石 ishi, meaning stone or rock, while the right side is 少 meaning few or a little.

体育の日 tai-iku no hi—Exercise Day

Japan has 15 public holidays every year. 15! That’s pretty generous, right? I thought so.

Until I discovered that, this year, 5 of them fall on Saturday. Now, if the public holiday falls on Sunday, they move it to the following day, you get a three-day long weekend, and everyone’s happy.

But if they fall on Saturday, tough luck. Saturday is already a day off (for most office workers, schools, etc.) and somehow the fact that it’s also a public holiday doesn’t make you feel any more festive than you would on a regular Saturday.

Now, the odds would suggest that one holiday in 7 would fall on a Saturday, so you would lose maybe 2 holidays each year on average; 5 out of 15 would be a complete statistical freak. But the reality is even more improbable.

You see, 4 of the holidays always fall on a Monday, every year. So there are only 11 “floating” holidays that can fall on any day of the week. And this year, the one year that I am living and working in Japan, 5 of them are on Saturday. Of all the luck!

Anyway, today I am enjoying a day off work that is not on a Saturday: 体育の日 tai-iku no hi, a day for sporty and healthy activities. It commemorates the opening of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

The names of the Japanese public holidays tend to suggest an “improving” activity that you can do on that day. For example:

  • みどりの日 midori no hi—Greenery Day. A day for appreciating nature.
  • 海の日 umi no hi—Marine Day. A day for appreciating the ocean and maybe swimming in it.
  • 敬老の日 keirou no hi—Respect for the Aged Day. A day for respecting the aged. And maybe going to visit them.
  • 体育の日 tai-iku no hi—Physical Education Day (that’s today). A day for engaging in healthy and sporty activities. Apart from cycling to the shops, we didn’t really enter into the spirit of the day.
  • 文化の日 bunka no hi—Culture Day. A day for celebrating culture. (Saturday, boo!)

Note on the word of the day:

体育 tai-iku means “physical education”. The first character 体 tai means “body” and the second character 育 iku is to bring up or to educate.

The character 日 hi, meaning “day” is also the character for “sun” and is found in the name of Japan 日本 nihon, lit. “sun origin”. Whenever I see the word 本日 honjitsu, which is a polite word for “today”, I initially misread it as 日本. Every time. A kind of kanji version of dyslexia.