カワセミ kawasemi—kingfisher

Yuko spotted a kingfisher yesterday.

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It was a flash of blue that caught her eye as the little bird skimmed low over the water, its wings glinting with a metallic sheen in the winter sunlight. Unfortunately she didn’t manage to catch it in flight.

We were out for a Saturday afternoon walk that brought us around 3 km north from our house to near the Yamato river, and the southern border of Osaka city. Most of this walk was along narrow residential streets in the Amami district of Matsubara city.

Crossing the Nishiyoke River we discovered a park adjoining the municipal water-treatment plant. When the plant was constructed, some land at the margins was set aside as an amenity. It’s called the 今池水みらいセンター ”Imaike Water Future Centre”.

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Unpromising as it sounds, the little stream that wends its way through the park is treated outflow from the plant. But the presence of something as beautiful as the kingfisher shows that it has become a valuable habitat for wildlife.

There was also an egret fishing in the stream. Check out the bright yellow feet.

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Uncomfortable with our attentions, the egret took off and flew away downstream.

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The roof of the water treatment plant is open to the public. There is a rooftop park up there, and probably great views over the Yamato River to the Osaka skyline. But there was a “no dogs” sign at the entrance, so we couldn’t go there this time.

Yuko captured a “family portrait” using the mirror at the back of the lift.

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One thing that surprised me about Japan – when I arrived here last March, all the grass was brown. There was no green grass. Then in summer, with the onset of the rainy season, all the grassy areas turned to a lush and verdant green. Now, as you can see in the photos, it’s all brown again after the winter. This is a little hard to get used to, because in Ireland the grass stays green all year round.

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Note on the word of the day:

カワセミ kawasemi means kingfisher. As I wrote in an earlier post, セミ semi means cicada, the insect whose sound fills the hot summer days in Japan (just as the frogs fill the nights with their call). 川 kawa is the Japanese word for river. So the Japanese name for the kingfisher means “river cicada”.

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地獄 jigoku—hell

Hirano is a part of Osaka city that probably doesn’t get a lot of tourists. And that probably should. Modern development has largely passed it by, so it retains a lot of traditional character and has an unbelievable number of interesting shrines and temples in a small area.

This is Kumata Jinja, a shrine that (so we were told) has the oldest wooden shrine building in Japan.

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Hirano isn’t far from where we live, so it was a good choice for a walk on a sunny winter afternoon.

We visited this traditional sweet shop.

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The sweets in the window display are manjuu, very sweet confections in the form of fruits, animals, etc. Their specialty is manjuu in the form of a turtle.

(Some of these photos, including the two above, were taken on a previous visit in October).

This time I bought one in the form of a white rabbit, and one that looked like a turtle. Only after I had bought them did Yuko point out that I could re-enact the tale of the hare and the tortoise.

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Lots of the shops in the narrow streets of Hirano have windows with little displays of historical artefacts.

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The object on the bottom left of the window is the predecessor of the modern electric rice-cooker: 竈 kamado (traditional earthenware oven) and 羽釜 hagama (metal pot for cooking rice).  One of my employer’s first products, 100 years ago, was a gas-fired kamado, a labour-saving improvement on the original solid-fuel type. Even today, the company designs modern kamado and hagama for supply to certain restaurant kitchens.

The window of this café has a display of old-fashioned toys.

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We discovered from one display that the traditional streetscapes of this part of town are not entirely original—it’s partly the result of a restoration effort that, for example, replaced metal roller-shutters with wooden sliding shutters.

This early 20th-century western-style building was once a newsagent, and bears the logo of Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Now the building faces into a covered shopping street.

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Most memorable was our visit to Senkouji Temple, which contains the “door to hell”. At the entrance, we were welcomed by this sign:

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This scary (and hairy) 3-eyed character says “if you tell a lie, I will pluck out your tongue”. As you can see from the picture, this is not an idle threat; he is carrying a large pair of pincers in which is gripped the tongue of some unfortunate (but mendacious) wretch. The words for “door of hell” are wreathed in flames.

In the courtyard, there is an electronic questionnaire, that purports to assess your likelihood of ending up in hell. (If you answer truthfully, that is. If you don’t answer truthfully, presumably a three-eyed demon will be along shortly with his pincers to pluck out your tongue.)

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The questions relate to whether you are considerate or selfish, gluttonous or frugal, patient or short-tempered. I scored in the “4 to 7” (green) range, which is the 2nd-most likely to go to heaven. Which is nice to know.

Thus reassured, I ventured into the door of hell.

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This was a little unnerving, as I found myself face-to-face with Enma-Daiou, the lord of hell himself.

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Below the statue was a gong. In some trepidation, I picked up the stick and struck the gong. This caused a monitor screen to flicker into life, and a booming voice to start telling me about the horrors of hell. For once I was glad of my limited ability to understand Japanese.

On the screen, there was a “hell-movie” consisting of strange impressionistic images representing human souls in torment, accompanied by sounds of wailing.

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On my right, we see the hairy 3-eyed demon guy again, wielding a pincers that seems way too large for the task of amputating a tongue, and even more scary, a woman with (thankfully) hair hanging down over her horrible face. This is Datsue-ba. After you die, she takes off your clothes and weighs them. If you are wearing no clothes, she strips off your skin and weighs that instead. For good measure, she also breaks your fingers and ties your head to your feet. (Thanks Wikipedia for those nightmares!).

I didn’t wait for the booming voice and the screen images to finish. After a couple of minutes I had had enough of hell and went back out into the sunshine. There I found a rock with a hole in it. Supposedly, if you put your head in the hole you hear the pot of hell (what’s the pot of hell?)

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I tried it, but I didn’t really hear anything.

Leaving all such hellish thoughts behind, we resumed our pleasant walk around Hirano.

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Note on the word of the day:

So, what’s all this about hell? Demons, eternal torment, isn’t that more associated with the Christian tradition? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be all peaceful and meditation and Nirvana and stuff?

All I can say is, religion in Japan is very complicated. Religious belief and practice seems to draw on many traditions and weave them together into a fascinating tapestry, the boundaries between Shinto and various strands of Japanese Buddhism especially hard to discern. There are also many points of seeming convergence with western religious traditions. As an outsider, I have no hope of trying to understand it, only to observe.

In this case, the traditions seem to have originated from Hinduism. Enma, the lord of hell, was the Indian god Yama.

地獄 jigoku literally means “ground prison”,  conveying the idea of being imprisoned underground.

7 things I love about Japan

This is my 100th blog post. Since I started posting about my life in Japan last March, I have enjoyed sharing my observations and experiences with friends and family back home and in the wider world. I have been especially grateful for comments from readers, both to hear other people’s perspectives and just to let me know they are reading and enjoying my posts.

For this post, number 100, I decided to do something different and compile a list of things that I especially like about living in Japan.

1. Food

Food in Japan is never boring or mediocre.  Food is held in such high regard, and the Japanese customer has such high expectations, that only the most delicious food makes it to your plate or to the supermarket shelf. There are special foods associated with different times of the year, and each town and region has its own traditional specialties.

So what are my favourites? I love grilled mackerel, pickles, miso soup, sushi, katsu karee  (breaded pork cutlet smothered in thick curry sauce), a warming bowl of thick udon noodles, tempura, the clean tang of pickled ginger. French-style bread is delicious fresh from the bakery. And a real treat for me is a Chinese restaurant called Chinmaya near my office, that serves ma bo dofu that is almost—but not quite—too spicy, and fantastic tan tan men noodles.

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2. Traditions

Staying here for a full year has the advantage that you experience all the traditional events and activities associated with different times of the year. There is a time for viewing cherry-blossoms, a time to go swimming in the sea, a time for looking at the harvest moon, a time for throwing beans to keep demons away, and a time for placing little piles of salt outside your home (also, to keep demons away). There is a day to celebrate your boy children, one for your girl children, and one for the elderly. Just within the past week, for example, we have had:

  • 10th Jan: 戎祭り Ebisu festival, when the shrine of the god Ebisu is thronged with business people seeking good fortune for the year (and carrying strange assemblages of Ebisu-related objects);
  • 14th Jan: 成人の日 seijin no hi—the day when all the 20-year-olds dress up to celebrate becoming adults;
  • 15th Jan: 小正月 koshougatsu—little New Year; the day when you eat the mochi that was inside the New Year’s decorations (and traditionally, you bring the decorations to the shrine to be burned, although we haven’t done that).

I think I have been lucky, to some extent, to be living in a community where old traditions, such as the o-Bon dance and the autumn danjiri festival are still alive. It is impressive to witness (and maybe even participate in) traditions that have been going on since time immemorial.

3. Weather

Japan has weather. In summer, it’s hot (and humid). In winter, it’s cold. In the rainy season, it rains. This is a novelty. In Ireland, the weather is pretty much the same all year round. In summer, it could be cold, warm, dry or rainy. Same in winter.

People warned me, “you’re going to hate the summer. It’s so hot, it’s so humid, it’s intolerable. It goes on for months and you’ll really suffer.” And you know what? It was hot, and it was humid, and while it was difficult at times, I actually came to like it. The convenience of throwing on a pair of shorts, shirt and sandals, going outside in the baking sun and feeling the heat soaking into my bones, relaxing every muscle. But spring and autumn are just glorious. I would strongly recommend anyone to come to Japan in May or October.

4. Customer Service

If you want to be treated like royalty, just walk into any shop or restaurant in Japan. “The customer is king” is not just a slogan. As soon as you walk in, you are greeted enthusiastically, and you will not be kept waiting for a moment. Of course the staff will always politely apologise for keeping you waiting (even though they haven’t). Just in case.

Service industries in Japan are hugely overstaffed, to ensure that the customer will never suffer any inconvenience. Want to refuel your car? There are staff waiting at attention on the forecourt for your illustrious arrival. They will guide you to the correct spot, fill your car with fuel, clean your windows, run to the office with your cash and back with your change.

The most astonishing incident for me was when we took a Japan Airlines flight. As the plane was being pushed back, I saw a group of people walking out onto the apron. It was all the JAL workers who had serviced our flight – the people from the check-in desks, the baggage handlers, cleaners, and so on. I watched in amazement as they lined up alongside the plane, unfurled a banner thanking us for our custom, and bowed deeply as the plane went past.

(One unfortunate downside to this “royal treatment” is that the customer service staff will only speak to you in “polite Japanese”, which is a quite different language from ordinary Japanese, and can be completely incomprehensible to the learner).

5. Nature

For many outsiders, the image of Japan is crowded city streets, crowded subways, and millions of salaried employees in suits working long hours of overtime in high-rise office buildings. Most of Japan is not like that. Japan has tremendous natural beauty. Get away from the city and you find yourself in another Japan; a country of mountains, forests and beautiful coasts and islands. From the centre of Osaka, you don’t have to go too far in almost any direction to reach somewhere wild, rugged, tranquil, and utterly remote from the city you’ve left behind. In those places you may meet bears, wild boar, serow or monkeys.

It’s been especially interesting for me to watch nature change with the seasons – the cherry blossoms in bloom shortly after I arrived; the hillsides blazing with autumn colours.

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6. Subway

Clean, fast and reliable. Enough said.

And, last but not least,

7. The people

I love the way Japanese people treat each other with respect and civility. I love the lack of cynicism, the enthusiastic way people go about doing anything, whether it is work, karaoke or calisthenics, always giving it 100% and doing it to the best of their ability. From the point of view of crime and personal security, it’s the safest place you’ll find anywhere, and that liberates people to be very carefree in the way they go about their daily lives.

I love the open and interested way that people relate to one another, a kind of innocence in the way people engage with the world, a refreshing contrast from the sneering, the eye-rolling, and sometimes menacing behaviour you will find in other countries.

誕生日 tanjoubi—birthday

Today is Shiro’s 6th birthday.

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This is what he looked like on the day he came to live with us, almost 6 years ago.

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Since then, he’s been a constant companion. Whether I’m sitting on the sofa…

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…on the slopes of Mount Fuji…

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…in the front seat of the car…

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…swimming in Lake Constance…

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…or in a fancy restaurant,

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he is happy just to be at my side, doing whatever I’m doing.

Shiro loves the great outdoors, and has got into a lot of adventures and scrapes.

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He enjoys the view from 1000 feet up…

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And is always ready to take over the controls.

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He likes to feel the salt sea-breeze in his hair.

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and to act as lookout and navigator on calm river waters.

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When he was three years old, I decided he needed a haircut. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I thought it wasn’t a bad first-time effort. But the hair grew back (eventually) and he forgave me even that indignity.

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In that same year, Miffy came to live with us. Although she wasn’t always easy to live with, and there was a lot of rivalry, they gradually learned to get along together. Most of the time.

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Shiro has a secret super-power. His hedgehog-tracking abilities are astonishing. He can sniff out a hedgehog at 500 paces.

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He’s a well-travelled dog. He’s been to many different countries. Here he is in Paris:

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in Cantabria (with Miffy):

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In Liechtenstein:

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and in llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (seriously!)

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But, more than anything, Shiro loves the snow.

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So, here’s to the next 6 years of fun and adventure together. Happy Birthday Shiro!

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お守り o-mamori—charms

On Thursday we took the dogs to inu jinja—the dog shrine—in Nagoya.

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At the dog shrine you can see a statue of 犬の王 inu no ou—the king of the dogs.

(This photo is by geocacher “eizo” and was not taken on our visit. You can see the head of the dog king in the top picture above, peeping out from behind the kadomatsu.)

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Most shrines and temples sell charms (protective talismans) called o-mamori. The purchase of these items is like a small donation.

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Each shrine or temple tends to specialise in charms for a certain purpose, which might be exams, marriage, travel, etc. For example, there is a shrine not far from here called 方違神社 houchigai jinja. If you are planning to move house, you can buy a suitable o-mamori there. Inu jinja specialises in charms to protect dogs.

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O-mamori only remain effective for one year, so at New Year you are supposed to return your used charms to the shrine and get new ones. There were boxes full of returned charms and other religious objects. These are burned in the courtyard of the shrine. It was quite smoky.

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O-mamori usually take the form of a brocade bag with something inside, tied with a characteristic knot. Here are the o-mamori we bought.

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Note on the word of the day:

The verb 守る mamoru means “to protect”. You can often make a noun from the -masu stem of a verb (mamorimasu -> mamori) so 守り mamori is a noun meaning protection. Adding the honorific o- gives us o-mamori, which is a protective charm or talisman.

雪 yuki—snow

It doesn’t often snow here in Sakai city. In the hills, yes, but not down here at sea-level where we live. Even in winter, the temperature normally remains above freezing.

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But in other parts of Japan, it snows a lot. Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, and Sapporo gets over 6 metres of snow a year, making it a contender for the title of “snowiest city in the world”. They even have an annual Snow Festival.

Today we drove to Nagoya, and back. Nagoya is on the Pacific coast, so like Sakai, it doesn’t get much snow. But to get there (to get almost anywhere else, really, from here) you drive across the hilly inland parts where the snow makes for picturesque winter scenery (but probably isn’t so much fun if you actually live there).

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We stopped to let the dogs play in the snow. Shiro especially loves snow, and his first reaction is always to bury his face in it.

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These photos were taken, not in some wild hillside, but in the grounds of Tsuchiyama Parking Area. A motorway service station, in other words. But, thanks to the transformative power of snow, there was plenty of fun to be had, and children were making the most of it, enjoying the break from the long drive.

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There was even a mini-mountain to conquer.

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And to run down again.

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正月 shougatsu—New Year

Today we went for a walk in the grounds of Osaka Castle.

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The castle stands at the centre of a huge park right in the middle of Osaka, and is ringed by 2 moats and massive walls. It’s a lovely place for a walk. There is a shrine in the castle grounds, which was busy with people doing hatsumoude.

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Hatsumoude means the first visit to the shrine (or temple) after New Year. This can happen shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, during the day on New Year’s Day, or anytime over the next few days. In the picture, you can see a big sign with the characters 初詣 hatsumoude.

Inside the torii gate of the shrine was a big straw circle. We stepped through the circle to get good luck.

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Lots of people inside were buying o-mikuji for 100 yen. These are printed fortunes (like the ones inside a fortune cookie) that reveal whether you will be blessed or cursed during the year. If your fortune is bad, you tie it to a tree inside the grounds of the shrine in the hope of leaving it behind.DSCN4774

Another tradition is to get up early on New Year’s Day to see the first sunrise of the year (hatsuhinode). Sad to say, we were fast asleep at that time! We had been out late the previous night at Shitennoji temple.

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This is the oldest temple in Japan (1400 years old). At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the bells are rung 108 times.

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Our neighbours have all attached festive New Year’s wreaths to their front doors, and some are displaying kadomatsu decorations on their front steps.

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And some have placed little piles of salt at each corner of their premises, as they do at the start of each month.

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The shops are having their New Year’s sales. Some even opened on New Year’s Day. One tradition at this time of year is the 福袋 fukubukuro or lucky bag. In theory, you buy it without knowing what’s inside. For example, the wine fukubukuro, containing 3 bottles, is priced at 3000 yen and is carefully sealed.  But in the case of the cheaper bags, many of the bags have been opened by curious shoppers to reveal the contents. These bags contain coffee and are priced at 1000 yen.

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To celebrate the Year of the Snake, the department store bakery had baked bread in the form of a snake, eating a dango.

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They also made cakes in the form of kadomatsu (the decorations on the front door-step in the photo above), and decorated the Danish pastries with gold leaf.

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A note on the word of the day:

正月 shougatsu is written with two characters: 正 means “correct” and 月 means “moon” or “month”. In this case it means “first month”. In the old days, the first month of the year began (and New Year was celebrated) in accordance with the Chinese lunisolar calendar, on the second new moon after the winter solstice. In China, Vietnam and Korea the New Year is still celebrated at this time.