朝ドラ asa-dora—morning TV drama

We went to Kishiwada today. Kishiwada is a city about 20 km south of here, on the way to Kansai airport. It became well-known throughout Japan because of a popular morning TV drama called カーネーション Carnation, which aired in 2011 and 2012.


The drama is based on the life of Ayako Koshino, a fashion designer who grew up in Kishiwada in the early part of the 20th century. The daughter of a kimono maker, she turned her talents to designing western-style clothes, and became successful and famous. Her 3 daughters also went on to become successful designers.

At the entrance to the shopping arcade, there is a very attractive mural depicting characters from the TV series against Kishiwada landmarks, and saying “Here’s where it all started.”


(Also at the entrance to the arcade is a clock that plays local scenes and music on the hour. We noticed it just as it was finishing, and were furious with ourselves that we had missed it. Not enough to make us want to hang around for an hour to catch the next performance though!)

Inside the shopping arcade, they have prepared a replica shop for tourists  to visit.DSC_1487

The name over the shop is “Ohara” – the name of the heroine of the drama, a fictionalised version of Koshino. A short distance away, you can find a shopfront with “Koshino” over the door. I am not sure whether this is a real shop, perhaps belonging to one of the descendants of Ayako Koshino.


The shop sign is written from right to left, which I occasionally see on older shops.

We wandered through the residential streets of the downtown area, many of which are still lined with old wooden houses and retain an old-fashioned character.




Plum blossoms just starting to open:



Kishiwada is also famous for a particularly frenetic (and often lethal) danjiri festival, held each year in autumn, and for its castle.


There is an intriguing references to an old story about a giant octopus helping to defend the castle long ago; for example the local train station is called Takojizou (octopus – guardian deity) and features a stained-glass window depicting the surreal scene.

Here the two dogs take a keen interest in a duck in the castle moat.


We were pleasantly surprised by how much there is to see and do in Kishiwada, and will definitely go back to do some of the things we missed today.

A note on the word of the day:

TV dramas are very popular and influential in Japan. Each year, for example, NHK produces a historical drama series (Taiga dorama) telling the story of a real character in Japanese history. This prompts a major revival of interest in that period of history, and in sites associated with that person. For example, in 2011-12 there was a series about Lady Go, a 16th century noblewoman from Shiga. When we found her grave and memorial in the cemetery at Koya-san, a plaque had been erected that mentioned the TV series.

The word ドラマ dorama is simply a Japanese version of the English word “drama”. Combined with the word 朝 asa meaning “morning” we have 朝ドラマ asadorama or asadora for short. These series, featuring female main characters, are shown every day for 6 months, and become enormously popular, watched by 10s of millions of people (stereotypically, by housewives after they have got their husbands and children ready and sent them off to work and school).


港 minato—harbour

Dale and Peter are an Australian couple living in Osaka, and like me they enjoy getting out and about, exploring the lesser-known parts of the city, and discovering interesting things. They contacted me through this blog and invited me to join them on a cycling tour around the harbour area.

Osaka Harbour is a fascinating place, not least for the astonishing scale of the bridges that link the various islands that have been reclaimed from the sea (a process that is still continuing). Anywhere else, any one of these bridges would be considered an engineering marvel.

I discovered you can rent a bicycle for the day from Sakai City’s tourist information office. They have a great range of different styles of bike to choose from, and I chose this sporty model:


The rental is amazingly cheap – only 300 yen for one day (from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), and Sunday was an “eco-promotion day”, so I only paid 240 yen!

After picking up the bike, I set off and met Dale and Peter, and their Japanese friend Yunori, at one of the Yamato River bridges. All three of them had neat folding bikes that you can take on the train.

We set off in the chilly sunshine of a February Sunday morning. On our way through Suminoe ward, we passed this warehouse full of Konan pallets.


Soon we came to the first of the day’s big bridges, Shinkizugawa bridge. Linking Suminoe and Taisho wards, it is a balanced arch bridge, the longest of its kind in Japan.


Here’s the view from the midpoint, looking east towards Tennoji, and onward to Ikoma mountain:


The best thing about this bridge was the descent at the other end. A spiral loop that descends through 3 full circles. 1080 degrees of freewheeling, like a theme park ride. Check out the spectacular ugliness of the Nakayama steel works on the other side!


Cycling through Taisho ward, we came across these structures. In Ireland we used to call them “gasometers” – their purpose was to maintain the pressure in the city gas system. I love the delicate beauty of the metal tracery.


After passing IKEA, the next big bridge was Namihaya o-hashi. This amazing structure is 1573 metres (1 mile) long and sweeps around in a curve along its length. This picture (not mine – I got it from Wikipedia Commons) gives some idea of how impressive it is (and how high, if you are cycling up!)


It’s quite a long hard slog to the top.


(You can see IKEA at the foot of the bridge).

But it’s totally worth it once you reach the peak, catch your breath, and take in the amazing views all around.

This beautiful rib arch bridge is Chitose-bashi.


This red cantilevered steel-truss bridge, Minato-bashi, is one of my favourites. It spans the main entrance to Osaka port, and carries two car decks; the Hanshin expressway on top and a non-toll road underneath.



Arriving in Minato ward, we found these old red-brick warehouses of the Sumitomo company.



Looking south across the water we could see these giant cranes and the World Trade Center, the (joint) highest building in Osaka.


As well as having the lowest mountain in Japan, Tempozan is also home to Osaka’s aquarium and this giant Ferris Wheel.


For the next water crossing, there is no bridge. But there is an Osaka city ferry (one of 8 in the harbour area) which carries pedestrians and bicycles free of charge.


(My more observant readers may notice that there is in fact a bridge overhead, but it is the Hanshin Expressway and not accessible to cyclists.)


Our intended destination was Yumejima (dream island), the most recently completed of Osaka’s artificial islands. (There is at least one more under construction. I imagine that if Osaka and Kobe continue to expand out into the bay, the two cities will eventually meet in the middle, with only shipping channels kept open to allow access to their ports.)

However, time was running short; I had to return the bike to Sakai tourist office by 4:30, so we didn’t make it to Yumejima this time. And, truth to tell, it probably isn’t such an interesting place in reality (despite its appealing name). Judging by this photo it’s just one big container terminal.


Instead, Maishima was our last port of call. The bridge to Maishima, Konohana o-hashi, is quite unusual; it is a suspension bridge with a single central main cable.


This is the cyclist and pedestrian access to the bridge:


Remember this place?


All in all, I cycled 54 kilometres and really enjoyed the day. Thanks to Peter, Dale and Yunori for the day out, for all the planning and the good company!

送別会 soubetsukai—farewell party

Last night I went out with my colleagues for a farewell party for two of my colleagues who are being deployed overseas. These after-work parties, such as 送別会 soubetsukai—farewell parties and 歓迎会 kangeikai—welcome parties, are really a lot of fun.

Typically they consist of a dinner and drinks in a nice restaurant, with speeches by the person leaving and the manager, followed by “Round 2” which is karaoke.

The dinner course includes 飲み放題 nomihoudai—all you can drink. Japan has a very nice tradition where you don’t pour your own drink; you top up someone else’s glass and they top up yours in turn. At the start of the meal, when everyone’s drink is poured, you don’t take a drink immediately; you wait until the manager says a few words to launch the party and invites everyone to say “kampai“.

I took a few photos last night at the restaurant, but I used my phone so the quality isn’t great.

One of my colleagues took this one so you can see me (on the left, wearing a red tie).


It was a nabe-style restaurant (actually udon-suki), so we cooked the food ourselves at the table.


By the time of the speeches, the atmosphere was very relaxed, and most of the jackets and ties had come off.


I especially enjoy the karaoke (no photos unfortunately).  We usually go to a place called Joy Joy in Shinsaibashi; I think it costs around 1300 yen each, and for that price you can drink as much as you want. There is a snag however: the free drink does not include beer. Instead you get a 酎ハイ chuuhai or “highball” consisting of Japanese spirits with a mixer, such as lemon. I drank a lot of chuuhai, as a result of which today I’ve had a really unpleasant and persistent headache. Key vocabulary: 二日酔い futsukayoi—hangover.

In karaoke, the lyrics on the screen are accompanied by yomigana or furigana, little characters that indicate the pronunciation of the words. So even someone like me, who can’t read Japanese very well, can often read the lyrics well enough to sing along, even if I can’t actually understand everything I’m singing! It only works if the song is slow enough for me to keep up, such as a ballad. However, it is a surprisingly good way of learning Japanese!

When it comes to my turn, I don’t choose Japanese songs (partly because I don’t know many Japanese songs). At the start of the evening, there is usually a few minutes of fiddling with the song selection device before we manage to find the secret menu that unlocks the foreign songs.

Then, there are a few criteria to keep in mind. First, the best karaoke songs are the ones that everyone knows, and can even join in on the chorus. Second, I don’t have a good singing voice so I try to choose songs that are not too technically demanding. I learned this the hard way by cueing up an Adele song that I like. It’s beautiful when Adele sings it, but not such a good choice for me. Third, it’s not about showing off your cool taste or eclectic knowledge of music. Japanese fun is about being inclusive and sharing. Copa Cabana is a good choice, as is John Denver’s Country Roads, and I think Mrs Robinson would work well too.

Having said that, I often choose songs by Irish artists, just to put my own country in the spotlight. Last night I sang a beautiful old song by Gilbert O’Sullivan, Alone Again (Naturally). To my surprise and delight, my colleagues were familiar with the song and were even able to sing along in English. However I was equally surprised afterwards when I mentioned what a sad song it is, only to discover that they hadn’t realised that it’s a sad song.


These parties are not paid for by the company; the cost is shared out between the participants. However, it is not shared equally. I don’t know the exact criteria, but it goes by seniority and (probably) perceived ability to pay. Managers always bear more than their fair share of the cost; for my part I am asked to pay much less than my fair share (typically 2000 or 3000 yen for a full night out including food, drink and karaoke).

神主 kannushi—priest

On the evening of Setsubun, we went to a shrine called Nunose Jinja, about a mile east of here, for a lantern-lighting ceremony called 万灯籠 mantourou.

The ceremony was due to start at 5:00. We arrived early, expecting that it would be crowded.  But there were fewer people than we expected, mainly middle-aged, but a few younger people and children. The lanterns were laid out in neat rows in the grounds of the shrine, waiting to be lit. DSC_1054.

The priest moved between the little groups of people, chatting easily to everyone. He was wearing his sacramental robes (kariginu) and hat (eboushi).


While Yuko was ringing the bell to pray, the priest approached me and asked me if I was with someone. Unsure whether he was challenging my right to be there, I explained that I was there with my wife. It turned out that the priest was extremely friendly and kind, and just wanted to put me at my ease and make sure we felt welcome.

There was a little box of paper cutout dolls. The idea is that you take a doll, write your name and age on it and blow on it.


Later all the dolls would be floated down the river, taking your bad luck with them. Setsubun is an interstitial or “in-between” time, a “crack” between winter and spring, so a lot of the traditions are based on the idea that bad luck can slip into our lives at this time.

When it was time to light the lanterns, I was handed a lighter and invited to help lighting them. I was delighted to be included in this activity, and not just an onlooker.



Then everyone was invited inside the honden for the service.


The interior was beautifully and elegantly decorated with lamps, pictures, colourfully-painted timbers, and so on. We took our seats on rows of benches just inside the door. There were three people on the raised area in front of where we were seated: the priest, a female musician with a flute, and a miko-san, who assisted the priest and instructed the congregation when to stand, bow or sit during the service. The musician was also dressed up in a ceremonial robes and hat.

We would have very much liked to take photographs but we felt that it would not be appropriate.

The priest moved around and performed various rituals of blessing using an ōnusa wand decorated with white paper streamers (shide), intoning the words of the ceremony in a kind of sonorous chant. Then individual members of the congregation were invited, one at a time, to come forward, receive a tamagushi (leafy branch) from the priest, and place it as an offering. Each person who went up represented a group, such as the local women’s association. While the representative was making the offering, the members of that group stood and bowed.

Then, to our surprise, Yuko was invited to go up and place an offering, and I stood and bowed. Again, I was delighted that the priest took the trouble to include us.

The flute music was a surprise. I expected a soft, airy sound like a western-style flute. Instead, the first note blared out like a train whistle. The music seemed ancient and sacral, almost primitive. The instrument has an amazing dynamic range, and can be plaintive, strident, breathy or gentle.

After the ceremony, the priest addressed the congregation directly in a very friendly and engaging manner, explaining the religious and cultural significance of the Setsubun festival.

The musician then took her turn to address us, letting us know about some upcoming concerts she would be taking part in. For example, there will be a concert in Kyoto to celebrate 400 years of Spanish-Japanese cultural contact, featuring Japanese dance and flamenco.


Finally, we filed out, each participant receiving a little bowl of sake to drink.

By this time, it was almost dark, and the lanterns could be appreciated to better effect.


The musician wandered among the lanterns, and the strange sound of the flute drifted through the twilit evening.


We took our leave, and the priest said we were welcome to come back any time.

Note on the word of the day:

神主 kannushi is a Shintō priest. The first character is 神 kami meaning god. This character is also found in 神社 jinja or 神宮 jinguu meaning a shrine, and 神道 shintou, the Shintō religion (literally, “way of the gods”).

The second character, 主 has various pronunciations like omo, nushi and shu, and means things like master, landlord, husband, host, main, etc. Taken together, the two characters mean something like “spiritual leader”.

The word for a Catholic priest is 神父 shinpu which is written with the characters  神 kami (as above) and 父 chichi meaning “father”, together meaning “spiritual father”.

豆まき mamemaki—bean throwing

Yesterday was Setsubun, a festival that marks the change of season from winter to spring.

The most famous tradition associated with Setsubun is mamemaki, or bean-throwing. One member of the family (often the father) plays the role of an oni, or demon, and the other people throw beans at the oni and shout “oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!” meaning “demons out! luck in!”


Another tradition is to eat 恵方巻 ehoumaki, a fat sushi roll, while facing in the year’s favourable direction. Usually maki sushi rolls are cut into bite-size pieces about an inch long, but not this one.


This year the favourable direction was 南南東 south-south-east. So I stood in the garden and faced south-south-east while munching the ehoumaki.


I guess the idea is that you’re supposed to eat the whole thing without stopping, but it’s pretty huge and I don’t like to eat fast, so I just enjoyed it at my own pace. Anyway it was delicious.


After lunch we drove to a place in Fukai that was having a Setsubun festival, where we met this friendly oni. He seemed pretty cheerful for someone whose job for the day was to be repeatedly pelted with beans.


The area was a bit too crowded for comfort, so we escaped and went for a walk around a nearby pond, where we saw turtles…


…and ducks…


…and enjoyed the unseasonal warm sunny weather.


This building in Fukai looks like a cathedral, but it’s a fake—it’s a wedding venue.


In the evening, we went to a Setsubun service at Nunose shrine, which I will write about in a separate post.

Later, at home, it was my turn to be the oni.


Not very scary, apparently.


We tried putting oni masks on the dogs, but they didn’t tolerate it for long.

DSC_1105 DSC_1107

So we hung the oni masks on the back fence and threw beans, and shouted.

Oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!


Then each person eats the number of beans of their age.


Our local Family Mart was selling a sponge cake roll designed to look like ehoumaki. It was full of fruit—raspberries, apple, pineapple—and really delicious with a big mug of hot chocolate at the end of an eventful day. Amazing that they put the effort into creating something like that, just for one day a year.DSCN4861

Note on the word of the day:

節分 setsubun means “season division”. Historically, there were four setsubun in the year, one at the start of each season. But nowadays it only refers to the Spring Setsubun, the day before the start of 立春 risshun, the first day of spring.

亀 kame—turtle

There is a small river near our house called 西除川 nishi-yoke gawa. It flows in a northerly direction through Matsubara city, about a mile east from our house. Then it takes a sharp left turn to flow north-west until it joins the Yamato River.

Last weekend we walked east from our house until we reached the river. Winter is very dry in Japan, so there isn’t much water in it at this time of year! There were many places where it was possible to cross without getting your feet wet.


Looking north along the river, we spotted an attractive orange-painted bridge leading to a shrine, which was flying the Japanese flag. We decided to go and take a look.


The shrine is called 布忍神社 Nunose Jinja. It turned out to be a very interesting place, and a pleasant spot to sit and take a break. Yuko pointed out a memorial to the Russo-Japanese war. There were lots of colourful banners and a sort of corridor of torii gates.

DSC_0824  DSC_0826

There was a notice saying that there would be a Setsubun lantern ceremony on the evening of Sunday 3rd February. We decided to come back a week later for that ceremony.

(And indeed we did, today; it was very interesting and I will write about it in a later post.)


Earlier today, while Yuko was shopping, I took the dogs for a walk further down the river.

This sign, standing on the south bank of the Nishi-yoke river, indicates a waterways boundary; the Nishi-yoke river (in the foreground and upstream, to the right) is the responsibility of Osaka prefecture, while the larger Yamato River (in the background and downstream, to the left) falls under  the national ministry of land, infrastructure and transport. The small blue sign shows the 0.0 km point of the Nishi-yoke river.DSCN4826

Here is the confluence, the point where the two rivers meet (the Nishi-yoke on the left, the Yamato on the right). On the right (north) bank is Osaka city, on the left (south) bank is Sakai city. The Yamato River forms the boundary between the two.


This piece of land between the two rivers is a fairly tranquil place. We found a man sitting, reading a novel and enjoying the peace and quiet and the warm sunshine.

Also taking advantage of the sunshine were a lot of turtles.


Unfortunately, as we approached, they all dropped off into the water and swam away, leaving the dogs disappointed.DSCN4823


Walking upstream, there is an attractive pedestrian promenade laid out along part of the river’s length.




This brought us past the outfall from the water-treatment plant I wrote about last week.


And then, more turtles!


I should explain at this point that Shiro loves turtles. He even tried to eat a baby turtle once (I took it out of his mouth and sent it on its way, unharmed). They don’t love him, however, and always make their escape before he arrives, much to his frustration.

He took off in pursuit, but they stayed out of reach.DSCN4837

But that wasn’t the last of the turtles for today. This afternoon we went to Fukai city, to take part in some Setsubun events. It didn’t work out as planned—the area was very crowded so we wandered off and went for a walk around a pond instead.

There was no access to the pond itself, which was separated from the path by a fence. But something by the water’s edge caught Shiro’s attention:



Do they look like they care?



扇風機 senpuuki—fan

The weather has been fairly chilly recently, but today was amazingly warm for early February. Here in Osaka, the temperature reached 18 degrees, and according to the radio it was almost 20 degrees in Kyoto. We took advantage of the unseasonal weather to pack a picnic and head out for a walk in Tsurumi-Ryokuchi park.

We had set the car navigation to avoid motorways (tolls are pretty expensive) but in hindsight this was a bit of a mistake. I underestimated the distance to Tsurumi-Ryokuchi, and driving in the suburbs is painfully slow, requiring a lot of patience. In the end it took over an hour to get there. I had also overestimated the toll; I thought there was a flat 900 yen fee but in fact it would have been 400.

It made a nice change not to have to wear a coat, scarf or hat. After arriving and parking the car, my first stop before entering the park was to find and log a geocache.


Inside the park, the area around the windmill which will, later in the year, be a vast field of tulips, was just grass.


As soon as we came to a small river, Shiro decided to jump in for a swim to cool off, even though he was still on the lead.


We paid a quick visit to the Irish pavilion,


and then went into the South Korean pavilion for the first time. That’s Miffy looking at the camera.


After leaving the park, there was one more thing I wanted to see in the neighbourhood. Apparently, the electric fan was invented in Osaka 100 years ago, in 1913, by a company called Kawakita Denki Kigyosha (KDK). This company became part of the Panasonic Group in 1956.

The factory is long-gone, but this piece of history is marked by a plaque on the wall of the park where the factory once stood. The picture is the “Typhoon”, the first mass-produced electric fan. The text says:

“扇風機発祥の地” senpuuki hassho no chi—The birthplace of the electric fan.


Note on the word of the day:

扇風機 senpuuki is the Japanese word for an electric fan. It’s written with three characters: 扇 sen is a fan; 風 fuu is the wind; 機 ki is a machine (as for example 飛行機 hikouki, an aeroplane, or 洗濯機 sentakki, a washing machine).

The first model was called “Typhoon”. I always assumed this word was borrowed into English from Japanese 台風 taifuu. But according to Wikipedia the story of this word is much more complex and uncertain, and the article even suggests the word may have been “reimported” into Japanese from English.