逆 gyaku—backwards

Jay Rubin (the translator of many of the novels of Haruki Murakami into English) wrote an entertaining little book called Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You.

It’s a book I’ve come back to again and again over the years, as it has something to offer for learners at different stages. And it’s amusingly written; Dr Rubin has a comic gift.

One of his memorable chapter titles was “Warning: this language works backwards.” His point being that many Japanese sentences can most easily be understood by starting at the end and working backwards to the start.

This is especially true for sentences that are moderately complex. For example, sentences that contain a relative clause.

To test the theory, here’s an example of a moderately complex sentence from this week’s homework (an article about robots):

Original sentence: これは手足の不自由な人が家庭内で自立するのを助けるために開発された。

Breaking this down, we have:

  • これは these
  • 手足の of limbs (arms and legs)
  • 不自由な without full use (disabled)
  • 人が people
  • 家庭内で within the home
  • 自立 independent
  • する be
  • のを助ける help to
  • ために in order to
  • 開発された were developed

Reading from top to bottom (left to right, in the original sentence), we have the following incomprehensible gibberish:

these of arms and legs without full use people within the home independent be help to in order to were developed“.

However, starting at the end of the sentence and working backwards, things start to make a lot more sense:

were developed in order to help to be independent within the home people without full use of arms and legs these“.

If we take the word “these” (the topic of the sentence) and move it back to its rightful place at the start, we now have an English sentence that is both grammatical and meaningful:

these were developed in order to help to be independent within the home people without full use of arms and legs“.

Basically, the more complex the sentence, the better the “read backwards” trick works (I use it all the time when I am trying to puzzle out the meaning of long sentences). If a sentence ends からだ ”it’s because”, that’s a good starting point for me to understand the sentence.

There are two main points where the trick breaks down:

  1. In Japanese, subjects and topics are normally found at the head of the sentence, just as they are in English. English is a Subject Verb Object (SVO) language: “Brian picked berries”; whereas Japanese is a Subject Object Verb (SOV) language: “Brian berries picked”. So in both languages, the subject, “Brian”, comes first, but the order of verb and object is reversed.
  2. In both English and Japanese (unlike, say, French or Spanish), the adjective precedes the noun: “red berries” rather than “berries red”.

And so, for simple sentences like “Brian picks red berries”, the trick doesn’t work.

All this raises the question: do Japanese people have to wait until the end of the sentence before they can begin to understand it by working their way through it backwards? I presume not. They must be able to understand their own language in a forward direction.

For me, however, as a learner, the sentence doesn’t really start to take shape until I’ve heard the verb (at the end of the sentence), and a noun phrase remains adrift until I hear the noun (at the end of the noun phrase).

I encounter many “garden path” sentences in Japanese, where what I take to be the subject and verb of a sentence turn out, as the sentence continues, to be part of a relative clause modifying the real subject of the sentence. Such sentences “lead you up the garden path” and either leave you confused or force you to change gear halfway (like the English sentence “The complex houses married soldiers” or “Fat people eat accumulates”).

Will I ever be able to understand Japanese “forwards”? I guess I will have to wait and see.

Just for fun, here’s another sentence from the article:

また、人間や小型の動物の形にしていて、簡単な会話ができるロボットもある。

  • また furthermore
  • 人間 human
  • や and (and so on)
  • 小型の of small-size
  • 動物の of animals
  • 形 the form
  • にしていて made in
  • 簡単な会話 simple conversations
  • ができる can understand
  • ロボット robots
  • も also
  • ある there are

Translation “Furthermore, there are also robots that can understand simple conversations, in the form of humans and small animals and so on.

(Google Translate: “In addition, there is also a robot you are in the form of small animal and human, can be a simple conversation.“)

引っ越し hikkoshi—moving house

We finished packing our possessions into boxes last night, and this morning the removal company came to pick them up and take them to Ireland.

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Note that the removal company worker is working in his socks inside the house. Even while carrying heavy boxes out of the house, he has to put on his shoes every time he goes out and take them off again every time he comes in.

The boxes will travel by ship, a journey that will take 5 to 7 weeks. They will arrive at Dublin port and then we will have to make our own arrangements to bring them to our new home (wherever that may be!)

Packing was complicated by the fact that we had to decide what could go in the boxes (i.e. that we would not need immediately on arrival in Ireland) and what we would need to bring home with us in our suitcases.

There were also some hard decisions to be made – we had a price for 15 boxes and a (much higher) price for 20 boxes. In order to stay within the 15 box limit, some things would have to be left behind.

Snoopy made the cut.

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In the process of packing, the house was pretty chaotic. Closets and drawers were emptied out, and the washitsu was full of partly-filled boxes and packaging materials. The contents of boxes were repeatedly adjusted to try to make most efficient use of the space and find ways to fit in some small items. While we had no official weight limit, we unofficially tried not to exceed 30 kg per box. Meanwhile the contents of each box had to be carefully recorded.

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As a further complication, I was carrying an injury (following a single-vehicle bicycle accident a week ago) and for 2 crucial days over the weekend I was unable to lift or carry anything. But I recovered sufficiently to finish the packing yesterday night.

As well as the boxes, we shipped our sofa. This created an interesting problem – the sofa would not fit down our stairs, which are narrow and steep. I suggested that we use rope to lower it to the ground from the balcony.

The moving company agreed to this plan and after careful preparation (we had no actual rope, only a ball of nylon twine from the 100 yen shop) the sofa appeared over the edge of the balcony.

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Down she comes.

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Safely landed.

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Eventually everything was in the van and ready to begin its long journey to Dublin.

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This week’s preparations have been another reminder of just how much a cash society Japan is. In Ireland, if a service costs €2000, you normally pay by credit card, and it would be unusual (or maybe even impossible) to pay in cash. In Japan, however, you normally go to the bank (or the convenience store ATM), withdraw 250,000 yen in cash and hand it to the service provider on the day.

Separately, our car was also collected and began its journey to Ireland this morning. In preparation for export, it has to be deregistered in Japan, so we had to remove its number plates and send them off to the city office by registered mail. The person who came to collect the car installed temporary plates, with a red outline. The temporary plates are from Nara.

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The car being driven away, at the start of its journey to the other side of the world.

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Incidentally, there is a rule that the car has to be completely empty when it is shipped. Only the spare tyre and the original tools may be carried. A pity, because otherwise we would have been able to make use of the space in the car to send some possessions.

So now, we have no sofa and no car. But life goes on, and this will still be our home for another few days. Over the next few days, the remaining items – washing machine, kitchen table and chairs, and so on, will be progressively moved out, until by the time we leave the house, it will be as completely empty as the day we arrived.

A note on the word of the day

引っ越し hikkoshi—to move house is written with two kanji characters. The first 引 means to pull (on doors you see 引く hiku—pull written on one side and 押す osu—push on the other) and the second 越 means to cross over.

When you type the word on the computer, the Windows IME offers three options: 引っ越し 引越し and simply 引越. When this happens, I find myself somewhat at a loss. Which should I choose? All three are acceptable ways of writing the word, but which would be considered most “normal”; which (if any) a little odd or mannered or archaic?  Another example is 祭り matsuri meaning festival; should I write it as 祭り or just 祭? Does it matter?

In these situations, knowing no better, I tend to go for the first suggested option.

お帰りなさい o-kaeri nasai—welcome home (and other set phrases)

The beginning learner of Japanese (or the tourist in possession of a Japanese phrasebook) encounters a lot of “set phrases” which are required by Japanese etiquette in various situations. These are often long and complicated strings of (what seem like) meaningless syllables, difficult to learn and difficult to say. You learn them by rote and assume that the meaning will become clear as you learn more of the language.

As you progress in learning Japanese, these set phrases become second nature through repetition, and you no longer give a thought to their underlying meaning or structure, anymore than you do with English phrases such as “how do you do?” or “Good bye” (supposedly a contraction of “God be with you”).

Indeed, many of these Japanese set phrases, which may be among the first examples of the language that you encounter, involve quite advanced grammar, and there may be a gap of several years’ study between first learning them and being equipped to analyse them. By which time you (rightly) no longer care.

So, in summary, this post should be of interest to nobody. The information I present below is of no practical use in speaking or understanding Japanese. Furthermore, as I am no kind of expert, I don’t know the correct terminology and there is every chance that my explanations are wrong.

Nonetheless, there may be some value in dissecting these phrases to see what they reveal about obscure corners of Japanese grammar, and I present it here as a reference for anyone else who may be curious.

1) こんにちは konnichiwa—good day; こんばんは konbanwa—good evening

Okay, I’m starting with an easy one. 今日 kon nichi just means “this day” (i.e. “today”), and は is the topic marker. So we can imagine this phrase being the start of a sentence such as こんにちはお晴れですね konnichi wa o-hare desu ne—today is a fine day, isn’t it? Or any other sentence beginning “today is…”

Similarly, 今晩 kon ban means “this evening” or “tonight”.

2) おはようございます o-hayou gozaimasu—good morning

This one is a little harder. At its core is the adjective 早い hayai meaning “early”. This changes to hayou, following a pattern that we will see later with arigatai → arigatou and medetai → o-medetou. I haven’t come across this adjective ending outside these set phrases, and I don’t know if it can be applied to -i adjectives in general.

ございます gozaimasu is the polite (-masu) form of the humble form ござる of the verb aru, to be.

So we have: honorific prefix お o-, はよう hayou—early, ございます gozaimasu—is. Literal meaning: “it is early”.

3) どうもありがとうございます doumo arigatou gozaimasu—thank you very much

As above, ございます gozaimasu is a humble form of the verb aru, to be. ありがとう arigatou is that strange おう -ou form of the adjective ありがたい arigatai meaning thankful. どうも doumo can be analysed as どう dou—how and も mo—ever much, to mean “ever so much” or “very”.

Literal meaning: “I am ever so grateful”.

Digging a little deeper into ありがたい arigatai: this is written in kanji as 有難い, meaning “hard to exist”. We can imagine how the meaning shifted to mean “rare” or “precious”, and then to be an expression of thanks.

4) おめでとうございます omedetou gozaimasu—congratulations

Once again, we see an example of an -i adjective taking an -ou ending. In this case, めでたい medetai—happy, auspicious becomes おめでとう o-medetou. As above, ございます gozaimasu is a humble form of the verb aru, to be.

Literal meaning: “It (the occasion) is happy/auspicious”.

5) あけましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu—Happy New Year

おめでとうございます omedetou gozaimasu means “congratulations” as explained in number 4) above.

明けまして akemashite is a polite conjunctive form of 明ける akeru—begin, dawn, become bright (not to be confused with 開ける akeru—open).

What is a polite conjunctive form? It is the て -te (conjunctive) form of the ます -masu (polite) form of the verb. We’ll see it again below when we come to hajimemashite. I have not come across this form outside of these set phrases, though I am not exposed to the kind of formal written material where it might be used.

Literal meaning: “(The year) begins, it is happy/auspicious.”

6) お願いします o-negai shimasu—please

お o- is the honorific prefix.

The verb 願う negau means request, beg, wish for.

One way to make a humble form of a verb is to say “o-[N] shimasu“; literally “I do [N]”, where [N] is a noun formed from the -masu stem of the verb. In this case negau → negaimasu → negai.

If we want to be even more humble, we can replace shimasu with itashimasu, to give お願い致します o-negai itashimasu, where 致す itasu is the humble form of する suru to do.

Literal meaning: “I request…”

7) どうぞよろしくお願いします douzo yoroshiku o-negai shimasuどうぞよろしくお願い致します douzo yoroshiku o-negai itashimasu—{a set phrase when you have just been introduced}

(This phrase is usually glossed as “Please be kind to me”.)

どうぞ douzo is a word that you say when offering someone something.

宜しい yoroshii is a humble form of the adjective いい ii meaning “good”, and よろしく yoroshiku is the adverb form, meaning “well”. In this case, it is asking someone to do something in a “good” way or to make something good.

お願いします o-negai shimasu means “please”, as explained above.

Literal meaning: unclear. Maybe something like “I offer (myself), and request that you be good (to me).”

8) はじめまして hajimemashite—Pleased to meet you

We saw the polite conjunctive form まして -mashite in number 5) above; here it is again.

This time it is the polite form of 初めて hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. As with other set phrases, the rest of the sentence is implied.

(This one is a little complicated because there doesn’t actually seem to be a verb 初める hajimeru, although it is obviously linked to the verb 始める hajimeru—to begin.)

Literal meaning: “For the first time…”

9) 下さい kudasai—please

くださる kudasaru is the honorific form of the verb くれる kureru—to give.

If I want you to give me something, or to do something for me, I could just use the imperative form of the verb くれる kureru: くれ kure. For example 教えてくれ oshiete kure—teach me. But that would sound extremely rude.

However, by using the honorific form 下さる kudasaru to describe your action of giving, it no longer sounds rude and becomes a polite request. The simple imperative form of 下さる kudasaru is 下さい kudasai.

If I want to be even more polite, I could use the polite (-masu form) imperative くださいませ kudasaimase, and I sometimes hear this form in public announcements.

Literal meaning: “Give (me)…”

10) ただいま tadaima—I’m home

This is a set phrase required by Japanese etiquette when you arrive home.

只今 tadaima literally means “right now”, “just now”. The full version of the implied sentence is 只今戻りました tadaima modorimashita—I have just now returned.

Literal meaning: “just now”

11) お帰りなさい o-kaeri nasai—welcome home

This is a set phrase required by Japanese etiquette when someone arrives home and says “tadaima”.

お o- is the honorific prefix.

帰る kaeru means “return home”.

As in example 6) above, the -masu stem of the verb is a noun form meaning “the act of returning”.

kaeru → kaerimasu → kaeri

なさる nasaru is the honorific form of する suru—to do.

なさい nasai is the simple imperative form of nasaru.

Literal meaning: “Do the act of returning home”.

12) お休みなさい o-yasumi nasai—good night

This is a phrase said to someone who is about to go to bed. The structure is the same as example 11) above.

Here the verb is 休む yasumu—to rest.

Literal meaning: “Do the act of resting”.

13) いただきます itadakimasu—{a set phrase used when you are about to eat}

頂く itadaku is the humble form of the verb 食べる taberu—eat.

(It is also the humble form of もらう morau—receive and 飲む nomu—drink.)

頂きます itadakimasu is the polite non-past -masu form.

Literal meaning: “I eat”.

14) いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase—welcome

This is a greeting used by shop assistants every time you enter a store or restaurant, or indeed every time you encounter a shop worker while idly browsing (this can be a little alarming until you get used to it).

いらっしゃる irassharu is the honorific form of the verb 来る kuru—to come.

いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase is the polite (-masu form) imperative form of いらっしゃる irassharu.

(The simple imperative would be いらっしゃい irasshai, which we will see in a later example*).

Literal meaning: “You come (in)”

*At this point, it’s worth pausing to consider these honorific verbs and how they behave. They are certainly not behaving like regular -u or -ru verbs. And we are taught that Japanese has only two irregular verbs: する and 来る. So what is going on?

The verbs in question are:

  • 為さる nasaru (honorific form of する suru, to do)
  • 仰る ossharu (honorific form of 言う iu, to say)
  • いらっしゃる irassharu (honorific form of 来る kuru, to come)
  • 下さる kudasaru (honorific form of もらう morau, to receive)
  • ござる gozaru (archaic humble form of aru, to be)

1) The -masu form of these verbs doesn’t follow the normal rules for -u verbs or -ru verbs; they drop the -ru and add -imasu.

nasaru → nasaimasu (not *nasarimasu)

2) The simple imperative is formed from the -masu stem

nasaru → nasai (not *nasare)

In effect, this is another verb conjugation in addition to the Type I (-u), Type II (-ru) and Type III (irregular) verbs.

15) どういたしまして dou itashimashite—you’re welcome

どう dou means “how”, “in what way”.

致す itasu, as discussed above, is the humble form of する suru—to do.

致しまして itashimashite is the polite conjunctive form (remember that from number 5) and number 8)?) of 致す itasu.

So where does that leave us? If  いたしまして itashimashite is just a more polite way to say して shite—doing, then dou itashimashite starts to look a lot like どうして doushite meaning “why?”

Literal meaning: “In what way am I doing (to deserve your thanks)?”

16) お待たせしました o-matase shimashita—sorry for making you wait

Another shop assistant phrase. This is usually the first thing the shop assistant will say when the customer arrives at the counter, and again when he/she hands the product to the customer.

お o- is the honorific prefix.

待つ matsu is the verb to wait. 待たせる mataseru is the causative form: to make somebody wait. The past tense would be 待たせました matasemashita—I made (you) wait.

As in number 6) above, this becomes humble by using the structure o-[N] shimasu, where [N] is the noun form (-masu stem) of the verb.

mataseru → matasemasu → matase

Literal meaning: “(I am sorry that) I did the act of making you wait”.

17) 行ってらっしゃい itte rasshai—go and come back

This is a set phrase used when someone is leaving the house.

行って itte is the simple conjunctive form of the verb 行く iku—to go.

いらっしゃる is the honorific form of the verb 来る kuru—to come. The simple imperative form is いらっしゃい irasshai. This is shortened in this set phrase to らっしゃい rasshai.

Literal meaning: “Go and come (back)”.

18) 行って来ます itte kimasu—I will go and come back

This is a set phrase said in response to 行ってらっしゃい itte rasshai.

行って itte is the simple conjunctive form of the verb 行く iku—to go.

来ます kimasu is the polite non-past form of the verb 来る kuru—to come.

Literal meaning: “I will go and come (back)”.

19) 失礼します shitsurei shimasu; 失礼致します shitsurei itashimasu—Excuse me

This phrase is used when you arrive somewhere, when you leave somewhere before other people leave, or if you need to ask someone to move out of your way.

失礼 shitsurei means rudeness.

します shimasu is the non-past polite form of する suru—to do.

致します itashimasu is the humble form of します shimasu.

Literal meaning: “I do rudeness”, “I am being rude”.

A similar set phrase is お邪魔します o-jama shimasu—”I am being a nuisance”, said when entering someone’s home.

20) お久しぶり o-hisashiburi—long time no see

久しい hisashii is an adjective meaning “long-extended”

振る furu is a verb with lots of unrelated meanings but here refers to “an period of time that has elapsed”

(In my former work, the words 上振れ uwabure—upward trend and 下振れ shitabure—downward trend were commonly used. In this case 振れ means something like deflection. The most basic meaning is “shake”, as in a dog wagging its tail.)

Literal meaning: “A long time since…”

ピザ piza—pizza

In January I started weekly one-to-one Japanese conversation classes. My teacher comes to the house on Saturday or Sunday morning and we sit at the kitchen table and discuss various topics in Japanese. Sensei has a “light-touch” tutoring style, allowing me to speak mainly without interruption, and only correcting my most egregious or repeated errors. My spoken Japanese is absolutely terrible and full of errors, and I often wonder how she puts up with it!

It is a rare situation for me to have to speak Japanese for one hour without being able to “fall back” on English if necessary. This forces me to (and teaches me the confidence to) find ways to express what I want to say even if I don’t have the right words. When my work-arounds become too laboured, sensei will teach me some key vocabulary (such as 肋骨 rokkotsu—ribs, which is painfully topical for me at the moment).

In addition to “free conversation” I prepare for each class by studying an article or essay on some current or news-related topic. This means an hour or two per week of reading practice in addition to the one hour of conversation practice.

The idea of getting private lessons was recommended to me by an Irish friend, Claire, who lived in Japan for years and said that private lessons had been the most effective way for her to learn Japanese. It has turned out to be a very effective way of learning for me too (surprisingly so, since it is only one hour a week), and my only regret is not having started earlier.

Today was my second-last class, and next Saturday (just a few days before we leave Japan) will be my last.

One of sensei‘s former students is a Turkish man, Aiten, who runs a restaurant called アルピーノ ”Alpino” in Nishitanabe.

Aiten

Last weekend, sensei asked us to join her and her family there for a meal.

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sensei, otto-san and musume-san

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musume-san loves to pose for photos

Aiten-san has apprenticed as an Italian chef, and in addition to Turkish dishes his restaurant’s specialty is pizza (both Turkish and Italian style).

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We ordered 4 different types and shared them between us. The food was freshly prepared with top-quality ingredients and was absolutely delicious. The bill came to around 2000 yen each including drinks and coffee. I recommend it very highly.

On an unrelated (okay, food-related) topic, I spotted this “Boy’s Day” fish made out of bread in a local bakery (Nakamura’s bakery in Shinkanaoka shopping centre). I thought it was a work of art!

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準備 junbi—preparations

This is our home. That’s our car parked in the driveway, our bicycles parked outside, our tanuki figurine beside the door, our tulips flowering and our futon mattresses hanging on the front balcony railing.

Our House

And in just 11 days, we will leave this lovely home forever and return to Ireland. The car and the bicycles and the flowers and the tanuki and our dogs and all our possessions will be gone, and the house will be once again an empty and echoing shell, ready for someone else to make their own home here.

We’ve lived here for a little over a year. You may wonder whether that is really enough time to have such a feeling of “home”. It certainly is.

When we moved in here, it was completely unfurnished, as is the way in Japan. By completely unfurnished, I mean not only that there was no furniture, but that there were no curtains, no light fittings, no appliances, no air-conditioning or heating. Over time we acquired everything we needed to have a comfortable life here, some items kindly lent to us by Yuko’s dad, some things we bought either second-hand or new.

We gradually inhabited the whole space and made it our own, buying and fitting furniture and lights and curtains and an air conditioner, cultivating the garden and growing food, storing our empty boxes and dog travel-crates in the attic, cooking and eating and studying and thinking and writing blog posts and working and relaxing and sleeping and generally living a happy life.

Now it is time to leave, and the next 10 days or so will be a process of progressive withdrawal. The attic is first – the boxes and suitcases and dog crates all come down. I’ve cleared and tidied up the garden – all that is left is a solitary cabbage (which will be harvested tomorrow) and some strawberries which I doubt will ripen in time for us to enjoy them.

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I was in Kohnan (hardware store) 2 days ago to buy a drill, and they had a lot of food plants for sale. Tomatoes and cucumbers. It was a bit sad to be reminded that we won’t be planting anything this season and enjoying the riotous profusion of green that took over our garden in the heat of last summer (not to mention the sound of the frogs on hot summer nights).

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Some of the things in the house we will give (or give back) to Yuko’s dad. Some things will be scrapped. A pity, in the case of appliances such as the fridge, washing machine and vacuum cleaner which work perfectly well. But they are old, and nobody wants old appliances. And some items will be shipped back to Ireland, arriving there about 5-6 weeks after we do, at a new home which we don’t yet know.

We’ve recently started packing, and honestly have no idea at this stage how many boxes we will fill. For packing clothes and bedding efficiently, we use “space bags”; airtight bags with a valve that allows you to suck air out with a vacuum cleaner, greatly reducing the volume.

The house is a bit chaotic as closets get emptied out and everything gets sorted by destination (suitcase, shipping, discard…).

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Aside from that, the most complicated (and expensive) aspect of the move has been the dogs. Shipping 2 dogs from Japan to Ireland involves a great deal of planning and form-filling, and quite a lot of money. Quite a lot more than it cost to bring them from Ireland to Japan, because of an Irish government requirement that dogs arrive in Ireland as cargo (rather than as luggage).

Finally we have to unwind various aspects of our lives here – internet and mobile phone contracts, electricity connections, car deregistration, insurance, and so on, and try to do so in such a way as to still be able to live here until it’s time to leave for the airport. The remaining days of April on our wall calendar are marked with important words like “VET”, “CAR”, “Removal”, “VET” (again), and “Departure”.

It’s an interesting project and is keeping us very busy. But hopefully not too busy to be able to enjoy our last days in Japan!

人形 ningyou—dolls

Last week I learned about the Japanese tradition of holding a 供養 kuyou memorial service for dolls.

Even when a doll gets old or broken, it can be hard to just toss it in the bin with the rest of the household rubbish. Instead, the doll can be brought to the temple, where the monk reads a 経 kyou—sutra, and the doll is cremated. Alternatively, you can bring the doll to the shrine, the priest recites お祓い o-harai—a purification blessing, and the doll is cremated.

This ties in with the idea that there is some divinity or spirit even in a doll; the ceremony allows people to express their gratitude and appreciation to the doll and to console the doll’s spirit while sending it on up to heaven.

As well as dolls, tools used in crafts such as needlework (shoemakers, tailors) and the tea ceremony were also considered too precious to be casually disposed of. Iron needles or 茶筅 chasen—bamboo tea whisks were buried with proper ceremony in mounds within the precincts of the temple or shrine.

The needle ceremony, called 針供養 harikuyou, seems to involve placing the old and broken needles in a dish of tofu (click on the link for pictures). These are then buried in the 針塚 harizuka—needle mound.

In Awashima shrine in Kada, Wakayama, this needle memorial ceremony takes place annually in February. We visited Awashima today and saw the harizuka.

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But that wasn’t all. The place was a sanctuary for every kind of doll, figurine and statue, no longer wanted by its owners.

There were ceramic elephants and bears.

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A cohort of superannuated tanuki statues.

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Dragons, rabbits, and roof tiles with images of creatures.

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A sea of worn-out maneki-neko.

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Gods, koma-inu and shiisa lion dogs.

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Kintarou astride various beasts.

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Frogs.

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Daikoku and his mouse friends.

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Carved wooden Noh theatre masks

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And a whole army of ichimatsu dolls.

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At Awashima, I am not sure whether some dolls are cremated and others kept on display. There is a hearth near the entrance of the shrine. The sign says that old dolls, charms and so on should be presented at the proper place (and that boxes and rubbish should not be thrown into the hearth).

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The poster says that on Girls’ Day, they pile up hina dolls in small boats and float them out to sea in a ceremony called hina nagashi.

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hina nagashi

(Image from Wakayama Kanko)

Note on the word of the day

人形 ningyou, a doll, is written with the characters for “human” and “shape”. Literally, it means “human form”.

供養 kuyou, a memorial service, like many religious terms, has its ultimate origin in India. The Sanskrit terms were brought to Japan with the arrival of Buddhism. Kuyou is ultimately the same word as the Hindu puja, although the pronunciation has changed beyond recognition in the intervening centuries.

納豆 nattou

As a foreigner in Japan, I am often asked, “Do you like Japanese food?”

I love Japanese food. One of the major joys of living in Japan is the sheer variety of delicious food. All kinds of noodles, sushi, Japanese sweets, tempura, donburi, crackers, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

As a follow-up question, some people ask, “Can you eat raw fish?”

Yes indeed, I reply, I love sushi and sashimi.

Then I see an eyebrow raised, and the killer question is unleashed. “Have you tried … nattou?”

Until recently, to my shame, the answer has always been, “No, I haven’t eaten nattou.”

Nattou is innocent enough, it is just fermented beans. However it packs a double-punch of repulsiveness: the long viscous strings of translucent whitish slime that stretch from your chopsticks to the bowl, and the smell, which is like a combination of vomit and smelly feet. Wikipedia says: “Nattō may be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture.”

A Google Image Search for “natto” will turn up many images like this one:

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This picture captures the visual appeal quite well but the smell is left to your imagination.

On a previous attempt many years ago, I was defeated; I had it on my chopsticks but just couldn’t bring myself to put it into my mouth.

However, the time had come to rectify this ancient wrong. I had heard that it doesn’t taste as bad as it looks and smells. I made a nattou pact with Jonathan. Yuko brought some home from the store and we agreed that we would eat it for breakfast the next morning.

The fateful moment arrived. Two grizzled men sat at the breakfast table facing their destiny.

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Yes, we met the challenge head on (though we didn’t finish it). How did it taste? Pretty awful, actually. But that’s not the point. From now on, I will be able to hold my head high and answer, “Yes, I have tried nattou“.