10 Japanese Certainties

  1. TV presenters will proclaim all food, no matter how disgusting, to be “delicious”.
  2. There will be ten new Prime Ministers by the time this decade is out.
  3. Payment of inducements to public servants serves the greater good by building business relationships.
  4. The miniskirt will never go out of fashion.
  5. Overtime spent in an office = Automatic productivity.
  6. Nature is evil. It must be cleansed by concrete.
  7. Owning an old car is bad for the economy dangerous.
  8. In order to (dis)respect someone, you must first be certain of their age.
  9. English exists solely for the design of unintelligible T-shirts.
  10. The older one gets, the freer one becomes. Once you’re over 90 you can say whatever the heck you want.
cleansed by concrete
#6: Nature cleansed by concrete in Shinjuku, Tokyo
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Annular Eclipse 2012

We were blessed to experience a pretty cool eclipse this morning. Nagoya was within the path of annularity (I had to look that up!) which meant we were able to view the sun as a “ring of fire” around a silhouette of the moon. We viewed it using a pinhole projector made from an old shoebox. In contrast, Nicewife’s dad decided the best way to view it was to look directly at the sun… We’re expecting him to need new glasses by tomorrow.

The Japanese word for eclipse is made of the characters 日食 which literally mean “eat the sun”. Kinda neat, eh. Nicewife’s 95 year old grandma doesn’t understand science – she proclaimed that the sun god had an illness. A very beautiful illness.

So here’s the picture:

 

Annular Eclipse
Annular Eclipse from our home just outside Nagoya

 

Octogenarian Rugby

On TV a couple of nights ago I saw footage of a bunch of octogenarian former rugby players actually playing rugby. It was a full contact game that included tackles, scrums and trys. As one would expect there was a large group of medics on scene to quickly deal with any incidents, and a bunch of undertakers and counsellors on standby to deal with the numerous expected deaths.

In what was billed as a Japan first, the minimum age for participation in the game was 80. The oldest player was 90, and is clearly identifiable in the video below by his gold pants. Kylie Minogue would be proud. At the end of the video the 90 year old is asked how long he’ll continue. He replies that he’ll continue as long as he’s still alive and able. Perhaps not that much longer then.

The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)

 

 

 

Autumn Colours

On Tuesday we took a trip to a small city north of here called Inuyama. What I like the most about Inuyama is that its name translates literally as “Dog Mountain City”.

Absurd juxtapositions aside, the most interesting thing about Inuyama is that it is home to the oldest original wooden castle in Japan. This trip we completely ignored that fact and instead spent the day visiting the grounds of Jakko-in (寂光院) temple, which sits atop a hill covered in beautiful deciduous trees.

There were a few minor disasters during the day. The half-hourly free shuttle bus from the train station only runs on weekends – we discovered so after arriving at the station and attempting to board the non-existant bus. The result was a long and precarious walk along a road sandwiched between the river and mountains. At some points the road narrows to just one lane and the footpath disappears completely, bringing goods trucks and infants in pushers uncomfortably close.

narrow-road
Precarious Mountain Road: Be careful if you're driving a truck, or are very very tall.

Half way along the 2.5km walk a wheel fell off our 3-wheeled pusher. To the amusement of passing motorists I spent 5 minutes imitating a primate, using a rock as a hammer in an attempt to fix it. (Appropriately, this area is also famous for its monkeys.) This affair was generally embarrassing, but not disastrous. However, these minor issues were soon forgotten when we arrived at the grounds and were able to enjoy Japanese Maples aflame in brilliant reds. We joined the throngs of very old people in tour groups and made our way up the hill.

Climbing the 300 steps to the top.
Climbing the 300 steps to the top. Incredibly both our 2 and 3 year old boys managed all the steps by themselves.

Great colours - no Photoshop required.

Viewing the changing of the leaves is something of a seasonal tradition in Japan, and with the beauty of the vibrant display of colours on offer, who can blame them?

Breakfast for the Price of an (expensive) Coffee

The traditional coffee houses on the outskirts of Nagoya engage in a business promotion that, as far as I am aware, is pretty unique to this area. The deal is basically thus: Order a regular cup of coffee before 11am and you will receive a free mini-breakfast. Not to be confused with the actual morning, this deal is called “morning”.

Given that a regular cup of filter coffee  (Italian-style coffee hasn’t really caught on here in a major way) at a coffee house in Japan costs around 350 to 400 yen ($4.70 to $5.30), this deal is not as cheap as it may first seem. But given the alternative of paying 350 to 400 yen at 11.05am for just a cup of filter coffee, it represents comparatively good value for money.

During our gap year I am working as a web developer on a freelance basis. Given that I can work from anywhere that there is a chair and a table (and even some places where there isn’t) I’ve been spending a few hours each day working from a coffee house. This gives me the ideal opportunity to do a “morning” review on this blog. Nicewife’s dad is pretty connected, so I will get financial viability info from him. Today I will look at a little coffee shop called “Hanamizuki”.

Hanamizuki

This coffee house is owned by Nicewife’s school friend and her mum.

Access: 10 mins walk.

Price: 350 yen (We bought a book of 11 tickets, which reduces the price to a very reasonable 290 yen per cup.)

Morning: Hard-boiled egg, a third of a piece of thick toast, small packet of rice crackers.

Viability: Barely breaking even. Undertaken as a hobby.

Atmosphere: Smokey, friendly (except if you’re not local).

Hanamizuki Morning
"Morning" at Hanamizuki
At 10.00am the very old local people arrived one by one on these wheeled walking frames. Here they are parked outside the front of the shop. (The frames that is, not the suddently-invisible old people.)

Does Japan Overpackage?

Did you know that the Japan Packaging Institute’s official goal is,  “Challenging the future of packaging by means of originality and ingenuity“? I didn’t either. Yesterday we had takeout pizza for lunch. The shop asked us if we wanted to pay extra for the benefit of receiving the pizza in a pizza box. We politely refused, and this was the result:

Takeout pizza in millions of little boxes.
Takeout pizza in millions of little boxes.

In highly related matters, here is a picture of my ninety-five year old grandmother-in-law eating pizza. Awww!

95 year old having pizza