Oh, the movie? The Tree of Life. My rating - 2 out of 5 stars, but I reckon Madam Wife rates it higher.
Pedaling away, off we went under a leaden sky, no raincoats, no ponchos, no umbrellas. Destination.....one of our favorite soba (buckwheat noodles) shops for a Sunday afternoon lunch. We figured we could get there, eat, and get back home before the rain started. WRONG!
As we finished our meal we could hear the rain drumming against the wooden facade of the soba shop. We figured we could wait it out & ride our bikes home with no more than a bit of dampness. WRONG AGAIN!
As we paid our bill we asked the shop assistant if there was a 7-11 or something similar nearby where we could buy an umbrella. Rather than direct us to a store the shop owner volunteered a couple of umbrellas that had been left behind by other customers in the past. We said we would return them, but no need, said the waiter. These were spares that, if they didn't give them away, they would have to discard. One was actually a pretty nice umbrella - fashionable and probably fairly expensive when bought. The other was very serviceable. In fact, the waiter opened up and tested the umbrellas before giving them to us - he even discarded one of those "throw-away" type that are so often abandoned here & there in Japan - the clear plastic ones that sell for 100-300 yen. (Oh, and this is where the title of this posting comes from - it's not the first time I've been given an umbrella by a restaurant - so if you're caught out without one when the rain starts - and you're in a restaurant just ask where you can get an umbrella. Chances are you'll be offered one, at least here in Japan, that is.)
Well, riding home holding an umbrella was a first for me. I've seen people doing this hundreds of times, but I never figured it was something I would want to try. The gusting winds made it a bit more of a hassle, but all-in-all it was easier than I had thought it would be, cramped right hand not withstanding.
Now, if I had only had a umbrella attendant like the one in the picture below.....
It's been a while since I've posted to this blog and of course, much has happened in Japan since my last posting. The Great East Japan Earthquake (so named by the prime minister) and the subsequent tsunami, followed by the nuclear plant isues, have been on probably just about every news channel and other media in the world.
I've also written a few articles during this time, which you can read at www.majiroxnews.com if you want.
An old army friend in the states also sent me the link to this YouTube Video. It's a street level view of the tsunami inundating the camera person's town. Frightening to watch and heart breaking to see the damage it caused.
Despite the news reports that friends and family around the world have read - trust me - Tokyo remains safe. The radiation levels are safe. The water is safe. People are going about their business and getting on with their lives. Yes, there are minor (minor given the comparison to what the poor folks up in Tohoku have been through and continue to live with) inconviences. Some trains may be delayed at times if power outages occur, but those are - thanks to the great efforts of everyone to conserve electricity - very limited. Dairy products are in short supply because of the ban on such products from the Fukushima area. Same with some vegetables. But short supply doesn't mean no supply and the necessary items are very available.
With April upon us the sakura trees are beginning to blossom. Today we walked along the Sumida River with old friends and the trees are from 30% to 50% in bloom. The news reports tell us that the yakata-bune (the boats that ply the Sumida River with cherry viewing party goers enjoying food and drinks) are experiencing a major downturn in business - 80 to 90%. Certainly, the yakata-bune we saw on the river today were mostly empty. However, one park beside the river was very well populated with o-hanami (blossom viewing) parties. So was the park behind our home when my wife walked through it yesterday. People were sitting on the usual blue plastic sheets, eating, drinking, talking, playing music, and having a good time.
Life can, must, and does go on.
Spring was in the air this balmy March 6th Sunday as I set out for my 10,000 steps walk (actually did over 11,000).
Within a minute of leaving our condo's front door I knew that spring must really be just around the corner (I had just gone around the corner) when I spotted this fellow, shovel in hand, tilling the soil for his summer garden.
Those little stakes mark out one of the 126 mini-garden plots in this field that are available for rent by residents of our ward. A quick online check showed me that there are actually 1,564 of these little plots available around the ward for a small rental fee of 3,000 yen. I know that some people manage to rent a couple of them and one restaurant in our neighborhood (Happy Go Lucky - Mexican Restaurant) uses the vegetables they grow for some of their fresh, tasty dishes during the summer & autumn months.
Would you like to try your hand at "gentleman farming"? Click here if you want to see a list of all such spots available in Tokyo. You'll have to be able to read Japanese (or use Google Translate) to find out about the procedure for applying. Or, you can call your local ward office and ask.
Many people enjoy growing their own vegetables and getting a bit of dirt under their fingernails on the weekends. Some even have all tools to avoid the dirty fingernails; like this little tractor I spotted in another field a few blocks further on. This was a bigger field so the tractor may be used by just one farmer in this field or it may be for community use - no signs spotted for information.
Some even go to great lengths to have fresh veggies and maybe a few flowers year round as evidenced by this roof top greenhouse I saw.
Others may have a few pots on their veranda. That's what I did last summer with my tomato garden. Okay, my tomato plant. But the two tomatoes I got from it were good!
Of course, vegetables are not the only use for a nice garden and this condo building courtyard I spotted decided to make good use of their common courtyard by planting flowers, trees, and even a nice stone lantern.
So, there you go! Farming in Tokyo. Break out that hoe. Dust off that shovel. Head to the plant store and stock up on a few seedlings and next thing you know your family will be dining on home grown corn and maybe even organic goodies!
Thursday night brought heavy rain to Tokyo. Not so unusual, so why do I mention it?
Normally, when we have a rain filled night our morning papers are delivered wrapped in a thin clear plastic bag. But the Friday paper didn't get the plastic treatment and was delivered with wet corners, which I assume happened as the rain soaked the delivery man and the motorbike he rides to make his rounds.
Okay, so we got a paper that was a bit wet. Sure, a little more bother to turn the pages without ripping through the wet places, and the newsprint is a little harder to read on a rain soaked section, but I figured no big deal. I could still read it and the delivery guy was probably a lot more miserable tooling around in the cold rain than I was reading a damp newspaper at my warm dining table. (Of course, if I eventually make the switch to an iPad and an online paper, and THAT gets wet then I will have a problem.)
Arriving home on Friday evening I found a fresh, dry newspaper waiting for me. Odd, I thought. Did something super newsworthy happen that caused the Herald Tribune or the Asahi Newspaper put out a special evening edition? Nope, that wasn't the case. My wife said there was a letter with the paper apologizing for delivering a wet newspaper that morning and for any inconvenience caused by having to decipher wet newsprint.
Now comes the part where my wife (who is Japanese, remember) and I don't quite see eye to eye. My thoughts were, if the delivery guy knew the paper was wet when he delivered it why not just keep that wet paper in his basket and give me a dry paper instead of bringing another (same) newspaper later that day when the sun was shining, so his customers could have a dry paper. It's not like the one he delivered in the morning wouldn't dry out, or I need to save that paper for some reason, or that I had called and complained (I didn't).
Madam Wife however took a more Japanese view. She said that the delivery man thought about his customers and knew that most of them like to read the paper early in morning before leaving for work or the day's chores. And, it was most likely that all the papers were wet (my thought interjected here - okay, he knew it was raining, it had been all night, so why no plastic to begin with or at least some protection over the papers in his basket?) and he didn't want to keep people from reading the news even if it meant reading a watery version. But, because of the inconvenience caused he later delivered a fresh, dry paper along with an apology letter (sort of reminds me of those company heads and politicians who do the deed then bow to the cameras to apologize - maybe empty but has meaning to the Japanese).
Service above and beyond or apologizing after the horse escaped from the barn.....?
So, there you have it faithful readers. Just another small insight into the differences in western and Japanese thinking. But, having said that, it does show the service mentality that is still one of the key good ingredients to life in Japan and that's just one of the things that keeps me here in good old Nippon.
Japan's insurance companies are planning to up the price that older drivers have to pay for their car insurance effective from April 2011. Drivers 70 and over will be paying 8% more for their insurance premiums.
The reason is, according to Sompo Japan the insurance company that plans to be first with this rate increase, older drivers have more accidents. Other insurers are sure to follow this practice as they say their profitability in the auto insurance line of business has decreased due to this aging of the Japanese society. As Japan ages, with nearly 25% of the population in the 65+ bracket, insurance companies are looking for ways to increase profitability.
It isn't only the insurance companies that are concerned with the increase in the number of accidents by these older drivers. The National Police Agency launched a cognitive test, which was formulated with the help of dementia experts, and is a requirement for anyone 75 and over when they renew their license. In the first year of this test (2009 - 2010) over 760,000 people were examined and it was determined that 39 of them have dementia. More than 14,000 were found to be suffering from declining memory (hey, no wonder we can't find our keys!) and judgment (we can beat that train!) and another 25% have memories that are "somewhat" declining.
Not only is Japan's population decreasing After this year's Coming of Age ceremonies, held on Jan. 10, which is for anyone turning 20 it was announced that only 0.6% of Japan's population is now 20 years old. With fewer & fewer young people, and the gray hairs taking over, it looks like the police are going to be busier than ever giving these cognitive tests, as long as those aging policemen can remember where they put the pencils!
USING TAKKYUBIN (PARCEL DELIVERY SERVICE) IN JAPAN
One of the great services offered in Japan is home-to-home, or business-to-home, or business-to-business delivery service for documents, sports gear, computer equipment, food, wine, and just about anything else you can think of that needs to be delivered quickly and economically. You can even have your luggage sent to or from the airport so you don’t have to bother lugging it on and off the trains on your trip home. One of the most widely used services is the shipment of golf clubs from home to golf courses and back, which makes it a lot easier for the golfers to take the train to their next game without the hassle of lugging a bag full of clubs along.
There are a variety of companies offering delivery services with some of the more commonly know names being Yamato, Kuroneko, Pelican, and Sagawa.
You can have the package picked up at your office or home by calling one of the Takkyubin companies to arrange the date and time. If your Japanese isn’t up to par for this have someone help you with the call since it will be rare to get an English speaker on the phone. You’ll also need to complete a shipping form (motobarai form). Motobarai means that you, the sender, will pay the shipping charge. If it isn’t convenient for you to wait at home for the delivery man to pick up the package you can also drop your package off at a Takuhaibin Service Center or most any convenience store such as 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart, or any shop displaying a takuhaibin sign. Many stores also have an in-house service to ship your purchases to your home or office so you don’t have to carry them around all day as you continue to shop or make your way home on a crowded train.
Delivery is typically done the next day, but in some cases same-day delivery may be possible depending on location and time of shipping. Sending packages (or golf clubs) to more distant destinations like Hokkaido or Okinawa may require two days. It’s even possible to specify drop-off times such as “between 09:00 – 11:00” in most instances.
Shipping is very reasonably priced. The actual amount depends on the size and weight of the parcel, the type of goods you are sending, and the destination. The following chart shows expected amounts:
Regular parcel (30 cm x 30 cm x 30cm, less than 10 kg)
Within the greater Tokyo area: 1,200 Yen
From Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto: 1,300 Yen
From Tokyo to Kyushu: 1,600 Yen
From Tokyo to Hokkaido: 1,600 Yen
From Tokyo to Okinawa: ,2300 Yen
Suitcase (80 cm x 40 cm x 30cm, less than 25 kg)
Within greater Tokyo area: 1,800 Yen
From Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto: 1,900 Yen
From Tokyo to Kyushu: 2,200 Yen
From Tokyo to Hokkaido: 2,200 Yen
From Tokyo to Okinawa: 3,900 Yen
Tokyo to Narita Airport: 2,400 Yen
Osaka/Kyoto to Kansai Airport: 2,400 Yen
But, what if you are shipping something to someone that they’ve asked you to send and you don’t want to pay the shipping costs? In that case, the Takkyubin companies offer a C.O.D. service known as chakubarai which means “pay on arrival.” Even Japan Post offers chakubarai for packages sent through its Yu-Pack service.
To use chakubarai the sender simply completes a chakubarai form, instead of a motobarai form. Both forms are only available in Japanese, so as per the phone call to the Takkyubin company, if you don’t read Japanese get someone to help you complete the form. Names and addresses can be done in English, but it helps the Takkyubin company if you they are done in Japanese). The delivery charge is collected in cash when the package is delivered to the recipient. Takkubyin companies generally add 100 yen onto the shipping charge for chakubarai service.
However, in the event the recipient’s address is wrong, or he or she rejects the package, or they are just never home and cannot be reached, the Takkyubin company will bring the package back to you for and you will be required to make payment. Takkyubin companies do make multiple delivery attempts and phone calls to try to deliver the package though before bringing it back to you. Keep in mind that if you are sending a package using chakubarai you should provide the Takkyubin company with the recipient’s full name, home and mobile phone numbers, and an accurate address. Do not use “in care of" as the package may not be delivered and you’ll get the package back and a bill to boot. It’s also a good idea to ask the recipient to provide a back-up address such as their office in the event they are never home during the very broad delivery hours.
As for packaging, the Takkyubin companies are quite liberal. Unless you are sending fragile items you may use just about anything for the package. It’s quite common to send items in a cardboard box or even just a simple shopping bag. Those heavy duty plastic or paper bags that you get when you buy goods from many department stores, and some supermarkets for example, can be used as a shipping package. Just make sure they are sealed tightly with strong tape and that the shipping label is securely affixed.
If you send a lot of package you may want to look into Hacoboon, which is a discount service from Yamato.
Registration and delivery ordering is done online. The payment is also online if you register a credit card. An ID will be generated with each delivery order. You then take the package to any Family Mart and enter the ID into the terminal to get a voucher, which you give to the cashier. The cashier will check for any outstanding payments before printing out the invoice for the package. You can also elect to receive an e-mail notice when the invoice has been printed and the package has been delivered.
Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi (the cow day during the summer Doyo period) is supposed to be the hottest day in Japan, but I do believe somebody got the calendar a bit wrong as the last few days have been hotter, and hotter, and hotter each day it seems.
The end of each season is named Doyo, according to a Chinese philosophy called gogyo, and there are four Doyo periods per year. There can be one or two cow days during a Doyo period, and Doyo-no-ushinohi in summer falls between mid July and early August each year.
This is also the day one is supposed to eat eel - at least here in Japan. Of course, it's okay to eat eel any day, but the "purpose" of eating eel when it's hot is to overcome natsubate (summer fatigue). Many people believe that eating eel helps increase stamina and beat the summer heat.
The most common unagi (eel) dish is is "unadon" (eel bowl) and sometimes it's called "unagidon." It's made with charcoal grilled eel, coated with a sweet soy-based sauce, served on top of a bowl of rice.
Variations include unajū, a very similar dish served in a lacquered box rather than a donburi bowl, nagayaki, where the eel and rice are served separately, and hitsumabushi (small pieces of barbecued eel on rice. In the Kanto area (where Tokyo is located) the eel is roasted first, dipped into the sweet sauce, and then grilled with more sauce brushed on as it cooks. In Kansai, where Osaka is located, the process is similar, but the sauce is only applied during the grillin
However you eat it, eel is a tasty dish, and if you haven’t tried it (you’re not squeamish now, are you?) I recommend you give it a try.
It's the Obon holidays in Japan. Obon is the time of year to honor the spirits of one's ancestors. It's also when many Japanese return to their home towns - their jikka - to visit & clean up their ancestors' graves and meet with family & old friends. The spirits of the ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars (butsudan) that most Japanese - at least the older generation - have in their homes.
Butsudan can be very plain or quite elaborate with prices ranging from $35 to well over $18,000.
Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori. Watch this video of a typical Bon-Odori.
The festival of Obon lasts for three days, but the starting date varies within different regions of Japan. When the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian Calendar at the beginning of the Meiji Era, the localities in Japan reacted differently and this resulted in three different times of Obon. "Shichigatsu Bon" (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around 15 July in areas such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Tohoko (northern part of the main island of Honshu). "Hachigatsu Bon" (Bon in August) is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. "Kyu Bon" (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. "Kyu Bon" is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kanto region, Chugoku, Shikoku, and the Southwestern islands.
These three days are not listed as public
holidays but it is customary that people are given leave and many companies and offices may close.
Naturally, the highways are jam packed with cars especially since the government enacted reduced tolls -and even some areas of toll-free - on the expressways. It's not uncommon to sit in a 50 kilometer traffic jam if one is "foolish" enough to drive to their jikka.
Tokyo is a quieter place during Obon and the traffic lightens up, trains are less crowded during the working day rush hours, but many more people are out & about shopping, eating, watching movies, and enjoyed the parks.
I recently applied for Permanent Residence in Japan - again after having had it back in the 1980s, but I lost it when I was out of Japan for several years.
When I got a request from immigration for more documents it reminded me that I haven't posted the info here on Tokyo Hearts to tell you what you need in case you decide to apply for your own "eijuken."
Generally speaking, to get PR approval one has to live in Japan for at least 10 years. However, exceptions seem to be made sometimes, especially if you have a Japanese spouse. Plan on the process taking from 3 (that would be very short) to 12 months. Somewhere in between may be the most common case, but immigration will tell you "up to a year" for approval.
At a minimum figure on needing the following documents (in addition to the application):
1. If married to a Japanese you'll need his/her Koseki Tohon (family register)
2. Juminhyo - also if you're married to a Japanese - his/her document
3. Gaikokujin torokugenpyo kisaijiko shomeisho (certificat of registered matters): this is for you - get it at your ward office
4. Letter of guarantee from your spouse
5. Marriage certificate (if married to a Japanese)
6. Reason letter (why you are applying)
7. Zaishoku shomeisho (employment letter / certificate from your employer)
8. Kakuteishinkokusho (tax return forms for the last 3 years): get these from your local ward tax office or ward office
9. Juminzei nozei shomeisho (inhabitant's tax certificate for the last 3 years): also from your ward office
10. Jyukyo hokokusho (residence report): form from immigration
11. Shinzoku gaiyosho (summary of family members): form from immigration
12. Copies of your alien registration card & passport (first pages with name, expiration, etc.)
Hope the above info helps if you're planning to apply for PR - and good luck!
Japan's oldest person, Kama Chinen, died this week at the ripe old age of 114 - just a week shy of her 115th birthday! That's 5 score and nearly 5 years! It's mind boggling to think of all that she must have observed during those years. Some wonderful, some probably not so wonderful.
She was born in the same year that Marconi sent the first radio signal. Today, there are over 44,000 radio stations worldwide. TV wasn't invented until 1926 and broadcast TV didn't happen until 1946.
She lived through two world wars and many lesser - but no less devastating - wars & conflicts; almost countless prime ministers (wonder if there was a good one somewhere there in the bunch?); and the reign of 4 Emperors.
Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of the aging. Yesterday, as we rode our bikes along the Tama River the number of elderly people, many using canes and even some in wheelchairs, walking or wheeling along the river was amazing.
At the same time, the number of people under the age of 15 in Japan has declined again for the 29th year in a row. There are slightly less than 17 million under that age now. There are almost as many dogs in Japan as there are young children - about 13 million dogs.
With the passing of Chinen-sama, the oldest person in the world now is French citizen Eugenie Blanchard, who was born on February 16, 1896 on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe. May you live many more years, Ms. Blanchard!
There are 6 billion, 800 thousand people in the world.
In the few seconds it just took for you to read the sentence above t the world’s population increased by 15 more people.
There are a few races of people, but even with all these people there is only one species – that is Homo Sapien.
Homo Sapien is Latin. It means “wise man” or “knowing man.”
Are we – the Homo Sapiens of this world – truly “wise or knowing men and women?”
Let’s come back to that question in a few minutes.
But before we do that, let’s move on to another living thing. Let’s have a look at trees.
How many trees do you think there are in the world?
You might say – “that’s a really tough question – how in the world can anyone count how many trees there are in the world?”
Well, thanks to NASA, we can actually have a pretty good idea of how many trees we have here on planet Earth.
Trees reflect sunshine in very particular patterns. This makes it possible for NASA’s satellites to map and count strips of land where trees are growing. Biologists can then sample those places — forests, suburbs, city parks, even city streets — assume a tree density, multiply by acre or hectare, and calculate the number of trees.
In 2005 the scientists estimated that there are over 400 billion trees in the world.
Ecology professor Nalini Nadkarni of The Evergreen State College in Washington ran the numbers and calculated that in 2005 that worked out to be about 61 trees per person.
Today, assuming about the same number of trees, the number works out to be just over 58 trees per person.
Fifty-eight trees. Sounds like a lot of trees doesn’t it!
But, think about how we use trees, or the products that trees produce for us, and we have to wonder, is it really a lot of trees per person?
What do we use trees for?
Well, there is the obvious use of burning logs in a woodstove to heat a home in winter, or making the paper we use in our homes and offices every day, but when Professor Nadkami had her graduate students write down a list of things made from trees she got a list that almost never stops:
China uses over 45 billion – or about 45 per person. The whole world uses over 100 billion pairs per year.
So Japan, with roughly 1.7% of the world’s population is using about 25% of the disposable chopsticks in the world.
Actually, other than calculating the
wood used in chopsticks, it is pretty much impossible to figure out just how
much in total of the woody stuff is used every year by we Homo Sapiens.
It all sounds like a pretty sad story, doesn’t it? All of us humans cutting down all of those trees for our own selfish needs?
Not really! After all, trees are not like oil. They are renewable. If you think you are using more than your annual allotment of 58 trees - and if you are using wari-bashi you most likely are – there’s an easy solution. Plant more trees! Get yourself a shovel, and a few seeds or seedling trees, dig a few holes, paint your thumb green, and plant a few trees.
The Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore said:
Trees are the earth's endless effort
To speak to the listening heaven.
So now, back to my earlier question; are we humans truly “wise and knowing men and women”?
Or, should we best listen to the words of John Muir, the Scottish born American naturalist who is well known for advocating preservation of the wilderness in the United States when he said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
Did you know that forks were not generally used as eating utensils by people in many countries until around the 16th century?
There are records of forks being used in Greece as early as the 4th century, and the wealthy populace of the Middle East used them in the 7th - 13th centuries, but that's about it.
In 1005 a byzantine aristocrat, Maria Argyropoulina married the future doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo. To keep her fingers clean (most people ate with their fingers at the time), she had her servants cut her food into tiny pieces which she proceeded to eat with a golden two-tined fork that she carried with her. Wedding guests were apalled! How decadent!
She died shortly after the wedding of some disease and most perceived this as a sign that divine punishement was being wrought upon her.
The cardinal bishop of Ostia went so far as to preach against the fork, calling it a "diabolic instrument" (probably because of the similarity of the shape to the Devil's trident). He declared it as "useless" because spaghetti and macroni were so hard to eat with it. Thus, forks disappeared from the Italian table until the 16th century when it was rediscovered due to a revival in the quest for cleanliness.
Now that you know about the fork, do you know the simplest and most popular eating tool ever invented?
It's chopsticks, which are used by over 1.5 billion people almost every day.
Chopsticks are thought to have been invented around 300 B.C. and some say the use of chopsticks may have been influenced by Confucious around 550 B.C.
Some facts from the UC Berkely Wellness Letter (with some additions from me):
If you are using your chopsticks to take food from a "communal" plate turn them around & use the wide end (the non-eating end) to take the food. This keeps you from contaminating the food or passing any germs to others.
Never pass food from your chopsticks to anyone else's chopsticks - or vice versa. Why not? Well, this is how the bones are picked out of the ashes by family members after a cremation. The bones are picked up with chopsticks, passed around the table, and placed in the urn.
Never leave your chopsticks sticking up in your bowl of rice (other other food). This is how rice is left at the family altar for the departed members of the family.
Some people have a difficult time mastering the use of chopsticks. Usually, it's because they hold them too close to the tip (further back is better and easier) or they grip them wrongly, or they grip them too tightly. For a short lesson have a look at this video.
For a tongue in cheek look (not many subtitles, but the visuals are funny) watch this:
Today, I saw a dead man walking.
Well, he wasn't actually walking, but his ashes were being carried by a family member who was walking and leading a small group of mourners. He was followed by a Buddhist priest in their walk to Aoyama Cemetery and the rest of the mourners were behind the priest. The last person in the group was carrying his picture in a black frame so I could see - from the picture - that the departed was a relatively young man. Perhaps in his 40s, maybe 50s (remember, young is relative...). No idea if the person carrying the picture was his widow or another family member.
It was unusual in that they were walking to the cemetery, which is not so common here in the Heart of Tokyo.
Lesson to take from this - live life like today is the last day - or better yet, like today is the first day of the rest of your life!
Japan has a lot !!! of national holidays. In addition to the Obon days in August (Obon is the time of rememberance for deceased family), and the long New Year period at the beginning of the year, there are an additional 14 national holidays. The government enacted a law that says when a holiday falls on a Sunday then the next working day will be a holiday. Since this is usually Monday it means there are quite a few 3-day weekends in Japan. In addition, any day that falls between two other national holidays also becomes a holiday. This week all of these holidays created two longer periods of time off for a lot of folks during Golden Week (April / May) and "Silver Week" (in September).
With the government also enacting reduced expressway tolls on the weekends and holidays it meant a whole bunch of people were on the highways over those long periods, as well as many weekends, creating traffic jams that can be as long as 50 kilometers (30 miles). Train & plane companies have taken a hit on fares also since the maximum highway toll (once you're out of the city) is 1,000 yen. This means a family can travel much cheaper by car than by train or plane, even if it does mean sitting in that car for many, many hours. At least the expressways here have pretty good service areas with restaurants, snack shops, clean toilets, and gasoline stations.
Today was another of those holidays: Culture Day (Bunka No Hi). From Wikipedia:
"This national holiday was established in 1948. It commemorates the November 3, 1946 announcement of the Constitution. It is recognized as a day to celebrate peace and freedom and promote culture. (N.B.: Although prior to the establishment of this holiday in 1948, November 3 was also a national holiday called Meiji-setsu commemorating the birthday of Emperor Meiji, the two holidays are ostensibly unrelated."
From what I could see - as I sat in traffic on the local roads - most of the "culture" people were getting today has to do with shopping. The number of cars on the road around Kichijoji (just a few kilometers up the road) was pretty tremendous & in some areas it just wasn't moving any faster than the proverbial snail.
Two more national holidays to go this year; Labor Thanksgiving Day (which is just before the American Thanksgiving Day) and The Emperor's Birthday (and believe it or not, Christmas is NOT a national holiday in Japan).
So whattya waitin' for - today is Culture Day - go out & get yourself some culture!
We are mortal.
Three short words; only 11 letters, but the meaning and the emotion embedded in these three words says so much more.
Yes, we are mortal, but we can be remembered.
Today I attened a "nana kai ki," the 7 year memorial service for a Japanese friend. Actually, he died six years ago, but in the Buddhist tradition the time of death counts as one year so this was the 7 year service. It's the second memorial service I've attended this year. The first was the first memorial for my mother-in-law held one year after her death. Next year the memorial will be the third year - the Buddhist counting makes it 3 years.
Today's memorial service was actually a fairly simple affair. Held in a Buddhist temple the service lasted only about 25 minutes. Just enough time for the priests to chant the prayers and each person - in pairs - to offer a prayer and burn bits of incense in the small braziers placed on the altar.
For those who have not attended such a service here are a few simple steps to follow when or if the time comes for you to attend one.
1. Arrive a bit early. You'll need to sign the guest book including your name and address. This can be done in Japanese or your own language.
2. Take a seat in the temple & follow the others' actions - when the priest says offer a prayer put your hands together, bow your head, and offer whatever prayer you wish. If you have a bracelet of Bhuddist beads have them in your hand.
3. When it's your turn to approach the altar to offer a prayer first bow to the family of the deceased, then turn and bow to the other side of the room (the other guests), and turn back to the altar so you're facing the photo of the deceased. Bow, offer your prayer with clasped hands, take a very small pinch of incense, lift is slightly, and place it on the burning charcoal. You may do this 1 or 3 times. Bow to the deceased's photo again, turn and bow to the family & the guests, and return to your seat.
4. When all have finished the family will exit first. Follow the others when it's your turn to exit & upon leaving gthe temple bow to the family who will be waiting outside.
In today's case we also visited the cemetary, which was right next to the temple, and lined up to offer one more prayer and burn a bit more incense. Same procedure, except no bowing to the family until after you have offered your prayer & incense to the deceased & then bow as you walk past the family.
As I stood in line in the cemetary I shaded my eyes from the brilliant autumn sun. In so doing I rested my thumb against my temple where I could feel my own pulse. A good reminder of my own mortality.
Since this friend was the Chairman of a major company here in Japan, as well as being a board member of several other companies, the family also held a lunch in a hotel ballroom after the memorial service in the temple.
During this lunch photos of our friend were in albums on each table and a very well done video showing him during the memorable days of his life, with family and friends, was shown. This was all done in such an excellent manner and in such good taste that everyone enjoyed it. It wasn't a time of sadness; it was a time of remembering him as we had known him. Several people gave nice speeches about the things they remembered about him and about working with him.
Yes, we can be remembered. I think this tradition in Japan is a good one. Wonder why we don't do these services in our own countries.... or maybe some do, but it's not a common practice in the USA.
Okay - get ready - this one may be a little gross to some - you have been warned!
I just read an article in Newsweek that says a classic survey showed that half of toilet paper users in America (I do assume that is most everyone, but some may still be using the old catalogs) spend their days with 'fecal contamination' - anything from stains to massive feces in their underpants.
A "classic survey," huh?
Gotta wonder - where do they get the people who are willing to do such a survey and just what sort of questions do they ask. I can envision something like this as the survey taker knocks on the door:
"Good morning ma'am. My name is Jason and I'm conducting a survey about fecal laden underwear. I wonder, can you tell me, are you currently wearing poopy panties?"
"Wow! You sure swing a mean baseball bat there ma'am. But now that I'm laying here on the ground, I can clearly see that you do have a few wasp colored stains on your undies."
End of survey.
The article goes on to say that despite the fact that bidets have been, and still are, readily available to those willing to purchase them, all of these people would rather run around with streaky shorts than to use a bottom washing bidet.
Toto, and other manufacturers are hoping to change all that and it is now possible to buy a Japanese model of a "washlet" - or "shower toilet" - of the kind that is generally installed in every Japanese home.
A quick search of the Internet reveals a few manufacturers' models that are available in the USA today.
Here's an example of what is available: COCO White Bidet
According to the article, the average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper every day. As a nation, Americans flush their way through 36.5 billion rolls of TP every year! That's the equivalent of 15 million trees. Talk about a way to go green - and stay clean at the same time! (And yeah, ya still gotta wonder, WHO does these surveys?)
Toto, a major toilet manufacturer from Japan, is gearing up for a massive sales push in the USA soon - watch for it.
Yes, we do have these in our home in Japan, and trust me, once you get used to them you'll wonder how you ever lived without one.
When we were back in San Francisco last month we visited a friend's home. Michael & his wife, Sonie, are regular visitors to Japan and they have installed a "washlet" in their home. Michael told me that he has had over 100 visitors to his home since installing the washlet seat and not one has used it. Seems most Americans just have a hard time getting used to a warm toilet seat (believe me, they are a true comfort on a chilly, foggy, San Francisco morning) and a cleansing spray (most of these seats have two settings, one for the ladies [#1] and one for both genders [#2]).
Check it out - see what you think. They are not cheap, and they do require an electrical outlet (use the safety type) to be installed in the toilet, but just think of the money you'll save on the old TP - the washlet can pay for itself in a few short years.
January 6, 2008. The day dawned bright & clean in old Edo (Tokyo) - well, I assume the dawn was bright & clear because that's how it was when I awoke at 07:30 to begin preparations for our pilgrimage to the six different shrines & temples we need to visit today to gather our collection of the 7 lucky gods.
Before we got to the next stop we spotted what must be the original JC Penney - can't be anything but, right(!), given the locale & the age of some of these temples? Not sure what they sell since they were closed (it was Sunday), but gotta wonder about that name!
Next stop, Shirahige (White Whiskers) Jinja (Shrine), where we bought (yep, they actually do NOT give these little statues away) Jurojin, the deity of longevity. Shirhige is a deity of Korean origin. However, he is not one of the 7 gods of good fortune, but like Jurojin he sports a long white beard so the two are easily associated with each other. Jurojin was originally a Chinese god of longevity and he also carries a long staff and is dressed in the clothes of a scholar.
From there we headed for Hyakkaen (of Mr. Sawara Kiku fame, noted above). The garden area covers about 3 acres and the plants and flowers of the garden were all selected based on association with Chinese literature. This is because of the Chinese centered interests during the Edo period, whichi was the era when this garden was completed. There is a small shrine in the garden dedicated to Fukurokuju, the Chinese deity of Good Luck, Fortune and Long Life.
Out of Hyakkaen we spotted this baby (doll) in a glass case (see the pictures). We figured they probably were not selling babies there, but we had to walk around the corner to find out that the place is actually for maternity yoga and baby massage courses. Ah well, at least it is an eye catching display!
On to Chomeiji, the temple of long life and the home of Benten, the only female of the 7 lucky gods. Benten is the deity of music and fine arts. She is not of Chinese origin, but harks back to an Indian water sprite. Chomeiji also has a link with water and there is a sacred spring on the grounds. It is purported that the water from this spring cured Iemitsu, who was the third Tokugawa Shogun (war lord) of a stomach ailment. Yep, we drank the water, so the old tummies should be in great shape for this new year of the rat (according to the Chinese Zodiac).
Now we have our 7 gods and we even have the boat, their treasure craft, that they sail into the harbor every New Year's eve.
Most Japanese funerals are conducted as a Buddhist ceremony. My sister-in-law was a member of the Christian organization known as Makuya and when she died last week her wishes were to have a Christian ceremony. What's the difference? Well, as a Buddhist ceremony the Buddhist priest does the rituals, uttering words that most people - even the Japanese - can't understand completely. Lots of incense is burned.
In the case of my sister-in-law we held the usual "tsuya" - the wake - on day 1 which was attended by family & friends - friends mainly from her church. Although it was a Christian ceremony some things remained the same. We started off by gathering in a room next to the funeral hall where everyone had a meal. The ceremony consisted of her church members leading the attendees in Christian songs and the elders speaking a few words about her. Per her wishes her casket was surrounded by many, many flowers - not so usual in Japan - but again, this wasn't the typical Japanese funeral. After the ceremony we were back in the room for another meal. Family and friends spent the night there at the funeral parlor - talking into the wee hours and sleeping on futons (I went back to the house - this is one part of the ritual I prefer not to observe).
Day two was another short ceremony with more songs, bible reading, and speeches from a few people who knew her & wanted to say some final words. From there we went to the crematorium where we said our final farewells before the coffin was rolled into the flames. While we waited for the cremation to be completed we gathered in a room for a light lunch. The cremation took about 1 1/2 hours. Once the cremation was completed we gathered around the remains for the ritual picking of the bones to be placed into the urn. A few bones are all that are left after a cremation - there really aren't ashes in the sense that we think of ashes - the bones are brittle & when pressed into the urn become what we think of as ashes. Bones are picked up using chopsticks and passed to the next person's chopsticks a few times before being placed into the urn. This is why it is considered extremely bad practice to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks - this ritual is for the bones of the deceased - not for food.
Once the bones were placed into the urn we all got onto the bus that had been provided by the funeral parlor and returned to a final short service - this was the very last of the farewells. From there the ashes were taken home where they will stay until placed into her final resting place.
All in all, not so much difference between the two types of ceremony - Buddhist or Christian - but the Christian one is a bit simpler & there were family members there who felt that this could be the way for them too when their time comes even though my sister-in-law was the only one in the family who belonged to this particular religious sect.
If you are interested in learning more about how funerals are conducted in Japan - or weddings - or more - there are plenty of websites - do a bit of a search & you'll most likely come up with information overload.
At this time of the year Japan's "ume" trees - the Japanese apricot trees - blossom in a variety of colors; pink, white; lavender. These are the first harbingers of spring and will soon be followed by the cherry blossoms. The cherry trees are expected to bloom earlier than usual this year in Tokyo because it has been such a warm winter. We'll be viewing those soon along the river that runs through the park near our home - the Zempukuji River.
As I was walking to the train station the other day I spotted this little dump truck. I guess that it is only in Japan that you can see such a fancy little truck - this one's owner had the chrome polished to a high sheen and like most all cars in Japan - it was pretty much spotless. Car owners here do tend to keep their cars pretty clean.
Of course, with the spring weather in Japan we also get lots of cedar pollen - known as "kafun" which literally translates into flower feces - and I think there are many who would agree with that literal translation. Thousands of people are walking around wearing white masks these days to filter out the pollen, but even that doesn't stop the suffering that those who have allergies have to bear. This seems to be unique to Japan. You can see just how bad it can be at this website: http://web-japan.org/nipponia/nipponia21/en/trend/index.html
And finally, here's a shot I took of Mt. Fuji from the golf course a week ago. It was an extremely windy day, but on the positive side, the wind made it clear enough for us to be able see Mt. Fuji which is about 30 miles away from the course.
So - till next time - happy Spring - and don't let the kafun get you down.
You may wonder why a posting about Krispy Kreme is in the "culture" category of this posting and not in the food category. Read on - you'll see that it does have to do with the unique "culture" of Japan.
Would you stand out in the freezing cold winter weather for an hour & a half just to have a Krispy Kreme donut? No, you say? Well, that's what thousands of people in Tokyo have done & continue to do. Last week I was walking by the outlet that opened in Shinjuku (opened last year) & I couldn't believe it - people lined up in droves waiting to get into the shop to buy a sugar bomb! Below is the photo I took with my cell phone.
Of course, this doesn't happen just with Krispy Kreme. The same sort of thing can be seen at Cold Stone Creamery - the ice cream shop - in the Roppongi Hills complex. Can you imagine the conversation when one friend calls another: "Hey, Nobu-chan, let's go stand outside in the freezing cold & line up for a nice cold bowl of ice cream!" "Yeah, Mari-chan, and after that we can take the subway over to Shinjuku & stand out there for a couple more hours waiting for a donut! Yummie!"
I can remember 20 years or so ago when Hobson's ice cream opened up & they were rumored (is "known" to strong here?) to have paid "sakura" (it can mean a cherry blossom, or as in this case, it's a slang term for "shills") to line up outside to buy ice cream. Human nature is such that whenever we see a long line of people waiting to buy something we figure it's gotta be good & we want some of it!
Restaurants here would (and probably do) give anything to get their name in any of the popular magazines. If they can get people coming in & especially lining up to get a taste of their food, the restaurant can become a hit place almost overnight. That lasts about as long as it takes to get the next one written up, but it's good business when they get it. And, if the restaurant is truly good, people will come back - but still, there are those who go only because it is the "happening now!" place.
Now - if you really want a good donut get yourself out to San Francisco & go to Bob's Donuts on Polk Street - KK - eat your donut holes out!
Gotta run - I think there is a new tofu store out there somewhere that is willing to pay me to line up for a tasty tofu treat. Follow me!
READY TO TRULY START THE NEW YEAR
Of course, no heart beats without food to build up its lifeblood and food doesn’t always have to be something we can eat (but that’s good too here in Japan). Food can also be spiritual and Tokyo offers a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual satisfaction for one and all.
So, with that in mind, yesterday we made our way over to our neighborhood shrine, Omiya Hachiman Shrine. It’s a short walk along the Zempukuji River from our place to the shrine and though the day was brisk the sun was shining and the walk was a pleasant little journey. At the entry to the shrine we paused to watch some students practicing the art of Kyuko – Japanese archery – a hobby-sport shared by many in Japan. It looked interesting. Perhaps we’ll give it a try this year.
From there we walked over the stand where a young acolyte collected our old arrow which will be burned in the Dondo Yaki Festival that will be held on Jan. 15th. This festival is for burning notes and holy charms in a “cleansing fire” to show gratitude for the past year and bring happiness for the year to come. The arrows, which are made of wood and with a wooden tip, are known as “hamaya” which literally means, "demon-breaking arrow," is a decorative arrow sold at shrines at New Year's to ward off misfortune and to attract good luck. Before leaving the shrine we made sure to buy our hamaya, which we’ll keep in the house.
After turning in our old hamaya we went for our “yakubarai.” This is a blessing (or some may say exorcism) done by the shrine’s priest for those who turn a certain age each year, which is known as “yakudoshi.” In our case that certain age is 60 (but for yakudoshi purposes one year is added to the age one will attain during the year). The ceremony is done for a group of people, who are all sitting on stools inside the shrine’s temple building, and it takes about 25 minutes. The priest chants, says each person’s name, offers prayers, and leads us through the ceremony. At the end we are given a plaque and some small gifts from the shrine – some cookies, a bottle of water that has been blessed to give us health, and a bottle of sake to enjoy.
Following all this another short walk along the river brought us back home again. Of course, by this time it had turned colder and the wind had some teeth in it, so rather than brave the chill of the night we decided to order one of our favorite New Year dishes to be delivered to our house. One phone call and many minutes later we were enjoying one of the neighborhood sushi shop’s sushi menus – a good way to top off our final New Year celebration.
And so, off we go into this bright & shiny New Year of 2007 – the year of the boar – and we wish all of our readers a very happy, prosperous, health, and safe New Year!