The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mmmm... Yummy!

Lots of people have stories about buying the wrong food because they misunderstood some label. Well, the other day I was in the grocery store and I just picked up a carton with a picture of some apples on it, thinking it must be apple juice, and put it in my basket. I got home and poured it into a glass - strange, it seems to be colourless. Hmmm. Oh well... I drank it and surprise! It was vinegar.

Not pure vinegar, mind you, but some sort of "health drink" made from water, vinegar, and a splash of apple juice for a bit of flavour. Hence, the apples on the carton. Sure enough, it says very clearly in Japanese "malt vinegar beverage". I told my students about this, and they all said, "Very healthy!" Sigh.

Monday, October 24, 2005


On Sunday I visited Kamakura with Marcus, the British teacher I was neighbours with last semester. Kamakura was once the capital city of Japan, during the aptly-named Kamakura period which lasted from around 1150 - 1300 (?). This period was a fairly stark one in Japanese history, and it was really marked by the emergence of a new religion that had been imported from China - Zen Buddhism - that would totally change the country over the next 300 years or so.

Kamakura is full of Zen temples, as well as prominent Shinto shrines and other sites of interest. We visited a whole lot of temples but sadly, the English information available on these temples is (a) very sparse and (b) assumes a basic level of ignorance that is pretty appalling. For example, you go into some temple that's 700 years old and has a fascinating history, having been an important place of learning as well as being at the center of a whole slew of political intrigue, etc. etc., and the English guide you receive says, "Welcome to XYZ Temple. Zen Buddhism is part of Japan's cultural heritage. This temple has many beautiful gardens and wooden buildings which you can enjoy. Have a nice day." Sigh... you really have to research this stuff on your own if you are interested in it, because even the average Japanese person no longer knows the significance of most of these places.

One of the big attractions of Kamakura is a giant Buddha. It's actually kind of a letdown, since it's not particularly huge, and it doesn't even transform into a fighter jet or giant robot. Just kidding. But in fact, it's not much larger than the giant Buddha statue that we had on Ikitsuki, which I suppose should be taken to mean that Ikitsuki is more interesting than I gave it credit for, rather than vice versa... But the impressive thing about the statue is that it was originally built in 1252 or something (wow!) but a tidal wave washed it away in 1498 (double wow!) and it was rebuilt and has since survived any number of natural disasters. Here's a picture of me picking its nose.

Monday, October 17, 2005


I was in the video store on Sunday afternoon, when suddenly I felt a bit of a tremor. The first thing one does in this situation is to freeze, and look around to see if anyone else is feeling it too. Everyone else was doing the same thing, so I knew an earthquake was coming. It got stronger and within a few seconds, the building was shaking. Suddenly, it peaked and videos started tumbling off the shelves; a woman screamed; the windows rattled; a display fell over, scattering videos across the floor. I could see dust falling from the ceiling and the lights swinging. I suddenly became very conscious of the fact that (a) there was a roof over me and (b) I was on the second floor of the building. A woman ran out of the building with her baby in her arms and suddenly I was wondering if I should be running out, too; everyone else was just standing there trying to look cool and for a moment I thought, "Wouldn't it be ironic if we all died in this building just because we were all too cool to get the hell out?" At that moment, the entire second floor gave two "heaves" which were accompanied by enormous booms each time. Then it was over.

That was definitely the scariest quake I've ever experienced, even though it only lasted 10 seconds. It wasn't even very intense but the noise and the scene of the falling videos everywhere added to the impression. I found out later that it had its epicentre around here but it affected trains all around the Tokyo area. It was only a magnitude 5.1 or something, but I think the fact that we were at the epicentre made it very different than other quakes I've felt.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hondoji Temple

In the next town over, there is a very nice temple which doesn't appear in any of the tourist guide books or anything, but which is actually a really nice place to visit, especially in the summer when it is full of blooming flowers. Now, it doesn't have any flowers but it is extremely tranquil and has the additional honour of being the burial site of Nichiren, one of the major names in Japanese Buddhism and the founder of the Nichiren sect. Here are some pictures:

The main gate with its two enshrined temple guardians

One of the temple guardians up close

Memorial tablets

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mountain and Molehills

Hey. I like Japan! Really! (Everytime I write something criticizing Japan or Japanese people, I feel like I have to preface it with that statement, otherwise people will say, "Well, if it's such a terrible place, why don't you leave?")

So ANYWAY, today in the paper there was an article about how people in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo are really upset over a newly-renovated building. The building, which houses some sort of Italian-Japanese Cultural Exchange institute, has a bright red exterior, meant to evoke the brilliant red colour of some Japanese lacquerware. It was actually toned down from its original red colour, which was thought to be too bright. So they compromised, and made it a more mellow red colour.

Now people are angry because they feel that the red colour clashes with the greenery of the nearby parks. Buildings in the area are meant to harmonize with the local scenery, although the by-laws aren't clear on how they should do that, exactly. As a consequence, the buildings beside this new red building are every kind of conceivable UGLY, except that they are grey and ugly, or white and ugly. Tokyo is not a beautiful city by any means. But somehow, people are upset by a red building. Good lord. Could the fact that it is an Italian building have anything to do with it? Gee, I wonder... Nobody seems to mind the monumentally hideous buildings that are the corporate headquarters for Japanese corporations. Argh! It's easy to read too much into this (Japanese are racists!) but man... they (and I by writing about it) are really making a mountain out of a molehill...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Wrestling With Pictures

For some reason, I have a lot of difficulty getting my Blog to include pictures properly. On the last one, I tried to include about 7 or 8 photos but it only accepted the one. Is there a limit? I don't think so... Zambo? Your Blog always has lots of pictures. How do you do it?

Anyway, I'll try to put some more pictures here:

James and Keith enjoying a beer at a charmingly seedy under-the-tracks open air bar in Yurakucho

The main torii at the Meiji Shrine. They don't look terribly impressive here, but the posts are almost 6 feet in diameter.

The bride gets some final touches before her portrait is taken

Sake companies from all over Japan donate huge barrels of their product for use at the shrine. Sake is used in purification rituals and other celebrations...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

3 Day Weekend

It's Monday, and it's a national holiday (Sports Day - so I am celebrating by being as physically inactive as possible) so I have no school today. Hurray! And, even better, although I have to work tomorrow, Wednesday is also a holiday. Now, it would have been great if they could have given us 4 consecutive days off, but then again, I have no money at this point (payday is a week away and I have exhausted most of my finances) so I can't afford to really travel anywhere anyway.

On Friday night, I surprised myself by actually going to Jodo class for a change. I was glad I did, but I remember why I don't like going: the commute is busier than usual because it's Friday, and so I had to endure a really uncomfortable train ride home. Oh well.

Saturday, I got up and went into Tokyo to meet a friend of my Japanese friend in Canada. She took me to a really nice restaurant - they serve reasonably priced and delicious Japanese food, and they actually give you quite a lot of food! I got the weekend special, and it came with tons of delicious little side dishes, pickles, soups, condiments, etc. which really make the meal. I'll have to try and remember that place and go again.

Then, we went off in search of a sword shop that I had heard about. It was located on Omotesando-dori, which is kind of Tokyo's "Champs Elysees". It's a gently sloping, treed boulevard, which houses all the most exclusive boutiques and shops like Chanel, Armani, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and so on. Some of these shops have tuxedoed doormen who open the door for clients and otherwise just stand around looking impressive. Pretty funny. Anyway, the guy at the sword shop was really, really friendly. He let me handle some very expensive pieces ($10,000 - $20,000) and invited me (I never know if this kind of invitation is genuine, or just a show of courtesy) to come back any time and he'd teach me about swords. Wow! I hope he's serious. I'll be going back there soon, I'm sure.

There was a second branch store that I also visited but it was kind of weird. Very impressive, but weird! It seemed as though the store was the first floor of the owner's home. It looked like a museum, with pieces arrayed on the walls, and there were a few people sitting inside, silently examining swords with a very intent, almost funereal atmosphere. I felt like I had intruded on a meeting of a private sword-connoisseur's club, so I didn't stay very long. There was actually another foreigner there, but he spoke excellent Japanese and basically ignored me as he chatted with the owner, so I never learned exactly what was going on.

After that, I wandered over to the Meiji Shrine, a major shrine which houses the spirit of the Meiji emperor who helped to modernize Japan at the turn of the last century. The shrine is a very interesting place. You walk up a long gravel path through the woods, and then pass through a huge torii gate. I would say that the feeling is very solemn... (it's supposed to be, I'm sure)... but unfortunately the solemnity is almost ruined by the many foreigners who are laughing, pointing, wrestling with each other, running around, yelling at their kids to get BACK HERE THIS INSTANT!! I MEAN IT!!, and so on... of course, there are Japanese people misbehaving too, but nowhere near the same degree. It's kind of shameful, really.

Anyway, the shrine grounds are a very popular place to have wedding pictures taken. It's a beautiful place to do it, but the drawback is that you have to endure having your picture taken by all the gawking foreigners (myself included!) Guilty as charged, I'm afraid...

Right in front of the Meiji shrine, there is a spot where all the really weird costume-play kids hang out. These are teenagers whose hobby is to sew bizarre costumes and wear strange makeup. Then, all the foreign visitors take their pictures. It is a weird, carnival-like atmosphere that is hard to describe. Anyway, these costumes are really bizarre (for example, a girl dressed up like a vampiric french maid, with bloody bandages wrapped around her head and arms) and generally make very little sense. I was tempted for a second to take some pictures, but then I decided against it... they so desperately want you to take their pictures that somehow I didn't want to do it!

After that, I took a train over to Roppongi where they are holding an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbooks. I guess (what with the current Japanese "DaVinci Code" boom) that everyone else in Tokyo had the same idea. I saw the huge lineup just to get inside the building, and turned around and headed home. On the way back, I met up with two other Westgate teachers. We had some food and drinks, and met up with some of our students. They are very advanced level kids, so we could communicate really easily in English, which was fun.

Today, I wanted to go in Tokyo again and visit some temples, but it has been raining all afternoon so I decided to save a bit of money and not bother. Come to think of it, maybe I'll take the train fare I saved and go and buy some supper at the rotating-sushi restaurant: a conveyor belt in the center of the restaurant carries plates with different sushi around. You just take whatever plate you want and then at the end the waitress counts your plates. It's funny to go in there and see some fragile-looking old woman with a stack of 15 plates in front of her! I can usually eat about 8 or 10 and then I'm really, really stuffed...

I'll try and update this post with pictures tomorrow...

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Time Flies

Had a nice (but very short) weekend. Friday night was a welcome-back party organized by some students in my class. 8 of us went to a seafood restaurant, had a really great 7-course meal of sashimi, crab, roast fish, seafood salad and other delicacies, and then convened to the English pub around the corner. It was kind of nice (although also a bit uncomfortable) to be the "guest of honour" and therefore the center of attention all night...

Saturday I realized that I had better clean up a bit, so I tended to the mundane chores; did laundry, dishes, cleaned and tidied, took my dry cleaning in, etc. That didn't take too long so I went for a walk, but it was actually really hot (over 30 degrees) so I came home after a couple hours.

Sunday, I wanted to check out an "old Tokyo" neighbourhood called Yanaka that survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake (and subsequent fire) of 1923, as well as the Allied firebombing during World War II. Although it has modernized somewhat, it's still an oasis of tranquility and old-style houses in the middle of Tokyo. It centers around a huge cemetary which houses (among other notables) the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu who died in 1911, I think. I asked the groundskeeper whether there are still any surviving Tokugawas; he said that there were some but he wasn't sure where they lived. That must be like being a direct descendant of Czar Nicholas II or something; your ancestors were famous, but it doesn't mean much anymore, unfortunately.

I also found the grave of Yamaoka Tesshu, who was a great kendo instructor in the late 1800's. He was famous for the incredible tests of endurance that he subjected himself and his students to. These usually took the form of 3-day marathons of kendo playing, pausing only to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom. I can't play kendo for 10 minutes, let alone 72 hours... He is also famous for the following story: When a student in his class vomited on the floor, he scooped it up, ate it, and in true Zen fashion, said "There is no difference!" ... meaning that there is no duality between clean and unclean, light and dark, true and false; in other words, get back to practice!