Monday, May 30, 2011

Japanese Dogs

This sign really needs no translation. It says exactly as you might guess: Savage Dog, Beware! (Mouken Chui).

Playfully ironic, I'm guessing, as I was able to get close enough to snap this picture without any growls or other signs of doggy life.

In America, one takes Beware of Dog signs seriously. I've had enough run-ins with mean, nasty, aggressive dogs to make a wide berth whenever I see one straining on a leash.

Dogs here are different. There's a shiba-inu on the corner whom I pass practically every day. He stands with his front paws on the top of the cement wall and watches me quietly as I pass.

The most you hear out of dogs here is when the sirens for ambulances or police go off. Then they start howling in unison, responding to the call. This midnight howler lives across the way:
I'm guessing the Dog Whisperer would go out of business in these parts.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How We Got There

We were to follow the line — what could be simpler, right? But then which line, and if the white line what would we be circling and where and was there a way out?

The starting point seemed to matter most. The yellow line the safest, solidest, the angles sharpest. If we ended at the tip of opposite tines, staring across a cloudy abyss, shouting at each other's echoes, it wasn't like we couldn't go back, despite my rules, despite the rain, despite the lateness of the day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Follow Me

"Follow me," she said.
I threw back my head and did as I was told.

It was her shoulder blades that mesmerized me — the slight irregular checks of her shirt between the blades pushing and pulling me in jerky waves.
We passed down a narrow alley and splashed out on the shore, stumbling over piles of trash. We lifted off and bounced in a bubble of light, soft underfoot and springy to the touch, a jellyfish dome.

Floating upward in the bubble, I couldn't tell if we were sinking or rising — I was too focused on doing the right thing, in not falling out of line.
With the Setouchi somewhere, we were froth, we were checks spinning oppositely, me wondering which side of the earth the sun was on. We came down on pavement and I sighed, me still staring at her back.
The light changed. It came streaming from my mouth, pouring over the checks which were really fields — wheat and new rice alternating — fluffed umbers and sheets of glass. We walked into it, stepping up onto the curb, my seven-year-old self.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Odd Little Culinary Day

Sometimes you wake up in the morning and say to yourself "I could use a cup of kelp tea."

So you walk on over to the store, leisurely, swaying a bit from side to side — for there's never any real rush for kelp tea.

You get the the kind in the tin, because it's fancy and you've never had it before.

You take the little pouch out of the tin and crack it open. There's a little spoon, too, to scoop just enough into your hot water. (You pretentiously put a real gourd nearby for effect.)

You realize that kelp powder tea is really soup so you pour it from your tea cup to a lacquered miso bowl. You drink noncommittally. You think, "Now I'm drinking kelp powder tea."

A little later you're hungry. So you say in a loud voice: "What I could really use right now are some bone crackers!"

You recruit your friends and you go to a kaitenzushi.

You sidle up to the bar, smacking your lips. You blurt out: "Hone senbei!"

Those same fish, hirame, you saw hanging from the posts at the pier yesterday. Everyone nods.

You eat, plucking different brightly colored dishes off the rotating conveyor belt, Tokyo style, no chopsticks.

After a while you decide you've had enough. The kelp tea taste is still with you, briny and insidious. The sea inside you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Shiki Drawings: Walnut, Banana, Pineapple (& Old Fava Beans)

My last two posts have been on the Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki. I thought I'd share a few of his drawings today.

According to the labels supplied by the editors on the side of each drawing (smudged in this reproduction, sorry) they are, from top to bottom:

walnuts (くるみ)


pineapple (鳳梨)

 Aside from the rather odd shape of the pineapple (at first I thought it might be some deep sea fish or cancerous internal organ) a couple of other anomalies stand out.

In the top picture, you can see two groupings of nuts. The top left cluster are actually old fava beans. It is only the bottom right grouping which are the walnuts. The faintness of the writing just under the beans (古そらまめ)must have been missed by whoever labeled them — but the shapes of the two groups are distinctly different (though one fava bean does seem to be hanging out with the walnuts).

The second anomaly is the kanji Shiki used for the pineapple, hōri (鳳梨). Nowadays we would just write pineapple in katakana — パイナップル.

Anyway, not earth-shattering finds, but fun sleuthing nonetheless.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Shiki's War Correspondent's Briefcase

In yesterday's post, I talked briefly about the Japanese Meiji era poet, Masaoka Shiki. Today, as I was flipping through his biography, my eyes came to rest on a briefcase he used as a war correspondent during the First Sino-Japanese War.

I was drawn to the kanji on its side. So elemental and simple. From one o'clock moving clockwise: mountain, rain, moon, and sea. (山、雨、月、海)

If the moon is a little wonky, no matter. Perfect for a traveling poet. Yet Shiki's travels were short-lived. He had tuberculosis and his stint on board ship only aggravated his illness.

In 1895, as the war was ending, he came back to Matsuyama to convalesce in Natsume Sōseki's house. By 1898 he was essentially an invalid. He died a few years later in Tokyo in September 1902.

The bag now rests in the Shiki Museum in Matsuyama which I had the good fortune to visit last December.

A whole museum — three floors — for one poet. If we only so honored ours.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sōseki, Shiki, and Someone

Sitting down tonight with a bottle of Sōseki, Shiki, and Someone Sake; a bag of Nuty Poems (sic) and a biography of Shiki.

The sake, or Nihonshu, in the cardboard box behind the book, was passably good, even if it's probably most often bought as a souvenir. On the box are Masaoka Shiki to the right, Natsume Sōseki center, and I'm not sure whom to the left.

Both Shiki and Sōseki (as well as the unidentified person, I'm sure) were from Matsuyama City, a little over an hour's train ride away. Shiki is considered to be the father of modern haiku in that he popularized breaking off hokku (the 5 - 7 - 5 syllable line) from renga (linked verse) and calling the resulting stand-alone poem haiku. Given that he was working in the Meiji period (European governing and schooling were being introduced) and that for most of his working career he was an invalid (tuberculosis), the creation of the haiku form seems to have been a natural outlet for his talents.

Sōseki, whom Shiki knew well and considered to be a mentor, is often considered to be the father of the I-novel in Japan. His best known works are Botchan, Kokoro, and I Am a Cat. Haruki Murakami, perhaps the foremost contemporary writer of novels in Japanese, considers Soseki to be a profound influence.

Ehime Prefecture, our Prefecture, the cradle of contemporary Japanese verse. How lucky we are to be here.

The Nuty Poems were delicious I might add. The bag's carcass is lying open and empty at my side. Now it's time to find out who the mystery man is on the sake box. Maybe tomorrow I'll share a few of Shiki's drawings from the book.

Friday, May 20, 2011

If You Need Some Spiritual Guidance

I see "madness" in the upper rubbed-out sign. The lower one on the awning reads "Yorodzu Consultation." The sign to the right, at street level, advertizes "spiritual guidance" or "mind coaching".

Here's a close-up of the face, fronting a wood-framed plastic-covered box.

Any ideas what purpose this contraption serves?

Or these?

I often see soap dangling from similar nets in the men's rooms at various places.

Altogether a strange, intriguing place. Stay posted. I might venture in one of these days for a consultation.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Near-miss, Nabokov, and the Face of an Old Lady with a Sandwich

Japanese has borrowed heaps of words from English, just as English has pilfered French, Latin, Greek, you name it.

Sometimes these borrowings throw me off though, for the simple reason that they make me question my grasp of English.

Near-miss (ニアミス) is one of these phrases. Synonymous with close call, it means that the aircraft or boat you were traveling in or on has nearly struck another. (In the case of airplanes, it could mean that the other craft was about a kilometer and a half away.)

But it seems it could also be the case that a near-miss happens when you actually do achieve something, like jumping on the ferry or train at the last second with the doors bumping shut behind you. Is that a near miss? or just a close-call? We say "I nearly missed that train," but do we also say, in that case, "that was a near-miss" or do we only use "close call?"

Vladimir Nabokov, one of my all-time favorite writers, has a short story called "A Matter of Chance" where the lead character, a waiter on a long-distance sleeper train, kills himself, not knowing that his wife, whom he has been separated from for five years because of the war, is sitting cozily in her cabin a couple of cars down, making her way to Paris to find him.

"The station was dark and deserted. Some distance away a lamp shone like a humid star through a gray cloud of smoke. The torrent of rails glistened slightly. He could not understand why the face of the old lady with the sandwich had disturbed him so deeply. Everything else was clear, only this one blind spot remained."

Luzhin, the waiter-husband, fueled by cocaine, jumps down in front of an oncoming train. A near miss and not a near miss nearly simultaneously.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Now I Know Why

Every Monday I get to tool around the port of Imabari for an hour or so while waiting for a ferry to take me out to a little island within spitting distance of Hiroshima Prefecture.

Lately it has been smokey or hazy most times when I go to the port. Around where I live, I attribute it to a combination of local farmers burning unwanted stalks and husks and such, or to the cemetery burning whatever it is they burn. At the port there's no such excuse.

Today when I went to the waterfront, however, it was fine and clear.

The boats were brightly painted sitting there on the water and I could see island upon island stretching into the distance.

When I got to Iwagijima, I remarked to my driver how clear it was. He told me that it was because the kousa (黄砂) or yellow dust blowing in from China had recently abated, thanks to strong winds and rain blowing up from Taiwan.

Now I know the real reason Japanese all wear surgical masks in the springtime. Pollen, sure. But I suspect radioactive Gobi dust to be the number one culprit. They just don't want to scare me by telling me the truth. (That's China in the video link, if you click on it, not Japan.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Speed Racer

Growing up, Speed Racer was my favorite cartoon on TV. This battered sign reminded me of its style.

In Japan, the show was called Mach Go Go Go (マッハGoGoGo) — go being the Japanese number 5 as well as the English go. Click here to see the opening to the original Japanese version.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


I returned to Japan last year in part to finish a translation project on the Edo period poet and painter Yosa Buson which I had originally started sometime in late 1999 or early 2000 while living in Chiba.  Over the intervening space of years, I have been working on it as time and inspiration has allowed. As I've gotten to know Buson better, my admiration and respect for him has grown. His mastery of ambiguity and sleight of hand within a few short lines makes me shake my head at my own clumsiness.

Well, I'm happy to report that today (or yesterday now) I completed translating the last of his haiku from a selection of 868 to very little fanfare. The quiet that surrounds me now is my reward.

One thing realized in working on the project was the importance of making the work a part of my daily routine. It's like running or doing yoga or writing novels. No days off! You have to keep doing it to get better, to go deeper or farther. You have to bring a quiet mindfulness and devotion to the task.

How many times did I say to myself — "No! I don't feel like reading that note or looking up that reference. Its too obscure." But then I would upbraid myself — "Just do it. No one else will do it for you. If you want to understand you must." So I go deeper and learn something new about Buson's world and myself.


                                                                              how many shortcuts
                                                                              to the Pure Land
                                                                              cold prayer to Amitabha

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cutting Up, Throwing Away, Becoming Detached

I learned a new word yesterday in Japanese — danshari. Composed of three Chinese characters, it literally means cutting up, throwing away, and separating. I had my friend write the characters down on a piece of paper

so that when I had a moment I could look it up.

Later, when I did, I couldn't find the combination in any dictionaries — a fact which attests to the word's recent coinage — but you can find plenty of descriptions of it on both Japanese and English language blogs.

Apparently the concept has become fairly common in the past couple of years in Japan due to a book by Nobuko Kawabata called Danshari no Susume. Essentially it's a how-to guide for simplifying your life by removing clutter. Not something I would shell out ten or fifteen bucks for, but I guess a little emotional support when you're staring down a mountain of clutter can be useful for some people.

Immediately I thought that macro-economists, or at least the cheerleaders for capitalism would view danshari as a terrible idea. People cleaning out their spaces, getting rid of useless, obsolete or unfashionable items and making do with less?

But my friend quickly disabused me of this notion. The reason she was carrying out her version of danshari was so she could replace her old clothes and things with new. A purging yes, but also an excuse to go shopping. More of a spring cleaning and transformation than the asceticism I was imagining.

There can be some beauty in clutter though — if you catch the light just right, and there's some space around it to breathe.

And the opposite, too, can true. An oppressive feeling can come over one if things are too neat, carefully groomed, or put away.

So I think I'll try to keep the middle course — enough things around to pad my nest and help remember my past, but not so many as to encumber me in case I need to pick up and move.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Stalking the Wild Boar

In two earlier posts, here and here, I related how I tried and failed to harvest bamboo shoots in the wild. My thesis, that inoshishi (wild boars) had consumed all the available shoots, though probably invalid, made me think that if I couldn't get what I wanted in the woods, I should move one step up the food chain, and consume the consumer.

So I went in search of a place that served inoshishi — and found an oden shop near the old port town in Niihama which seemed, if the sign was any indication, to fit the bill.

Oden itself is considered primarily a winter food, and, partially because of its near ubiquity in convenience stores, coupled with the fact that it's boiled, had made me cultivate an active prejudice against the dish.

But one night in Osaka a few months ago, bumbling around an unfamiliar neighborhood in search of something to eat, we chanced to enter an oden shop, and surprise, surprise, liked it.

So after seeing this charming, weather-ravaged sign, I rounded up a couple of other curious and intrepid eaters on a drizzly Saturday night and plunged inside. (That's often how I travel — learn as little as possible about the place I'm going so that everything becomes pure discovery and adventure. A maddening proposition for some, I'm sure.)

We slid the nicely patinaed door open and ducked inside.

Subdued lighting, wood everything, lacquered turtles hanging on the walls; a giant pink battered phone in the entrance-way that had been used how many times to call taxis for drunken revelers; memorabilia; this and that darkly smoke-tinged thing plastered on the wall. Not so much cluttered as homey. A middleweight boxing match on the little TV.

The proprietors, a lovely old couple whom we learned had been running the place for forty-four years, sat us at the wooden bar just in front of the steaming oden pit.

The little lady stands over the pit with a small dish and takes your order, after which she goes back to a pot of spicy mustard, karashi, and puts a dollop alongside if you wish.

I had steamed fuki (butterbur); ginnan (gingko nuts) and an assortment of konnyakus and hanpens. Texturally, at least, oden is an acquired feel. Not least of which was the mochi wrapped in fried tofu skin — a wonderfully gooey explosion in the mouth.

After this warm-up washed down with draft beer, I asked for what we came for — the wild boar. They were not a little surprised that I even knew what the stuff was. They said they didn't have it anymore. I mistakenly thought anymore meant haven't had it for a long time, maybe years.

Oh well, we settled for tempura: anago (sea eel) kisu (a flat fish) and geso (deep fried squid tentacles).

Meanwhile, the door rattled open and a couple of locals quietly took up residence at the bar next to us.

We started watching what they ordered. A bowl of long thin greenish clams — razorbacks — came their way. We looked on enviously. They offered us a sampling. Sauteed in butter, they were delicious, and so we promptly ordered our own.

As the beers and drinks and food flowed, the place became livelier and we all started chatting and carrying on.

I don't know why this fact should have surprised me, but it did — these two guys made part of their livelihood by digging up bamboo shoots. I looked at their faces closely. Fantastic-sounding, I know, but they were the wild boar come down from the hills to taunt us, not only about our hunting failure, but too laugh at us for missing out on eating their brethren, the inoshishi, too.

Preposterous, I know, but there is a long tradition of in Japanese folklore of animals taking on the aspect of humans and vice-versa. Usually it's the tanuki (raccoon dog) or the fox, but why not the wild boar as well?

Anyway, my own paranoia and fantasy notwithstanding, we were too late for the inoshishi, just as we had been too early for the bamboo shoots.

The owner told us to come back next year in the winter during boar hunting season and he would be sure to have inoshishi.

I think we'll be back well before then.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

So Close, The Outside

You seem to be missing, at least that's what you think they think. You're right here, though, waiting for them to return. You wonder why they've left their boots. Won't they need them where they are? Why so haphazard? What was the hurry? Won't they ever be coming back?

Patience, you sit there fingering your beads, as each new season heaves a fresh assault of something. The dark comforts you. Light makes you drowsy. It's so close, the outside. Still you cling to what you know. They could be coming back. You think you'll wait a little longer.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Across Many Intervening Lots

Only cement steps remain to what used to be houses. You walk up one flight of them and wade through the grasses and flowers. You're crouching in the kitchen, warming your hands at the fire. In the other room your two children are playing. You wonder if they realize how insubstantial the rush matting underneath them, the stucco walls surrounding them, the timbered ceiling above them are. From the loudspeaker a voice tells you about an old lady who is missing, wandered off to look for her grandfather.

In another lot, across many intervening lots, a man in a purple sweatshirt with a white shock of hair plays with his dogs. They roll over in the tall grasses, nipping and jumping on one another. The man stares off dreamily at the old mine works. The sun presses down on the hillside. All the purples turn red.