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That’s all from me

April 9, 2012

I’ll schedule this post for Monday, the day I return to the UK at the end of my stay in Japan. This is it; I’ve had plenty of ideas for things to write about, but I won’t add any more after this.

I had no idea when Rebecca set up my blog that I’d end up writing so many entries, and posting so many photos. I’ve very much enjoyed the whole process of photographing and writing about the things I see around me and the things I’ve done.

I’ve had some kind comments about my blog from lots of different people, and it’s good to know that friends and family have enjoyed it.

I have many people to be very grateful to, people who have made my time in Japan possible and enjoyable. But I’m also looking forward to getting back to normal and taking advantage of whatever opportunities I’ll have in the future.

Arigatou gozaimashita. Thank you very much.

Sakura, at last

April 7, 2012

I wrote on Tuesday about the storm that came through. It was the worst storm for decades, bringing typhoon-strength winds to western Honshu. Train services were brought to a halt, flights were cancelled and four people died as a result.

Given all that, maybe it’s just as well that the sakura is late this year; who knows what the storm would have done to the blossom. There were clear blue skies on Wednesday morning and the cherry trees around Nakamachidai have suddenly blossomed in the last few days. There are now trees everywhere with a dense covering of white or pink.

I have not yet observed the Japanese custom of hanami. Generically, it means flower viewing but it usually refers to viewing cherry blossoms. There’s even a term for viewing the cherry blossoms at night, yozakura. Hanami and yozakura both involve sitting under the sakura with a picnic and sake.

Purification with fire

April 6, 2012

I wrote a while ago about purification with water, and I said that fire was another method of purification. In my experience, a basin of water is common near the entrance to shrines but a container with smoldering incense sticks is much less common; only the larger temples have this.

My original post was about the importance of purification to Shinto, but purification with fire is important in Buddhism, too. Both of these photos are taken at Buddhist temples.

The photo above was taken in front of the Kamakura Daibutsu, or big Buddha. The vessel is a little unusual, as it’s enclosed with two holes rather than being open-topped. The process is the same; people put lighted incense sticks inside the vessel and draw smoke onto their head or other parts of their body with their hands.

The photo on the left was taken in Nara when Edward and I were there in December.

Roleplay, Japanese style

April 4, 2012

I don’t know if anyone noticed the group of people in the photo of Odawara Castle in my last post, including the girl with the red hair, high boots, and strange clothes. Well, I became aware of groups of similarly-clad young people making their way towards the castle as we approached on Sunday; this is cosplay, a Japanese speciality in which people create a virtual world.

At the foot of the main castle building and elsewhere in the castle grounds, groups of young people, dressed in all sorts of costumes, were striking different poses, while their friends captured it all on camera.

These costumes must have taken ages to create – I’m sure that’s all part of it, letting your imagination run free, unconstrained, in an attempt to define an alternative identity for a Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps some of the ideas are based on historical reality but, unless I’ve seriously misunderstood Japanese history, most of it’s pure fantasy.

However, are the two crouching characters dressed in black, above, supposed to represent ninja, can someone tell me? Ninja really did exist; they were covert agents, spies and mercenaries, trained to be invisible and to be able to perform super-human feats. They’ve become the stuff of legend now, of course.

I wonder what all these people look like on Monday morning.

Haru ichiban

April 3, 2012

I put my washing out to dry before I left for work this morning. There’s nothing unusual about that but by lunchtime the sky was looking quite grey and I was told that we were going to have some bad weather later in the afternoon and evening.

By early afternoon, I was told that the weather really was forecast to become bad. There was talk of having to leave the office early so that people could get home before the worst of the winds arrived. It was already windy and wet by the time I left at 3:00pm. Don’t worry, I was told, the Zuken mansion is strongly built.

So, I got back to my apartment and brought my wet washing in; I wrung out some clothes that had been blown on to the floor of my balcony; I changed into some dry trousers and put the kettle on.

The wind has been getting stronger all afternoon and my windows are rattling in the gusts. There’s a constant hum of the wind in the power cables that run past the Zuken mansion. The rain’s being blown horizontally and there’s no-one on the streets.

It was also pretty windy at the weekend, windy enough for the trains to be disrupted on Saturday. I was told the term haru ichiban, literally “spring wind”. A more accurate translation of the meaning is “the first gale of spring”. Haru ichiban blows from the south, bringing warm winds; the wind this evening coming from the south, but there doesn’t seem to be anything warm and spring-like about it.

Odawara Castle

April 3, 2012

I spent Sunday in Odawara with Nori and Emi and their family. The sun was shining, the sky was blue – but the sakura still wasn’t out. It’s on the verge of opening, and it has done so in some other parts of Japan, but I’m still waiting. There are avenues of trees, with a hint of pink from the closed buds, and you can tell it’s going to be good when it does come.

Anyway, here’s a photo of Odawara Castle. The present-day building is a reconstruction; the first castle was built in the 15th century, and had a long history of being fought over by different families before being demolished in 1870. The castle itself and the gates that would once have protected it have all been restored since the 1930s.

Inside the castle, there’s a collection of artefacts showing how people would have lived during the period in which the castle was in use. As you walk past the displays, you climb up and emerge onto an external walkway around an upper level. On one side is the sea; on the other side the high hills of Hakone.

There were lots of visitors to the castle and the grounds on Sunday – a festival of some kind was being held. Stalls were selling food and there was a stage, and we watched some traditional Japanese drums being played. The biggest were made from a single piece of wood, and were being hit with as much force as the drummers could manage. The drum sticks were pretty hefty, designed for power rather than finesse. It was good to see and hear.

Yokohama F Marinos

April 1, 2012

The football season started recently and I went to see a J.League division 1 match at the Nissan Stadium last night. Yokohama F Marinos were playing Kashima Antlers. With a total of one draw and five losses between them in the league this season, both teams were at the wrong end of the table.

I went with Kibe-san and Daishi-san, and from our seats we had the Antlers fans behind the goal to our left and the Marinos fans away to the right. The Marinos fans outnumbered the Antlers fans and were far more vocal in support of their team.

In the first half, the Antlers had the better of the play but there were no clear cut chances at either end. It started to rain during the match and the second half was played in increasingly wet conditions. Still there were no clear chances. The photo on the right shows the exchanges of opinion following an incident where a high boot from an Antlers player appeared to make contact with the face of a Marinos player in the Antlers penalty area, but the referee and assistant referee weren’t interested in the Marinos appeals for justice.

So, it ended 0-0 and we went off to warm up with a bowl of ramen.

Here’s a link to a YouTube clip of the Marinos fans. It was just like that last night – the chant, the drums, the flags. Only the weather was different.

Yokohama bay

March 29, 2012

This is Yokohama bay. It would be totally unrecognisable to the 19th century foreigners who came here; it’s probably totally unrecognisable to anyone who saw it a generation ago.

Yokohama was a fishing village when western powers muscled their way in to Japan 150 years ago. Since then, Yokohama has developed into a major port and industrial centre. It’s had some setbacks on the way: in particular, major damage as a result of the 1923 earthquake and again during the Second World War. In recent times, large areas of the bay have been reclaimed, making extra space for industrial and commercial use.

The photo at the top is the Yokohama Bay Bridge. Opened in 1989, it’s part of the route that takes traffic across Tokyo Bay and up to Tokyo.

The photo on the left is of the Minato Mirai 21 (“Port Future 21”) area. This used to be an area of shipyards, but they were moved and replaced by shopping centres, cinemas, hotels, conference centres and similar. There’s an amusement park with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster and other rides just out of the shot. The tall building in the photo is the Landmark Tower. From the viewing platform on the 69th floor, you can look out over the harbour and the city. It’s an impressive sight, although I haven’t been up since Mic and Rob were here in 2007.

The Great Kanto Earthquake

March 28, 2012

There are multiple names on this headstone in the foreign cemetery in Yamate; perhaps these people are from a religious community. Anyway, that’s not the most interesting aspect of it – ten people died in the same year, 1923.

The explanation for that must be the Great Kanto Earthquake. The quake struck at just before midday on 1st September and caused widespread destruction of Tokyo and Yokohama.

It wasn’t just the earthquake that was so deadly. Because it was lunchtime, people were cooking meals over fire; many large fires broke out and swept across the cities as a result of winds from a typhoon. Not surprisingly, the earthquake had broken mains water pipes so it took over two days to put the fires out. There were landslides, too; one pushed a village and a passenger train into the sea. A tsunami hit the coast within minutes, killing even more people.

It’s still the most devastating earthquake in Japan’s history, causing over 100,000 deaths.

Japan is much better prepared for earthquakes now, of course. Building standards are much higher, city planners have created open spaces to allow for evacuation, and information that tells people how to prepare for such an event is widely available. Even so, you have to imagine that a major earthquake in this densely populated area would have serious consequences.

A long way from Whittlesea

March 27, 2012

Just as foreigners lived in Yokohama, so they died in Yokohama. On the hillside of Yamate, looking down on the modern city, is a graveyard which holds the remains of people from the time Japan opened up to the outside world and through the 20th century.

Some are inscribed with Japanese names, but most are for British, American, European and settlers from other parts of the world. They were businessmen, statesmen, doctors, educators, missionaries, and more.

What did Mr and Mrs Kingston of Whittlesea think when their son was born in 1878? Did they imagine that he would become a police inspector on the Japanese railway, and pass his last breath in Yokohama? Most of his contemporaries would have led a life working the soil of the fens.

And what were the missionaries doing here, anyway? Didn’t they realise that the Japanese had their own perfectly good religions? Religions that were a much better match to the Japanese culture and philosophy than any imported alternative?