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Yet another sakura season comes and goes too quickly

25 May

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

Sakura, cherry blossoms, do not appear gradually on the trees. Rather they seem to burst out of their tiny cases one spring day when the sun hits them in just the right way.

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

The predictions on when they will blossom to their fullest are broadcast on the nightly news. I picture Japanese people peeking out their windows, waiting for the puffs of white and pink to appear. When the moment is right, and the day is warm, they emerge from their houses to celebrate the coming of spring.

The ubiquitous “leisure mats”, what we call tarps in Canada, are spread under any suitable spot under the large trees. Or, if for a child, a colourful Anpanman mat. Or newspapers for old men from another era.

Why get married during any other time of the year?

Why get married during any other time of the year?

Elaborate bento lunches; sakura mochi coloured pink, white and green; and numerous mixtures of alcohol are shared with the special people in your life or complete strangers. It’s the most celebrated time of the year. A time that is waited for all winter.

And then just days after they appear at their most glorious, the sakura fall. Covering the ground, swirling around ponds and down streams. Finding themselves in your limited edition sakura-flavoured tea.

A tunnel of sakura in Tezukayama.

A tunnel of sakura in Tezukayama.

And now it’s May, nearly June, and sakura season seems like many seasons ago.

Let your otaku flag fly… at Den Den Matsuri

16 Mar

An evil nurse with The Joker?

It’s almost time for one of the most fun days of the year! It was one of my highlights of 2013. A day when characters from anime, manga, video games, shows and movies take over the streets of downtown Osaka.

It’s Den Den Matsuri! Officially known as Nippombashi Street Festa for the area of Osaka it’s in, it will be held this year on Friday, March 21st, a national holiday. Den Den Town is Osaka’s version of Tokyo’s Akihabara and an otaku‘s dream. Otaku is a fairly derogative term and could be translated as “geek” or “nerd” into English.

A very elaborate cosplay outfit.

A very elaborate cosplay outfit from 2013.

While Japanese of all ages read comic books on the train, otaku are obsessed. It could be with manga (comics), anime (animation), Jpop music, video games or electronics, or even trains. (I understand, I love trains.) All these things and more are treasured in Den Den.

Detective Conan under attack by a group of soldiers.

Detective Conan under attack by a group of soldiers.

The festival is the chance for the otaku to have their day in the sun, not that everyone who participates is an otaku. People engage in cosplay — dressing up as their favourite characters. Some people take cosplay very seriously. Trying to embody the character and get the costumes and mannerisms just right.

A woman in cosplay at last year's festival.

A woman in cosplay at last year’s festival.

I know little to nothing about manga and anime but it’s still a ton of fun to wander around and see the cosplayers. Last year, there were some characters I recognized, such as those from Pixar movies, Nintendo and Star Wars.

The cutest little Stitch.

The cutest little Stitch.

It’s also refreshing to see these people who may not be really understood by society have a chance to be celebrated. The street festival is filled with people just taking photos, having fun and interacting with the cosplayers.

Last year, it was quite entertaining as I’d ask if I could take photos of people and, in typical Japanese fashion, they’d act all shy and embarrassed. And then quickly strike a fierce pose, in line with their characters.

An evil nurse with The Joker?

An evil nurse with The Joker?

Den Den Matsuri starts around noon and ends around 4 or 5pm. The festival is on Sakai-suji, just east of Namba Nankai station. Start here and walk south for all the fun.

Have you been to Den Den Matsuri? Do you recognize any of these characters? Let me know!

The hidden stone — Ryoanji zen rock garden

25 Feb

Ryoanji's zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

In Art History 101, we studied a wide range of works from around the world. For tests, a few images would be flashed on to the giant projection screen in the cavernous lecture hall and we’d have to write one page about each.

One work was the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in north Kyoto, possibly the most famous in the world. The garden is the ultimate in zen minimalism — just fifteen rocks set in gravel. I remember complaining to my mother “how am I supposed to write a whole page about a bunch of rocks?” I was relieved it wasn’t chosen for the test.

Ryoanji's zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Ryoanji’s zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Now, ten years later, I’ve seen the garden in person and am doing that very thing.

The garden is thought to have been created around the 15th or 16th centuries and has puzzled people ever since. It’s not known who exactly built it or what it’s meant to represent.

Some say it looks like islands strewn across the ocean or mountains peaking through clouds. One story states that it’s a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond. Others see the kanji character for “heart” in the arrangement.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Possibly the most interesting thing is that the rocks are arranged in such a way that not all fifteen can be viewed at the same time from any angle. The number 15 is thought to have connotations with ‘completeness’ in Buddhism. But in the imperfect world, the fifteen rocks cannot be seen at the same time. There is always one hidden that can only be seen in the mind’s eye.

A meditation hall borders the rock garden, with a ledge to sit on and contemplate what it all means. Why would someone decide to make this? Where is the hidden rock? Who rakes that gravel? How often do they rake it? What food will be available at the golden temple up the street? (Meditation seems to make me either sleepy or hungry.)

Get lost in the temple's grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

Get lost in the temple’s grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

After all that meditation, be sure to wander the surprisingly extensive temple grounds with many buildings and a large lake. Visiting in the end of winter, it wasn’t as lush as I imagine it will be in the spring or fall, when all of Kyoto is gorgeous of course.

Ryoanji is not the easiest temple to get to in Kyoto. I try to take trains and subways as the buses can take ages to get around Kyoto. We took the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji station, then took a bus to a stop close to Kinkakuji and walked from there. (The bus stops were well marked and there was an information centre at the train station.) Of course, pair this temple with the famous Kinkakuji, the golden temple, or others in the area.


Take me out to the (Japanese) ball game — watching a Hanshin Tigers baseball game

16 Oct

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

The crowd is quiet, save for areas in the outfields where the hardcore fans seem to be. From where we are, near first base, I can faintly hear their songs and cheers. All around me people are drinking beer and eating greasy baseball food. But here there is more takoyaki and yakitori than hotdogs and corn dogs. I’m a bit disappointed that it’s not as rowdy as I’ve been told it would be.

That is until a Tiger steps up to the plate.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Small plastic bats, towels and other paraphernalia begin to appear. These Japanese people, who rarely ever raise their voices or answer a phone call on a train, start to yell and cheer. They hit the bats together, singing elaborate songs for each player and moaning in disappointment at every out.

Though they are respectful when the other team is at bat, in this case Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers fans are known as some of the most dedicated in the game.

The Tigers are the favourite team of the Kansai region. Koshien Stadium, the Tiger’s main stomping grounds, is the oldest ballpark in Japan. The Tigers have a strong rivalry with the Tokyo Giants, often compared to the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Tigers, like the Red Sox, even have their own curse — the Curse of the Colonel.

The Tiger's main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school -- natural grass and dirt.

The Tiger’s main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school — natural grass and dirt.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

In 1985, after the team won their only Japan Series championship, fans gathered downtown Osaka near the dirty Dotonbori canal. Player’s names were called out and people looked like that player jumped into the canal. When American born Randy Bass’ name was called, there was no foreigner with a beard in sight. That is, except for a statue of the Colonel in front of a KFC. In the canal the Colonel went and the Tigers haven’t won the Japan Series again.

The statue was finally recovered in 2009 but the curse still hasn’t lifted.

You’d think with such a long history of losses, the fans would get a bit discouraged. Watch a game and you wouldn’t think so. Tigers games are filled with rituals. Each player at bat has their own song that everyone tries to sing along to. As a foreigner, and one unacquainted with the team, watch the scrolling screens above home plate for the player’s names written in the roman alphabet.

The highlight of the game is the seventh inning stretch, after the singing of the Tigers’ fight song, when everyone in attendance lets balloons off into the sky.

Balloons being let off into the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Balloons fill the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Watching baseball in Japan is not only a lot of fun, but a great time to see Japanese kicking back and getting a bit rowdy. And while it’s America’s favourite game, it sure feels very Japanese.



I purchased my tickets from a Family Mart convenience store, they were 2,500 yen each. There is a stand-alone machine that sells all sorts of tickets. It’s all in Japanese and a bit confusing, so enlisting a cashier’s help is a good idea. Tickets can also be purchased on the Tigers website, but it’s also in Japanese and even more confusing.

The Tigers usually play at Koshien stadium for home games, but not always, so double check. The stadium is right next to Koshien station, twelve minutes from Umeda on the Hanshin main line.

There is lots of food and drinks available inside and outside the stadium, everything from curry rice to pizza. Food and drinks can be brought in, but beer is poured into plastic cups at the door. Beer girls carry around kegs on their backs and sell cups for 600 yen.

News story about the Colonel’s reappearance:

Gion Matsuri — Kyoto’s summer festival

30 Jul

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

Gion is one of my most favourite places in Kyoto. It retains much of its pre-war charm, with cobblestone streets, paper lanterns and wooden storefronts, all a facade for the mysterious world of the geiko, Japan’s most famous geisha. In a city so rich in history, it’s no wonder that one of its most beloved festivals is more than 1200 years old.

Gion Matsuri (festival) is held always on the same days in July, with different events happening each week, with the highlight being the grand parade being held on July 17th. More information on the schedule can be found on the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

As this past July 15th was a national holiday, a group of friends and I went to Kyoto to, mostly, stuff our faces and wear fancy clothes. For one month a year, people are shuffling down almost every street in downtown Kyoto, wrapped in yukata under the strong July sun, and taking in the festivities. Yukata and kimono can be rented and purchased in Kyoto, but come at a wide range of prices. As yukata are light summer kimono and much less elaborate, they can generally be had for under 10,000 yen ($100).

A friend and I completely lucked out when we found a shop selling cheap yukata, just north of Kawaramachi station on Shijo dori. I chose a blue, flower print yukata with what a salesperson said was a “sexy” obi (sash) for 3800 yen ($38). And she then wrapped me up in it like a present, something which I am doubtful I can replicate.

My first yukata.

My first yukata.

We then met up with friends and made our way to Yasaka shrine, one of the most well known in Kyoto, for festival songs, dances and food stalls. My tightly wound yukata seemed to loosen a bit after a skewer of garlic and pepper Kobe beef and a mango snow cone with sweetened condensed milk. We then spent the afternoon relaxing and taking photos in the adjacent Maruyama Park, which I also visited during hanami season.

Grilled meat on a stick -- essential Japanese festival food.

Grilled meat on a stick — essential Japanese festival food.

After all that time sweating in pretty fabrics, it was time for more food. During the evenings of Gion Matsuri, the streets near the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo become clogged with people visiting street stalls and viewing the floats that will pulled during the grand parade. The floats are quite magical — these large constructions that look like shrines with many moving parts and ringing bells.

It would have been great to see the grand parade, but it’s held this year on a night that I work. Maybe I’ll still be around next year for it!

Gion Matsuri ends tomorrow, July 31st. Visit the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide website for more information.

Memories of a Geiko

21 Jul

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

It’s an inside look at the world of geiko and maiko, the geisha of Kyoto and their apprentices, and also quite an engaging character study. Geisha of Gion is the memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, possibly one of the most famous and successful Japanese geishas of all time.

The story is an interesting look at this mysterious part of Japanese history. Who are these women and what did they really do?

Iwasaki had been extensively interviewed by Arthur Golden for his enormously popular book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, yet she had asked that she keep her anonymity. When the book was published her name was listed in the acknowledgments. She felt betrayed and sued Golden. This book is her turn to tell her story.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

She details the life of a geisha, the hours each day and years they must devote to their crafts, and paints the lifestyle as that of professionals. “Geisha” is often translated as artist or woman of the arts and Iwasaki describes how they must perfect their arts — of dancing, playing instruments, singing, tea ceremony and conversation.

It sounds like a pretty cushy gig, but at her heyday, Iwasaki says she was only sleeping a few hours each night before practicing all day and performing all night, and she would be booked a year and a half in advance of a party.

“Basically, I was booked solid for the entire five years that I was a maiko,” writes Iwasaki. “I worked seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, from the time I was fifteen until I was twenty-one.”

She tries to dispel the myth that geishas are just high-end prostitutes, saying that very few men are even allowed in geisha houses. Yet she does says it’s natural for geisha to develop relationships with clients and she herself did as well.

She was the best, or so she says, and doesn’t fail to mention the fact every few pages. But her anecdotes do live up to her assertions. She entertained both the Queen of England and Prince Charles, both humourous and very telling stories regarding her character.

Prince Charles signed one of her favourite fans and she later threw it out, upset that he had done so. When the Queen didn’t touch any of the Japanese food made for her, she flirted with Prince Phillip. The Queen and Prince decided to sleep in separate rooms for the night at the last minute.

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

She was living in a very strange world of extreme privilege. Iwasaki details how she would have a new kimono made for her every week and would wear each one only four or five times. Each kimono could cost anywhere from $5000 to 8000.

But she had no concept of money. Everything was paid for. She rarely even touched money, though many envelopes of tips were slipped into her kimono each night. As a full geiko she decides at one point to move out on her own. She shops for groceries for the first time, buying a few vegetables at a shop and gives a 10,000 yen ($100) bill and walks out the door.

But there is a darker side to her story. Iwasaki met the owner of the geisha house she would eventually move into at the age of three. The owner said she was very beautiful and suggested she could become her successor. This was basically decided from that young age. Iwasaki’s father had already sold her two older sisters to the same geisha house, one sister never really gets over this betrayal. In becoming the successor, Iwasaki must be adopted into the geisha “family” and completely leave her biological one.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Iwasaki is a character and some things she writes can cause a few eye rolls, but she seems very honest. For instance, as a young girl she meets another girl that could be her friend. The other girl is older than her but lower in status.

“I took off my tabi. ‘Meku-chan, my little toe itches.’ I stuck out my foot and she respectfully stroked it,” she writes.

Iwasaki often mentions the in-fighting within the geisha world and the jealousy she had to deal with (no wonder given how she treated some people). But it is interesting given what she went through on a daily basis all while maintaining a perfect image of this mythical beauty.

“I was afraid that if I didn’t maintain the professional demeanour of a maiko at all times I would simply fall apart,” she writes.

It’s hanami time! Cherry blossom season in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

3 Apr

The coming on spring is not a small occasion in Japan. It’s not a subtle and slow change from the brown and gray of winter to the new green of summer. It’s an explosion of white, pink and purple as the peach, plum and cherry trees blossom all over the country. The weather gets much warmer and it’s time for a party!

Sakura in Shukugawa.

Sakura in Shukugawa.

Hanami (flower viewing) is when everyone gathers with friends and family under the sakura (cherry blossoms) to spread out their leisure mats (tarps) and enjoy food, drink, games and many photo shoots with the blossoms. The tradition is thought to go as far back as the 8th century. Depending on the varietal, most cherry blossoms only last a week or two, so it’s really a time to seize the occasion and get outdoors.

Hanami parties at Maruyama Park.

Hanami parties at Maruyama Park.

This past weekend, the trees were in full bloom in many areas in Kansai. I took full advantage with three straight days of hanami. After a short day of training at work on Saturday, a group of teachers and I went to Osaka castle park, one of the greenest spots in the city with a range of blossoming trees.

Hiding in a plum (?) tree at Osaka castle park.

Hiding in a plum (?) tree at Osaka castle park.

Sunday saw a trip to Kyoto to visit Maruyama Park, which is just behind the well-known Yasaka shrine. This was a very popular hanami spot with many families having picnics, teenagers curled up in sleeping bags playing video games and coworkers sharing large bottles of beer. There were food and drink stalls lining the walkways and even a haunted house, in case the sakura are too relaxing!

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park.

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park.

We also wandered Kiyomizu Temple, close to Yasaka shrine, which had many ponds and gardens accented by sakura.

As I have Mondays off, it was time for even more hanami. We visited Shukugawa, which is on the Hankyu line to Kobe, and has a long river lined with cherry trees.

Each bank of the river in Shukugawa was lining with groups of people enjoying hanami.

Each bank of the river in Shukugawa was lining with groups of people enjoying hanami.

The whole weekend was such a nice introduction to a beloved holiday in Japan. The sakura are beautiful and the Japanese celebrate them, which is great to see. It’s also a fantastic way to welcome the beginning of summer!

The dying sport of sumo wrestling

20 Mar

Sumo wrestlers gorge themselves at every meal, wash it down with plenty of beer, and have daily afternoon naps. They wear yukatas, which are light kimono-like robes and incredibly comfortable, for the majority of their day. On fight days, they are exerting themselves to the maximum for less than one minute. This is a sport I can get behind.

The sumo ring at the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.

The sumo ring at the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.

I recently watched sumo for the first time as part of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament, which runs until March 24. There are six tournaments a year, held in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Tokyo holds three tournaments a year, while there’s one a year in the other three cities. We stayed in the cheap seats for 3000 yen ($32) but they were fine for seeing all the action (they’re big guys).

Tournament days run from 8:30am to 6pm, with the least experienced fighters at the beginning leading up to the yokozunas, the top fighters, in the evening. Each wrestler fights just once a day.

Ring entering ceremony with a yokozuna, wearing a sacred rope, in the middle.

Ring entering ceremony with a yokozuna, wearing a sacred rope, in the middle.

The rules of the actual fight are incredibly simple — knock your opponent out of the ring or off his feet. A match can last only a few seconds, the longest ones we saw only lasted a couple of minutes. These matches are surrounded by much ritual. So the majority of the time you are watching the wrestlers squat, slap themselves, and throw salt. These are all rituals associated with the Shinto religion, such as salt being thrown to purify the ring and leg stomping to drive evil spirits out.

Each sumo wrestler belongs to a stable where they train and usually live. Their lives are devoted to the sport. They must always have their hair in a top knot and wear a yukata and sandals. This makes them very easy to recognize out in public. I was beyond excited to see one of the subway in Tokyo and now they’re wandering all over my neighbourhood!

Don't fall over, sumo wrestler!

Don’t fall over, sumo wrestler!

The traditional sumo meal is chankonabe, a stew of meat, fish, tofu and vegetables, rice and beer. The wrestlers don’t eat breakfast, but rather train and do chores in the morning, have a big lunch then have a long nap. This keeps on the weight (a good reminder to eat breakfast!). Sounds like a nice life, except their life expectancy is 60 or 65.

Going to sumo was very fun and felt very Japanese. The stadium was only a quarter filled when we got there but got much busier leading up to the yokozuna matches. There was much yelling and cheering. As we didn’t really know any of the wrestlers, we chose which wrestler to cheer for after they came into the ring and we sized them up.

Ring entering ceremony.

Ring entering ceremony.

While watching sumo seemed like a traditional Japanese thing to do, I was shocked to learn that many Japanese people have never seen sumo live! Only one of my students had seen sumo when she was a child, but all the others hadn’t. They said they thought it was boring and had only seen it on TV.

One student said baseball was much more popular and exciting and no one watched sumo anymore. Another told me that since there are no Japanese yokozunas now it’s not as popular. Sumo has many foreigners now competing, with some of the top wrestlers from Mongolia.

With fewer and fewer people interested in sumo, will this unique Japanese sport soon become a thing of the past?


AKB48 — the largest musical group of single, wholesome women on earth?

18 Feb

One of the most popular J-pop (Japanese pop) groups right now is AKB48. They are frequently mentioned by my students as their favourite musical group. One of my students recently told me about a scandal involving one of their members, news of it had spread around the world.

A quick Google search later and it’s true, there are stories everywhere about this. One of the members had shaved her head, a traditional show of remorse in Japanese culture, and filmed herself apologizing to the world. Her crime? Dating someone.

AKB48 member Minami Minegishi

AKB48 member Minami Minegishi apologizing to fans. (From the BBC website)

The video, dubbed in English, can be seen on the BBC website. In it, she pleads to stay in the band and apologizes for her actions. She had been caught leaving the apartment of a member of a boy band.

Reading more about the group, I find that this band is practically an empire. The band has 88 members, their ages ranging from 14 to mid-20s. The band performs daily at their theatre in the Akihabara (AKB) area of Tokyo, which partly explains why there are so many members. AKB48 was created in 2005 with 20 members. Later auditions were held to add more members and members are voted on by fans. There are ranks and training groups within the band and when the women reach a certain age they “graduate” from the group.

The concept of AKB48 is “idols you can meet”, meaning they are accessible to fans and there is a lot of fantasy built into the brand. Members are not allowed to date and must maintain a “wholesome” image, meaning no alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.

They portray both young school girls…

AKB48 school girls


and sexualized young women.

AKB48 girls


While Minami Minegishi has remained in the band, she’s been demoted to a trainee role. This public shaming is bizarre, as are the rules for the group. And it’s strange how they want the fans to connect so passionately with these girls, yet there are almost 90 of them. Nowadays in the Western world, popstar’s relationships are huge gossip fodder, as Selena Gomez, who probably receives a thousand death threats a day, could attest to. But thinking back to the days of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, I’m sure there were stipulations in their contracts that they shouldn’t date and should remain wholesome.

AKB48 is yet another example of Japan’s obsession with kawaii — cute things. But also illustrates the juxtaposition in this country of sexual conservatism with many weird fixations on sex.

Here they are doing what they do best in a song that I think is called “Tears Supuraizu! (surprise)”: