asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Summer 22 September, 2010

Filed under: customs,seasons — johnraff @ 2:14 pm
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Finally it’s over – sort of. That sultry sticky sweltering sweaty squishy soggy humidity has dropped way down as the dry Autumn air from the continent takes over. Although we’re going over 30°C today and you wouldn’t call it cool exactly, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant and there’s a nice breeze even now, at 2 in the afternoon. It’s been a record-breaking long hot Summer this year – more than 500 people are reported to have died from heatstroke and the electricity companies are expecting to make record profits from all the carbon they burnt to keep our air conditioners running. (How are we going to escape this situation where the only way to make life tolerable is to contribute to making it worse? I’m reminded of the old, old Kevin Ayers song “Why are we sleeping?“) A lot of my friends teach at universities, get long Summer vacations and head right out of here for the month of August. Conversely, for old friends in Europe, August is the obvious holiday season and that is when they want to come over here to visit. I try to talk them out of it, explaining that they’ll likely find the heat intolerable, but they don’t really get it …till they arrive.

Even so, Summer in Japan is a special time. For a month or two we share the same air mass as Southeast Asia (apparently Hong Kong has Japan beaten for humidity) and it’s as if the whole country has taken off southwards. You don’t need more clothes than a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and even when working there’s a sort of holiday atmosphere. (I guess the suit-wearing salarymen might see it a bit differently…) The kids are all off school and along with the cicadas the heavy air carries the sounds of High School Baseball from a thousand open windows. And the evenings can be magical. The warmth just envelops you so that there’s no distinction between indoors and outdoors. Just take a walk around your neighbourhood, follow the smoke pouring out of a local yakitoriya for an ice-cold beer and some grilled chicken, or maybe even head to a beer garden… These are a different story really – while eating outside, maybe on the roof of a tall building, has an appeal, you’re usually obliged to go along with some kind of “all you can eat and drink” sort of deal, usually with a time limit. The foods not that great, there are hundreds of people and the effect is a bit like feeding time at the zoo.

Much better are the Summer festivals, especially out in the countryside. There’s dancing, more of that indispensible ice-cold beer and young people come back from the cities to revisit relatives. The young girls look really cute in their Summer kimonos and there are quite often fireworks too. Japanese fireworks are some of the best in the world, and the big displays draw millions of people. All this is really based on the “Obon” festival, when the spirits of dead ancestors return to their families and have to be entertained with Bon odori – traditional dancing. Fires are lit to help them find their way home, and later to send them off again. ( Could that be where the fireworks come from? )

This is also the time for ghost stories – some say it’s because they give you a delicious chill, but maybe it’s just that Obon connection again. There are some real ghosts too. Among the spirits who return for consolation are the nearly three million who died in World War 2. The anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Pacific war come in quick succession at the beginning of August, and the ringing of temple bells joins the cicadas and baseball.

So it’s not all festivals and fun, and the Autumn just coming can be really beautiful, as can Spring, but I’d still say Summer is my favourite season.

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It’s started 7 August, 2010

Filed under: customs — johnraff @ 2:58 pm
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Along with the cicadas, baseball from a radio somewhere is one of the sounds of Summer here; it started today and there’s nothing else on the TV or radio all afternoon, for the next couple of weeks. I really don’t remember anyone paying the slightest attention to a rugby or cricket match between a couple of schools back in the UK (maybe you could compare the University Boat Race?) but here it’s a big event with elimination rounds all round the country and everyone avidly follows the later matches and gets quite emotional. The losing team (and sometimes the winners too) usually burst into tears at the end. T loves it.

 

Takemi Zakura 30 April, 2010

Filed under: countryside,customs — johnraff @ 2:17 pm
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The "Takemi Zakura"

The mountains of Japan are full of wild cherry trees, at least where they haven’t been replanted for timber. Most of the year they’re hidden away, but in April suddenly there’s blossom everywhere – some beautiful trees you had no idea of.

One such is just above the entrance to a tunnel on the way back to Nagoya from our country house – a big old cherry that has its moment of glory for a week or two every year. We thought it was our private discovery but a couple of years ago some local friends cleared the trees from the area around it, built some stairs, seats, railings etc and made it into a little park, with an annual hanami party, which we went to a couple of weeks ago.

the teahouse is gone...

Apparently this isn’t a wild cherry after all – it has some history. Before that tunnel was built the road used to wind through a pass over some hills above it, right past that tree. There used to be a tea house at the pass, and the cherry was planted outside. It’s now some 300 years old, and the tea house is long gone, but, with a little treatment from a tree doctor, now looks set for a good few years more. From that spot, if it’s a clear day, you can get a beautiful view of Mount Ontake, the holy mountain, so a local politician gave the tree the name Takemi Zakura “mount-viewing cherry” – fair enough, though most people had been calling it the cherry on the pass or something like that…

Check the prices.

It’s still a fairly quiet local type of event, but elsewhere in Gifu there are some famous sakura that attract hundreds of visitors, so maybe ours will be one of those some day. Meanwhile they sell beer and yakitori at more or less cost price just so people will come. Weather was less than perfect this year, but on a sunny day it’s a very nice way to spend an afternoon or evening.

 

Spring 4 April, 2010

Filed under: city,customs — johnraff @ 2:11 am
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A weeping cherry on a street corner in Nagoya, Japan.This is a weeping cherry on the big crossroads near us, about two weeks ago, already in full bloom. It was a beautiful day, but freezing cold actually with a fierce wind blowing round the buildings. The much-heralded early blooming of the “proper” cherries – the “somei yoshino” – was stopped in its tracks by a cold wave that at last seems to be coming to an end and finally the cherries in the park down the road are completely out. I expect it was full of revellers enjoying hana-mi, but we had to work. Maybe we’ll take a look on Monday if it’s not raining…

Hanami is a sort of Rite of Spring I suppose, and can be a Bacchanale at times. There are people who claim flower-viewing should be accompanied with writing haiku and sipping green tea or something but I have no problem with people getting paralytic under cherry blossom…

 

New Year at the farm 19 January, 2010

Filed under: countryside,customs — johnraff @ 2:23 pm
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The weather forecast said a cold front was on its way and sure enough just after midday on the outskirts of town the snow started sprinkling down. We were on our way out to Gifu so that didn’t bode too well for conditions further on, but we had decided to spend a couple of days out at “the farm” for the new year so pressed on… Of course by the time we’d got halfway the road was getting slippy and there was nothing for it but to put those cursed chains on the front tyres. Put on the brakes to pull into a parking area and the car just kept going… that’s how close to the edge things had been. These new-fangled plastic tyre chains are supposed to be easy to put on, but after half an hour of scrabbling about in the freezing slush I still hadn’t got the hook thing at the back properly attached – my fingers had no feeling and it was getting dark and things were looking somewhat hopeless… Finally a friendly passerby gave us a hand and the left chain was on. Back in the car with the heater on full for a few minutes of agony as the blood returned to my fingers, but then the other chain went on much more easily, as I’d sort of got the hang of it.

It’s now dark and an almost full moon is gazing balefully down through a gap in the clouds as we tiptoe gingerly down the road through 10cm or so of snow. Finally make it to the house, turn on the heater, sit in the kotatsu with a cup of tea and it’s all in the past…

New Years Day and it’s still snowing. The postman braves the elements to bring us our small bundle of nengajo – there’ll be more back in Nagoya. Unlike Christmas cards, which should arrive before Christmas, New Year cards are supposed to be read at New Year and the Post Office keep the ones posted in December and go to some trouble to deliver them on the first of January if at all possible.

New Year is really just like Christmas back home in many ways: everything’s closed, all day spent watching the box, eating, drinking… We’ve only got a radio on the farm, but still don’t miss NHK’s big song spectacular which they’ve been plugging for weeks. Something like the Royal Command Performance (do they still have that? ), it’s been slipping in the ratings in recent years. The newspaper is full of adverts for January sales – these used to be after a week or so but now many places start right in on the first, along with “lucky bags”, which can be OK and can be rubbish. Even the shrines are advertising – the best place to have your car blessed to protect it from accidents, the best place to pray for success in exams… They say some 80% of a shrine’s takings are in the first few days of new year, so this is peak time for them. The terrible economy is good for holy business, but the snow and cold probably hasn’t helped.

Throughout our stay we are visited by a huge flock of small birds, flying around in a swarm like migrating swallows. About the size of sparrows, with a crest on their heads – I’m not an ornithologist, but I suppose they’re winter visitors from somewhere further north.

A new beginning… and everything is “hatsu”whatever, ie hatsumode – first visit to a shrine and presumably hatsu-sake, hatsu-tabako…

Happy New Year!

 

Hana Matsuri 30 December, 2009

Filed under: customs — johnraff @ 1:56 pm
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Yesterday we got a postcard from a village in Toei Cho in the mountains of Aichi prefecture – the same prefecture as Nagoya but a completely different world. That region is known for the Hana matsuri (“flower festival”) held around this time of year and which seems to be a sort of fertility rite to encourage the return of the warm weather (not to be confused with Buddha’s birthday, in April). That postcard was to remind us of our visit in 2004, in case we wanted to go back I suppose. It’s tempting… anyway, here’s a bit from a letter I sent home that year:

This January we went to the Hana Matsuri in a place called ToEiCho a
couple of hours drive from here. It’s still in Aichi Prefecture, but in the
Northeast corner and quite isolated in the mountains. The Hana Matsuri takes
place in a number of villages in the area from late November to sometime in
March, depending on the village. In the 28 years I’ve been here I’ve been to
this festival 3 or 4 times, and it really is quite special. Because the
place is so isolated the ceremonies have been preserved much more completely
than in most other places, it runs continually for about 36 hours, there are
some impressive devil masks worn by the dancers, and the beliefs behind it
are really interesting if you’re an ethnologist. Of course it’s now a
“National Treasure” and well supplied with photographers, not to mention TV
cameras, but it still has a special atmosphere, especially if you pick one
of the smaller villages as we did. At 4 in the morning, freezing cold,
watching two huge devils dancing by the light of a couple of pinewood
torches, Japan feels like a pretty exotic place after all…

 

Spring Cleaning

Filed under: customs — johnraff @ 1:24 pm
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This weekend (27th & 28th) we stayed in Nagoya again to do some cleaning up before the New Year holiday. I had given myself the task of getting the grease off the extractor fan hood, and T re-waxed the floor so the restaurant looks quite nice now. This is the traditional time for a big cleanup here, so everything can be fresh for the New Year. Actually new year is associated with Spring anyway – the traditional lunar calendar, still followed in Okinawa and China, would put it somewhere in February, and even at the end of December you’re already past the solstice so the days are getting longer – so we’re not that far from our Spring Cleaning really.

 

 
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