You always get Heartwarming Stories after something like this, but anyway this is what I heard on the radio today. A boy of 8 or 9 or so was queueing up in a supermarket in Tokyo, maybe, carrying bags of potato crisps, sweets and snacks. He finally got to the cash register, muttered “やっぱり、やめる” (“I’ve changed my mind”) and took everything back to the shelves. Then he took the ¥1000 note he had out of his pocket and put it in the collection box. The adults around looked sort of embarrassed.
Summer 22 September, 2010
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.
New Year at the farm 19 January, 2010
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!
Weekend Sunshine! 21 September, 2008
Listening this morning to “Weekend Sunshine” I got all nostalgic listening to early Pink Floyd, grooved on Malians Rokia Traore and Issa Bagayogo… finished off with Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell… If you live in Japan and don’t know this NHK FM radio programme you’re in for a treat. Check out this week’s playlist. Of course the DJ Peter Barakan is a fellow UK citizen, about my age and arrived in Japan about the same time, so I suppose it’s not so odd there’s some musical affinity, but when I discovered this programme two or three years ago Japan was a better place to live.
Saturday morning 7:15 to 9:00 is not a time I’m usually too active, so I use our video recorder to record it. They have built-in timers, usually hi-fi sound these days (in fact these days everyone except us has got a dvd recorder) and you just have to connect an fm tuner to a “line in” socket at the back somewhere. (I’m sure the same would work with a dvd recorder.) Anyway there’s a good quality sound recording on the video cassette and I can copy stuff I like onto an audio cassette (yes we’re pretty retro round here) or maybe some day I’ll figure out how to get it into the computer as an mp3 file or something. Anyway, it’s great music.
With online stores and illicit downloads from the web radio programmes might seem a bit outdated but I still think there’s a place for a DJ who can turn you on to things you might not have found otherwise. I’ve discovered so many excellent musicians thanks to Peter Barakan’s show. Keep up the good work!
While on the subject, another NHK FM programme I like is Masakazu Kitanaka’s World Music Time. A bit variable, but sometimes you get a great collection of sounds from some country you knew little about.
Here we go… 9 August, 2008
OK for the next two weeks or so you won’t be able to switch on the box without seeing some (mainly Japanese) athletes winning a medal, or failing valiantly. The Olympic circus is on. (Oddly, I still haven’t got the Theme Song branded into my brain yet. I think there is one, and I remember at the time of the Aichi Expo you heard it 10 times a day on the radio and TV.) The time difference with Beijing is only one hour here so we’ll get all this stuff in real time, replacing all our regular programmes so the NHK producers, actors and other staff can take a Summer holiday. At this time of the year the programmes are all repeats anyway, so it won’t make that much difference really…
It’s alright I suppose – last night I watched the opening ceremony for an hour and a half till I got Spectacle Overload and fell asleep. The Chinese are justifiably proud of their recent economic progress, and want to show off a bit, like Japan at the time of the Tokyo Olympics when the Bullet Train had just been built and the nightmare of the war and its aftermath seemed over. Of course China still has a lot of unfinished business, politically maybe most of all. The long post-war hold on power of the LDP in Japan might look a bit suspicious democratically, and certainly allowed a lot of corruption to creep into the system, but at least they could be thrown out of power in elections in principle, actually were on one occasion I remember, and might well be at the next one… No such chance in China. Control on access to information and freedom of expression make it easy for rulers to do whatever they want, and corruption, at least at the local level, seems to be rife. Add a devastated environment, huge inequality of income, no free education or free medical care any more, numerous riots and protests all over the country and the potential for some kind of explosion is certainly there. It wouldn’t be nice for anyone, inside or outside the country. (Still, we have the encouraging example of South Africa, which seemed to be headed for a bloodbath till the white minority peacefully handed over power.)
Anyway, the Olympics – Chinese tend to get very indignant at the idea that the Tibetans or Uighurs might take advantage of this opportunity to express their grievances, but they’ve certainly got plenty to be aggreaved about and I wouldn’t be that surprised if there were some incidents. Otherwise, good luck to the athletes who’ve prepared so long for the Big Event!