Thursday, November 30, 2006

Of the Devils tongue and Anglers' sweetmeats

There is a group of seemingly mild-mannered folk across the hall from my little office who have invited me out a few times, and been generally nice to me despite my poor language skills, and with whom I have been gradually becoming closer. This little team has as its core members the esteemed fob-watch collector Yuji (male); the redoubtable Yuki (female), who drives a small car festooned with kitty-chan; the heavy-metal loving teacher, Shuji (male), unique in all of Japan for not owning a mobile phone; the glowering Ryu (male) whose name means Dragon, and who always seems to understand what I am trying to say even if while trying to say it I effectively bludgeoned his mother tongue to death; and the winningly handsome Hitoshi (male), famed across the land (or so I hear) for his chick-pulling prowess. Every time we go out there seems to be a new tagger on, but the core of this group (or 'circle', as they unselfconsciously say) consists of the aforementioned team who, incidentally, all study partial differential equations.

Incidentally, as I have had cause to comment on to a few people, Japanese are weird about maths. Don't bother asking me what the Japanese is for "partial differential equation": though they have imported all of the words required for Italian cuisine, cars, bikes, pop music and sport, they have decided to invent an entire branch of their language for mathematics, and I don't know a word of it. I can assure you, dear reader, that Partial Differential Equations were not invented in Japan, just as spaghetti wasn't; but while the latter is called spaghetti, the former has some wierd incomprehensible Japanese word attached to it. At some point I will have to learn these things, but for now I am content learning how to say simpler words, like "kill" (essential when discussing whaling, which inevitably one does at a...)

Nabe party!! It occurred to us last week that winter is coming and we will all soon die, so we had best find a way to keep warm. And outside of a kotatsu, the best way to keep warm in Japan is to lock oneself in a room with a lot of free booze, a big pot, and enough vegetables to feed a whale. The pot (the 'nabe') looks exactly like a fondue-type pot, right down to the flames underneath, except it is powered by a spray can of some sort and is more like a Chinese claypot. Into this goes a mysterious sauce and some water, and then one starts shovelling in the food.

Which we did, while drinking beer (and then chu-hi (and then wine)). The food consisted of, approximately:

2 cabbages
a field of mushrooms of different sorts
a whole chicken, cut into little chunks
a big tray of fish
half a daikon radish
a plastic bag full of some sort of herb
3 leeks
about half a kilo of oysters
a small amount of some other meat -maybe pork? I don't like to ask
a whole pack of konyaku, or Devil's Tongue (a wierd squidgy substance made of yam paste)
two packs of tofu (incidentally, tofu in this country is 50cents a pack)
a whole Anglerfish, including its tail and offal
3 packets of noodles
3 cups of rice

It took us four hours to eat this miraculous concoction, which was cooked in stages in two nabe pots (one was electric) with two different sauces and eaten collectively, simply by picking what one likes out of the pot. There were many interesting things to pick, but by far the most interesting part of this whole experience was the anglerfish.

Whoever eats Anglerfish? Or more to the point, what sad, desperate person was so well cashed up with useless deep-sea diving equipment, but simultaneously so hungry, that he thought "I'll eat an anglerfish?" These fish are the lumpen proletariat of the fishy world, the junkie scoundrel that pimps half-dead anemones in the bleached-coral suburbs of atlantis. They are the nasty little man in a grey raincoat who lures in all the pretty-coloured baby fishies for ugly experiments, and grins all the while. Warty, slimy little miscreants who lounge around in seedy alleyways taunting the morays while their gibbous lamps hang out of their pants.

Which is pretty much how I feel now that I have eaten one. Clearly the Japanese have decided that there is a virtue to be found in spreading ones protein needs over the entire animal kingdom (including sea cucumbers), and have further turned this virtue into a supposed delicacy (Yuji assured us that anglerfish in a nabe is a delicacy). Well, the Anglerfish certainly has many virtues, which I shall list for you:

  • its bones are like those of a chicken. I am told this is because it is a deep sea fish, so its bones have to be tough to fend off the crushing weight of all that despair;
  • its skin is black, ruffled and just like a wetsuit or a sheet of rubber; fortunately it sloughs this skin off in the pack, so you don't have to eat it except that Yuji chucks it into the pot annyway, where it ends up looking like cooked rubber;
  • its flesh is translucent and ribbed through with tiny blood vessels, like the compressed offcast of liposuction
  • its tale combines all these traits in a splendidly grotesque fashion, being both heavy with bones; sheathed in a deep black rubbery skin; and when cooked, the flesh is of such a rubbery consistency that one cannot bite into it: one's teeth simply bounce off
  • it has a very large liver
So, in the interests of experimentation, I tried eating the flesh of the main part of the body (which is okay); the tail, which I couldn't eat because my teeth aren't razor sharp knives - I couldn't even penetrate that wetsuit skin, and the feeling of my teeth bouncing off the flesh was too disturbing to pursue; and the liver (or whatever godforsaken part of this Ogre's anatomy had been cast into the pot). Unsurprisingly, the liver tastes like fish. I passed the tail to Yuji, who told me that it is usually delicious but this tail was undercooked (which, frankly, I do not believe).

Of course, this whole experimental process covered a four hour period of massive overeating, at the end of which I felt decidedly ill, so maybe my opinion of the fish has been coloured by the effort of rolling home with a belly full of boiled cabbage and oysters. I was still rolling around this morning when I woke up, feeling like I was still sitting at the table trying to cram more in. So maybe my tastes have been spoiled. In any case, I am not willing to repeat the experiment in a more refined setting, and my advice regarding Anglerfish is - don't eat them, no matter how many nice watch-collectors tell you they're a delicacy. They simply are not.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Koyo, or what to do when the candle goes out?

I am told that now that November has come the sun has gone, and there will be no more of it until at least February next year. Apparently I am best advised to pretend I am in London, because that is how the weather will be for the next 5 months. If only I had chosen to go viewing autumn leaves a week earlier, when the sun was still out; instead on a dreary Sunday afternoon I drove with several of the maths students to Kyomizu temple, near the sea of Japan, to walk up a mountain and look at the leaves in the rain. As one can see from these pictures there is a lot of mist and drizzle but not a great deal of red and brown. This is because apparently the leaves have turned late this year, and by the time it is cold enough for them all to be red, there will be no light with which to take pictures of them.

Still, Mountains in mist and rain are a quintessential Japanese picture, so here are a few images from my afternoon in the Mountains to please those of you who yearn for Northern seasons.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A series of wierd and interesting things about Japan

I have of late discovered a variety of weird and interesting websites about matters Japanese, and feel I should share them with those of my readers who are interested in such matters. Those of you who read 'table of Malcontents' may have already discovered some of this, so feel free to take a blase, dismissive tone.

Kogal, Gangaru and Yamanba girls are all subsets of a fashion culture called "ga-ru" (girl) which consists of young, pretty girls who charge about the big cities wearing very little, and having too much tan. They are a fascinating subculture in and of themselves (especially if one is on the escalator beneath them), and their central shopping area, 109 Shibuya, has given rise to this website of information about them (a website which currently gives an interesting insight into Japanese Christmas). They have also appeared in a gothic online magazine, morbid outlook. The Delightful Miss E has recently described the Yamanba in a little more detail - an interesting anti-Goth indeed. Morbid outlook magazine also has an article on that most fascinating of fashion experiences, the Elegant Gothic Lolita, which is an offshoot of a style of rock/metal called Visual.

The Japanese are also a little into bug-fightin', which you can get on video if you are interested.

The Delightful Miss E once showed me a section of a newsagent where one can buy manga of children having sex with adults, and of children having sex with each other. This is perhaps disturbing, but it is also passing strange that young Japanese girls are fascinated by a style of 'boy-love' comic which involves gay sex between pretty men, often not entirely consensual. This style of comic, called yaoi, can be found described here (although this is about its American influence).

The table of malcontents blog recently introduced me to this bizarre 'comedy' from Japan, the Fuccons, about a family who move to Japan from America to live like Japanese people. It is done with immoveable dolls, and is just too weird to be cool. You can view a few clips on youTube, here. It is a trifle disturbing, though.

Mitsuoka motors sell a wide range of custom-made, old-style cars, including a replica london taxi style motor and a very cool bugsy-malone style gangster car. These cars come with all mod cons and very sumptuous looking interiors, and are actually quite reasonably priced (the gangster car, for example, is $60,000). They are part of a Japanese tradition of vintage-styled modern cars which includes the Pao, the S-cargo, and my favourite, the Figaro. The Figaro was made in limited numbers and proved so popular a lottery had to be held to determine who would get to buy one (in 1991!) Sadly, Eric Clapton drove one, which reduces its coolness just a bit. Still, it is pretty cool, and at least the Beatles didn't drive it!

Finally, there are a lot of links to amusing Japanese Things in the table of malcontents, which I strongly recommend to both of my readers. Enjoy it!

Tokyo Graffiti 2

Last month I bought my second copy of Tokyo Graffiti, which I unfortunately left in Hiroshima and didn't receive until the Delightful Miss E decided to visit me last weekend. This copy of Tokyo Graffiti of course has some special features, though they are a little more heavy on the text than last month's and so not so easy to understand. Still, here goes.

The contents page features a hippopotamus.

The Tokyo fashion pages include a picture of a man dressed for all the world like Sherlock Holmes gone trout-fishing, and a bunch of very short women, some of them looking very much like they came straight from the '60s.

The main feature is about 20 pages of interviews with couples, entitled 'various lovers' and starting with a very old couple. It includes student parents, a couple who met through a marriage broker, a gay couple, a host and hostess (the hostess foreign, of course - or maybe she is a prostitute, I'm not sure), a couple who met over the internet, a tranny and her lesbian (?) lover and a threesome. Of course the threesome is two women and a foreign man. There was also a lesbian couple, and the series finished with another retired couple. Reading even one sentence of these interviews is too hard, so all I can tell is what is in the titles, and not much of that. Each article came with pictures and a brief description of how they met.

Every edition of Tokyo Graffiti comes with a section called 100 questions, in which 100 people answer the same question, and a tiny relevant picture of each person's answer is put on one page. In this months edition the question was 'what is your eye make up', and the answer a description with a picture of one eye. This is kind of cool, since Japanese eye make-up is generally quite elaborate and very pretty (in fact, my new maths friend Sir H - a man, definitely straight - came out with me to the Izakaya last night, and was wearing black eyeliner! But he is most assuredly not a goth!)

This month's pictorial question was 'what does Japan have to be most proud of in the world.' Each person asked had to write their answer on a whiteboard and be photographed holding it, so most I cannot read. One foreigner wrote 'mini-skirts', but generally the foreigners' responses were about how nice everyone is.

As it does every month, Tokyo Graffiti had an interview with a foreign anime fan (anime is the Japanese style of cartoon, for those ignorant of such things). Nerdy anime fans are called 'otaku' in Japan, and many foreigners who come here like to take part in the otaku culture, which is big and interesting. This month's interview included a picture of the Otaku in question dressed like the Full Metal Alchemist, which was kind of cool.

Finally, there was a page where various people were asked to sketch (in colour) their underwear. Every woman's sketch included a border of either hearts or stars, and some kind of heavily exclamation-marked, happy description of her panties. There really is something very strange in this country about underwear.

So there you have it my friends, another months' insight into the strange, happy-go-lucky ways of Japanese people as they live their ordinary lives, couple and wear their underthings. What more can one need to truly come to understand these short and cheerful people?

Do they know it's christmas time at all...?

Christmas is fast upon us, as no doubt everyone can tell from the excess of stupid advertising happening everywhere. Some amongst you may be wondering if here in Japan we even notice that xmas is coming, and in order to answer your question wiht a definite 'yes', I here present for your titillation the first christmas beer. It is a wheat beer (I think the kanji under the deer's head mean wheat), and I presume by the general decor that it has been brewed just for the season.

Nonetheless, even if this were to prove a mere marketing trick, I have another way to tell it is xmas if I were to lose my calendar - the hairdresser outside my apartment has a 10' tall, inflatable backlit santa holding a merry christmas sign, standing just outside their window. So I think I am convinced!

What I eat

It occurred to me the other day that I have been here nearly 6 months now and still haven't given my non-existent readership any indication of the sorts of things that I eat. Since everyone knows that Japan is a country of raw fish, whale meat and squidgy stuff, maybe people have come to think that I am living on a diet of gross and alien-looking sea creatures (it is possible here - one could live on a combination of octopus, sea urchins, prawns, angler fish, puffer fish and sea cucumbers if one wanted). In fact what I eat hasn't changed a great deal, so is boring. However, the range of interesting things I can eat has changed quite a bit.

Last night I went out drinking with some other maths students at a nearby Izakaya, suikoden ("Drunk tiger's wisdom"), and much crazy food was consumed. Izakaya are like Japanese pubs, but like all Japanese activities drinking here centres around food. Japanese pubs therefore have an extensive food menu, which includes all the main styles of Japanese food. One orders small dishes which cost $2-5 each, and then everyone picks at them. There is also an extensive selection of alcohol. So here is a list of the foods which came to the table last night, with my usual verbose descriptions (i didn't eat all of these):

  • Otsumame, the drinking nibbles, which included wierd brown sticks and tiny bowls of potato salad
  • sashimi: there are 3 things all Japanese people love to eat, and this is one of them. Our sashimi included raw octopus and raw squid (my least favourite raw fish)
  • Hokke: this is a fish that has been sliced down the middle and unfolded, then grilled. One side has the spine and ribs in it, the other side doesn't. (The picture at the top is of a hokke). One pulls the spine and ribs off in one piece like a ribbon, and then tucks into the absolutely delectable flesh below. After we finished this dish, I looked away for a moment and when I turned back my friend had eaten all the skin and bones as well - he was still chewing on the bones and told me he likes the way they crunch!
  • raw minced tuna with a raw quail's egg: I don't know what this is called, but Japanese people seem to love raw quails eggs. This dish arrived delightfully arranged, with the raw tuna in a ring around the quails egg, all sprinkled with raw spring onions; my friends stirred it altogether into a pinkish-yellow mess and then started spooning it greedily into their mouths. Not for me the grossness of raw egg, a texture which the Japanese call 'neba neba' and universally adore
  • two types of fried chicken cartilage
  • fried potatoes: a staple on every izakaya menu. Fish and chips (i.e. hokke and fried potatoes) in a pub in Japan costs between $7 and $9 regardless of where you are (Tokyo or Matsue); quite reasonable, only the serves are not quite as large. This is no problem though - fish and chips in Australia is disgustingly unhealthy, and the grilled fish and sparse chips they serve here a far more sensible size. (By comparison, my local pub in redfern charged $13 for fish and chips, and served twice as much of both - which is probably twice what I needed).
  • a salad of semi-rare fried beef with tomatoes, which cost about $4 and contained maybe 100g of beef (at the most!)
  • a dish of fried cabbage and chicken's kidney, which I studiously avoided
  • finally, 'tea rice', the proper name of which I do not know, which consists of a bowl of rice with two pickled plums and some nori (dried seaweed) as a garnish, and hot green tea poured over it. My bowl also had a few roasted millet grains in it. This dish sounds wierd but, once one adds the wasabi (horseradish) accompaniment, it is gloriously delicious. I don't know why, but it just rocks. You can also get it with quails egg or grilled salmon instead of umeboshi (pickled plum) but who would want to? This is a perfect end to an Izakaya meal, especially when all your friends stole the hokke and ate all the chips.
Drinks that were downed in the evening included alcoholic calpis (my friends were very amused when I told them about 'cow piss'); cassis with yoghurt(!); cassis with oolong tea (a perennial favourite here); and straight gin with lime (this was me). By the end of the night we were all quite well toasted, and full variously of rice (me) or squidgy stuff (them). We managed in between eating and drinking to arrange a trip to the Mountains tomorrow to look at autumn leaves, on which I will duly report...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kombat Kulcha VII

When I began visiting my boxing school, the first thing that occurred to me (after I noticed how shabby the whole joint was) was that it was obviously superior to my gym in Australia in one essential aspect: the music. In Australia we had no music, or rock. Sometimes even the radio. Here in Matsue at the boxing gym my first efforts to fit in were conducted against a backdrop of 70s and 80s pop, which we all know is the music they play in Heaven. My first thoughts on this were that I should export this idea to the world, for example by impressing upon my teacher in Australia the importance of a change in background music.

Unfortunately I was wrong. It is possible to box to Greenday, Midnight Oil, the Angels, the Living End, interspersed with occasional moments of Sarah Mclaclan or Paris Hilton - standard fare for an Australian radio station - but it is quite another thing to box to a steady diet of 70s and 80s pop. How does one, for example, shadow box like a man when Abba`s Dancing Queen is playing in the background? I can tell you now, having done it, that it is difficult to avoid the odd flourish when such music is playing. Similarly, how does one spar to Like a Virgin (ferociously, if one keeps fixedly in mind Madonna`s latest incarnation as a raving lunatic).

Also, the club only had one cd, on repeat. Something had to be done. Given the rather primitive circumstances, the impending winter (it is still november and on the weekend it was 6 degrees at night), and the slight feeling of outsiderness I had at this gym, the something that had to be done was going to be drastic. Having ruled out rugby (I was going to try it, but they play on gravel) and soccer (same reason, bolstered by the certain knowledge that I would be made goalie on account of my vast height) left me only two options: badminton, which I am capable of doing, or finding a kickboxing club in another town. Since badminton has the two negative traits of a) leading to a series of posts entitled "badminton culture" and b) not being kickboxing, only the latter option remained viable.

Fortunately while searching for a kickboxing club in nearby Yonago I stumbled on one in Matsue! Oh happy day! Its location was buried in the fine print of the Yonago club, of which it is an outpost. I went to my second class of kickboxing last night, and am already vastly happier than I was at boxing. The reasons? The facilities are superior (it is in a real building); the people are friendly and welcoming (this must be a universal trait of kickboxers); the exercise is heaps more fun (what is the point of fighting if you can`t fight like a girl, and kick people?); and I am already part of the general exercise, not a little bit of an outsider. Also I have now been invited to go to the Yonago gym and a lift has been organised (it is not near a railway station).

Interestingly, the Yonago gym is mildly famous across Western Japan, presumably because it produces fighters. So I will be training in a place with a proper training regimen and some experienced students - even fighters - to get my skills back up to where they were when I left Australia. They really mean it at tourist information bureau when they describe Matsue as an "International City of Culture"!

Not to be outdone, however, my new kickboxing gym does have one interesting musical trait. When the class is finished we all have to rush out of the gym because the hall is closing. In order to signal that everything is definitely over, the gym plays "Auld Lang Syne" over the speaker system...

Adventures in Japanese

Last week in Japan there was a tornado, a rare disaster in this country of landslides, typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes and group suicides. The day after, I had a private lesson with my Japanese teacher and we briefly discussed Japanese weather words (a useful form of vocabulary in a country where the weather is constantly changing and often dangerous).

I learnt that the Japanese word for tornado (tatsumaki) consists of the kanji for dragon (龍,tatsu) and the kanji for `to roll`, (巻,maki). So a tornado is a `rolling dragon`.

I also discovered that the kanji for thunder or lightning consists of the kanji for rain set above the kanji for a rice paddy, a kanji which evokes immediate images of Japan in June, when the rain is sheeting down, or September, when storms are common. It should perhaps be indicative of how wet Japan is that many of its weather kanji are based on the kanji for rain. I subsequently looked up some of these words in my kanji book, and discovered that a japanese word for situation is also the word for wind and rain.

Finally we discussed snow words. The Japanese have many words for snow, including big snow (as in a lot of it), small snow, new snow, fluffy snow, fine snow. These words are composed of the adjective with the word for snow (just like in English), but they become one word, not two (this is a subtle distinction in Japanese because the kanji is the same but it is pronounced differently). I can only conclude that this means snow is a big part of life here; and in my seminar yesterday with my supervisor, he told me that we can expect one "huge" snow in February, and a "big" snow in December.

I think that English would be a considerably more interesting language if its weather words were based on the use of fantastic imagery. If, for example, a heavy storm were called a "dragon storm", or hail "stones of god". Perhaps if the Enlgish were subject to any form of disastrous weather other than continual rain this might have entered the vocabulary - although I suppose this isn`t entirely a bad thing. Winter is coming, and every night I cower beneath my kotatsu in fear of the coming storm...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The ancestral lands...

On Sunday I returned to my Ancestral home, Tottori, here seen in the background behind the newly-forged bronze statue of my stunningly handsome Regent, Mr. Hiroki. Mr. Hiroki's girlfriend, the charming Miss K, was giving a Taiko (drumming) performance at the biggest concert hall in Tottori, and I went along to see it.

While waiting for Miss K to finish the obligatory post-Taiko farewells to all her club, Mr. Hiroki and I returned to my ancestral lodgings to Inspect the Guard, view the sunset and watch the couples doing 'luboo luboo' (love love, aka snuggling) on the ruins of the old castle. From here I took a few rather ineffective watercolours of Tottori at sunset; I present one here for your satisfaction. See the grandeur of those lands across which I once gazed as lord and master!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Drinkin' Kulcha 1

It seems passing strange to me that I have done 6 or 7 posts on kombat kulcha but none on drinkin', which is indeed an interesting phenomenon in this interesting place. It seems only fair in consideration of the amount of time most Australians spend in this activity that I mention some of the details that attend this particular cultural attraction.

Firstly the Japanese are very fond of, but universally quite bad at, drinking. They like to arrange drinking expeditions, and their pubs (called Izakaya) provide a most excellent service. When one enters one is greeted, sometimes with a big roar and drumming on a gong; one is seated and offered a massive menu of drinks, and the drink order is taken the moment one hits the bench. There is to be no ordering at the bar in Japan - the pub or bar one is frequenting often has a buzzer at the table with which to call for expeditious and polite service. Japanese people get very rowdy when they drink, and Izakayas are an excellent venue to watch Japanese get shitfaced. There is one near me called "Drunken Tiger's Wisdom". Says it all.

Secondly, in this country cocktails are often cheaper than beer. At my local bar, the Blue Crow, the cocktails are 550 to 650 yen, and the beer 600. That is, $6-7 for a cocktail, about the same for a beer. The cocktails are proper cocktails too, and they don't skimp on the measures when they hand them out. I see this as nothing other than a war on culture. We all know beer is the mark of a civilised man (along with belching and puking); to make us all drink like ladies is an attack on our manhood, and thus in turn an attack on western civilisation. Good thing I'm in the East, eh? Anyway, my favourite cocktail is a white lady (gin, cointreau, lemon juice: done with a passionfruit variation at my local, 600 yen).

Also with drinking comes Ostumame, little snacks served in bowls to be eaten with booze. These can be interesting things like okra with sesame seeds, or they can be disturbing things like boiled fish bones, lotus roots, raw squid and tiny fish eggs. Also raw octopus chunks with wasabi (horseradish) are popular. Hmmm, crunchy and squidgy! In supermarkets otsumame are more likely to come in a plastic bag, and to be dried. A favourite is dried shredded squid, which tastes fishy before the beer, and overwhelmingly fishy after. Nothing makes squid fishier than beer, I can assure you. The super handsome Mr. Hiroki enjoys a combination of beer and dried squid, and his pretty and charming girlfriend Miss K makes a disturbing Otsumame of fried cheese slices (kraft style) sprinkled with tiny salted whole shrimps. I had this while I watched Australia crush Japan in the soccer - surely there has to be a relationship between these things.

Mr. Hiroki also enjoys a mysterious drinking pattern called Tsunami (as in the wave). With Tsunami, one drinks a beer and follows it up with a Chu-hi. Chu-hi is the most evil invention ever to come out of the orient, an invention so evil it puts the death-by-a-thousand cuts, bukkake and even Karaoke to shame. Chu-hi is wickedly tasty alcohol available in cans in supermarkets in a hideously wide range of interesting flavours for only 100 yen ($1.20). that's right kids, you get a beer-sized can of alcohol, a little stronger than beer, for $1.20. These are your classic 'girly drink', with flavours including: grapefruit, orange, lime, mixed berry, pina colada, rose hip and aranciola (??) (the Delightful Miss E's favourite), sour plum, and a variety of wines. For the price of a single vodka mudshake in Australia the average 4' Japanese woman can get completely blasted, and still have change for Otsumame. And rest assured the average 4' Japanese woman is quite happy to admit to the odd drinking session - just yesterday, going to Tottori by train, a woman and her husband were sharing a beer on the train at 11am.

So yes, Japan has a small drinking problem, I suspect. Last year I saw a man drinking Sho-Chu (about 20-30% alcohol) from pint glasses, just a little too small to fit him into. He had the bottle at his feet just to be sure he didn't have to wait between "shots". It is not uncommon on long journies to see businessmen crack a beer as soon as the train is in motion - at 8am (I think I have seen this on every long distance journey I have made). Nothing quite turns me off the experience of a rocking bus at 8am quicker than the sound of someone opening a beer can. And with a wide range of cocktail-styled canned drinks for a mere 100 yen (and beer available from vending machines), what is to stop the worst excesses of concentrated liver-caning? Nothing, I humbly surmise.

The japanese also have an interesting range of non-beer beverages which are not wine. They like to mix cassis with chinese tea, for example. In most bars one can obtain a tea-alcohol called, appropriately, Tiffin. There is also Yuzu (mandarin flavoured); some atrocious stuff from Korea (God only knows how that civilisation has survived drinking Jinroh and eating Pickled cabbage, it's more uncivilised than Germany!); Ume (plum) wine (another favourite of the Delightful Miss E); and hip flasks of "whisky" available in bottle shops for 200 yen ($2.50); and yogurito, a sparkling alcoholic yoghurt drink. Now that's what I call drinkin' kulcha...

Can't see the bears for the trees...

It's a little known fact that Japan has bears, which hide out in its abundant mountains and occasionally pose for photographers. There are bears in Tottori and Eastern Shimane (i.e. my town) as well, though the pictures I have seen don't make them seem very large. Shimane university has a bear-watching club, so maybe they can be seen up close (like this one).

An article in the Daily Yomiuri yesterday contained some amusing facts regarding bears in Japan. Particularly, they are starting to wander in amongst farmhouses and human habitation a lot more than they used to, and last year a 70 year old man died when a bear scared and/or mauled him. The government is currently trying to think of some solutions for this problem.

I know what you are thinking dear reader: this is a problem caused by the relentless pressure of human habitation encroaching on the natural world, man [sic] is nature's worst enemy, see how we destroy all we love, etc. Well, hair-shirted hippy, you are wrong. In Japan the problem is the opposite - they have too much forest, and in rural areas houses near the forest are slowly being depopulated. They have so much forest, and timber imports are now so cheap compared to Japanese forestry products, that many forest areas near homes are not being managed. As the undergrowth grows and the forests thicken, bears are able to leave the forest and wander up to roads and houses without being seen. As houses near the forest edge are abandoned, bears move in amongst villages under the cover of overgrown gardens.

So the proposed solution? Not to shoot the bears, but to cut the undergrowth around roads and towns so that bears are not willing to sneak up to houses. In the cold light of day, those persimmons on strings just won't appear so juicy any more...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

These are not radishes

The doughty Dr. Martin, here seen on the Delightful Miss E`s little red Yes We Can bicycle, accompanied me on my return to Matsue from Hiroshima. Dr. M was eager to take in some country air and experience the thrills and spills of life in a small country town, but could only stay for a day before going crater surfing in Mt. Fuji. In order to maximise his experience of the excitement of country life it was inevitable that I should take him on a trip to the centre of Shimanean entertainment - Daikon Shima, or Radish Island, as it would be known in English.

Radish Island is famous across the world for the Yuushien Chinese Garden, which has an assortment of peonies, a bridge, an island, a restaurant and some ancient Chinese Earth moving equipment (on the island). I can sense the beating of your excited heart - imagine how we felt, to be catching a dinky Matsue bus to the very real heart of all this excitement and peonistic fervour? Never have I quivered quite so at the thought of someone else`s peonies. And how appropriate that there should be a wide collection of oversized peonieses at Radish Island.

In order to reach Radish Island one catches the dinky bus from Matsue station. This bus goes the slow way, for example heading west from the station instead of East, and taking the last turn off before the express tunnel through the mountains so that it can wind its way through quaint fishing villages to the Radish Island Causeway. Granted, these villages are much more interesting than an express tunnel, with fish nets laid out to dry on stone walls, strings of persimmons hung from the eaves of houses, and ancient farmers and fisherfolk wandering the narrow street. The street was so narrow that cyclists had to pull over for the bus, and there was no passing other cars. Also, the bus returns by a different route on the other side of the mountain, so it seems to be the village of no return. Good thing we chose not to alight to sample the exciting sights and sounds of the seaside! Maybe it is the Japanese Innsmouth...

On the Causeway we passed flocks of ducks and sunken rusted hulks of ships, before heading over a hill and coming to a stop within a cooee of the Garden. We went the wrong way and climbed a hillside, though, then had to double back through autumn fields before finally reaching the gardens. The gardens were a bit of a disappointment, being pretty but not superb (I feel I am becoming a connoisseur of Japanese gardens, incidentally); and the central landscaped mountain was topped by not trees, but earth-moving equipment. Not so pretty. Still, Dr. Martin and I had a fine day, and made it back with some decent photos just in time to hop on the bus to the airport, safely installing the intrepid Dr. Martin on his parachute plane to Mt. Fuji. Sugoi!

Of Sea and Sky

After satan left Hiroshima, my friend Dr. Martin and the indefatigable Miss G arrived, to experience the joys of hiking up a mountain or two. This wasn't entirely expected, but the DMs (as I shall call them) have been holidaying in Tokyo, where trees are a little rare and mountains rarer, so it seemed natural to take them for a hike through both.

We went to Miyajima, that holy island South of Hiroshima which is famous for its deer and its shrines, and took a cable car to the top of a mountain famous for its red-arsed monkies (who were hidden in the forest when we arrived). The picture here is a view of the Seto Inland Sea from the top of the mountain, including distant oyster beds and the rocky promontories of various islands. From there we took an unexpectedly long path up and down several ridgelines, before returning to the shoreline. Like all Japan at this time of the year Miyajima is beautiful, suffused with a golden autumn glow, warm enough for comfort but not so hot that walking is unpleasant, and thronged with happy people making the most of the fine weather. The last of the Autumn insects are still droning around, including a few singing insects and a variety of neon-brilliant scarab beetles. Many of the trees are showing their first hint of autumn gold and red, but in the long, lazy days they have not yet bothered shucking their summer finery. All is suffused with a langourous, late-summer bonhomie as the locals prepare for the inevitable passing of the seasons and the imminent arrival of big, bad Winter. The omnipresent forest is pregnant with that strange feeling of the end of things, and we all must make the most of this last, breathless pause before the rains come.

The DMs are my last visitors before our Winter wedding, and so now I am looking forward to that fearsome time in late December when the snow begins to fall and I have to bury myself under my kotatsu until Spring ... even now the nights grow cold and still, and I know that soon the pain will begin ...

The Daily Wanker 2006 review of Satanic Rituals: Raising the Beast

As has been made clear by Christians throughout modern history, music is the medium of Satan, and Satan has been present in the works of all the major musicians history has ever seen. Sadly, until recently Satan was busy hanging out with the losers - titillating the girlies with Mozart, drinking behind the bike sheds with the boys from Led Zeppelin, or even fooling around in an oversized bed with John Lennon. Fortunately he decided to shoot through (literally) on these arrangements and in the late 70s he gave up all his bad habits and returned to the age old business of raising Hell. For assistance with the rituals he turned to Iron Maiden, the accepted masters of the art of Satan worship.

Despite their inauspicious choice of spiritual backing, Iron Maiden have done considerably better than Satan's last success, Mephistopheles, and last weekend were in Hiroshima conducting the latest of a series of exhausting world tours which, on account of my having lived in Australia, I never got to see. So imagine my excitement when I discovered I could visit Hiroshima and see them live this time around! I had even been led to believe my ticket would include a VIP pass to meet the High Priests of Hell, for which eventuality I had bought and painted a model Hurricane Spitfire for them to sign, and had thought of several questions to ask them which I could present here as an interview.

Sadly I had been misled regarding this most joyous of possibilities, so my Hurricane Spitfire proved a wasted effort, but I was still able to see a vintage performance by the undisputed masters of the live act. Sure, Prince might have better clothes; Britney Spears might have bigger tits; Henry Rollins might have bigger muscles (and a smaller dick); but nobody, nobody, can compare with the Irons for energy, passion and the sheer joy of raising hell for, well... the hell of it. They came on with an appropriate burst of energy, playing the first song off their new album (A matter of life and death), and soared through two or three songs from that album to rapturous screams and satanic gestures before settling in to talk to the crowd. Having assured us that their metal credentials are intact at the ripe age of (surely) nearly 50, they launched into a complete and unadulterated rendition of their new album, start to finish.

I think there must be a thing about Japanese crowds liking this sort of thing - Metallica, you will recall, did a complete review of their Opus, Master of Puppets, and I had kind of hoped that the Maidens would do the same thing with one of their classics - the Number of the Beast being their most obvious offering. Nonetheless, the new album is by no means a disappointment - how could it be, with these boys firing away? and I was happy to be able to immerse myself in an hour of the Irons at their best. This was followed, of course, by a couple of their oldest and greatest: 2 Minutes to Midnight, the song which in 1984 best described all our warmongering leaders; and Iron Maiden (gonna get you no matter how far...). During this extravaganza of retributive threat the stage erupted - from behind it emerged a massive tank turret, whose hatch opened to reveal the Iron Maiden mascot, Eddy. A 3m robot Eddy then emerged from behind the stage, gun in hand, and started shooting the audience and generally being evil. this was the sign for the curtain call, and the obligatory demands for an encore.

For the encore we were given Fear of the Dark, which I once had on a blood-red vinyl LP; the evil that men do, which holds the best line in any song by anyone ever ('slept in the dust with his daughter, eyes red with the slaughter of innocence'); and to finish one of my all-time personal favourites, the song which ended capital punishment in 62 nations, Hallowed be thy name (Idi Amin is said to have been brought to tears by the line 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hallowed be thy name', and briefly considered apologising to all his victims). There it finished, and we filed out of the post-office hall, reduced to mere mortals again, the Spirit of Darkness all too briefly consumed in that sweaty, bouncing throng. I had failed to meet my Satanic Idols, but I had managed to worship them - which is sufficient, and more than I had ever expected.

When I was younger I thought the only way I could ever get to see Iron Maiden live would be if Satan were actually real, and I could drain my blood to his glory. Fortunately for all of us (except that large pool of stupid people who vote for Dubya), Satan is just a dream; and so, sometimes, is the experience of being here in the centre of the world, where all good things come to those who wait (or hop on a bus to Hiroshima ...)

A storm of confusion in the Celestial Empire

Although The Land of the Rising Sun has no EFTPOS system and no internet banking (as far as I know) it is still possible to pay one`s rent directly from one`s bank account, and also from an ATM. So Monday and today were spent humbly petitioning my bank, the Shadow of the Mountains Overall Combined Bank, for its Celestial Seal on the contract for an exchange of tithe with my Honourable Landlord.

Unfortunately I was not prepared for the rigours of the preparatory process, which involved filling in a form covered in mysterious options. I finished this on Monday with the help of the omnipresent Ethereal Five Ways Drifting Teller (a woman (in this case) who wanders the halls of the bank offering help to hapless petitioners who do not understand the incredible series of complex rules which obtain in this antechamber to the Celestial Kingdom). Today I returned with a final piece of information and my hanko (stamp), which is a necessary device for sealing all official documents enetered into with the Greater Corporations Which Aspire to Celestial Eminence.

This is the point where the storm of confusion began. My first effort to stamp the hanko with its official red ink on my petition ended in a smudge (common event with these dastardly devices), so I had to do it again. The second time I allowed a tiny part of the stamp to stray from the page, and so the Ethereal Five Ways Drifting Teller had to do it for me. So then I had to take the form to a different teller (the Regnant All Seeing Teller) to process.

So when one processes a form with a Regnant All Seeing Teller, he or she sends one back to the serried rows of chairs in the Appointment Chamber to wait. Here, along with the other pale-faced and exhausted inhabitants of purgatory, one watches the Infernal Colourful Images Flickering Without Purpose Box, from which blares a Great Noise, and passes time until the Invisible and All-Knowing Voice of a Lesser Imp (Disembodied) calls one`s petitioning number, whereupon one humbly approaches one`s assigned Regnant All Seeing Teller, to receive the results of one`s petition.

I had, of course, failed to alert the Shadow of the Mountains Overall Combined Bank of my intentions to relocate from one part of the Shadow of the Mountains Kingdom (Tottori) to a more esteemed part (Matsue) closer to the Golden Glowing Tower of Eminence that is the central office of this Great Organisation in whose shadow I grovel. In fact, I had impudently decided to lodge my petition at an outpost of the Shadow of the Mountains Overall Combined Bank which was only one step removed from that Golden Glowing Tower itself. I was therefore presented with a second petition which I was required to fill in, this petition being one asking permission to have my new residence in Matsue recognised by the Esteemed Greater Illuminated Beings who bask in the golden glow of that great Central Tower. This petition required, of course, that I confirm in writing (eek!) my old address and my new address, and write my name.

Writing my old address is difficult because Tottori is an archaic outpost of the Shadow of the Mountains Kingdom, and the address of its Foreign Quarter most confoundedly hard to write. I had to copy it carefully from my previous address, and then write my new address as well. It is worth noting that the Regnant All Seeing Teller is completely unable to assist me in the task of writing these humble characters, for the mere touch of a Regnant All Seeing Teller on any part of the form will be detected by Higher Beings at the base of the Golden Glowing Tower, and both the Regnant All Seeing Teller and I will be cast forever into the abyss of Punishing Impolite Gestures (a truly terrible place). So this was a slow and embarassing business, with the Regnant All Seeing Teller coolly watching my hapless, fumbling attempts to write the complex kanji of my old address. I made a mistake or two, but this is okay. So far so good.

However, when I first arrived in the Land of the Rising SunI had to write a petition to be recognised as a human being by the Shadow of the Mountains Overall Combined Bank, and to be granted an I Ching Bank Card with which I could communicate with the Esteemed Greater Illumined Beings themselves through one of their ATMS (Agent Talking Machines). This was too difficult for me at the time, so was performed by an Ethiopian Intermediary. This Intermediary wrote my name in a method which I have subsequently discovered is quite unusual for the residents of this Celestial Kingdom, and so I have stopped using it. I have to remember it when I write petitions to the Greater Corporations Which Aspire to Celestial Eminence in the Celestial Kingdom, since it is the same as that on my Hanko (stamp). Today, I forgot to write this name on the petitioning form, and suddenly was told that although mistakes were permitted to be crossed out when writing the addresses on the form, I could be allowed no mistakes in the name section. I then had to commence writing another copy of the petitioning form, in which my name must be correctly written to appease the Esteemed Greater Illumined Beings. On this form I wrote the names in the wrong order, by dint of being a mere mortal (and a stupid one at that). This form, too, had to be thrown out, and a third petition written. This time, thankfully, I was allowed to write the address of my old residence in English - the Regnant All Seeing Teller is not allowed to assist me in writing a language I do not know, but is allowed to stand by and watch while I write the entire address in a language she cannot read. So this time I made only one mistake in the address section and none in the name section, and so was allowed to stamp the petition with my Hanko. At this point the Regnant All Seeing Teller, noticing my prior fumbled attempts, offered to do it for me. Because although she cannot write a single stroke of the kanji for me, she is allowed to sign the document on my behalf.

We do not, of course, question the rules of this Celestial Kingdom. They are wise and just, though occasionally they create some difficulties for lowly foreigners who have not yet learnt to write the word for `International Exchange` in the mysterious local pictographs.

Having submitted this petition, I was allowed also to humbly submit my initial (multiply poorly stamped) petition, and so to humbly request that the Esteemed Greater Illumined Beings allow my money to be offered up - through them - to the Honourable owner of my humble abode. And so in this fashion I am suffered to continue to exist, and so thanking the Regnant All Seeing Teller and apologising humbly for having made an enormous trouble, I made my way forth from the Noble office of the Shadow of the Mountains Overall Combined Bank, and returned to my worthless workaday business.