July 30, 2012

Obscure and Not-So-Obscure Japanese History, Part 3

1910 First Antarctic expedition by army officer and explorer Nobu Shirase is conducted.

1910 Japan's first aviation.

1957 International Geophysical Year

1957 The first nuclear reactor in Japan is completed.

1959 The Metric system is adopted.

1960 The 49th Interparliamentary Conference is held.

1962 Asian Boy Scout Jamboree

1963 Girl Scout Asian Camp is held.

1963 The 14th General Assembly of the International Scientific Radio Union is held.

1965 The weather radar on Mount Fuji is completed.

1970 The Japan Expo is held. 

1972 The Winter Olympic Games are held in Sapporo.
The 15+5 means that 5 yen went towards funds for running the Oympics.

Sakuragi Tenjin

Sakuragi Tenjin, a small shrine in the Hongo area of Tokyo. It has been in its current location since 1691. For such a small shrine, the official homepage has a fair amount of information, including an explanation on how to make the thatched ring used during the summer and end-of-the-year festival.

The handwashing area has a faucet in the shape of a dragon.

For some reason, they had some chickens on the premises.

There was an old-timey water pump in the back.

The side gate.

Ignorance, Not Racism

A barbershop found somewhere between Ikebukuro and Mjiro. Upon first glance, I liked its look.

It's clearly an old-school barbershop that has been adopted by someone younger and hipper.

 But then something caught my eye: the word "niguro" on the top right of the menu. Niguro? Negro. I was appalled, to say the least. Apparently, the hairstyle has been around for some time, adopted most commonly by yanki (a riff on Yankees) -- street thugs. The hairstyle itself is basically short hair permed with a tiny barrel to create meticulous waves. It's not an afro, though; the hair is curled tightly around the head and looks almost like a buzzcut.

It's easy to yell, "Racist!", but that's not what's going on here. It's more blissful ignorance, and joins the larger Japanese practice of adopting "foreign" hairstyles, clothing, and language wholesale without an examination or understanding of what they mean in another culture, or all of the complicated emotions that the people of those cultures grapple with.

In the case of niguro, it appears that word has gotten around that it is an offensive name for a hairstyle. But open a street fashion magazine and you will find other examples of questionable language. It's hard to see what the solution is here, but in an era when one out of every ten babies is not of Japanese citizenship, I hope there will be more people who can point out these issues and educate the people around them.

July 29, 2012

Urayasu Fireworks

The Urayasu Fireworks Festival is the Anti-Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival. Both are held on the same day every year, but the former amasses less than half of the close to one million people that gather to watch the Sumidagawa fireworks.

If you don't want to share muggy cramped spaces with a million other people, the low-key Urayasu festival is the way to go. The fireworks show may only be for an hour, but it's nicely programmed.

The policemen were dispatched to control the crowds as usual, but the number of visitors seemed remarkably decreased from the previous year. Perhaps last year was exceptional, a show of solidarity in numbers after Urayasu was greatly damaged by the March 11 earthquake. 

The police car with the fenced windows and the bus behind it seemed like total overkill.

July 25, 2012

Ginza Is Getting Too Weird for Me

Every Sunday, Ginza's main street is closed to traffic, and shoppers and tourists are free to wander up and down the wide stretch. Lately, I've been seeing more and more odd things here that are completely at odds with my impression of Ginza.

Above, Uniqlo Ginza shop displays Sanrio-inspired outfits to commemorate a Uniqlo / Sanrio collaboration on T-shirts.

You have to admit, this puts all the party animal-making clowns to shame. A Marie Antoinette wig made out of balloons!

If you're too busy gawking at it, you won't notice that on the left is a tiny yappy dog in its own car.

Admittedly, the car is remote-controlled, but it almost doesn't matter. Seeing this dog and car zip around people's ankles is a dumbfounding sight.

The famous lion statue (erected in 1914) in front of Mitsukoshi department store. Look closely and you will notice a cat playing with itself.

There was a huge crowd gathered around it for a good hour or so. Lest you think it was a stray that had wandered here itself, it had an odd bonnet around its neck, and there was a minder-type person standing ominously slightly out of sight.

As amusing as I found all of these oddities, it was jarring to see them specifically in Ginza. Ginza as an area with sleek buildings, crisp dressers, and a slightly formidable properness (particularly during the day) that reminds visitors that they are in Ginza. The sort of crowd-pandering and attention mongering seems like something you would see in Shibuya or Harajuku. Is this the turn of the tide?

July 24, 2012

Yushima Tenjin

Yushima Tenjin, a Shinto shrine about 15 minutes' walk from Ueno. The shrine was established in the year 458, and has had several incarnations throughout the centuries.

I visited there on June 30, which happens to be nagoshi no harae, a summer rite to do away with all impurities and sins. The thatched ring in shrines is also a familiar sight at the end of the year, when the winter ooharae is held. The priests made a rare appearance for the event.

Yushima Tenjin is said to house the Spirit of Learning, and many students make their pilgrimage to this shrine to pray for good luck in passing their entrance exams.

Tenjin, the spirit (kami) of learning, is actually based on a famous Japanese historical figure called Sugawara no Michizane, an essential figure in the 9th century Heian period. The bull plays a large role in myths surrounding Michizane, and figures greatly in the iconography of Yushima Tenjin.

Michizane was also fond of ume (plum) blossoms, which explains the carving of both plum and cow on the doors.

The plum tree garden was unfortunately closed off, but judging from the photos on their homepage, it's well worth visiting during plum blossom time.

 Kikyō (Japanese bellflower) flowers, with their lovely shade of blue and precise shape.

One of the side entrances to the shrine. Go down the steps, and at the foot is Shinjoin, aka the charming turtle temple.

July 21, 2012

A Temple for Turtles

Shinjoin, a tiny Buddhist temple located right next to the famous Yushima Tenjin Shrine.

It must be about one-tenth the size of Yushima Tenjin, but is impeccably designed. And no wonder: the newly renovated temple was unveiled less than a year ago, in November 2011.

As beautiful as Yushima Tenjin is, I immediately grew fond of this little temple when I looked into the tiny man-made pond and saw that it was essentially a haven for turtles. Look at the turtle crossing the bridge!

Turtles, which are thought to be auspicious and bring good health, have been kept in this area since the 17th century. This little bridge is called Kamenokohashi, or "Turtle Bridge". Notice the golden turtles positioned on top of the posts.

It turned out, there were five to six turtles of varying sizes, and they spent their time shuffling from one small pond to the other via the bridge. They tended to move slowly, and would often turn around before reaching their destination, resulting in pile-ups and confusion.

Hydrangea, Pre-Fade

These photos were taken several weeks ago, just as the hydrangea had finished blooming and the flowers were about to embark on their long fading process. It's interesting how they don't wilt; they simply have a month-long period where the flowers stay intact but lose their color, gradually turning brown.

Even the little buds in the middle of each large flower bloom in the end.

A little path overgrown with hydrangea.

Notice how the leaves are colored by the small blue fallen petals.

They have a surprising amount of presence, considering that most people would not even recognize that they come from hydrangeas.