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Joseph's Online Diary Dec 2001- Jan 2002

Latest news from 2001: page (one) (two) (three) (four)

Ocean Colour Scene Live | Calling all Feminists! | A trip to the hospital | Electric Slippers
Modern fashions | Fried Crickets anyone? | Joseph eats killer rice | A Japanese Christmas
Kabuki Theatre | Electric Toilet | Joseph becomes an Office Worker | Walking the Tortoise
An astonishing photo | Soak in a natural hot spring | My Tokyo neighbourhood | Arrival in Japan
England September 2001 | Switzerland Summer 2001

 

Thursday 3rd January 2002

Happy New Year of the horse!

Well, my week's break is over now, but what a great holiday it's been! I tell you, mother's are just the best hosts in the world. Myself and my girlfriend, Kae, took the five hour train trip west to her hometown of Toyohashi. Essentially, we spent all day every day eating - I am now 3kg heavier than I was this time last week. We did occasionally venture out, either to the local Mister Donut or when driven to Kae's Grandparent's houses 15km away for more food. Oh,we also saw the Harry Potter film which has been a huge hit in Japan - I personally think the attempt to transfer the book to the big screen should not have been made, although it is doing a good job of promoting British English which is a rare thing over here.

As in the UK, New Year traditions are centred around eating, drinking and watching television. This suited me down to the ground - I really cannot recall the last time that I simply vegeed out without a care in the world and not a responsibility in sight. Much of our time was spent huddled around the Kotatsu (heated table) watching New Year specials, whilst drinking beer and eating all sorts of snacks.

New Years Eve itself was really lovely. At about 10.30pm we forced ourselves up from around the Kotatsu and made our way over to Granny's house for Ramen and Soba (they look like spagetti, but are not made of pasta - I forget what it is they are made of). Then, once the NHK (Japan's BBC equivalent) special had finished at 11.50pm, Kae, Kae's mother, her aunt and I trundled off to a local temple, from where we could hear the low pitched "dong" of a huge bell (see picture below). We were lucky, the bell, usually strictly out of bounds to the public, was open for us to swing the rope-suspended log into the side of it. In Buddhism, it is believed that there are 108 desires regarding sense, feeling, and time in every person. In order to erase these desires, the bells are rung 108 times to dispell them and their bad effects.

Fancy a fried cricket or crunchy crab?
The huge bells rung 108 times at all temples on New Years Eve.

After a warming drink of Amazake (a hot, sweet wine and rice mixture) offered to us by the wife of the priest who was chanting inside, we moved onto a shrine. No bells here, but instead, seven traditionally dressed drum and flute players. They were adding to the great atmosphere created by the large crowd of locals who were enjoying the fires, Sake (rice wine), and general superb atmosphere of happiness, love and celebration. That's how my Year of the Horse began, and may it continue for everyone with the same feeling of positivity and joy.

Earlier that day, Kae's mother had taken us for a "traditional country style meal", which consisted of about fifteen seperate dishes (each). Two of the most notable ingredients were whole freshwater crabs and fried crickets (see above). It was also my first time to eat raw fish and raw egg. I must admit that I hesitated initially, but heah, you'll never learn anything if you always shy away from the unknown. The crabs, although small, still looked vicious, and I really wasn't sure whether my teeth were strong enough to grind their pincers sufficiently so that I could swallow them. No problems on that score though, it turned out that they were just like Pringles. The crickets, with their pin sized legs sticking out were even more off putting, but once again were quite delicious.

To work off the weight we'd put on during the feast, Kae and I decided to hike up the local mountain by climbing 1,425 steps that date back to 708AD. If anyone knows of a staircase anywhere in the world with more impressive statistics do let me know! At regular intervals were many little Buddhas wearing knitted hats (such as the one below), which served to encourage us to continue our marathon trek, as did the coke machine halfway up. One of them even had a green Parker jacket; it quite suited his moss-covered figure. On the way back it was time for the long-awaited return of hitchhiking to my life. The freezing temperatures (much of Japan is now covered in snow) ensured that we were picked up after a mere 10 minites of trying. I was delighted in that I understood the basics of much of the small talk en-route.

New Years Day breakfast took the form of "Mochi". Perhaps Japan's most famous traditional food other than Sushi, Mochi is a sticky rice mixture. The making of it is quite a spectacle (click here for photo), involving two people, a scooped out log and a huge wooden mallet with a metre-long handle. I have never come across any other food like it. It comes in many flavours, both sweet and savoury, but always has that unique cosistency. Unfortunately, it is responsible for quite a few deaths every year, elderly people being particularly at risk as if it is not broken down enough in the mouth it can easily block the throat. The government this year has publicly endorsed the use of vacuum cleaners should a mochi-emergency case arise. Fortunately I survived my encounter being well-aware of the dangers.

UPDATE: from the Japan Today Website (4th January 2002)

20 treated at hospitals for choking on rice cakes Friday, January 4, 2002 at 17:30 JST TOKYO

- Twenty people in Tokyo, mostly the elderly, received treatment at hospitals from Sunday to Thursday after choking on Japanese rice cakes, traditionally eaten during the New Year holiday season, the Tokyo Fire Department said Friday. The fire department called on the public to exercise caution in eating rice cakes, which are made by pounding sweet rice and are very dense and chewy. Fifteen of the 20 people hospitalized are 65 years or older, the department said. (Kyodo News)

Well, it's back to work for me now. I better prepare a big space in the corner of the room for all my cards and presents that I know will be arriving soon for my 24th birthday on January 13th. (Januaryu 13th I said).

Take care wherever you are.

Much love,

Joseph

Mochi, the traditional New Year dish
A wee little Buddha with a warm head
New Years fire

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Monday 24th December 2001

"Christmas Eve", or so it says in my British diary... You'd certainly know it was Christmas if you walked past any department store in Tokyo - there's women dressed up in Father Christmas, oh, sorry, Santa Claus outfits all over the place trying to sell tiny Christmas cakes at £10 a shot! However, once you enter a typical Japanese home you will not find a single sign of the Christian festival. Much to the horror of a couple of my western friends over here, I am not feeling too upset about the lack of a day off work. I must admit, in England I always loved Christmas, family get-togethers, Herefordshire Cider and all, I still think it's very important, but it's a kind of "what the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over" situation here. The only three retailers I do regularly visit are the local Supermarket, the 7-11 convenience store and the fruit and veg shop on the corner. There's not much of Christmas to be seen in those places, oh, except for the fruit and veg shop where they have shipped in half-metre long Korean Carrots (no exaggeration)! I don't follow any kind of media, and thinking about it, as there is no queen to broadcast to the nation at 3pm the TV networks would just get stuck for schedule content on the big day!

New Year on the other hand is a HUGE affair, with much celebration and tradition. 2002 is Year of The Horse, so you can't move for street vendors selling new year postcards plastered with the four-legged creatures. If you write "New Years Card" on your envelopes, the post office will hold them for you, and deliver them all together on the day - another fantastic example of the effeciency of the Japanese service industry!

I am going to be diving headfirst into the tradition, by joining my girlfriend at her parents home 5 hours west of Tokyo. Having already met her father I am really looking forward to the holiday - he's a very funny man and makes just the same kind of jokes as my dad...hmmm!! Kae's mother (having had a good report from her husband following his recent visit to Tokyotv) has been phoning up to ask what kind of tea, bread and everything else under the sun I like so that she can get everything ready for us. Oh help, what am I letting myself in for?!!! I shall be using my Japanese language skills to the full I hope. Oh yes, whilst on that subject, today I made quite a breakthrough on that score - I managed to read my first advertisement on the Subway. Well, first bit of an ad written in Japanese. (It was the government health warning printed at the bottom of a cigarette ad!). I have almost mastered th first alphabet (Hiragana) and will shortly be moving on to Katakana. The kanji (chinease characters adopted by the Japanese) can wait!

This weekend has been great fun. Saturday night we walked over to Soh's house for dinner and a few bottles of wine and champagne (with a couple of beers beforehand). Soh is a fantastic Italian cook (having lived in Firenze for almost a year): he, Kurichan and Aya are all studying Italian in Tokyo at the same university as Kaechan. The food was just the best, but the hangover was the worst I think I've had this year.

Sunday I met up with Yuko, whom I haven't seen since I left Switzerland in September. She makes me laugh so much... So good to see her again.

And that brings us to today:

Kabuki time!
Click here to find out more about Kabuki

Oh yes Sweety, lovie darling, it really was quite exquisite... today saw my return to the theatre after a break of a good few years. No, not to act, but to spectate from the lofty heights of the back row of THE most famous theatre in Japan, Kabuki-za, in Ginza, central Tokyo.

A typical performance begins at 11am, and runs right through until approximately 7pm. A prime seat for the entire performance will set you back about £90 ($130), although we managed to get tickets for back-row standing spots - a bargain at £5! There is a break between each act that enables folks like us to just watch an hour or so of the performance, whilst those who are there for the day bring o-bento (packed lunches) to help them through the hours.

"Kabuki has a great history, dating back to around the year 1600. It was created by Okuni, a shrine maiden from the Izumo Shrine. Her performances in the dry river beds of the ancient capital of Kyoto caused a sensation and soon their scale increased and a number of rival companies arose. Early Kabuki was much different from what is seen today and was comprised mostly of large ensemble dances performed by women. Most of these women acted as prostitutes offstage and finally the government banned women from the stage in an effort to protect public morales. This ban on women, though, has often been seen as a good move because it necessitated the importance of skill over beauty and put more stress on drama than dance, putting Kabuki on the path to become a dramatic art form. Another development was the appearance of "onnagata" female role specialists, men who played women."

Even nowadays there is not a woman to be seen on stage, and the actors are the most female men I've ever seen! It is not possible to simply "become" a Kabuki actor. You must be born into a "Kabuki Family" - from the age of about three you will be taught the art of your father and brothers.

Although I couldn't understand a word of what was said, I really enjoyed it. The timing of the subtle movements of the actors was fantastic. Perfectly in tune with the twang-twang music (from a Shamisen - guitar like instrument) and the singing of the musicians. The musicians take a very active role, at times uttering the words of the characters as they dance, or shouting cries to emphasise the actions.

Perhaps the most startling element of the performance is the audience participation. At strategic points people will shout out the names of the actors in support of them. If I hadn't read about this custom before going in I really would have felt that something was horribly wrong!

All in all, it was a great experience. Certainly different from the last performance I saw by the Royal Shakespeare Society!

Happy Christmas, and my best wishes for the New Year of The Horse, 2002.

With love and a big smile on my face that is 100% genuine,

Joseph :-)

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Tuesday 18th December 2001

Hi folks. The Japanese beer has been flowing very well for the past week as the End of Year / Christmas / New Year season swings into action. Last week saw it kick off with a night of attempted seduction by a couple of Japanese colleagues on a mad night of endless cocktails in a Shinjuku bar. The effects are still being felt... My English lessons on Wednesday and Thursday night were crazy with educational plans being swallowed up and replaced by a couple of hours and talk on the things in life that really matter... With videos only 60p for a week's rental, a stack of Woody Allen and Trainspotting-style yarns ensured that dreams were bizarre and lucid... Milk was the destination for an all-nighter on Friday, but the beats were so hardcore we headed home on the last train - boy do we love sleep! A Saturday afternoon visit to the peaceful botanical gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen was followed on the Sunday by our return to a local karaoke box where I graced the airwaves with my sweet tones of "Your Song", "Champagne Supernova" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" (captured on videotape for future release). Lisa "Daft Northern Bint" (affectionate title only) from Cumbria and the recently-singled Rebecca (Australia) are my vital sidekicks at the office - together we made it heroically through today's Monday with much hysteria and hung-over antics. Lisa's the kind of classy lady who whiles away her freetime by painting her nails (with a red biro used for marking essays), whilst sweeping the board at the oscars for lovliest northerner I've ever known... What would I do without them? Tonight saw a visit by kae (my girlfriend) and I to a Yokonomiyaki restaurant, one of my favourite types of Japanese food - you are given the raw ingredients such as egg, cabbage, prawns, bean- sprouts, cheese and so on, and you cook it yourselves on a the gas fired cooker-table you're sitting cross-legged at... it's great, but be careful you don't burn the tongue as I did when eating it with the mini-metal spatulas that double as cooking implements (at least it took my attention away from my ulcer)

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you are having a good day, just don't forget to live for the day...

Joseph, happy in Tokyo.

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The toilet in action...
...and its vital sidekick
In the shops (about £200)

The next time you hear someone mention a Japanese-style toilet, they probably won't be talking about the squat-type... (click here to learn more about them)

Thursday 6th December 2001

When Kae asked me if I'd tried out the toilet, I must admit I was a bit non-plussed. As far as I knew there had been no change in our "toire", it had been functioning just fine doing everything that toilets are supposed to do (i.e. flush). However, what I hadn't realised was that earlier that day the great Beginning of Winter Plugging in Ceremony had been performed. Intruiged, I took my seat to find it pleasently warm - but this came as no great surprise as most modern toilets in Japan are heated.

My attention then turned to the 10-buttoned remote control nestled in its cradle on the wall above the loo roll. Although of course I'd spent many hours with my eyes upon it, I had never had the opportunity to experience the delights behind the buttons.

Initially, I thought that the remote batteries must be flat as there was no reaction when the buttons were prodded. However, further inspection of the toilet seat revealed that it is had a pressure switch to prevent accidental flooding of the bathroom. With a foot on the seat and camera in hand, I tried again. A motor rapidly kicked in causing a pipe to shoot out of the back of the bowl - warm water was then squirted all over my trousers as I attempted to simoultaneously capture the above action shot AND press the all-important STOP button.

I have since discovered the use for the other buttons: there's the water pressure up/down selectors, the temperature control, and more intruigingly, a "Massage" setting. This does exactly what it suggests: massages your bottom - you can even select your favourite rythmn from the various types on offer.

The miricles of modern technoloy... what will they come up with next?

joseph.

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