Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It`s all fun and games until...

Some people are scared of spiders and snakes. Others have an aversion to heights or small spaces. Phobias can be a result of a bad experience or because of some unexplainable, obscure reason. I`m not scared of much really, I can handle creepy crawlies, and I actually love the exhilaration of being in high places, knowing that you`re one step from oblivion. But I do have a phobia.

I have an irrational fear of umbrellas. Actually the tips of umbrellas to be precise. What are they called? Is there a technical term for them, like aglets on shoelaces, or are they just called the tips of umbrellas? I tend to think of them as serving the same purpose as an aglet on a shoelace, so, thats what I`ll call them. So, once again, for the sake of this entry anyway, I have an irrational fear of `umbrella aglets` and the effect it would have on my retina if my eye came into contact with one of them at a brisk pace.

I have plumbed the depths of my subconcious to find out if I maybe I`d had a scrape with an angry aglet at some stage during my childhood. Perhaps a painful jab to my eyeball was traumatic enough for me to have supressed the experience and this in turn may`ve explained why I cringe every time an umbrella passes by me at eye level. But, short of hypnosis I`m satisfied that I`ve done enough mental plumbing, and I don`t seem to have ever had such an encounter. It appears, then, that I`m just paranoid of the little buggers.

Back home in NZ I was unaware of even having this fear, as I, nor any other Kiwi come to think of it, really used umbrellas. We just don`t seem to be umbrella people in NZ, preffering to scamper for shelter, use the eaves of shops to wait out a deluge, or simply accept the rain in all its wetness and, get wet. Umbrellas don`t fit the image of your every day Kiwi. We`re hardy people, we don`t need umbrellas.

Japanese people however, are very much umbrella people. They seem to produce them from thin air at the first sign of rain, like a magician might produce a dozen roses from up his sleeve. Umbrellas are everywhere in this country, and very much part of the Japanese person`s daily effects. When I arrived in Japan I was suddenly surrounded by umbrellas of all varieties, colours and flavours. Everyone from kindergarten kids to street vendors would be carrying an umbrella in the rain. I think it was this sudden transition from a culture with no umbrellas to an umbrella filled society that brought my phobia to fruition. The fear of getting my cornea peeled off by an errant aglet - as irrational as it is - began to give me a shiver down my spine, as my imagination took hold. Umbrellas began to look like big cats paws, with claws out ready to pluck out my eyeball and wield it, spiked on the end like an olive on a toothpick. I attempted to give each passing potential threat a wide berth by swerving my upper body this way and that as I walked down the street. It must`ve looked like I was attempting a really bad disco move each time I rolled my way past someone with an umbrella. This was never going to do, as I mentioned, everyone has an umbrella over here, and the streets - at least in the city - are far too packed with people to be attempting drunken master style moves to try and avoid umbrellas.

I toyed with the idea of trying to start a trend by putting a cork on the end of each aglet on my umbrella. Kind of like those stupid Aussie cork hats, but with corks that stayed put and weren`t dangling all over the show. This idea would have been perfect, as I remembered that scene from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where Steve Martin jabs himself in the eye with a cork modified fork. No real danger of losing my eyesight to a altercation with a cork, at least not a flying one. However, it was that idea itself that didn`t fly, in the end it was a pipe dream. It did however lead me to a solution, which is: as long as I carry an umbrella, I should be out of the reach of anyone elses evil aglets. The theory works perfectly; as long as everyone carries an umbrella, no one loses an eye. But I did say it was a solution, and not the solution. You see, I actually really like walking in the rain, and (as you may`ve pieced together), don`t particularly like umbrellas. I`m still a Kiwi at heart. Umbrellas aren`t for me. I`ll humour them, and use one if absolutely necessary, but I still think of umbrellas as the preserve of the posh. Nothing against umbrella users out there, that`s just my own mental occlusion.

So you see, it`s a bit of a conundrum really, either I walk with an umbrella and cocoon myself in a zone, safe from those `other pluckers`, but feel like I`m conformimg to a social norm for the sake of security (which to be honest makes me cringe nore than any angling aglet). Or, walk, as I would prefer, sans-umbrella and take my chances.

Up until now I`ve been taking my chances with those perilous barbs. Everyone needs a phobia right?

What`s your phobia? Do you avoid it, or face it? Any explicable reasons for having it in the first place?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

a big wet elephant in the room

It`s rainy season at the moment in Japan. Perhaps you were unaware that Japan has a rainy season. Well it does, it`s the fifth season that you`ll never see on any of the tourist posters or in any of the package tours. Rainy season is never talked about in a good way. It`s pushed to the fringes of society and it`s arrival is like the feeling you get when you receive the little card telling you it`s time for your annual check up at the dentist.

But I feel sorry for rainy season a bit, I mean, it`s not rainy season`s fault that its rainy, that`s the way it goes. Ce`st la vie! Sho ga nai! The point is conceded; it rains in rainy season, whaddayagonnado?

The anomaly is that rainy season seems to be held in a different regard than the main 4 seasons here in Japan. People seem to love mentioning the fact that it`s cold in winter, or hot in summer, in fact it becomes almost a subconcious act, like breathing. Let me give you two examples of what i mean:

The first is the expression:`SaMUUUi` (the emphasis on the `MU` sound is very important here as if one is doing an impression of a cold cow). This will often be heard while standing at traffic signals in the middle of winter. It simply translates as `Damn it`s cold!`
Similarly `Atsui`, (meaning `It`s hotter than a glasshouse in the Sahara today`), is exasperated time and time again by everyone during the sweltering summer heat in Japan. It starts off as if one is about to sneeze (as in Ah-Choo), but the `tsui` part of the word is more of an exhalation through ones teeth, which gives it a very onomatopaeic quality. Usage is most common when one is about to collapse on the footpath in a sweaty heap at any moment.

These two expressions are never over used here, they`re often said in passing or when there is nothing else to say. It`s common place to comment on the heat in summer, or the coldness of winter, but to comment on the rain during rainy season is a kind of taboo.

Someone may come into work with a furrowed look on their wet face, carrying a dripping umbrella and make a noise that`s somewhere between a sigh and a moan, like they`re about to give birth to something as they stand by the other wet coats and rain suits and shudder. Exuding their grievance with the weather, but never saying it. If someone comments on how rainy it is during rainy season, it`s met with glances and maybe a concurring yet condescending nod.

What is with that? I mean, like I said, I don`t mind rainy season actually. The rain is good for the rivers , which have transformed from glum looking and glorified smelly puddles to rich veins of fresh, clean water that show their appreciation with rapid applause. The trees smell greener than before, and the streets are lined with colourful umbrellas and rain coats. Accepting rainy season might just be the biggest river to cross, so to speak, maybe once people do that we can start commenting on the rainy season as much the other 4 seasons in Japan.

Do you like rain? Do you carry an umbrella? Do you prefer to walk in puddles or around them?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My neighbourhood in Kyoto

The neighbourhood I live in is named Gojo Rakuen, which means Fifth Street Paradise. It is an oasis in the middle of Kyoto. The river that ambles through the neighbourhood is shrouded with lush trees that bear oranges, figs and loquats. The oranges are great for breakfast on the run and the loquats are good too if you get them at the right time. Unfortunately, the figs are popular with the crows, and they have until now beaten me to them every time. I'm contemplating staging a sit in under the fig trees because I love figs too, but perhaps not that much.

As is the way with Kyoto, our neighbourhood is rich with tradition. The streets are lined with tea houses, which used to offer a lot more than just tea if you know what I mean! Anyone familiar with Arthur Golden`s book `Memoirs of a Geisha` will I`m sure. Today the seedier side of business may have ceased, but beautiful women still scuttle from tea house to tea house, immaculately dressed in kimono. Watching them silently float down the street immediately transports you back to another era. They personify the neighbourhood`s enigma.

There`s a building on the corner, across from the old man who sells fruit and vegetables from the front of his house, which attracts a lot of attention from passers by. It seems to be unoccupied but in really good shape. It`s very old, and looks like it used to be some sort of factory. On closer inspection, I discovered a bronze plaque, which reads `NINTENDO PLAYING CARD Co.` A bit of asking around and a quick internet search revealed that this was indeed the original home of Nintendo when it started over 100 years ago as a producer of playing cards in Kyoto. Now it`s a museum that is never open. It stands as a silent, almost invisible reminder of a multi million dollar company's origins, for anyone who would care to know.

I live in a two storeyed `Machiya` or Japanese style house with three other people, a cat and a ferret. The ferret we named Walter, and he spends the winter in our ceiling. He doesn`t pay any rent, but he helps keep the mice at bay - so we let him stay. I say that like we have a choice, but in actual fact I think he has the run of the place. He`s often heard but rarely seen and on the rare occasion that he is spotted, it`s usually as he is on his way down to the river. I don`t know if ferrets strut, but I`m pretty sure that`s what Walter does. He struts down the road with a ferrety look on his face like he`s in on a secret, or maybe he`s just happy as us to be living in our neighbourhood.

It`s no secret though who the neighbourhood belongs to. It doesn`t belong to the tea houses, the crows or the ferret. It doesn`t belong to us, or the Mario Brothers or any of the other residents really. It is a Yakuza neighbourhood. We live next door to a six storey building that is as conspicuous as a sumo wrestler at a golf tournament. The rest of the street is little old men in funny pants, or foreign residents like us - tourists really. This hulking great building intimidates by its sheer presence alone. There are video cameras posted outside that survey the street 24 hours a day, and a 20 car garage occupied by black or white cars straight out of the gangster car catalogue. `How would you like your windows sir? Tinted? Certainly. Good choice sir.` You can often hear them grunting "Osss" to a car as it arrives, and there will usually be one or two suits yapping away on the cell phones or smoking cigarettes dong their best to look like gangsters, and funnily enough, succeeding. It sounds funny, but I feel perfectly safe living next to the friendly neighbourhood Yakuza. They make sure the streets are clean, safe and quiet. Theres never any annoying vendors that pester other parts of the city, nor do we get any door to door evangelical types like I did at my last two places in Japan. It`s a bit like living next to a caged bear though, it`s exciting and definitely unusual, but I`m not going to stick my hand in the cage. No thanks. I get the feeling that the landlord prefers to have foreigners living our house as opposed to Japanese tenants. Maybe he feels we have no association with that side of Japanese society, or hang ups about it. (We don't, however most of my Japanese friends think we're crackers for living there). The way I look at it though, if we weren't welcome, we wouldn't be there. Simple as that. Like I said, it's their neighbourhood. Their "Kinjo".
They treat us as most other Japanese people do. That is with respect and a sense of inquisitiveness, an attitude which is wholeheartedly reciprocated, particularly in this case.

Last night we were sitting on a railway sleeper that thinks it's a foot bridge watching the fireflies. They come out at this time of year to briefly illuminate the riverside. As we were wandering home, we saw a woman standing on the bridge, gazing off into a tunnel of trees, obviously firefly spotting herself. We shared a smile, and an obligatory bow amongst the three of us. No words were necessary, the look said it all. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Kia ora

Haere Mai. Homai te wairoa ki ahau e tutehua nei.

Welcome. Give me the water of life as I stand here restless. (No pressure though. ;)

As you may have guessed from my wee intro, I come from Aotearoa, New Zealand. I`m proud to call myself a Kiwi and feel that it is a privilege; a rare privilege at that. New Zealand is an amazing place to grow up. I spent most of my childhood wandering around in bare feet, climbing trees, fishing at the inlet or jumping off sand dunes that had been carved by thumping surf which I could hear from my bed every night .We are blessed in NZ, there`s no doubt about it. Our tiny population affords us acres of space to enjoy, we have no predatory animals or poisonous snakes, we enjoy a temperate climate, beautiful beaches, stunning mountains, glaciers, geysers, and sub-tropical rainforests. We also have modern cities, a burgeoning economy and the best rugby team in the world. (OK,that last one might be a bit contentious, but come October I`m sure my claim will be solid as a Jerry Collins tackle.)

Yup, NZ is sweet. Like Tim Finn said in the song `6 Months in a Leaky Boat`:
"Aotearoa. Rugged Individual. Glisten like a pearl. At the bottom of the world."
It`s a beautiful,clean safe country. So I decided to leave.

I left paradise. Scrammed Jan. Fled Fred. Took off like I owed the place money! (Well, actually... I guess there`s the small matter of my student loan. So I DID owe it money, but she`s sweet. No worries there eh Helen?) I left because as idyllic as my country is, I felt the need for excitement. We live in an amazing bubble of beauty and tranquility in the South Pacific Ocean. But it`s a bubble.

If you can humour me a little here and imagine the world as a pool table, NZ is the right corner pocket. I wanted to get out of the pocket and spend some time on the table, with all the colours and dangers, collisions and close calls that occur during the game. It`s all well and good chilling out in the pocket, but I was aware the game was going on, and I was missing out!

I poked my head out of my pocket, and saw Japan. Asia intrigued me, and I saw Japan as a chance for me to spread my wings and gander around. I have been here for nearly three years, seeing various parts of Asia (although not nearly enough yet) and being constantly intrigued, baffled, excited and amused by the culture in this part of the world.
I hope to use this weeblog to share the quirks and adventures I have in my daily life in Japan with you out there, and hear of yours too. Wherever you are on the pool table.