My mum used to swear by Dr Spock - no, not that Dr Spock, silly, the one who wrote Baby And Child Care, which Wikipedia tells me was the second best-selling book behind the Bible for over fifty years. I'm not sure what Spock would have thought of this, though, which I found in a Japanese child care manual that Mrs M borrowed from a friend of hers.
You can probably guess what it's about from the illustration, but anyway, here's a translation of the text:
Learning the fundamentals for living in a community
As your child grows older and starts to build friendships, many situations will arise that require patience and self-control. At times like this, if your child cannot restrain their emotions and follow rules, they will not be able to have peace of mind while living within the community at large. At this point in our child's development, let's teach them to be aware of and to obey the rules. We teach this using the 'carrot and stick' method.
Firstly, decide what is prohibited at home (the rules), and let your child know what they 'must not do'. At times like this, let's warn them in a scary voice, 'If you don't follow the rules, I'll smack your bottom!' This is the 'stick'. So if they don't obey the rules, without going easy on them, you will smack their bottom with the palm of your hand. In your child's mind, the feeling of 'Ouch!' becomes associated with what they 'must not do', and little by little, they will come to realise that they 'can get by without doing that', and that this is what 'self-control' means. At the same time, if our child obeys the rules, let's stroke their hair, give them a hug and shower them with praise. By showing them that 'If I don't do that, I will feel good', the child independently learns to exhibit self-control. During this time, let's teach our child the importance of obeying the rules in order to build better human relations.
In the illustration, the mother is saying, 'Oy, you!' and the caption reads, Let's vary our expressions: when scolding our child, let's put on an angry face, and when praising our child, let's put on a kind face.
As far as I know, you wouldn't be able to get away with publishing something like this in the UK, although both there and in Japan, there seems to be a kind of double-standard at work, in the sense that while corporal punishment is banned within the school system, a significant minority of people still smack their children at home (and not just smacking: when her son is naughty, the friend who lent us this book raps her child on the top of his head with the extended knuckle of her middle finger - something that Mrs M's father did to her when she was a child),
There is one interesting difference between the two societies that's worth mentioning, though: the straight man (tsukkomi) in a comedy double act often smacks his fall guy (boké) in the head for saying or doing something particularly stupid, and this is echoed in the behaviour of both Japanese adults and their children, so that smacking someone in the head is seen as amusing or playful rather than violent, and therefore socially acceptable.
In the year during which Mrs M became pregnant, we were living in a two-storey block of four apartments, one of which was being used by our landlord to store furniture, and therefore empty. Living next to us on the second floor (that's a Japanese / American second floor, British first floor) was a middle-aged couple who had several screaming rows during the time we were living there (the walls were thin so it was hard to ignore), and whose relationship deteriorated to the point where by the time we moved out they hardly seemed to spend any time together. Beneath us on the first floor, meanwhile, was a younger man who appeared to live alone, and was a fan of what to my untrained ear sounded like ragga music. He would play his ragga not at ear-splitting volume, but loud enough to keep me from getting to sleep at night, and to wake me up before my alarm went off in the morning. We eventually made a complaint about this via the estate agents, and almost as soon as we had done so the music stopped, although this was just a coincidence.
As it turned out, the man had a wife and baby son, who, in accordance with Japanese tradition, had spent a few months around the time of the birth at her parents' house. Once they had moved back in with the father, instead of being kept awake at night by ragga, we could instead eavesdrop during the day on the general crash, bang, wallop of a baby boy going about his everyday business. When Mrs M got pregnant (read this
if you want a detailed account of our conception-related adventures), she quit her part-time job and, particularly for the first two or three months of the pregnancy, took things easy, and it was at this point that she realised something quite remarkable, namely that the baby downstairs - and its mother, for that matter - never
left the apartment.
The father would head off to work at around 7am, and come rain or shine, whether it be a weekday or a weekend, mother and baby would spend the rest of the day indoors, until the father got back at seven or eight in the evening. By the time we moved out, the baby was about a year old and already walking - we could hear his footsteps as he did circuits of the living room - but even at this point he was never taken to the local park, or even out of the front door to look around the yard. I said to Mrs M that surely they must go shopping together, but she explained that no, once or twice a week a van from the Co-op came to deliver groceries. Admittedly, the mother didn't appear to be local and probably didn't have any friends nearby, but despite having her own car, hardly ever used it.
We weren't sure if they were from the mother's or the father's side, but every few weeks the baby's grandparents would come to visit, and they too would only ever play with their grandson inside the apartment, before driving off again a few hours later. Even more infrequently than this, mother, father and baby would get in the car and disappear for the day, but based on the evidence we had, we could only assume this was to visit the same set of grandparents at home, and certainly not to go to Disneyland or even a shopping mall. So the only time their baby was exposed to the outside world was once every couple of months, when it was carried the short distance between apartment and car at one end of the trip, and car and house at the other.
Largely out of necessity, the mother made as creative use as possible of the relatively small space - probably about sixteen square metres - she had at her disposal, turning the apartment into a kind of live-in kindergarten, and kept her son occupied with all sorts of activities: among other things, the two of them could be heard reading books, playing games, playing with toys, exercising and watching TV, and she would forever be cooing over, chatting to or consoling him.
The boy's day-to-day life was probably as stimulating as it was possible to make it under the circumstances, but if nothing else, he was in danger of contracting rickets due to a lack of vitamin D, and Mrs M said that if she were in the same situation, it wouldn't be long before sheer claustrophobia drove her completely round the bend. The most heartbreaking thing that we witnessed - or rather, that we could assume from our eavesdropping - happened in March of last year, when the poor kid wasn't even allowed outside to enjoy the first snowfall of his young life; all he could do instead was survey the scene from the living room window.
OK, so I was exaggerating when I said they never
left the house: just once, I found the mother standing outside the back door with her son in her arms (it could have been my imagination, but they both looked rather pale), as they waved the grandparents off after a visit. Mrs M, too, bumped into them on one occasion, and during a brief chat was surprised to find out that when she was younger, the mother had spent a year living in Australia. The father, on the other hand, was what Mrs M described as a chinpira
(chav if you're British, redneck if you're American). He was foul-mouthed, prone to shouting at his wife, and preferred to spend his days off (actually day off - he seemed to work six-day weeks for the most part) working out at the gym rather than playing with his son. On one occasion, Mrs M returned from our early evening stroll to find him on the warpath, having discovered a strange car parked in 'his' space. Despite the fact that the car in question wasn't blocking him in and would no doubt be gone by the following morning, and that in any case, the car park was large enough to accommodate several more vehicles than were owned by the people who lived there, he had summoned both the landlord and the police. There was some paperwork relating to a cram school visible on the front seat of the offending car, and it took a certain amount of diplomacy on Mrs M's part to convince him that it wasn't me or one of my English-teaching friends who had parked it there,
Not that this is exactly a complimentary description of them, but contrary to what you might think, I don't in any way want to suggest that the couple were bad parents. The father may have been a little narrow-minded, but he wasn't a wife beater or an alcoholic (the middle-aged guy on the second floor sounded much scarier when he got drunk), and let's not forget that according to statistics, the average Japanese husband spends just fifteen minutes a day with his children. Also, the apartment-as-prison scenario is pretty extreme even by Japanese standards, where most parents will merely shield their baby from the elements until it is three months old, and smother it in hats, scarves and surgical masks to stop it from catching a cold thereafter (they also, I was surprised to find out recently, never kiss their babies, a custom that would come as a blessed relief to British politicians on the campaign trail). Once M Jr arrived, though, the experience of having such eccentric neighbours convinced us to take her outside as much as possible, and if there is ever the slightest hint that she has acquired an interest in ragga, I shall immediately confiscate her iPod.
After much badgering by my teachers, this year I finally decided to have a shot at the prefectural speech contest for non-native speakers of Japanese. Somewhat improbably, I came in second place, although this may have been because a) one of those teachers was on the panel of judges, b) another teacher gave me a lot of help writing my speech, c) I had concocted a fiendishly cunning tactical plan after seeing a Vietnamese friend take part last year, and d) I have been living in Japan and studying the language a good deal longer than most of the other contestants: my first lesson (at South Thames College in Putney, in case you were wondering) was nearly a decade ago, and all told I have lived here for over four years, whereas the eventual winner - whose speech was so wonderful that it actually made me cry - has only been here for six months.
If nothing else, entering the contest taught me the importance of preparation, aka the six Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. When I was a teenager, I harboured ambitions of becoming an actor, but gave it all up because I couldn't handle the pressure. Terrified that I might forget my lines, I either deliberately took minor roles or volunteered for backstage work instead, although the thing is, I can't recall ever taking the time to properly memorise my lines. Determined not to make the same mistake again, I recited my speech at every available opportunity, including over breakfast, during the cycle ride to and from work, in the teachers' cloakroom, and while Mrs M and M Jr were taking a bath. I also used all three third-year classes at my junior high school as audience guinea pigs, and while I don't think I ever made it all the way through without making at least one mistake, by the time I was standing at the lectern on the big day, the words were so fixed in my mind that it would have taken an assassination attempt or a stray meteorite for me to mess them up.Several of my fellow contestants, meanwhile,
were still tweaking, memorising and generally fretting right up until the last minute. The woman sitting next to me as we waited for our names to be called didn't listen to a word that was being said, instead muttering her lines to herself the entire time, and one or two others didn't know exactly what they were going to say until they were already saying it. As the organisers explained, going over the official time limit of five minutes wouldn't necessarily be fatal to one's chances of getting a prize, but it wouldn't exactly help them either, and two or three contestants were interrupted in mid-sentence by the dreaded warning bell (the timekeepers also held up a 'thirty seconds to go' cue card to add to the tension).Five minutes, as it turns out, makes for a much shorter speech than you might expect, to the extent that once I (OK, my Japanese teacher and I) had timed it, pruned it, timed it again and pruned it some more, mine
ran to just one side of word-processed A4. This is even more surprising when you consider that Japanese is such an economical language: a much larger amount of information can be packed into a 140-character Japanese Tweet, for example, than its English equivalent.
I have made speeches in English many times, and while it's risky to just play it by ear, speaking in your native language allows you so much more leeway for ad-libbing, covering up mistakes or saying the same thing in a slightly different way. In a second language, though, you have far fewer weapons at your disposal, and are a lot more likely to talk yourself into a syntactical dead-end from which there is no elegant or economical means of escape.My chosen specialised subject, as you might expect, was M Jr, and while my teachers kept emphasising that prize-winning speeches in the past have at least ended on a serious note - they tend to have serious beginnings and middles, too -
I made a point of playing it for laughs. For those of you who don't understand Japanese, I have translated the speech into English, and while much of the humour has been lost as a result, just for the hell of it, I also fed the original into Bing Translator, with bizarre - and frankly funnier - results (see below).Becoming a father for the first time in Japan
In December 2011 my wife became pregnant. As a result, I realised that when it comes to childbirth, there are various differences between Japan and the UK.
For example, when my wife found out that she was pregnant, she said, 'Ten months is going to be tough..' 'Wow!' I thought. 'Japanese women are pregnant for ten months! And to think, British women are only pregnant for nine...' Later on I was relieved to be told that one month of pregnancy is calculated differently by Japanese and non-Japanese*.
Pregnancy in the UK is basically a licence to 'eat as much as you like', and it is not uncommon for pregnant women to gain four or five stone. In Japan, on the other hand, pregnant women are told by their doctors not to gain more than one and a half stone - sometimes even one stone - in weight. Despite her morning sickness, while she was pregnant my wife had a craving for ice cream, and in particular, green tea-flavoured Super Cup. In accordance with the doctors' guidance, I strictly limited the amount of ice cream she ate. But when I got home from work, many was the time I would find an empty Super Cup in the kitchen rubbish bin.
On 6th August last year my wife's contractions started and we went to the hospital. According to her, the labour was so painful it felt as if her back would break. If she had given birth in the UK, she would have been able to receive as much painkilling treatment as she liked. In Japan, however, most women giving birth are not allowed to take medicine of any kind. So when my wife asked a nurse, 'Excuse me, can I have some painkillers?' she was flatly refused. 'If you take medicine,' said the nurse, 'your baby won't know when it's supposed to come out.'
Eventually my wife's waters broke and she was taken into the delivery room. Seeing her on the deilvery table was so terrifying that I had absolutely no idea what to do for her. When I whispered, 'Good luck!' and tried to stroke her hair, she swatted my hand away and said, 'Get out of the way!' (This is an experience I think dads all over the world will be able to relate to.)
Before I knew it my wife had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and I was so happy that tears came to my eyes.
At present, one in four babies in the UK is born to mixed-race parents, whereas in Japan, that statistic is just one in thirty. As a result, such children are viewed as special and referred to as 'half's. 'Half' isn't necessarily a bad word, but since our daughter has both Japanese and British genes, instead of being referred to as a 'half', I hope that she will be referred to as a 'double'**.
Either way, from now on my wife and I will try our very best to bring up our baby.
Thank you very much for listening.
* The Japanese calculate the term of a pregnancy in lunar months of twenty-eight days, as opposed to calendar months of twenty-eight to thirty-one, hence the confusion.**
The 'double' idea wasn't my own, and is gaining in popularity as an - albeit slightly jokey - way of referring to mixed-race Japanese.
The top four speeches were broadcast on local radio (one of my students, whose mother had tuned into the progamme by chance, came up to me the next day to say congratulations), and listening back made me realise how many 'um's and 'er's I used to stall for time, when what I should have been using were Japanese 'eh-toh's and 'a-noh's. Not that I'm going to post it here, but Mrs M videoed the whole thing for posterity, and watching this made me even more self-conscious, largely because I have developed a Prince Charles-like habit of concluding each paragraph with a kind of half-smile / half-grimace.T
his is the radio broadcast:
And here's the bonkers Bing translation:
That would be a father for the first time in Japan,
My wife got pregnant two years ago, in December. I noticed variations in it about childbirth in the United Kingdom and Japan sparked, of.
See, for example, pregnancy, wife "10 for months, it's harder now..." and when I said, I "Wow! Japanese girls are pregnant 10 months it until delivery?! In the United Kingdom takes only 9 months! "And wondered. Being taught how to count Japanese and foreigners is different is one month pregnant, I felt.
A British woman was pregnant, basically "all-you-can-eat" in, often pregnant fat 2, 30 km away. On the other hand, doctors in Japan is pregnant woman. 10 kg so that does not increase more than the weight limit. Wife was fixated in the ice cream (especially green tea taste Super Cup) despite the morning sickness nausea during pregnancy. I have severely restricted wife eats ice cream according to the guidance of the teacher,. But I get home and kitchen trash discovered the empty Super Cup many times out of the box.
She started 8/6 last year, and went to the hospital. According to his wife is sore hip crumbling labor pains or feel. If you birth in the United Kingdom in general labor analgesia can so you can freely take medicine. However, natural childbirth from straightforward in Japan, my wife "or why the pain? "And when I asked the nurse who was refused if you drink drugs, when the baby is out, some couldn't once and for all.
Finally, my wife and her waters broke and went into the delivery room. When I saw the wife is depicted riding on a birthing bed, I too scary too, you can give and what did not know at all. In a low voice "go for it! "And said, as his wife's hair. Then, "out of the way! "And I have been rebuffed. This experience is worldwide independent dad that you can see well.
Landmarks that cute girl is born safely between, I'm glad tears..
Currently, parents is international couples is one of four children born in the United Kingdom. In Japan it to substitution, so a 30 per person, such children are seen as a "half" something special. "Half" is not a bad word that is so blood of English and Japanese in both daughters, want to seen as a "double" not "half", and I hope.
I work and I would like to hard parenting hard with my wife from this either way,.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Here's the original Japanese text:
And finally, purely out of curiosity, I fed the Bing translation back through Bing and back into Japanese, with even more surreal results:
私の妻は妊娠して 2 年前に、12 月に得た。私はそれの変化イギリスときっかけと、日本での出産に気づいたの。
、妊娠、妻を見る「10 ヶ月間は、それは難しい今...」と私が言ったとき、"うわっ ！日本の女の子妊娠 10 ヶ月はそれまで配信ですか？イギリスはわずか 9 ヶ月で ！」と疑問に思いました。日本人と外国人をカウントする方法を教えられている 1 ヶ月妊娠しているが異なる場合は、私は感じた。
イギリス人女性は妊娠中、基本的に「食べ放題」に、多くの場合妊娠脂肪 2、30 km。その一方で、日本の医師は妊娠中の女性です。10 は増加していませんので kg よりも重量制限。妻、アイスクリーム （特に緑茶味スーパー カップ） にもかかわらず、朝のつわり吐き気を妊娠中に固定されてあった。私は深刻な妻食べるアイスクリーム先生の指導によると制限が。しかし、家に帰るし、台所のごみ箱に何回もの空のスーパー カップを発見しました。
彼女は 8/6 昨年を開始し、病院に行った。彼の妻によると痛みの崩壊しつつある労働痛みヒップまたは感じです。イギリスに生まれの一般的な鎮痛労働する場合だからあなた自由に薬を取ることがでくことができます。しかし、自然分娩から日本、私の妻の簡単な"や、なぜ痛みですか？"私赤ちゃんが出ているとき薬を飲む場合は拒否された看護師を尋ねたとき、いくつか一度、すべてことができなかった。
最後に、私の妻と彼女の水を破ったし、分娩室に行った。妻は乗る、出産ベッドに、私はあまりにも怖いのも描かれている見たとき、与えることができるし、はまったく知りませんでしたか。低い声で「それのために行く ！」いう彼の妻の髪。その後、「邪魔 ！」私は拒絶されています。この経験は、あなたがよく見ることができます世界中の独立したお父さんです。
現在、親は国際カップル イギリスで生まれ、4 人の子供の一つです。それ置換するので日本では 30 人、そのような子供は、「半分」特別な何かを見られています。「半分」そう遺伝子英語と日本語の両方の娘に悪い言葉ではない、ない「半分」、「ダブル」を見たしたいし、思います。
Churui to Chokubetsu (忠類町 – 直別) – 76km
Come the morning the campsite was positively buzzing: I met a pensioner who had come from Tokyo to escape the heat and play what is known as ‘park golf’ (‘You only need one club,’ he said. ‘What, you mean you don’t even use a putter?’ ‘Nope!’), a cyclist from Western Hokkaido who was practicing for a three-month tour of France the following year, and Mr Bell Tree, who like me had travelled from Ibaraki.
Mr Bell Tree was riding a Honda Cub, which are those little scooters often used by aspiring London cabbies as they swot up on The Knowledge. He was heading to the Shirétoko Peninsula to start a summer job at a tarako (鱈子 / cod roe) processing plant, and had spent the previous winter in India studying percussion. As we were sitting on his picnic blanket, yet more campers came over and asked if we wanted some breakfast. Mr Bell Tree got a rice ball, while I was given what looked to be a whole box of Choco Flakes doused in a full pint of milk.
As I was packing to leave, a mother introduced me to her bashful toddler, who hid behind her legs and covered his face with his hands. ‘Say bye-bye,’ she said, as he tried to run away altogether. ‘Look, this nice gentleman has come all the way from England,' she continued, lifting him up by his hand until his feet were off the floor. ‘It would be rude not to!’
You may or may not have been wondering – well, you probably haven’t been wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway – what the average touring cyclist does when he or she needs to answer the call, as it were, of the wild. Obviously when one is cycling through the countryside public conveniences can be few and far between, so one tends to utilise the natural filtering qualities of grass verges to re-process one’s, er, number ones. There is, though, as I have discovered, a London bus-like rule, which dictates that even if you haven’t seen a single vehicle for hours on end, the very second you start to pee, two or three of them will pass by at once, forcing you to either finish hastily or stagger off into the bushes in mid-stream. Conversely, this rule ought to come in handy should your car happen to break down in the middle of nowhere: ie. if you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out waiting to be rescued, you may be there for quite a while, whereas if you unzip your fly and commence your ablutions, assistance should arrive within a matter of seconds.
When it comes to calls of nature on, so to speak, a larger scale, you might think that waiting until you find a public loo will solve the problem, but in Japan many toilets are still of the squat variety. Using one correctly (a friend of mine confessed that on his first encounter with a squat toilet, he took off his trousers and underpants, stood above it with his legs as wide apart as possible, aimed and hoped for the best) isn’t a problem, but using one while maintaining the full use of one’s lower body certainly is. Particularly because they tend to sit on the floor to eat, watch TV and so on, the Japanese have more flexible lower limbs than the rest of us, but to a chair dweller such as myself, remaining in a squatting position for ten or fifteen minutes at a time can trigger early onset arthritis, a process that is exacerbated should one’s knees already be in a fragile state from long-distance cycling. Today I spent ten or fifteen minutes in a supermarket restroom in the town of Urahoro, and emerged practically crawling along the floor, with all feeling gone from below the waist.
As the day wore on so the rain became heavier, and rather than camp, I decided to spend my first ever night in a rider house. While you will find rider houses elsewhere in Japan (I can recommend this one
in Nara Prefecture, for example), they are essentially a Hokkaido invention, and act as cheap and cheerful (sometimes even free and cheerful) accommodation for bikers and cyclists. Almost all have dormitories instead of private rooms, many are run as a sideline by shopkeepers, farmers and so on, and some are in public buildings which have fallen out of use or are empty during the summer months.
Admittedly the weather didn’t help, but the word ‘godforsaken’ seemed inadequate to describe the village of Chokubetsu, which was little more than a muddy car park next to an apparently abandoned railway station, and much less amusing than its name – worthy of inclusion in Roger’s Profanisaurus - suggested. Chokubetsu was supposedly blessed with not one but two rider houses, the first of which appeared to be out of business and completely run down, while the second appeared to be out of business and comparatively run down. As a mangy dog sniffed at my legs, it took several minutes before I noticed a menu and price list in the window of the marginally less dilapidated of the two buildings, with the rider house itself hidden away across the overgrown back yard and through an unmarked side door.
Having checked in, though, I was able to use a washing machine and tumble dryer, clean my water bottles for the first time, hang my tent up to dry, shave and have a bath (the place was run by an old lady who everyone referred to as okah-san
– お母さん / mum – and getting to the bathroom involved walking through her kitchen and lounge).
One of the other guests, Mr Middle Field, was in Hokkaido for his twelfth summer in a row, although rather than a motorbike, this year he was travelling by car with his wife and baby daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the couple had met while touring in Hokkaido, and through his job in the oil industry, Mr Middle Field had travelled widely elsewhere: he had recently been to Kuwait and Bahrain, he said, where the temperature was fifty degrees centigrade.
Coincidentally, on the TV news the talk was of rising fuel and food prices, although despite the impending recession (this was summer 2008, remember), my room-mate - a Mr Inner Field, and not to be confused with Mr Middle Field - had just quit his job in Wakayama Prefecture. We both had trip computers on our bicycles, and Mr Inner Field said that his top speed so far was a dizzying 54kmh – six kmh faster than the 48 I had achieved on a downhill stretch earlier that day. In a car you would barely be out of third gear at 48kmh, but on a bicycle it feels as if you’re inserting your head into the very jaws of death itself.
Okah-san’s restaurant specialised in lamb barbecued with vegetables on an unusual, convex grill, a dish that for largely obscure reasons is known as Genghis Khan. Because Genghis Khan is barbecued at your table, and because several of the guests were smokers (a couple of leather-clad Harley enthusiasts turned up later in the evening to further cloud the air), it was like eating dinner in a fire drill evacuation practice tent, and not exactly the best environment for Mr Middle Field’s daughter.
Upon discovering that I didn’t eat meat, okah-san laid on a special set meal, although bless her, she seemed a lot more at home cooking for carnivores, and the salmon was little more than a lump of charcoal by the time it reached the table.
The weather forecast was for more rain, but much as I liked the people, I couldn’t see myself spending another day in Chokubetsu. The railway station, as it turned out, was functioning, but while the express trains sped through without stopping, the local ones were so infrequent that it wouldn’t even be possible to take a day trip to nearby Kushiro, so I decided to head off the next morning no matter what.
Some of my colleagues ask the first and second graders to fill a page of their English notebooks every day, usually with words or phrases they have recently been studying. Since the teachers don't have enough time for marking and the students don't have enough time for additional homework, the benefits are, to say the least, questionable. Ploughing through a mountain of beginner's English every morning does occasionally throw up some oddities, though: one student filled five pages of his notebook with a single word, 'custom', and another filled eleven pages with just the days of the week. But easily my most bizarre - and let's be honest, genuinely scary - discovery was this:
Which definitely wasn't taken from the textbook.
In case, like me, you are now concerned for this student's safety and mental well-being, my fellow English teacher tells me that the school makes a point of keeping an eye on her, so with this in mind, I marked the page with a big, friendly spiral (ALTs beware: in Japan, ticks are used to denote incorrect answers) and passed no further comment on what she had written.
(Incidentally, and as you've no doubt already realised, 死 - pronounced shi - is the kanji for death. Never let it be said that this blog isn't educational.)
Every now and then I come down with a bout of homesickness, and my most recent episode was brought on by the research I had been doing for a lecture about the photographer James Ravilious.
Ravilious was born in Eastbourne in 1939, and both of his parents were artists: his mother Tirzah Garwood was a wood engraver, and his father Eric was famous for his watercolours of the South Downs.
Having ditched his original plan of becoming an accountant, Ravilious studied at St Martin's before working as an art teacher at Hammersmith College. He married Robin Whilstler - daughter of the renowned glass engraver Laurence Whistler - in 1970, and the couple moved to the village of Dolton in North Devon.
Ravilious got a job teaching printmaking at nearby Beaford Arts Centre, and was commissioned by its curator John Lane to create an archive of life in this comparatively unchanged corner of the English countryside. By the time of Ravilious's death in 1999, the Beaford Archive contained around 80,000 of his photographs.
I first came across Ravilious's photographs in 2009, at a modest exhibition in the foyer of the National Theatre, and was struck not just by their beauty and their humanity, but by a wave of nostalgia for my own childhood: my parents moved to North Devon at around the same time as Ravilious, and I spent the first few years of my life in a small village not far from Dolton and Beaford - this particular photograph depicts the same maternity ward on which I was born.
Obviously Ravilious's work reminds me of the Devon countryside of my youth - of the narrow lanes with grass down the middle, the flocks of sheep in the road, the high hedgerows, the rolling hills, the blackberry picking and the muck spreading - but another thing that makes it so special is that Ravilious got to know his subjects over long periods of time, something that allowed him to capture for posterity the minutiae of their everyday lives.
One particular character - the farmer Archie Parkhouse - crops up again and again, most notably in what is perhaps Ravilious's best known photograph...
...but also in many others, in which we see Parkhouse both at work...
...and at home.
Ravilious's technique was deceptively simple: he shot in black and white, and more often than not from head height. His preferred camera was a pre-war Leica M3...
...which he used in conjunction with a 35mm (ie. comparatively wide-angle) Leitz Elmar lens.
Modern lenses have a coating that makes for sharper photographs and prevents lens flare (or 'Lionel Blair', as it is still referred to in Cockney rhyming slang by film and TV cameramen), whereas older lenses - including the Elmar - are uncoated.
The irony is that Ravilious had a fondness for shooting into the sun, so while his Leica equipment produced images that are soft, low in contrast and have a wonderful painterly quality, in order to reduce flare, he had to attach a handmade lens hood to the camera. This looked a bit like the inside of a toilet roll painted black, and is described by his wife Robin in the documentary James Ravilious: A World In Photographs (which as far as I know is occasionally repeated on Sky Arts, and can be purchased on DVD via the producers Banyak Films
Ravilious experimented with various developing techniques to achieve the look he was after, and while I don't profess to understand these particularly well, as explained in this blog
, he used 'film rated at 400asa, exposed at 200asa and under-developed in order to allow the shadow tones to become a little more lifted in the image'.
These days, such tinkering would be done in Photoshop rather than in the dark room, although it is probably fair to say that Ravilious's photographs - reproduced here, I have to confess, entirely without permission - are as good an argument as you will find for the superiority of film over digital photography, or at least for film as a fundamentally different medium.
I gave my lecture on Ravilious to a small audience of English-speaking locals last Saturday evening, and at the end, one of them made a very interesting point: if Ravilious's brief was to produce an archival - and therefore documentary - record of life in Devon, why did he work in black and white, and why did he put so much effort into making his photographs look beautiful?
All I can say in answer to this question is thank goodness he did, and thank goodness Lane gave him such a free rein, while at the same time paying Ravilious enough money to hone his craft over such a long period of time.
A footnote: Ravilious did in fact take some colour photographs, although I could only find one online.
And as Ravilious is quoted as saying by one of the contributors to A World In Photographs, the Devon landscape is so lush and verdant that conversely, photographing it in black and white somehow works better.
The official James Ravilious website can be found here
, and you can see many more of his photographs at the Beaford Archive website
, while an original will set you back between three and four hundred pounds.
The most notable book about Ravilious is called An English Eye
, and much of the information for this blog post was culled from this
excellent Guardian obituary.
When you have a baby, all of a sudden poo takes on a much bigger role in your life than it used to. In the days following M Jr’s birth, her nappy filled with a black, tar-like substance, the technical term for which is meconium, and which contains a mixture of (and I quote) ‘intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile and water'. This eventually settled down into something less sticky and with more of a green tinge to it, and while Mrs M and I both wondered aloud how M Jr’s digestive system contrived to turn milk green, according to a kind of colour swatch given to us at the hospital, white poo is actually a bad thing, and a sign that your baby could be suffering from a medical condition called tan-doh-heisa-shoh
(胆道閉鎖症 / biliary atresia).A
fter this initial period of plentiful poo-ing, however, M Jr was soon exhibiting signs of the dreaded benpi
(便秘 / constipation). Many more Japanese are cursed with this condition than the rest of us, and as a consequence, the relative ease and frequency of one’s bowel movements is considered a perfectly respectable topic for dinner party conversation. S
ome say the epidemic came about after meat and / or dairy products were introduced into the Asian diet, and others that after centuries of eating rice, the Japanese intestine has evolved to be slightly longer than average, and thus more easily blocked. When Mrs M – who is, as the saying goes, benpi-kei
(便秘系 / a member of the constipation club) – first moved to London, like most of her fellow countrymen and women, she still ate sticky, white, low-in-fibre rice with every meal including breakfast. But despite experimenting with supposedly bowel-friendly brown rice, wholemeal bread, dried fruit, orange-flavoured fibre drinks and even linseed, it soon became clear that what we were dealing with was a full-blown genetic predisposition.A
t just over a week old, and while she and Mrs M were still staying with the in-laws, M Jr went poo-free for over forty-eight hours. I had read online that breast milk contains an ingredient that naturally guards against constipation, and at the time, M Jr was drinking a mixture of breast milk and formula, so we immediately cut out the latter. With the temperature in the thirties, dehydration was another possible factor, and at least once a day we gave her a baby bottle of warm water. In accordance with an NHS Direct-style website I had found, we also massaged her stomach and moved her legs around as if she was jogging or riding a bicycle, but to no avail.T
hen one evening I sat in front of the TV with M Jr on my lap, and in her usual fashion, she wriggled about and pulled an array of funny faces. She also farted a couple of times, and I soon became aware of an odd – although not necessarily offensive – smell. Upon investigating further, I was confronted with a veritable number twos tsunami, and before long, the entire family had gathered round to congratulate M Jr on her achievement. More to the point, f
rom that day onwards, sitting on my lap had a kind of laxative effect on M Jr, so that every time I put her there, she would screw up her face until it turned red, wave her arms and legs like a beetle on its back, and endeavour to grant me the gift of poo.
It wasn't long before she had clammed up again, and this time we were in for the long haul. After three defecation-free days, Mrs M took her to the maternity clinic, where I-sensei said that M Jr was too young to take any medicine or have an enema (rather than a rubber hose and warm water, My First Enema involves sticking a glycerine capsule up your baby’s backside, upon which the capsule dissolves and magically opens the floodgates). The only thing he could suggest instead was the Cotton Bud Method, which I can’t imagine anyone resorts to in the UK, but which is tried and tested over here. For this you dip a cotton bud in baby oil or vaseline, insert it to a depth of about a centimetre (and when I say insert it, I don't mean into your baby’s ear), and gently move it around in a circular motion, supposedly to stimulate the evacuation response. Even this didn’t work, though, and on Day Six, Mrs M called A-san, who as well as being the mother of one of my students, does home visits as a qualified midwife.B
y the time A-san turned up, it had been a full week since M Jr last needed her bottom wiped, and while we weren’t exactly panicking – I had read that a week between poos is nothing out of the ordinary for a newborn – it was disheartening to watch her gurning away of an evening, only to find that no solids were being emitted, just gases.T
his time, on the second or third attempt, the Cotton Bud Method worked, and again, the result bore an uncanny resemblance to the contents of a jar of Patak’s
. If someone is benpi-kei, one always assumes that their poo has congealed to a diamond-like hardness and would therefore be painful to pass, but this carrot-and-coriander-soup-like mixture looked as if it ought to come out of its own accord, or at least without the sufferer having to pull any funny faces.A
nd perhaps that was M Jr’s problem all along, in that she hadn’t yet worked out how to push, as it were, in the correct fashion. A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of another Niagara Falls of faeces, which had burst forth at the exact moment Mrs M was changing M Jr’s nappy. Like me, Mrs M had assumed that it would be a couple more days before the next installment in this scatological saga, but after a few seconds of grunting like a pensioner with a prostate problem, M Jr let rip, and Mrs M almost ran out of baby wipes trying to stem the tide.W
hat the future holds is anyone’s guess, although I suspect that no matter how much fibre we force her to eat when she moves on to solid food, M Jr’s digestive fate is already sealed, and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life worrying about where the next poo is coming from. Still, at least she’ll have a hundred million fellow Japanese with whom to talk about it over dinner.(If you fancy reading another poo-related blog post, please make your way to this page at More Things Japanese.)
It has now been three weeks since M Jr was born, and as well as the usual parenting concerns – eg. How do I change a nappy? How do I tell when a bottle of formula has reached the correct temperature? Is it just me or does one of her ears stick out slightly further than the other one? – I have been trying my best to get up to speed with the various traditions and pecularities associated with having a baby in Japan.
Starting at the very beginning, here’s what I’ve managed to find out so far (although be warned, as some of these may be specific to Ibaraki, or subject to variation depending on which part of the country you happen to live in):
1) Moh-koh-han ( 蒙古斑 / Mongolian spot)
Most East Asian babies, along with a few from isolated groups elsewhere in the world – Native Americans, for example, and East Africans – are born with a blue-green mark in the small of their back called a Mongolian spot. In most cases the mark disappears over time, although it occasionally persists until adulthood, or manifests itself elsewhere on the body (if you find your Mongolian spot embarrassing, like a tattoo, it can be removed with laser treatment). According to Wikipedia, Mongolian spots are sometimes mistaken for bruises in the West, and as a consequence, at least a few expat parents have been wrongly accused of hitting their children. M Jr has a small and rather faint Mongolian spot, although given that it's at the top of her builder's cleavage, I didn't think a snapshot would be appropriate.
2) Mei-shin (迷信 / superstitions)
M Jr is both a lion and a dragon (Leo and Chinese year of the~ respectively), although we won’t know what her ketsu-eki-gata (血液型 / blood type) is for another year or so, which in Japan is rather akin to not knowing your own name. Even Mrs M, who is almost as cynical as me when it comes to things like star signs, will talk in all seriousness about how As are obsessive compulsive and ABs have split personalities, and isn’t it unusual that we ended up together despite me being a B and her being an O.
A rather more obscure superstition that I became aware of just recently is the roku-yoh (六曜 / six labels for the Japanese calendar). Originally imported from China, the roku-yoh designate each day of the year with varying degrees of good or bad fortune, and while they don't really have anything to do with childbirth, I thought I'd share them with you anyway, in case, like me, you've ever wondered what all those strange kanji are next to the dates in your diary:
– Sen-shoh (先勝 / literally ‘before win’) – The morning of a sen-shoh day is lucky, but the hours between 2pm and 6pm are unlucky.
– Tomobiki (友引 / ‘friend pull’) – The morning is lucky, lunchtime is unlucky and the evening is very lucky. Tomobiki days are good for business dealings and lawsuits, but bad for funerals.
– Senbu (先負 / ‘before lose’) – The morning is unlucky and the afternoon is lucky.
– Butsu-metsu (仏滅 / ‘Buddha destruction’) – Very unlucky all day.
– Tai-an (大安 / ‘big safe’) – The most auspicious of the six, and thus a good day for weddings and the like.
– Shakkoh (赤口 / ‘red mouth’) – The time between 11am and 1pm is lucky, but the rest of the day is unlucky.
Despite being born at four in the afternoon on a shakkoh, M Jr seems to be doing well, although in future, we may decide to hold her birthday parties at lunchtime.
4) Héso-no-o (臍の緒 / umbilical cord)
Allowing a father to cut his baby’s umbilical cord is a recent development in Japan, and wasn’t even mentioned to me as a possibility when M Jr was born. A much older tradition dictates that the umbilical cord is given to the parents, who leave it to dry before placing it on the butsudan (仏壇 / Buddhist altar) or kamidana (神棚 / Shinto shrine) in the family home. Otoh-san, for example, still has both Mrs M’s and onii-san's umbilical cords, and while we donated most of M Jr’s for medical research, a small part of it now sits in a little wooden box on the kamidana.
(In contrast to this, Bobby Orgon
said recently on Sekai Banzuké
that in his home country of Nigeria, the umbilical cord is believed to possess mysterious powers, and that rather than keeping it, a father takes his baby’s umbilical cord from the hospital and buries it where there is no chance of it ever being found.)
Three days after her baby is born, it is customary for the mother to eat bota-mochi – rice cakes covered in red bean paste – and for her family to give them to friends and relatives when they pass on the news of the birth. Okah-san placed her order for bota-mochi almost as soon as M Jr had let out her first cry, and a couple of days later I took the day off work to drive okah-san around, handing out bota-mochi to our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The two main disadvantages of bota-mochi are that a) they’re not particularly appetising, and b) they’re made of mochi-gomé
(餅米 / extra-sticky rice used specifically for making rice cakes), which in the past was thought to aid the production of breast milk, but which has recently been found to do the exact opposite.
5) Mei-mei-sho (命名書 / name scroll)
Also on the third day after the birth, the mei-mei-sho – on which are written the baby’s name, its status within the family (for example, whether it’s an older brother or a younger sister), its birthday and the name of the head of the household – is displayed on the butsudan, the kamidana or even the tokonoma (床の間 / the decorative recess in an old-style tatami room, which in a modern-day hotel or B&B is often home to the TV). When Mrs M was born, otoh-san hired a professional calligrapher to write her mei-mei-sho at a cost of over 10,000 yen, whereas this time round, he typed it on Microsoft Word and printed it on a sheet of A4 paper.
6) Shussan-todoké (出産届 / notice of birth)
It is necessary to give notice at the town hall within fourteen days of a birth, so that your baby can be included on the koseki-toh-hon (戸籍謄本 / family register), and also so that you can begin receiving kodomo-té-até (子供手当 / child benefit). In the process of doing this, Mrs M and I realised that while M Jr will be registered as living at Mrs M’s parents’ address, her hon-seki (本籍 / permanent residence) is about a kilometre away, on a now empty plot of land where her great-grandparents – otoh-san’s parents – owned a house before they passed away in the 1970s.
7) Toko-agé (床上げ, aka obiaké / 帯明け or possibly obiya-aké / 産屋明け)
Back in the days when home births were the norm and the child mortality rate was far higher than it is now, a party called oshichi-ya (お七夜 / ‘honourable seventh night’) was held to celebrate a baby reaching a week old. Nowadays mothers and their babies spend that first week in hospital, and are only allowed to check out when they’ve been given a clean bill of health. At this point, however, they are expected to spend a further two weeks at the mother’s parents’ house, and this twenty-one-day period is known as toko-agé.
The literal translation of toko-agé is ‘floor up’, and refers to the practice of keeping mother and baby’s futon laid out on the bedroom floor at all times. While grandma does the washing, the cooking and the cleaning – not to mention as much of the baby-minding as her daughter is willing to hand over – mother and baby stay indoors and avoid anything that involves the use of cold water (they are seen as being particularly vulnerable to catching colds and infections). Unfortunately for Mrs M, otoh-san didn’t quite catch on to the purpose of toko-agé, and packed her futon away every morning, thus depriving her of the chance of a siesta. Also, for someone who was going for a walk at least once a day until the evening before M Jr was born, being stuck indoors felt a little claustrophobic, so she moved back to our apartment after just seven days in hospital and seven days at home.
8) O-iwai / uchi-iwai (お祝い / 内祝い)
In the UK, a new arrival is the cue for a veritable frenzy of knitting – booties, blankets, little baby-sized jumpers and so on – but in Japan, the parents will instead be granted the gift of cold, hard cash. The word o-iwai – ‘honourable celebration’ – is used to describe all kinds of gifts, but the tricky thing for the recipient is what to give in return (uchi-iwai).
As okah-san explained to us, uchi-iwai should amount to at least half the value of the original o-iwai, and it is best to go for a nice, round figure. For example, to the friends and relatives who gave us 10,000 yen o-iwai, we will give uchi-iwai to the value of 5000 yen, and for the friends and relatives who gave us 5000 yen o-iwai, we will round up their uchi-iwai to 3000 yen. Many people order their uchi-iwai from gift catalogues, but to avoid disappointment, Mrs M and I will be giving shopping vouchers instead, and okah-san has insisted that we supplement these with an extra present of something edible, meaning that in some cases we will retain just 20 % of the original o-iwai.
The shopping vouchers are from a credit card company called JCB (nothing to do with the people who make mechanical diggers, I might add), and purchased at a branch of the electronics store Yamada Denki. One of Mrs M’s great aunts lives just down the road from Yamada Denki, but when Mrs M suggested dropping in to hand over the uchi-iwai straight away, okah-san said that under no circumstances must we do so until the twenty-one days of toko-agé were up (after all, Mrs M was officially supposed to be at home, napping on her futon and with okah-san waiting on her hand and foot).
OK, so that’s the stuff we’ve already done, but still to come – in the near future, at least – are:
9) Omiya-mairi (お宮参り / first visit to the shrine)
After thirty days (one website suggests thirty-one for a boy and thirty-two for a girl, but anywhere around the one-month mark seems to be OK), the baby is taken to the local shrine so its family can pay their respects to the ubusunagami (産土神 / god of one’s birthplace). In some cases, this is done a hundred days after the birth, and known as momoka-mairi (百日参り / hundred-day visit).
10) Okui-zomé (お食い初め / literally ‘honourable eat first’, aka momoka-iwai / 百日祝い)
Taking place a hundred days after the birth, okui-zomé is symbolic of the move from a milk-only diet to rinyu-shoku (離乳食 / solids), although unfortunately for the baby, the food on offer is strictly for adults. A variety of traditional dishes are laid out on the dinner table and then wafted under the baby’s nose - if it’s a boy, this is done by the senior male member of the family, and vice versa for a girl – before being eaten. Presumably the baby has to make do with a jar of Cow & Gate instead.
(Nb. This isn't M Jr, just an anonymous Google picture search baby.)
11) Koku-seki (国籍 / Nationality)
While most Japanese citizens are only allowed to hold one passport, those of mixed parentage (who are referred to as haafu – ie. half-Japanese, half-foreign) are allowed to hold two until they reach twenty years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although some who retain their Japanese passport secretly renew the other at a later date. By the same token, some parents don’t bother registering their haafu baby with the relevant foreign embassy in the first place, effectively choosing Japanese nationality straight away.
Partly because so many foreigners went back to their home countries after the earthquake, immigration laws – or at least the way in which they are implemented – have been relaxed a little of late, so I have a feeling the one-passport-only rule may have been dispensed with by the time M Jr reaches her twentieth birthday. In any case, at some point in the next few months, Mrs M and I will apply to the Consulate-General in Hong Kong for M Jr’s British passport, which will cost about a hundred quid including postage, and last her for the next five years (by which time she will of course look utterly different from the photograph of Winston Churchill contained therein).
For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or 'sister city', as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.
Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans - K-sensei and her student, er, K-san - did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).
The following day T-kun - who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football - was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question - Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc - although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner's English into British English, and from American English back into beginner's English.
In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn't just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).
Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
'To be honest,' she said, 'left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn't so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.' (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M's father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)
Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man's kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don't pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan - thereby keeping the decorative side pristine - before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.
'All we need now is some kertarner,' said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. 'Don't they have any kertarner we can use?'
'What's a kertarner?' I asked them.
'You know, a samurai sword!'
'Oh, you mean a katana!'
'Is there anywhere we can buy one?'
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.
After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic
and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.
After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
'So, do you want an American girlfriend?' I asked them.
'Yes!' came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other's company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.
In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen...sorry, I mean 'outlet mall', which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys - egged on by me, it has to be said - dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.
After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering 'One more!' before calling it a night - much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.
The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun's host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each 'bullet'), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.
After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh - 蛍光 - meaning 'fluorescence').
After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don't have a middle name ('You don't have a middle name?' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'My parents didn't give me one.' 'But you have to have a middle name!' 'What's your middle name, then?' 'I'm not telling you!' etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when - as S-sensei described it - Japan seemed like 'a magical place'.
Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route - as displayed on a nearby information board - and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider's webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn't much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom - quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.
I passed the highest point on the trail - the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji - almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.
While its surrounding stone walls - well, they were more like battlements - had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years' worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.
The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco
I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.
(金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja
(金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan
). The kon
of konsei means 'gold' or 'shining', and the sei
means, among other things, 'sperm' or 'sexual stamina'. So in the same way that the kintama
are one's 'golden balls', the konsei
are, so to speak, one's 'golden tadpoles'. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus - or phalli - made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.
This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn't thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.
At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don't know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.
As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn't realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel - or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel - an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.