Muzuhashi Jr – Pt.2

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-kohan ( 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.)

4) Mitsumé-no-botamochi (三つ目の牡丹餅)

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-two years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although many 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).

Cheapskate’s paradise!

It is a Muzuhashi family trait to never, ever buy anything unless it’s cut-price, ‘seconds’, sold-as-seen, extremely cheap or, ideally, second-hand, and while as a rule, I have about as much affection for the act of shopping as a footballer does for the act of fidelity, if threatened at gunpoint or bribed with the offer of limited edition New York cheesecake Choco Pie, I will very reluctantly partake if the venue is a recycle shop.

Recycle shops are to Japan what charity shops are to the UK, and partly out of necessity (ie. recession), partly for environmental reasons (Tokyo was producing so much rubbish in the post-war years there is even an island – Yumé-no-shima / 夢の島 – built on it in Tokyo Bay), these days they’re springing up all over the place.

In contrast with a charity shop, however, instead of donating any old junk you think someone else might be willing to buy, you take your any old junk to the recycle shop, and the people who work there decide if someone else might be willing to buy it. The amount of money you get in return is risibly small, but hey, at least you’re giving those unwanted possessions a chance to be re-used instead of chucking them straight in the bin. (Also, and in contrast to selling second-hand goods in the UK, you get the same amount regardless of whether it’s cash or part-exchange.)

If you’re a buyer, on the other hand – and particularly if you are, for example, a cash-strapped ALT just off the bus from Narita Airport – recycle shops can help you furnish your one-room Leo Palace apartment with nearly new and / or barely used bargains.

So with this in mind, here’s my guide to the best recycle shops in and around Mito (if you spot any mistakes or can recommend any places I’ve missed, feel free to leave a comment):

1) Seimiya / せいみや (Tokai)

The original and best recycle shop, as well as furniture and ‘white goods’ (ie. fridges, washing machines etc), Seimiya has separate departments for hardware, antiques, office and kitchen equipment. For a small fee – and like most if not all of the shops on this list – they are willing to deliver larger items, and for a not-so-small fee, to take away your old kitchen appliances for recycling.

A word of warning: not everything in Seimiya is second-hand, so be sure to check the price and condition before you buy – if the item is new, you may be able to find it cheaper at somewhere like Nitori or Joyful Yamashin.

Directions: Seimiya is on the east side of Route 6 as it goes through Tokai-mura (there’s a map on their website).

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seimiya: washing machine, 2 x fridge-freezers, dining table & chairs, vacuum cleaner, zaseki (座席 / those chairs-without-legs often found in Japanese living rooms).

2) Wonder Rex Naka-shi / ワンダーレックス那珂市 (Naka)

The Wonder Rex chain has a new shop in Akatsuka, but the Naka branch is, in my humble opinion, better stocked. I’ve purchased pretty much every item of clothing I own there, and they also have musical instruments, electrical goods, kitchen goods, toys and sports equipment (although Mrs M tells me the women’s and children’s clothes tend to be a little on the pricey side).

Directions: The Naka branch is on the south side of a road that runs between Route 349 and Route 6, and part of the San Molino / Homac shopping mall, which is easy to spot because of its large fake windmill (the official Wonder Rex homepage map is here).

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Wonder Rex: t-shirts, shorts, trousers, tracksuit tops, presentation set of flower-pattern Cath Kidston coffee mugs

3) Hard Off Mito Minami-inter / ハードオフ水戸南インター (Mito)

Hard Off isn’t as big as Wonder Rex, but it sells the same kind of stuff, and if anything is probably slightly cheaper. Don’t go there looking for clothes, though, as they really do look like the sort of thing you would find in a run-down branch of the Sue Ryder Shop on Chippenham High Street.

Directions: The Mito branch is near the enormous K’s Denki at the Route 50 bypass / Route 6 crossroads. Head towards the expressway from the crossroads and you’ll find Hard Off on the right-hand side of the road (the Hard Off homepage map is here).

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Hard Off: oven, de-humidifier, chest of drawers, rucksack, baby bath, Bumbo

(Also worth checking out are the Hard Offs at Akatsuka, and on Route 123 at Mashiko,  just over the border in Tochigi Prefecture.)

4) Book Off Route 50 bypass / ブックオフ50号水戸元吉田 (Mito)

Second-hand bookshops are all over the place in Japan, but one of the biggest chains, Book Off, has recently branched out into selling general second-hand goods. The Mito branch specialises in menswear, although they also sell surfboards, wetsuits, golf clubs and so on, along with the usual books, CDs and DVDs.

Directions: It’s on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass, where the bypass meets the road that runs directly from the south exit of Mito Station (the Book Off homepage map is here).

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Book Off: t-shirts, polo shirts, trainers, sweaters, and, er, books

(For the more adventurous among you, there is a Book Off recycle superstore – the car park, it says on their website, has more than a thousand spaces – in Maébashi, Gunma Prefecture.)

5) Sohko-seikatsu-kan / 倉庫生活館 (Mito)

There are several recycle shops catering to Ibaraki University students, and the best of them is Sohko-seikatsu-kan. While it is part of a chain, Sohko-seikatsu-kan looks more like the kind of slightly dodgy, independent recycle shops that bargain-hunters like – well, like me – get all worked up about, and stocks furniture, white and electrical goods, along with a smattering of other bits, bobs, odds and ends.

Directions: It‘s opposite a Max Valu supermarket, on a side road that runs parallel to – and south of – Route 123 (see this map), and not far from Ibaraki University and the Ibaraki Budokan.

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohko-seikatsu-kan: hand mixer, chest of drawers

6) Seikatsu-kohboh-kan / 生活工芸館 (Mito)

Seikatsu-kohboh-kan may be small but it has a high turnover and, more importantly, is very cheap.

Directions: It’s even closer to the University than Sohko-seikatsu-kan, on the T-junction of Routes 118 and 123 (see this map).

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seikatsu-kohboh-kan: fan heater, washing pole

7) Sohgoh Recycle Eco / 総合リサイクル・エコ (Mito)

Sohgoh Recycle Eco is housed in a disused pachinko parlour, and as well as furniture and white goods, they also sell scooters and motorcycles.

Directions: It’s on the north side of Route 51 between Mito and Oh-arai (there’s a map on their website)

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohgoh Recycle Eco: gas range

8) Furugi-ya-honpo / 古着屋本舗 (Mito)

Furugi-ya-honpo deals solely in clothing, and while a lot of the second-hand stuff is ‘vintage’ (ie. expensive), there’s a huge amount of stock to choose from, including sale rails outside.

Directions: As per this map, it’s on the westbound / south side of the Route 50 bypass, directly opposite Yamada Denki.

Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Furugi-ya-honpo: hoodie, woolly hat, yukata

9) Kanteidan / 鑑定団 (Akatsuka)

Kanteidan‘s signage and homepage claim that you can buy and sell ‘anything’ there, although when Mrs M and went, pretty much the only second-hand stuff we could find was in the extensive clothing section on the top floor.

Directions: Kanteidan is on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass, between the Mito expressway interchange and the turn off for the old Route 50 at Akatsuka.

Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Kanteidan: t-shirts, trainers, manga

9) Yasui-ya / 安い屋 (Mito)

OK, so we’re scraping the barrel a bit here, but trust me, Yasui-ya is worth visiting for sheer curiosity value. Most of the goods on display (if you can call it that – it looks more like they were dumped through the front doors off the back of a pick-up truck) have apparently lain untouched for several decades, and while the furniture in particular seems a little over-priced, I get the feeling they would be susceptible to haggling.

Directions: Yasui-ya is just off Route 118, slightly closer to the centre of Mito than Seikatsu-kohboh-kan, and on a side road that leads to the Nijuhsan-yason-keigan temple (二十三夜尊桂岸寺) (see this map).

Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Yasui-ya: ceiling lamp

10) Shinei / シンエー

You might not think so if you went there, but Shinei is in fact a slightly more upmarket version of Yasui-ya.

Directions: It’s on a back street near Akatsuka Station, as per this map.

There are a few recycle shops in Hitachi-naka, but to be honest they’re not much good (the pick of the bunch, Aru-aru, has recently been demolished), although you might want to check out the King Family clothes shop, which is here. A recycle shop in Mito that I have yet to visit is オーディン (Audin? Ohdin? Ordin?), which is on the old Route 50 near Kairakuen (info here).

One final thing: for some reason you won’t find many second-hand bicycles in recycle shops. Mountain / road / racing bikes do occasionally turn up, although like the mama-chari / shopping bikes, they tend to be over-priced.

Death by literature?

In amongst many newspaper stories commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake, this one caught my eye for several reasons. Firstly, it is about one of the few people who lost their lives in Ibaraki (there were twenty-four in all – twenty-five if you include another who is still missing), and one of the few who did so as a result of the earthquake rather than the tsunami. Secondly, the events described took place in Mito, which is just down the road from where Mrs M and I now live. But thirdly, the manner of her death was bizarre to say the least…

A mother’s heart has not healed, but she is helped by a circle of friends and supporters

Daughter died with her beloved cat – Akira Ikegami’s publication is her destiny

Ms Seguro of Mito – ‘Finally I can get back on my feet’

65-year-old Yasuko Seguro runs a beauty salon in Matsumoto Town, Mito City, and lost her daughter Keiko Taguchi – a housewife, who was 37 at the time – in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Yasuko showed us a recently published book that contains Keiko’s story.

Keiko had a cold and was asleep on the third floor of Yasuko’s house when the disaster struck, and died from cerebral contusion when her collection of books collapsed on top of her. She loved novels and manga, and more than five thousand titles were arranged on the bookshelves in her bedroom. She was staying with her parents at the time because her husband was working away from home.

Yasuko found Keiko’s body after pushing her way through the many books that were scattered about the room. Keiko was with her beloved cat Gato. As if the cat was protecting Keiko, it was covering her face when it too died. ‘My daughter had no visible injuries,’ says Yasuko. ‘Gato had protected her.’

When this story appeared in newspapers, a publisher made an offer to Yasuko, saying, ‘We want Keiko’s story to appear in Akira Ikegami’s book.’ Yasuko preferred to quietly lay the incident to rest, and rejected the offer.

After losing Keiko, Yasuko stopped eating, and lost over ten kilogrammes. Almost every day she talked to her daughter’s photograph, and while she knew there would be no reply, she even sent text messages to Keiko’s mobile phone saying, ‘I want to meet you, I want to meet you’.

Soon afterwards, Ikegami called Yasuko directly, telling her that all proceeds from the book would go towards helping people in areas affected by the disaster.

‘Lots of people have had a hard time, had their houses swept away in the tsunami, had family members go missing.’ Yasuko agreed to the publication, and says, ‘Hopefully I can contribute something to helping the victims of the disaster.’

The book, published as ‘From The Great East Japan Earthquake – News To Join Our Hearts’, was published at the end of June last year, with Keiko’s story appearing as ‘To heaven with her beloved cat’. But even now, after a year has passed, Yasuko has yet to read the book. The events of 11th March 2011 weigh heavily on her heart. Recalling Keiko, she says, ‘Why couldn’t I have helped you?’

Meanwhile, Keiko’s story has appeared in newspapers and in the book, acquaintances of Keiko have come from far and wide to meet Yasuko, neighbours have given her food, and people often pause as they pass the house to bow silently. Many people have supported Yasuko.

‘Even if it hadn’t been for the earthquake, I wouldn’t have been able to put my mind in order yet. But despite having been affected themselves, everyone has shown their support for me, even though they should have been too busy to even think of me. So now, at last, I can get back on my feet,’ says Yasuko, her voice filled with tears.

(From the Tokyo Newspaper, 11/3/12. Incidentally, Akira Ikegami is probably the brainiest person in Japan, or at least the most famous brainy person in Japan, and while it hasn’t yet been translated into English, you can buy his book here.)

Hi honey, I’m home!

In case any of you have been wondering where I had disappeared to, this picture should give you a clue.
Yes, over the Christmas holidays, Mrs M, M Jr and myself went to the good old U of K, mainly to see friends and relatives for the first time in almost two years, but also to sample as much great (or not so great, as the case may be) British grub as was humanly possible.

So, once the jet lag has stopped making me feel like I’ve overdosed on tranquilisers, expect news of what we ate, where we ate it and whether or not we’ll have to wait another two years before eating it again.