A New Year

The first of January.

'Tis a day to look backwards, and forwards, like Janus himself.

For this particular individual, 2013 was an eventful year and a year of adjustment and consolidation, in which I grew accustomed in the years approaching my half-century to the novel (to me) experience of married life with two stepchildren.

For my wife was a widow when I met her, with a son and a daughter.

And my family, unlike me, are Japanese nationals.

So English is their second language, which the children are now rapidly becoming familiar with, but their quadragenarian mother is struggling to come to grips with its foreign (to her) grammar and syntax.

And the year ended with the news that a new child is travelling towards us in its mother's womb, with its expected arrival date late in July (just after its father's -- my -- 49th birthday).

So it is a year which this particular individual faces with trepidation.

The oncoming year is going to be a year of new experiences for all here in Terangeree Tower, with the step-son setting forth into the world of High School, and his little sister's school year being the first time in her life when her big brother won't be nearby.

And, when the baby arrives, it will be likely that I will be in a new job, working in Western Australia on a fly-in, fly-out basis.

More money, more time with my family, and more loneliness when at work.

It will be a year of wonders, and a year of joy.

It will also, probably, be a year which brings with it some disappointment and sorrow -- as all years are for most people.

I only hope now, on January 1, that 2014 will be a year that brings 99 per cent joy and 1 per cent sadness.


Fallowfield forgotten blog

New year, and time to clear the cobwebs that are cluttering this, and other, blogs of mine.



Why is Australia playing a Test series against Pakistan in England?


Green Tea, Black Birds.

In Inari, by the Shrine,
Stands a cafe 
That's half as old as Time.

Not the stuff of which Poet Laureates are made, I'll admit, but lunch in Inari's quiet and small Jade House cafe/restaurant found me composing that SMS haiku for friends back in Australia.

I don't know how old the cafe is, but its building  is about 400 years old -- a mere whippersnapper compared to the 1,300-year-old shrine that stands next-door -- and was originally an inn for the travellers and pilgrims who passed by on the old Tokaidō Road, literally half a pace away from the front door. 

My midsummer's journey, however, was not on foot along the Tokaidō. It was by rail along JR's Nara Line to a city whose bridge has its own goddess: the not-so-gloomy city of Uji , where I was going to watch the fishing -- otherwise known as Ukai .

Uji's river was thrice a battlefield, flows through the middle of one of the world's first novels and past the ancient and beautiful Byodo-in temple -- and it's where I find myself afloat with a boatload of Osakan Haiku poets to watch the tethered cormorants duck and dive in the shallow river in search of sweetfish.

Darkness has fallen, and the six birds do their thing by the light of a bonfire that hangs from the fishing boat's prow and the flashbulbs of the sightseers' cameras whilst the poets hurriedly jot down hiragana haikus in their dimly-lit notebooks.

Uji is unusual in that the cormorant fishers are women.  Of the 200 Usho (cormorant fishers) still working in Japan, only four are women.

And two of them -- Mariko Sawaki and Yoko Esaki -- work in Uji.

Like anyone who has mastered a difficult skill, Mariko makes it look easy as she hauls each bird on board to remove the fish from its beak before returning it to the water -- all the while keeping the other birds from tangling their lines or climbing on board the flotilla of sightseeing boats that have accompanied her boat onto the shallow waters of Uji's river.

"My soul
Dives in and out of the water
With the Cormorant"
                           -- Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738)

And suddenly, 90 minutes after we set out on Uji's shallow namesake river, it's all over. The boats all return to shore, the birds are fed and put back into their aviaries, and the spectators don their shoes and go to get some tea.

Because tea is what Uji is really all about, with the best-quality Uji Matcha blends selling for around AU$2.20 per gram.

Next to Uji's goddess-endowed bridge, just over the road from the Keihan Railway's retro-futuristic terminus, stands what is probably the world's oldest tea shop: Tsuen's. 

The shop was opened back in 1160 by Tsuen Masahisa, a retired samurai who was also Uji Bridge's sentry.

Tsuen was a retainer of Yorimasa Minamoto, and his sinecure as bridge sentry and teamaker would take a tragic turn in 1180 when Uji's bridge became the focal point for a battleground.

The First Battle of Uji would begin the Genpei Wars that finished the Heian era and ushered in nearly 700 years of military rule until the Meiji restoration in 1868.

Unfortunately for Tsuen, Yorimasa lost the first battle of Uji and Yorimasa committed seppuku  (hara-kiri) in the grounds of the Byodo-in temple -- the first recorded instance of a samurai choosing self-inflicted death over surrender.

Tsuen was loyal unto, and into, death, committing seppuku alongside his boss in the grounds of the temple where he is buried, at the other end of the goddess-endowed bridge that he guarded and where the tea shop that he opened back in 1160 is still run by his descendants, 23 generations later.


Asakusa: Short Grass, Dancing Women, Crying Babies, Chivalrous Ones and Marco not-Polo.

It was on a hot August night in Asakusa's Rokku district that I met Marco the Pole.

No, not Marco Polo.

Marco definitely was no mediaevel Venetian trader. He was a young and happily-drunk Polish expatriate in Tokyo who was looking for someone to talk to.

"It's been years since I spoke to a European," he said as we drank our Asahis and listened to the really bad and enthusiastic karaoke being sung inside the bar we were sitting outside.

"How long have you been in Japan?" I asked.

"Three years," he said.

"And what is it that you do in Japan?" I asked.

"Well, until two weeks ago," he said, "I was in prison."

Marco, it turned out, is a minor gangster in the mean streets of Asakusa.

"D'you wanna know why it's so safe to walk about late at night in Asakusa?" Marco asked me in a tone that suggested he was going to tell me anyway.

"It's because the Buddhist temple owns all the land, and the Yakuza control the streets.

"The police just ride their little bicycles around, but the real power is with the temple and the Yakuza."

Although it could be easily disputed that the monks of the Senso-ji Temple have that much power, one could not so easily dispute Marco's claim about the local Yakuza syndicate.

The Asakusa-based Matsuba-kai, with roughly 1,300 members, is among the more violent of Japan's Yakuza groups, and quite possibly does wield substantial hidden power in the district.

"Hidden" is the operative word. For most visitors to Asakusa, their only contact with the local Yakuza would be the sight of heavily-tattooed men hauling portable shrines through the streets during the Sanja Matsuri festival in mid-May.

Marco is probably not in the Pine Needle Association, but his friends who joined us were.

Marco introduced one as a boxer, and the other as the boxer's "manager".

They could almost have stepped straight out of a Tokyo production of Guys & Dolls.

The boxer, who looked to me like a Japanese version of "Nicely Nicely Johnson" in the movie, was very drunk and very friendly and kept wanting to hug me.

And when a drunken boxer-cum-gangster wants to give you a friendly hug, you let him.

A third man joins us, and Marco gets him to unclench his left fist, revealing that he only has half of a little finger.

Yubitsume  is a form of apology in which the transgressor chops off the end of his left little finger and ceremonially presents it to his boss. Our new companion had, in his youth, had to perform yubitsume on himself.

I thought it wise not to ask him why.

"They [the Yakuza] can be very kind and very generous," Marco said, "but if you get on their wrong side they can be the most ruthless and vicious of enemies."

They would certainly have been well established in Asakusa 100 years ago when Rokku was Tokyo's major entertainment centre: its maze of alleys connecting its theatres, cinemas, opera-houses, music-halls, restaurants and brothels making Rokku a profitable ground for the Yakuza.

Asakusa was Tokyo's entertainment centre for about a century from 1841, when Tokugawa Ieyoshi  expelled the "degenerate" Kabuki theatres from Tokyo.

The Meiji Restoration let the Kabuki theatres go back to Ginza and expanded the city's boundaries to include Asakusa, where Japan was introduced to Western-style opera, cinema, skyscrapers, Western-style amusement parks and subway trains to Japan.

Japan's first Western-style amusement park, Hanayashiki, is still operating nearly 160 years after it opened up in a corner of Asakusa Park. 

Asakusa's Rokku grew to become an Oriental version of Paris'  Montparnasse -- the place to see and to be seen -- but it all ended one infernal night in 1945 when Asakusa was the "target for tonight" for 334 incendary-packed B-29 Superfortresses in modern warfare's most devastating air raid.

Like most of Tokyo, Asakusa was completely destroyed in the resulting firestorms which killed around 200,000 and left over 1 million homeless. Asakusans who waded into the nearby Sumida River to escape the firestorm were boiled alive and the river the next morning was clogged with their corpses.

After the war, Tokyo's main entertainment districts moved west to where they're now centred around Shinjuku, Shibuya and Roppongi.

Whilst those districts are marked by Blade Runner-esque architecture from the economic boom of the 1970s and '80s, Asakusa predominantly consists of buildings from the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s and retains much of the atmosphere of the 'old' shitamachi Tokyo.

Most activity in Asakusa today is in Nakimase-dori, an always-busy 300-year-old shopping street that stretches between the outer and inner gates of the Senso-ji temple.

Senso-ji, established in 628AD, is Tokyo's oldest temple and one of its most significant.

The heart of Asakusa, Senso-ji, is the focal point for many of the festivals that liberally dot the Asakusa calendar.

One of the strangest of these is the annual naki-zumo festival, which is a "sumo wrestling-baby crying contest" in which two full-grown sumo wrestlers -- each holding an infant -- face up to each other in the ring: but the contest is between the babies to see which one can cry the loudest.

The winning baby, according to the 400-year tradition, will be blessed by the Shinto gods with good health. 

One of the most colourful of Asakusa's annual festivals -- the 29th Annual Asakusa Samba Carnival -- took place the day after I met Marco not-Polo and his Yakuza friends.

The samba carnival largely consists of a six-hour-long procession of scantily-clad women dancing down Asakua's Edo-dori into Kanarimon-dori to finish outside Kanarimon --  Senso-ji's outer gate and the southern end of Nakimase-dori.

The parade had a taste of the old Brisbane Warana  to it, though, with trucks disguised as fancifully-decorated floats, and the occasional toddler or infant participating in the parade.

The post-Samba partying continued late into the night in Rokku, giving a brief glimpse of what the area must have been like in its heyday.

But on the night before the Samba, it was quiet in Rokku and I was still drinking in the company of gangsters, trying to find a gracious way of leaving them.

So I told them I had an appointment to see a beautiful woman (the desk clerk of my ryokan, who I had to see so I could retrieve the key to my room).

Marco not-Polo, "Nicely Nicely",  his manager "Thin Arata" and  Yubitsume Yuji all shook my hand (although "Nicely Nicely" gave me another hug) and wished me good luck on what they thought was a romantic assignation.

Marco leaned over to me just before I left.

"If you ever find yourself in trouble in Asakusa," he said, "just ask around for Marco.

"I'll be sure to see that you're alright."