Monday, 23 March 2009

Holy Aomori

In northern Japan there is a small village once called Herai, now Shingo, that lays claim to a rather interesting piece of history. As Wikipedia affirms, the town asserts that it is home to the grave of Jesus. Yes, the one who the Bible says was crucified and then resurrected 3 days later. The northern end of the Japanese main island is a far cry from Jerusalem, or anywhere traditionally associated with the Son of God. Mary King, in an article in the Metropolis, remarks that:
"It's hard to imagine anyone, let alone Christ, would have schlepped out to one of the remotest parts of northern Japan in days of old, as even today it demands a great deal of effort to reach the village. Herai epitomizes the middle of nowhere. The place is little more than a lonely grocery store, a sprinkling of farmhouses and scraggly garlic fields and rice paddies blanketed with snow at this time of year."
Local lore in Shingo explains that Jesus made two trips to the area. The first time was when he was a young man, and he apparently spent over a decade studying either theology or Japanese language and literature.

The legend further says that it wasn't actually Christ who was crucified, it was his brother. Jesus escaped with locks of the Virgin Mary's hair and the ear of his crucified brother. He travelled overland, through Siberia back to northern Japan. He returned to Herai where he became a rice farmer and married a Japanese woman. They had three daughters and Jesus lived to be well over 100 and died of natural causes. He was buried on the side of a mountain, in a simple grave that is today marked only by a wooden cross. The grave next to it is known as that of his brother, holding the relics of the brother's ear and Mary's hair.

Some people believe that this explains many things about the village, like why some people have blue eyes, or the local tradition of drawing a cross on the foreheads of newborns and their swaddling clothes embroidered with the Star of David, or even the original source of some local songs with lyrics that are eerily similar to Hebrew. But there are others, even the local man who is said to be a direct descendant of Jesus, who deny any truth to the legends. The village has no church or Christian population, but it does gain income from curious tourists (and it sure makes interesting blog fodder!!)

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Nose Plugs

You know how you never notice something until it happens to you or somebody points it out, and then you seem to see it everywhere around you? Well, maybe it was the the Metro's March manners poster, but the other day, in two completely separate incidents with two completely different people, I saw Japanese guys with plugs of tissue in their nostrils.

The first guy was in a suit and tie, looking like your average salary man. He was crossing the street and seemed completely normal. He was talking with another guy in a suit, and I guessed they were co-workers going for lunch. What made me do a double take (yeah, I actually did a double take and stared, sigh... you'd think that being the subject of a double or triple or quadruple take and lots and lots of staring, you'd think that'd make me somehow sensitive and less likely to do it myself... apparently not! sigh...) What made me do a double take, was that the guy had a wad of tissue stuck in one of his nostrils. I continued across the street and went on my way, somewhat bewildered.

The second guy was only a few hours later. He was dressed in ripped jeans and a colourful shirt, a jaunty hat perched on his head. His girlfriend was snuggled up to him as they sat across from me on the train. They had a big suitcase in front of them and I'm guessing they were about to head off on a trip as the train was going to Narita airport. This guy had tissue in both of his nostrils, and periodically he'd sniffle and fiddle with the wads in his nose.

Is this the Japanese reaction to the Metro posters? Are people across the metropolis of Tokyo suddenly being struck by the desire to be considerate to their fellow man? Are those sniffling and suffering from seasonal allergies realizing that blowing their noses in public is rude and inconsiderate and, paralyzed by the fear that given the lack of garbage cans in public spaces the inability to find somewhere to properly dispose of any tissue they might use to blow their nose would cause them to be lugging around bags and bags full of used tissues?

Or did I just happen to see, in the space of an afternoon, two different weirdos who decided it'd be fun to break the norm and shove tissue paper up their nose instead of conforming by wearing a mask and sniffling endlessly?!

Monday, 16 March 2009

Please Do It No More

Here is the final installment of the Tokyo Metro's "Please do it at..." manners poster series. And, like the Green-eyed Geisha, I'm not impressed.

She comments that the poster looks like a instruction manual for how to dispose of your tissue on the train. I agree. Is the poster trying to get people to stop dropping tissues on the train? (Something I've never seen happen on a Japanese train anywhere) Or they are saying that it is acceptable to drop your garbage on the ground if it is your own home?

At first I thought it might be a commentary on nose blowing in general, as it wasn't all that long ago that it was considered impolite to blow your nose in public in Japan, and people would go to all sorts of lengths to hide nose blowing (the most common, of course, being constant sniffling, a habit that is one of my father's biggest pet peeves, and something he trained out of me only to see me pick it up again after coming to Japan). People would often leave the room and go to the bathroom to blow their nose in private, and I heard stories of Japanese guys being disgusted when the gorgeous blond foreign woman they were idolizing blew her nose right in front of them. While ideas such as these appear to have been disappearing, and it is no longer uncommon to see people blowing their noses in public, it still more common for people to sniffle their way through a runny nose.

This is a month of duds, as Tobu's fairy tale inspired manner poster had me scratching my head.

The fairy tale was obvious, Aladdin and and the Genie are immediately recognizable. Instead of coming out of a lamp, however, the Genie appears to be issuing from Aladdin's cigarette, as a poor damsel coughs and attempts to wave smoke from her face. I don't understand what the message has to do with Aladdin. Don't get me wrong, however, I'm COMPLETELY behind the message of the poster, that all Tobu stations are non-smoking. I'm also very excited that JR stations in Tokyo will be also going smoke free. I take JR most days and the entrance I use has me at one end of the platform, the one with the women's only car in the rush hours of the morning, and the smoking corner for the rest of the day. I am thrilled that as of April 1 I am going to be able to stand there without having to avoid the dozen or so suits puffing away as if their lives depended on the nicotine.

Thursday, 12 March 2009


March 3 is Hinamatsuri, the Doll Festival, or Girl's Day in Japan. Displays of traditional dolls get put up in homes, train stations (only in Japan would these be without any security measures!), department stores, and just about everywhere else. Museums (including where I work!) often do exhibits related to dolls, and everything seems to be pink and red.

Wikipedia has a good explanation of the festival and the placement of the different dolls. La Fuji Mama gives a good description of some of the celebrations that are held by families with daughters.

I have a collection of dolls from around the world, packed in boxes at my dad's house. The dolls were bought for me by my dad when he traveled, or when we traveled as a family, a souvenir from each country or region we visited. (I think this was my dad's way of making sure he could get me a souvenir I'd be happy with, as I wasn't always the most traditional of kids... When I was about 7 he went to Israel for a conference. Before he went he asked me what I wanted him to bring me back - figuring I'd ask for a stuffed camel or something. Nope. I wanted a stuffed squirrel. Somehow he managed to find one in the gift shop of one of the airports he transferred through! I did get a camel too. Dad's are amazing, aren't they?)

Anyways... where was I? Ahhh, yes... my doll collection... Since I have a collection, I was naturally interested in Hinamatsuri from the moment I first heard about it. My host family put up an impressive display of dolls and the little 3 year-old knew well enough that these dolls were NOT for playing. The two of us would sit in front of the display and play with other dolls, she'd pause every so often and talk to the empress doll, or show her the toy being played with.

I don't have daughters, nor do I have space for a large display of dolls, but I try to put out some sort of display every year. Last year one of my friends from school gave me a set of emperor and empress dolls she had made from origami. They are beautiful (and fold away flat for storage not taking up much space!) and I was thrilled to have such a special personal display.

the Emperor and Empress (Odairi-sama & Ohina-sama)

The friend made more this year, and I asked her for a set to send to a friend in Canada. Imagine my surprise then, a few days later when she called and said she had something to give me, and could she drop by after work (she works very close to where I live). She arrived and presented me with a red origami envelope box, which turned out to contain a smaller set of emperor and empress dolls along with their three serving girls and five musicians! I am so excited to have my own set, and am already contemplating trying to add a few more pieces myself each year.

the Emperor

the Empress

the whole group

the 5 musicians

small drum player

large drum player

hand drum player



the 3 serving ladies

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Noise Pollution

A common complaint about Japan is the seemingly endless pre-recorded messages blaring at you from various locations. During the run up to elections politicians have cars driving about blaring messages and requests for votes, right-wing political groups drive black vans with darkened windows that blare rousing militaristic music, the truck that delivers fuel for space heaters plays the MOST ANNOYING jingle, and the one that has been annoying me the most recently is the constant appearance of trucks blaring their desire to take your unwanted electronics off your hands. The drivers go painstakingly slowly through the neighbourhood, stopping regularly to make sure that everybody hears the message and has the chance to grab the laptop/tv with remote control/VCR/.... and run out and joyfully relieve themselves of the burden.

I hear trucks of this sort at least once or twice a week, and it makes me wonder just how many old electronics they think people have sitting around in their homes? I realize the Japanese are famous for buying the newest gadget as soon as it comes out, and electronic items cannot be thrown out in the regular garbage here, but still, twice a week?!

There are two jingles I wouldn't mind hearing, but have not heard once in this neighbourhood - trucks selling yaki-imo (sweet potatoes - cooked whole over coals and a wonderful cold weather snack) or trucks selling hand-made gyoza (Chinese dumplings). I have caught a glimpse of a guy on a bicycle selling tofu and other goodies, but he doesn't make enough noise for me to hear him!

Friday, 6 March 2009


I'm slowly realizing (it takes me a while to learn things like this) that I should have more confidence about my knitting. I often start a project with a certain person in mind and, halfway through, decide that it isn't quite right for them. Once I was right, and I ended up giving the project in question to somebody else (who I wasn't sure it was right for but ended up LOVING it), but normally I manage to screw up my courage to give it to them and it turns out to be right (or perhaps they just do a convincing job of pretending to like it).

I recently finished a scarf that I had decided was NOT right for the intended recipient. She came over for dinner tonight however, and in the course of the evening asked me what I was currently working on. When I brought out the newly finished scarf she seemed to really like it - particularly the huge fluffy pompoms on the end. When I asked her if she wanted it she sounded really excited, and so she went home with a full stomach and a warm neck (and perhaps a rather unsteady step as she polished off a number of bottles of beer I had brought her back from various travels).

Given the rather suddenness of the departure of this scarf I didn't have time (or good lighting) to take any good pictures, but here it is nonetheless (made with some novelty fake fur-ish type yarn that a friend picked up in England and sent to me):

I've known the scarf's recipient for almost a decade now. When I first met her she was to house sit for my father and be a visiting Japanese professor at his university. She took this teaching duty very seriously and was preparing feverishly. Unfortunately, however, she never did teach a single class as a few weeks before term started she blacked out while walking down the staircase at our house and woke up with complete amnesia. She knew what yogurt was, but didn't know what flavour she liked or if she had even ever eaten it herself. She could speak English but couldn't remember why she was in Canada - nor why I was speaking to her in Japanese! Luckily she had no other injuries and after a few months in Japan her memory started coming back. She now has remembered everything save for a short amount of time just before she blacked out. Throughout it all she never once lost her sense of humour and her spirit. She's good fun and has been a big help to me in Tokyo - helping me find my apartment, finding me a cheap used fridge, supplying me with ume-shu...

(did I mention she REALLY liked the pompoms?!)

Leafy Greens

After being given nice blocking wires for Christmas, and having worked on a number bigger projects, I was ready for some lace. I had found some beautiful silk yarn at a small shop in Tokyo - various greens and very natural looking - and decided it was perfect for a certain friend, so all I was left to do was pick out an appropriately natural pattern for a small scarf. The leaves of this basic pattern seemed simple while still being elegant. Since lace knitting is more finicky I didn't find this the greatest project for working on during my (short) commute, and it took longer than I had hoped. But, if I do say so myself, the end result was worth it.

The recipient was suitably thrilled. I was a bit worried, as she can be rather picky, but I was pretty sure I had chosen yarn and a pattern that would both suit her and be to her tastes. This friend isn't just a friend either, she works in the curatorial program office at my university - she is my supervisor for my TA duties, secretary to both of my professors, and does the other million things that keep our corner of the university running smoothly. She is incredibly talented, patient, and calm. She never complains about all the random questions I ask her, and there isn't much that gets her upset, but I tease her that when she does get upset... loooook out! Incongruously, perhaps, with her often mild manners, she has a great sense of sarcasm and a rather bitingly sharp wit.