Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Blanket Lady Striketh Again

The wife of a good friend from grad school had a baby boy last month, so I spent most of March largely ignoring my thesis to knit the new little one a blanket. While it turned out much smaller than I had hoped (I used cotton while the pattern called for a heavier weight acrylic), I am still left wishing that my thesis would turn out even half so pretty! This time around, instead of a knitted border (just the thought of having to pick up all those stitches was enough to give me nightmares) I decided to stitch on a ribbon. I like the silky-ness, and it had the added bonus of hiding all the yarn ends and saving me from massive amounts of weaving in yarn ends - yay!

Every stitch of the blanket was made with the hope that the little one will grow up with the same sense of humour, the same kindness, and the same intelligence as his proud papa.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

White Day - A belated update

I've gotten a number of emails and I realized, somewhat belatedly, that I really should get something out in the open...

Despite a promising Valentines, I didn't get anything for White Day. In fact I was cancelled on at the last moment due to work committments. Shortly thereafter the guy in question left the country and I haven't heard from him since. Ah well... More fish in the sea and all that.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


I have a pair of scissors that I love. They were a present to me from the mayor of Nishinoomote City, on the island of Tanegashima, off the coast of Kyushu in southern Japan. The island is famous for being the arrival point for the first Europeans to Japan, and for the guns that those men brought with them. The iron sands of the beaches of Tanegashima were once used to make guns but are now used to make scissors, knives, and other products.

I was given my pair of scissors, as I already mentioned, by the mayor of the island's only city. I was spending two weeks in a home stay program on the island, and was turned into a minor celebrity. The southern point of the island, home to the country's rocket launch pad, has plenty of foreign scientists, but there aren't so many non-Japanese faces on the rest of the island - in fact there were just two of us, myself and the ALT who visited my host father's elementary school about once a month. My arrival on the island was documented by a newspaper (I was amazingly incoherent for the interview given that the boat ride over from Kagoshima had been very choppy and I get seasick at the best of times), and had random people come up to me and say "Ah! the girl from the paper!" throughout my two weeks there.

The best part of my time on Tanegashima was the family I stayed with. I was part of the family right from the first night, when we all settled around the dinner table in our pjs after having had our baths in order of seniority (otosan, the father of the family went first, then me as oldest daughter, then my two "sisters" in birth order, and then okasan went last). I've been back to Kagoshima prefecture many times since to visit my Japanese parents and grandparents. Okasan constantly bugs me about when I'm going back for my next visit and sends me Kagoshima soy sauce - which is much sweeter than the strong flavoured Tokyo stuff that I really don't like.

The scissors the mayor gave me have been a reminder of the warmth of Tanegashima and of my Japanese family. I took them with me when I went back to Osaka and finished out my exchange there. I took them back with me to Canada, and they made it into my suitcase when I moved to a new university. I then took them with me to the US for grad school. They finally found their way back to Japan a few years ago. In the 10 years since I was given them they've been used many many many times and they'd definitely seen better days. The edge was no longer so sharp and they weren't even closing all the way. For months now I've been wondering where I could get them sharpened. My wondering ended this afternoon, when I spotted an elderly man perched on a stool with a whetstone and a hand-made sign proclaiming knife/sword/scissor sharpening for Y500. I raced home and got my scissors. A half an hour later the delighted man demonstrated that my newly sharpened scissors could slice plastic into thin slivers, and that they now closed all the way. I was equally delighted. And all for only a bit more than a pricey cup of coffee. Not a bad exchange for the refurbishment of a lovely instrument and the holder of such memories!

(pictures courtesy of Made in Japan)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Manners Schmanners

Tokyo Metro has apparently decided to continue on with their "Please do it..." series.

Meh... No comment...


The Tobu's fairy tale themed manner poster had me at a loss. I couldn't figure out the story behind the picture. A guy with a crown and huge brown ears, two old-fashioned looking elderly train passengers, and a guy with a work apron and... scissors?! Was he going to chop off the big ears of the guy who was being rude and talking on his phone on the train? That seemed a little gory for me and for the polite company of elderly passengers who frequent the train I ride. What do you think?

The poster reads "Dear Prince, your conversation while riding the train is more noticeable than your donkey ears."

I was intrigued, so I turned to my good friend Google and in put "donkey ear" thankfully everything I came up with was clean, but nothing looked promising. So I switched languages and after a few clicks found a Japanese site of Aesop's fables, listing one that roughly translates as "The Kings Ears are Donkey Ears." A few more clicks and I found this, a animated version of "The Ears of King Midas."

The Internet is a wonderful thing!

Monday, 13 April 2009

Signs of the New Year- sono 2

One of my courses this term is at a different campus from my usual stomping grounds. So, one day a week I'll be jetting off to the "newbie" campus, where first and second year undergrad courses for arts and humanities are held. The main campus is full of over stressed grad students, apathetic undergrads, and undergrads in suits attempting to find jobs while they supposedly finish off their last year of university.

The newbie campus is in general much softer, more user friendly. It isn't in downtown Tokyo, has big gates, and plenty of greenery in between the buildings. This time of year it is also full of fresh-faced happy, relaxed first year students. They've finally gotten through all the years of studying, especially the last crunch of the hell that is university entrance examinations. They are now university students, at a well-known and prestigious univerisity. Some of them may be living on their own for the first time, but even if they are still at home, they are experiencing a large amount of freedom for the first time in a long, long time. They sit in the sun on benches laid out around campus and chat with their friends.

And, just so you don't think that ALL Japanese university students are apathetic, that there are no serious and motivated students, I present you with exhibit A - two young women who all but ran me over (which is no mean feat, I walk QUICKLY and have a big stride) and then dodged around me and a few others who had the temerity to walk at normal human pace. The two girls then pelted up the escalator, shouting out to each other "room 403 - that's the FOURTH floor!!!" The look of abject horror on the face of one of the girls as she looked at her watch and realized that she either had to teleport herself immediately to the 4th floor or face having to enter the first class of the term (before most students have actually registered for any of their classes) an astonishing one minute late!! Ohhhh, the horror! (this contrasts sharply with the large number of students who have no problem sauntering in 45 minutes late for a 80 minute class...).

One thing, however, I'm going to have to recant my statement that this negates that not all Japanese students are apathetic - I'm fairly sure the two girls were foreign students because they shifted into what sounded like Chinese to me as they raced up the escalator to the fourth floor. Whatever their nationality, the earnestness of the two had me smiling like and indulgent granny at a toddler's antics.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Signs of the New Year

Like robins heralding spring there are signs that the new year has started in Japan - the students are back on campus and brand new salary men are sporting shiny new suits. I overheard two conversations on my way home today that reinforced these two images.

Conversation one - between two young men, university students, probably starting their third year.
Student 1: I thought you took human anthropology last year?

Student 2: I did, and the prof was really cool, you know, the grandpa? Well, he told us we pretty much didn't have to come, and so I didn't. But then I figured I should at least show my face in the classroom, so I did and, you see, it turns out the old geezer had collapsed and had to be replaced, and the new guy was really strict, and was like, expecting students to go to every class and all, so then I like, failed the exam, ya know?

Student 1: Well you should take the first term of cultural anthro, its good, and really easy.

Student 2: Yeah, I kinda took the second term last year, but I was like - THIS IS TOUGH! So then I failed the exam.

Student 1: But there's no exam in first term. All you have to do is submit a paper, and it can be on anything.

Student 2: Anything? But that makes it tougher, eh...

Student 1: Well yeah, but I wrote something like 3 pages on the history of the town I live in and like got an A, so you could do ANYTHING.

Student 2: Huh, maybe I could just hand in the paper I did for my sociology last class, not make any changes or nothing. Cool. I think I will take the class if it fits in my schedule.

Student 1: Yeah, I'm so not happy with my schedule this term. I mean, I've got classes all day and stuff and its just way too much. I mean, come on, its just way too hard to have to sit in classes all day! By fifth period I'm like exhausted and just can't stand it.

Student 2: Totally! And, then first or second period, I'm hardly awake yet, and there's the chance I'll be late, so it'd be nice if I could just have classes in third period.

Student 1: Yeah, but like on Thursdays I only have class second period, and then I'm done for the day and I have nothing to do cuz all my friends still have class, so I'm like "I'm going home now" and then that really sucks.

They really have it tough, don't they?! (they were already on the train when I got on, so I'm guessing they aren't students at my school, but just for comparison for us period one is 9-10:30, period 2 is 10:40-12:10, period 3 is 1-2:30, period 4 is 2:40-4:10, period 5 is 4:20-5:50, period 6 is 6-7:30 and period 7 is 7:40-9:10.)

After 4 years of that type of schedule, the students graduate and join the real world. Having spent most of their fourth year going to interviews and otherwise job hunting (and not attending classes), these new graduates become shinjin (literally "new people") and will likely spend a few weeks or even a few months in training, learning the ropes (and being taught all the things that they DIDN'T learn at university).

Which leads me to conversation number two, between a youngish salary man and a newbie salary man.
salary man: Hey! Long time no see! What's up?!

newbie: Jeez, you scared me there!

salary man: Wow, you're a shinjin now, hey?! Look at that suit...! It sure doesn't suit you, ha!

newbie: Yeah, it takes some getting used to.

salary man: How's training going? How ya holding up?

newbie: Its exhausting! I'm getting up at like 5 am and trying to beat the rush, but the trains are packed!

salary man: You have to transfer through Shinjuku don't you? That sucks, its always crowded.

newbie: Yeah, so I go early, have a coffee and read the paper. But then I'm exhausted by like 8 at night!

salary man: Ha! You'll get used to it soon enough.

newbie: I know, but right now I don't know what to do with myself. I mean, we finish training at 6pm, and after that I don't know what to do. I could do something I like, but I feel bad, like I should stay at work and be useful.

salary man: I wouldn't worry 'bout that, its not like they're actually going to let you new guys do anything important. But, the really important issue is, what are your co-workers like? Any girls? Anybody promising? Hey??? And how about your superiors, do they seem strict? Have they taken you out for drinks, shown you the local watering holes yet?

And another over-worked, alcoholic, womanizing salary-man is born... yup, spring is in the air, a new year has begun.

Another Year Gone

The other night I went with a couple of friends to Kokuryo, in western Tokyo, to see the special one-night light up of cherry blossoms along the Nogawa river. The trees in their glory are lit in a stunning display that is breathtakingly magical.

I had gone last year as well, it had been the evening of the entrance ceremony at school, and I was nervous about what the coming year would bring. My friend (my sempai, or student senior to me) reassuring me that I could handle what I was about to undertake. This year as we walked slowly along the path - dodging small children, slow moving elderly women, older men with huge cameras, and young women waving cell phone cameras - I found myself thinking about the past year, and the year to come. As an announcement was made over the PA that it was almost 9 pm and the lights would be turned off shortly, my sempai turned to me and said "I look forward to coming back next year with you!" I smiled but reminded her I didn't even know if I'd be in the country in 11 months. Again she reassured me, but I found myself wondering whether I would be able to see the stunning display again next year, and generally what the coming year would bring.

With this train of thought, it was quite fitting then, that as 9 pm approached, the strains of "Auld Lang Syne"* came over the PA system and slowly, one by one, the huge lights were extinguished. My friends and I had paused near the half-way point of the display, to watch the lights go out. We were lucky enough to see a incredible display, however, as the section where we had stopped was also equipped with huge spot lights that had coloured lights, and the blossom-laden trees were suddenly purple, then white again, then blue, and then pink, and orange... It was beautiful. At one point the trees became a mass of waving light, and then at the end the orange spots were concentrated at the centre of the trees which suddenly appeared as if on fire at the core. It was stunning and the watching crowd broke into applause when the lights finally went out.

*(At the end of the day at the museum where I work, and any number of other museums/businesses/restaurants/whatever in Japan, closing will be announced over a PA system. There will be a ten or fifteen minute warning accompanied by the strains of a song, that to a Westerner, brings up champagne clouded thoughts of New Year's celebrations. In Japan "Auld Lang Syne" signifies not the end of the year, but the end of the business day.)

In Japan cherry blossoms are said to represent a truly Japanese love of transient beauty. As the height of blossoms in Tokyo was this past weekend, the petals have started falling. The museum where I work is situated in a park famous for its sakura. When I went for lunch today petals were falling with every light gust of wind, settling in people's hair and carpeting the ground in pale pink snow. Transience was certainly in evidence and I found myself thinking again about the start of a new year...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Grand Canyon, Tokyo, India, England!

I've mentioned before the gorgeous birthday wool a friend bought for me while on vacation at the Grand Canyon.

I was originally not terribly thrilled by the orange in with the blues, greens, and purples, but I began to change my mind when I wound the skein into a ball. By the time the scarf was knitted up I was quite charmed by the colours!

So, the ball of wool from the Grand Canyon was knit up here in Tokyo and then winged its way to England for a good friend from India. That's one well travelled yarn!

The friend in question was one of my co-workers (co-volunteers?) in India, and my traveling companion for one short and one long trip. We spent about a week in Bangalore and Mysore during a break, and then 6 weeks travelling almost around the entire country (Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry, Kolkata, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Delhi, Shimla, Amritsar, and, of course, Agra and the Taj Mahal). In those six weeks I think we spent a total of less than an hour outside of each other's company. The fact that she managed to put up with me and not strangle me is pretty impressive, and definitely deserving of... well, something more than simple knitted goods, but I figured it was at least a start! While I've never seen her wear any cold weather gear beyond a pair of socks and perhaps a sweatshirt, I'm hoping that she'll need a scarf and toque to keep her warm in non-Indian climates.

Her new scarf:

and, since I had some yarn left over when I was done, and I also had some (unclaimed) yarn in matching colours in my stash, I decided to make her a toque too.

She had just moved into a new place and said she was excited to get her first parcel...