Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What a Load of Garbage! (Well, maybe not...)

We're plagued by shortages again.

No, it's not oil. Gasoline may be expensive (though down a bit from a few weeks ago), but there's still plenty at the pump. No, we're being hit much closer to home.

It's not butter, either. You may recall my posting not long ago about the sudden butter shortage. That seems to have corrected itself for the time being.

It's not even rice. Even despite the bizarre weather and the sight of many rice paddies with drooping crops (a result of too much rain and not enough sun...and generally means a poor result) there has been no warning of a crunch like the one we had back in the late 90s. Safeguards are already in place, and everything is status quo as far as Japan's primary staple is concerned.

So what is the commodity that we're suddenly lacking?

Garbage bags. Yes, you read that right.

You see, ever since around 1995 we have been obligated to buy and use garbage bags officially approved by the city in which we live. You can't use generic bags or ones from a different location; the garbageman won't take them. Since we live in Namegata City, we're forced to buy the Namegata City bags.

The problem is that the city announced a little more than a week ago that, beginning October 1st, the price of the bags is going up 50% (most likely as a way for the city to ease its bloating debts). I think you can guess what happened. Needless to say, it has become well nigh impossible to find garbage bags anywhere in the city. Even my father-in-law has been spending his days driving around trying to find them. (Today he proudly handed us a bundle that he'd found and bought at a 7-11 out on one of Namegata's many country roads. They were all small-sized ones, though, so they don't fit our garbage cans.) The frustrating thing is that our local supermarket has plenty of bags for the neighboring city of Itako, and they're cheaper to boot, but we can't use them. We just have to grit our teeth and use these undersized bags for a while...and then pay the markup price when they run out.

It's amazing just how much you learn to appreciate things once they're no longer available.

Speaking of which, we are in the middle of a shortage of something else: bananas. A popular TV program recently conducted an experiment in which famously bloated celebrities each tried a different recently-famous diet and then compared the results. The one who lost the most weight and generally became healthier was the actress/comedian trying the banana diet. Suddenly all the bananas were gone, and we've yet to see a single bunch in any store since that program aired more than a week ago.

It's amazing just how much things we take for granted become hot items once they've been given a bit of publicity.

What's going to disappear from the store shelves next? Beer? (NO-O-O-O-O!!!!!!!!)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Fuzz that Duzz(n't)...

Sad Tora 4

Tora has been sick.

Our first real hint that something was up was when he walked into the front room while we were all watching TV, sat down in the middle of the carpet, and left a pile. That definitely got our attention.

Actually, he hadn't been well for a while. There is a cat in our neighborhood that is beautiful, white, and totally evil. He is obviously someone's pet, since he's not afraid of humans at all (unless I go at him with one of my air pistols, in which case he scampers away as fast as his white-furred butt can carry him). Back when Aka, my in-laws' cat, was still alive, that fluffy, snowy demon from hell used to come over almost every day and taunt him. Aka was far too old and slow (not to mention mild-mannered) to present any threat, so the lovely little fiend would swagger in a circle around him, tail held arrogantly high, caterwauling as if daring the elder cat to try anything. Aka would always just sit huddled in a ball looking defeated. (There was, however, one surprising occasion when Tora was still a kitten, and Aka chased the white cat away from him very aggressively.) Now Tora, being young, fit, and aggressive, immediately launches to the attack whenever the snow demon comes around. Unfortunately, he tends to get his butt kicked. The snow demon also seems to be fighting dirty these days; he immediately goes for the eyes. During the last week of August and first week of September there were at least three occasions when Tora came in after a scrap with his face around his eyes bloodied and swollen. Once he was in such awful shape, with one eye swollen shut and surrounded with obviously-infected wounds, that I took him to the vet and wound up leaving him there for almost a week. (Luckily, the vet is known to the family and didn't charge me a vital organ.) We kept him inside for a little while after that, but when he finally found his way outside he immediately showed up again with a bloodied eye.

Sad Tora 2

(You can see in this closeup the injury under his right eye, which has actually healed a lot. You can also see patches of missing fur on his nose, head, and over his left eye. It was much worse about a week ago; one whole side of his face was swollen.)

The pile on the carpet incident happened right after that. Things quickly got worse, too. For two days after that Tora stayed planted on my daughter's bed. He wouldn't eat anything, and it was all I could do to get him to drink a little water. His voice had gone completely hoarse, and his weepy eyes looked vacant. He also seemed to have trouble walking. To make matters worse, he used his kitty bed as a toilet, something he'd never done before. When I picked him up to try to relocate him I noticed that he was really hot. That meant it was vet time again.

My FIL took Tora to his favorite vet, whose clinic is a bit far from here. The vet reported that Tora had a temperature of 41 degrees Centigrade (about 106 degrees Fahrenheit), which is just as dangerous for cats as it is for humans. The diagnosis? A cold. (Why is it that doctors here in Japan always seem to say that?) Tora was given a shot and an I.V., and then he was sent home.

Tora recovered fairly quickly after that, and he was soon back to his usual affectionate (and sometimes annoying) self. However, the bloody wound next to his right eye not only reappeared but kept getting worse even though he had remained inside the whole time. I finally caught him in the act of scratching it, screaming every time he did so. Apparently that eye has been bothering him, and the wound is largely self-inflicted.

Sad Tora 5

I guess that means it's not entirely the white cat's fault.

That reminds me of another recent incident. Not so long ago, down in Fukuoka, a boy about my son's age was found strangled to death in a park where he had been playing. True to form, when the news broke, my FIL immediately freaked out over it and declared that my children were no longer to be allowed to go play with their friends. "You go straight to school," he railed (over and over and over again), "and come straight back! The rest of the time you stay here in the house! It's too dangerous out there! Children are dying!"

Guess what: the perpetrator in the Fukuoka crime turned out to be the child's mother. In fact, it seems like there have been a lot of child murders here recently that have turned out to have been committed by a parent or parents. Gee...does that mean that our kids should no longer be allowed to stay inside the house? Maybe they can spend all day out chasing the evil, white cat!

And just so you don't think this post is entirely negative, here are a few stock shots from the recent undokai (sports meet) at my kids' school:

2008 od Undokai 1

2008 od Undokai 2

2008 od Undokai 3

2008 od Undokai 4

2008 od Undokai 8

2008 od Undokai 12

2008 od Undokai 13

Monday, September 15, 2008

When All Things Are New... can anyone be surprised about anything?

I once heard a Buddhist priest say that, but it was on an episode of Dr. Who from the Jon Pertwee era. Actually, it is still very easy for me to be surprised by new things I come across.

Speaking of Buddhism, today is the 35-day anniversary of my mother-in-law's death, which has special significance. Specifically, it is traditionally believed to be the day in which the departed soul finds its way to Heaven, or whatever fate awaits it. It is observed via yet another funeral ceremony (the fourth so far) followed by a dinner party. Once again we gathered family and friends together, though not nearly so many as before. I think there were only about forty people in attendance this opposed to over seven hundred for the actual funeral. The atmosphere was also far less grim, especially during the dinner party. We ate at the Yamato-ya restaurant, which is scarcely a stone's throw from my house, and it was actually kind of nice.

It was ironic, too. I've lived in this house for eleven years now, and I had been to Yamato-ya a number of times for meetings plus a funeral for someone in the family that owns and runs the place. However, this was the first time I had ever eaten an actual meal at Yamato-ya. It apparently has a reputation for being one of the better seafood restaurants (and night spots) in what used to be the town of Aso (now part of Namegata city). I'd say it lives up to its name. I was pleasantly surprised. That makes me wonder why my wife was always so reluctant to eat there...

The rite at the temple was followed by the obligatory joss-stick planting at the gravesite. My father-in-law had bought a triple-pack of very cheap (even cheaper than Suisanko!) joss sticks for the occasion...but managed to forget it. Luckily, I had a BLUE box of Seiun joss sticks in my BLUE RAV4. That saved the day.

Incidentally, I made an interesting discovery about the temple itself. As with joss sticks, I had tended to take the temple rather for granted; it was just the place everyone in our neighborhood went for funerals and to tend their family graves. However, I came to notice a number of things about it. One was its history. (The priest noticed me reading the sign bearing the historical description and immediately gave me a much more understandable, printed copy.) As a religious institution bearing the name Kōtokuji (皇徳寺), or Kōtoku Temple, it dates clear back to the Kamakura Era in the late 12th century. At that time Lord Namegata, ironically a grandson of the recently-defeated Taira or Heike clan (i.e. therefore technically an enemy of the new Shogun), divided his territory among his four sons, who came to be called Lord Aso, Lord Tamatsukuri, Lord Shimazaki, and Lord Odaka. (Gee...where have I heard these names before??!?) Lord Odaka founded both Odaka Castle and Kōtokuji. At that time Kōtokuji was of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Later, during the wonderful carnival of bloodshed that is known as the Muromachi Era (particularly its latter half, which is often called the Sengoku, or Warring States Period), the Odaka clan sided with the Shogun and fought on his behalf. That was when Kōtokuji was changed to its current denomination. The Odaka clan, as well as the Aso, Tamatsukuri, and just about every other clan in this area, were finally wiped out by Lord Satake, a powerful retainer of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Odaka Castle was taken over, and Kōtokuji was converted into a monastery. Finally, in 1700, during the Edo Era, Odaka Castle was disbanded and razed, and Kōtokuji was ordered rebuilt in its current location.

(This isn't my picture. I can't find my stock pics of the temple and will make a note to take new ones. This image is from a guide to temples in my area.)

This is how Kōtokuji appears today. It doesn't look as old as it is because it is often renovated by the people in the neighborhood. You can see in this apparently recent pic that some of the woodwork on the walls and the deck on the left side have been rebuilt. The inside shows a bit more of its history, though, including a statue of the Bodhisattva Kanon which is a designated cultural treasure.

What surprised me, though, was my discovery (after fifteen years) of the temple's actual denomination. I had always assumed it was either Jodo Shu or Jodo Shinshu (what is called "Hongwan" in the U.S.), both Pure Land sects based on Amida Buddha, since the more devout members of my neighborhood seem to believe quite strongly in Amida Buddha. Also, it seems that most temples I've seen elsewhere in this part of Japan, such as in Kashima and Itako, are also either Jodo or Shingon. In fact, Kōtokuji is a temple of the Soto sect of Zen. In fact, I've come to discover that the majority of temples in this area are of the Soto sect. That surprised me until I studied a bit more about Soto and realized that there is a historical reason for this.

Back when Tendai was still the principal school of Buddhism in Japan, it was patronized by the nobility and came to be wealthy and powerful on its own (i.e. rather like Catholicism, especially during the Middle Ages). Zen had trouble gaining a foothold at first, so it aimed for a largely untapped market, i.e. the common peasantry. The Soto sect came to be particularly popular, not only because it had less of the ascetic demands and esoteric "hocus-pocus" of the competing Rinzai Zen sect, but also because it had the practice of posthumous ordination, i.e. the deceased could be named as monks or priests of the faith. In fact, that's a key part of the Soto funeral ceremony, I'm told. Basically, a lot of these ceremonies I've been attending recently have to do with my mother-in-law being "reborn" as a Zen saint. Soto has never discriminated as to who could receive such an honor, and that really appealed to farmers back in the 12th century. Hence, even today many if not most temples in the rural outback are Soto Zen temples.

All I know is that I've always thought the priest of our local temple to be a very interesting character. Buddhism/Zen is rarely a dogmatic faith, and priests don't usually proselytize (except for some of the Nichiren branches or the related Soka Gakkai denomination). They do, however, take advantages of opportunities sometimes. As for our priest, he often sticks a handout under the windshield wiper of cars arriving on regular days for tending graves. The messages on those handouts, however, rarely if ever appear religious. Mostly they're just simple messages for good living delivered with education and wit. I'd hate to think that Zen has been reduced to the status of a mere funeral factory, but hey...if it gets people to come to the temple and maybe get a bit of learning on the side...

Incidentally, speaking of surprising discoveries, I had another one last weekend. It was the Foundation Festival at Ye Olde Academy, and one of the 9th grade classes staged the musical version of "The Lion King" as their class project. Having participated in large-scale musical productions in my high school days, I tend to have rather high standards with regard to such things. I had seen other musicals staged by students at Ye Olde Academy before, and none of them had gotten more than a score of "Meh for Effort" from me. I actually had to be talked into going to see "The Lion King". I'm really glad I did. I was impressed to the point of mouth hanging open. Yes, there were a lot of points I could criticize (such as the acting ability of a couple of members of the cast), but considering this was a non-auditioned class project operating with limited time and budget, I'd call it phenomenal. The stage work was innovative, the dance numbers were well choreographed, the singing was (mostly) strong and on pitch, the casting was sound, the characterization was reasonable, and the costumes made good use of what little they were able to get. (Yes, you can do a lot with construction paper, twine, cotton balls, and poster paint with a little effort and a lot of love!)

I have to say good job, Grade Nine Room Three. You've set a new standard and probably made history.

Maybe I should add one more discovery. My kids' school's Sports Day was two days ago. I was forced kicking and screaming obliged to participate in a couple of competitions. I discovered that I'm terribly out of shape. No surprise there...except that I somehow managed to win both races. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

And Now for Another Musical Interlude...

Back in my university days, when budget cuts and related staff reductions dragged my last "year" of study out over three years, I spent a lot of time more or less killing time by studying all kinds of subjects that sounded interesting at the time. One of them was psychology. I've always been intrigued by the subject, and I really enjoyed the course that I took (with two different teachers). There were a lot of topics that fascinated me...or irritated me. However, one of the ones that got me the most was the Rosenhan Experiment, which was carried out in 1972.

Rosenhan set out to prove that not only was psychological diagnosis horribly unreliable, but patients in mental institutions tended to be both stereotyped and dehumanized by the staff working with them. There were two stages to the experiment. One involved a number of (more or less) normal people who went to clinical psychologists and falsely claimed to have had only one possible symptom of mental illness. All wound up diagnosed with serious mental illness and were hospitalized. (The reports written about them by the clinical psychologists showed extreme bias, i.e. just about any kind of behavior would wind up being labeled a symptom of insanity). The second stage, conducted after the first was publicized, involved contacting mental institutions and telling them (falsely) that a sane participant in the experiment had tricked his or her way into admission. The institution was then challenged to find the participant. Every single one of them found multiple patients they were confident were imposters...but none of them were.

The sad thing was that the real patients at the institutions tended to identify the imposters immediately...while the staff went right on stereotyping them and treating them like "crazies". In fact, the staff didn't regard the patients as human beings at all; a lot of the time they simply ignored them, even if one tried to ask a legitimate question. That led Rosenhan to describe his own experience as a participant in the stage one experiment as being "an invisible man".

Having known people who have sought psychological treatment...and having heard about some of the things they want through (not to mention listening in shock once while a friend's psychological therapist joked with me about "what a broken, messed-up attention whore" she was), that story struck a nerve. That's why I wrote this song, called "Invisible Man".

This song was one of many that I'd written in spiral notebooks in my college days and then more or less completely forgotten. However, when I stumbled on it last month some things about the lyrics made me think about my father in law and his current predicament. I'd also had the foresight to pencil in the chord progressions and melody back when I'd written the song (something I rarely ever do). That helped me to remember the tune and arrange it a bit. It's really a song about isolation, even abandonment. Besides, it gave me a chance to experiment some more in different ways with my new gear.

Anyway, give the song a listen. Then we'll get back to our usual program (I hope). More info can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Joss the Facts, Ma'am...

Anyone who knows me well should know that I have always had a certain fondness for things that make my environment smell good. In my college days I started developing an interest in things like incense and scented candles. After coming to Japan and getting a real life (so to speak) I wasted no time in amassing a sizable collection, first of scented candles, then of essential oils, and then, to a lesser extent, of cone incense.

What's ironic is that I never really paid much attention to stick incense, or "joss sticks", even though they've been a part of Japanese tradition since they were brought over from China back in the 6th century. You see, lighting joss sticks and placing them in front of temples, household altars, or graves is as much a part of traditional Japanese life as chopsticks. In that respect, I probably did like most people and take them for granted, seeing them as just "something everyone does" rather than something to give any attention or interest. Now, however, with my MIL's recent death, we're practically awash in joss sticks, being that we are obligated to place them in front of her grave and the memorial altar in the house every day. Maybe I just got a bit fed up with the "same old, same old" joss sticks every time, so I started looking around a bit more to see what else there was. Actually, there's a lot. In fact, there's a seriously major lot. I can't talk about it all, obviously, so I'll just give a few, brief glimpses.

There are four main occasions during the year (New Year, Spring Equinox, Obon, Autumnal Equinox) when almost everyone goes to tend the family graves, which includes placing joss sticks in front of them. When those occasions roll around, all of the supermarkets, interior goods stores, convenience stores, etc. immediately stock up on these:


(I'm sorry...I didn't realize I'd photographed them upside-down until later...)

I believe the brand name is read "Sansuikō", and it means "scent of mountain water". (The smaller writing reads "for graveyard use".) It is probably the most popular line of incense in this part of Japan if not all of Japan simply because it is so cheap. A twin pack like this only costs a couple hundred yen. Like I said, when one of those grave-tending events roll around they are everywhere. Moreover, with the high joss stick consumption required by a death in the family, we have been rolling in the stuff because people keep giving it to us. It's not bad, but I will say that one definitely gets what one pays for, and joss sticks are no exception. My biggest complaint against this type has always been that it's so skinny and fragile. Lighting the joss sticks has long been my job at any grave-tending event (including the recent daily ritual), and when I try to light up one of these packs it's all I can do to keep from crunching half of them in the process. And if that weren't bad enough, trying to stick them into the soil-filled incense trays in front of the graves without them snapping is tricky business.

Well, I finally got a bit fed up with it, so I decided to try something else. I went for another popular supermarket brand in this area, but one that's a bit higher grade:


The brand name is "Seiun", which literally means "BLUE cloud" (probably another reason I bought it, though in Japanese culture it is a symbol of a bright future). Anyway, as I said, you can find boxes of Seiun in most supermarkets, but it's somewhat pricier than Sansuikō. In other words, it's what tends to be bought by people wanting to be a cut above the others. Ironically, it's a relatively low-grade product put out by one of Japan's most famous incense companies, Nippon Kodo. Compared with Sansuikō, the sticks are thicker and firmer to boot. That means far less breakage and much better penetrability. As far as the scent is concerned, however, I'd say I haven't really noticed that much difference...though the Seiun definitely leaves me less smelly afterward.


(Here's a detail showing Seiun joss sticks partly removed from the package.)

There's another brand of joss sticks in the supermarkets that's similar in price to Seiun but comes in a variety of floral and wood scents and has...well...kind of gaudy, cheap-looking labels. I'm not sure what the brand name is, or who makes it, but I bought a box of lavender-scented ones out of curiosity. (I didn't get a pic though...sorry.) They're not bad, but I found the scent a bit on the soapy side.

Anyway, these supermarket varieties really only scratch the surface as far as stick incense is concerned. As an important tradition with a long history, joss sticks are taken very seriously by some people. Many of the more historically significant temples have their own types. Go to any souvenir shop in Kyoto, Nara, or any other major center of culture and history, and you're bound to find plenty of joss sticks in classic scents, many of them hand-made by craftsmen. There are also shops like the one I stumbled on last weekend when I took my kids on a spontaneous outing to the Tsukuba Expo Center (our only trip this summer. Sorry, no pics). We popped over to a nearby shopping complex (because my son wanted to play arcade games...*sigh*), and I found a joss stick specialty store.

Wow. I never expected to see so many varieties...or such a wide price range. I wasn't about to leave without getting something, but I couldn't decide, so I wound up grabbing an intriguing-looking sampler.


Here are a couple of higher-grade sampler packs I have in my possession. The one up above is one I bought at a souvenir shop in Kyoto last time I was there (two years ago) and have only recently opened. It contains five different varieties which are all said to be location-specific, classic scents. I know I really like the ones I've tried; they certainly conjure up memories of strolling through the "Open Halls" of ancient temples and castles. The rather greenish one at the bottom is the one I just bought in Tsukuba. It's a collection of forest scents including spruce, hinoki, and fir. I have yet to light one, but they sure smell nice as is! I can't help but notice, however; the higher-grade joss sticks tend to be thinner than even Sansuikō and are considerably shorter. I realize that no one would stick a bunch of these in the dirt in front of a grave unless he were really rich and/or frightfully stupid, but's kind of like paying ten bucks for a tiny, Italian-style espresso (what's called a "short black" in Australia) when you can get a relatively decent, grande-size mocha latte for less than half that.

But you still probably get what you pay for.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

All Fukudap

Normally I try to avoid political postings on this site, but...

Well, Yasuo Fukuda has gone and shown the world that he is just one of a long line of Japanese prime ministers that lack anything resembling a backbone.  When he was first chosen prime minister there were a lot of alarms ringing on account of his background as well as the track record of his father, who held cabinet positions before and during World War II and was prime minister from 1976 to 1978.  However, Yasuo turned out to be a typically weak prime minister who accomplished very little during his almost-one-year in office.

Yasuo Fukuda made Japan's Asian neighbors happy by not visiting Yasukuni Shrine (see the shrine's own English-language website here), a controversial (and technically illegal) religious/nationalist activity practiced by many if not most of his predecessors.  He also made the U.S. happy by opting to override the complaints of the opposition and continue sending Japanese Marine Self-Defense Force ships to help refuel and resupply coalition naval vessels involved in the War on TerrorTM.   However, on the home front he will probably be best remembered for his vehement insistence on reinstating an expired supplementary gasoline tax the opposition parties hoped to get rid of to help stimulate the still-sagging economy.  The prime minister's argument in support of the tax was only that local governments had already figured it into their yearly budgets, which does make sense until you realize that an awfully large percentage of that money tends to be earmarked for pork projects.  By ignoring the opposition and the general public and fighting to keep the extra tax, the prime minister implied that he puts more value on bureaucrats, corporations, and the status quo then on the people.  Small wonder, then, that his approval rating never managed to get higher than 30%.

Fukuda says that it was his own decision to leave.  Frustrated with his persistently low approval rating and increasingly heated battles with the opposition, he reportedly said, "Get someone else."  The problem is who that "someone else" is liable to be.  The most likely candidate for the next prime minister right now is Taro Aso, and that would definitely be cause to worry.  Aso was the Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Koizumi, and during that time he had a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth, particularly with regard to foreign policy.  He has always been very conservative and even rightist in his views (despite being a baptized Catholic) and takes an aggressively hardline stance with Japan's Asian neighbors.  Moreover, some of the things he has said on the record seem reckless if not downright daft, for example:

In 2005 he praised Japan for having "one nation, one civilization, one language, and one race," and claimed it was the only such country in the world.   (Simple nationalism or an argument for eugenics?)

Later that same year, talking about Japan's Middle East policy, he said, "The Japanese were trusted because they had never been involved in exploitation there, or been involved in fights or fired machine guns. Japan is doing what the Americans can't do. It would probably be no good to have blue eyes and blond hair. Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces."  (Racism can be such a funny thing...)

In 2006 he called for the Emperor to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which hasn't happened since the war.  (Simple nationalism, or a veiled implication that it's time to scrap Japan's American-made, post-war constitution?)

Later that same year he claimed that the Japanese colonization of Taiwan and imposition of compulsory Japanese education there had been "a good thing".  (Yes, never mind the discrimination, the atrocities, the attempt to exterminate one culture and replace it with another...everything else was good!) 

Later that same year he referred to Taiwan as a "law-abiding country," contradicting official Japanese policy and infuriating China.  On earlier occasions he had directly described China as a "threat" and even implied that China was gearing up for war.  (Yeah, screw official policy.  Let's give our giant neighbor a nice kick in the butt and hope he'll run away whimpering!)

Are we sure we want this guy at the helm of Japan's government?  Fukuda, is it even remotely possible for you to grow some family jewels instead?