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/ PLACES / TRAVEL / TRADITIONS /

A blog about travel, places I love, places I've lived, and strange customs that keep us occupied the world over.

Featured so far: Tokyo, London, Berlin...
I’ve just finished reading In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami. It’s ten months since I left Japan and I’m missing it. I’m finding that reading Japanese fiction is a great way of taking my imagination back there - this book is set against the backdrop of the sex industry in the area around Shinjuku called Kabuki Chō, a sort of red-light district in Tokyo (not that I actually spent any time there myself). It’s also a book about Japan’s relationship to outsiders (one of the things it shares in common with the UK is its rather insular, island mentality) - the gaijin, the non-Japanese, manifest in the character of Frank in this book, an American sex tourist who hires a young Japanese guy called Kenji to show him around. 
However, one of the most interesting things the book has taught me about is the New Year tradition of the 108 bells. Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 108 times on New Years Eve and people gather on bridges and cram into shrines to listen to them. The 108 represents the Japanese concept of bonno, or the 108 human sins/defilements of man, and the act of listening to the bells purifies us of all of the worldly sins gathered over the previous year. In case you’re wondering what those 108 defilements are exactly, here’s a list:
Ostentatiousness, grudge, gambling, ingratitude, dipsomania (make that 109 bonno if you don’t know what dipsomania is), ambition, dominance, faithlessness, manipulation, stinginess, pessimism, hostility, abuse, debasement, sexual lust, sarcasm (I’m not touching that one!), humiliation, jealousy, gluttony, unruliness, hurt, cruelty, unkindness, obstinacy, envy, indifference, negativity (in case you skipped pessimistic), furtiveness, sadism, enviousness, derision, falseness (think that includes teeth?), high-handedness, know-it-all, rage, aggression, rapacity, effrontery, disrespectfulness, hard-heartedness, power hungriness, lying, insidiousness, self-denial (really?), inattentiveness, contempt, wrath, haughtiness, greed for money, seducement, vindictiveness, insatiability, voluptuousness, excessiveness, censoriousness, dissatisfaction, egoism, ignorance, hatred, greed, impudence, imposture, cursing, imperiousness, lecherousness, callousness, malignancy, torment, intolerance, blasphemy, shamelessness, irresponsibility, obsession, prejudice, arrogance, violent temper, garrulity, dogmatism, presumption, intransigence, oppression, prodigality, lack of comprehension (like, for example, this list?), obstinacy, pride, conceitedness, delusion, quarrelsomeness, self-hatred, violence, vanity, hypocrisy, stubbornness, baseness, pretense, mercilessness, disrespect, ridicule, masochism, tyranny, capriciousness (oh, nooooo!), deceit, anger, discord, calculation, unyielding, desire for fame (say it ain’t so!) and deception.
(source Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2011/01/01/our-lives/your-108-misleading-karmas/#.URpsZqXPaJV)

I’ve just finished reading In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami. It’s ten months since I left Japan and I’m missing it. I’m finding that reading Japanese fiction is a great way of taking my imagination back there - this book is set against the backdrop of the sex industry in the area around Shinjuku called Kabuki Chō, a sort of red-light district in Tokyo (not that I actually spent any time there myself). It’s also a book about Japan’s relationship to outsiders (one of the things it shares in common with the UK is its rather insular, island mentality) - the gaijin, the non-Japanese, manifest in the character of Frank in this book, an American sex tourist who hires a young Japanese guy called Kenji to show him around. 

However, one of the most interesting things the book has taught me about is the New Year tradition of the 108 bells. Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 108 times on New Years Eve and people gather on bridges and cram into shrines to listen to them. The 108 represents the Japanese concept of bonno, or the 108 human sins/defilements of man, and the act of listening to the bells purifies us of all of the worldly sins gathered over the previous year. In case you’re wondering what those 108 defilements are exactly, here’s a list:

Ostentatiousness, grudge, gambling, ingratitude, dipsomania (make that 109 bonno if you don’t know what dipsomania is), ambition, dominance, faithlessness, manipulation, stinginess, pessimism, hostility, abuse, debasement, sexual lust, sarcasm (I’m not touching that one!), humiliation, jealousy, gluttony, unruliness, hurt, cruelty, unkindness, obstinacy, envy, indifference, negativity (in case you skipped pessimistic), furtiveness, sadism, enviousness, derision, falseness (think that includes teeth?), high-handedness, know-it-all, rage, aggression, rapacity, effrontery, disrespectfulness, hard-heartedness, power hungriness, lying, insidiousness, self-denial (really?), inattentiveness, contempt, wrath, haughtiness, greed for money, seducement, vindictiveness, insatiability, voluptuousness, excessiveness, censoriousness, dissatisfaction, egoism, ignorance, hatred, greed, impudence, imposture, cursing, imperiousness, lecherousness, callousness, malignancy, torment, intolerance, blasphemy, shamelessness, irresponsibility, obsession, prejudice, arrogance, violent temper, garrulity, dogmatism, presumption, intransigence, oppression, prodigality, lack of comprehension (like, for example, this list?), obstinacy, pride, conceitedness, delusion, quarrelsomeness, self-hatred, violence, vanity, hypocrisy, stubbornness, baseness, pretense, mercilessness, disrespect, ridicule, masochism, tyranny, capriciousness (oh, nooooo!), deceit, anger, discord, calculation, unyielding, desire for fame (say it ain’t so!) and deception.

(source Japan Timeshttp://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2011/01/01/our-lives/your-108-misleading-karmas/#.URpsZqXPaJV)

Japan New Year 108 bonno Traditions fiction reading Ryu Murakami In the Miso Soup Tokyo

My selection of 2012 photos on the underground (in London, Berlin and Tokyo), in the spirit of Walker Evans’ Subway Series, 1938-41…

Underground photography Walker Evans Tokyo London Berlin
Starbucks Reserve
On the second floor of Marui department store in Tokyo is the location of the first ever Starbucks Reserve in the world. A bar with four stools for customers, hidden in the corner of the normal Starbucks cafe, is reserved for rare, exotic and high quality coffee, brewed to perfection before your eyes by black-belt (or black-aproned) barristers. It’s like watching the tea ceremony, but in coffee form. Japan seems like the perfect place to originate this practise. We had two cups of Kona coffee (From Hawaii), and I’ve never tasted a fresher, more complex coffee in my life. I didn’t want to sully it with a dash of milk or a spoon full of sugar. Despite costing 900yen a cup, it’s well worth a visit for a special caffeinated treat. 

Starbucks Reserve

On the second floor of Marui department store in Tokyo is the location of the first ever Starbucks Reserve in the world. A bar with four stools for customers, hidden in the corner of the normal Starbucks cafe, is reserved for rare, exotic and high quality coffee, brewed to perfection before your eyes by black-belt (or black-aproned) barristers. It’s like watching the tea ceremony, but in coffee form. Japan seems like the perfect place to originate this practise. We had two cups of Kona coffee (From Hawaii), and I’ve never tasted a fresher, more complex coffee in my life. I didn’t want to sully it with a dash of milk or a spoon full of sugar. Despite costing 900yen a cup, it’s well worth a visit for a special caffeinated treat. 

Starbucks food and drink Japan Tokyo coffee

Tokyo Metro Fashion

Cute socks and bunches. Everywhere you go. 

Tokyo metro cute socks fashion Japan trends
By far the most bizarre experience thus far, Tokky Chan took me to a MAID CAFE in the Akihabara area of Tokyo - a gaudy, electric city in its own right, full of colour and manga and tech stores, and these extraordinary little affairs where young bewigged ladies dressed in extreme fantasy maid costumes greet you as ‘master’ or ‘mistress’, and invite you to select from the menu of spaghetti, mixed juice or games with your favourite maid.
Around us sat a few solo middle aged male clients, being entertained by maids on the other side of their bar. One rather large man was playing a miniature version of connect four with a rather buxom maid and as we we’re ushered to our seats he proceeded to get a pair of binoculars out of his pocket with which to examine her more closely. She giggled coyly and made a peace sign with her fingers.
Our maid (periodically translated by my faithful companion who tried not to laugh) told us that we had to be out of the cafe after an hour max, before leafing her way through the menu and explaining what was on offer. ‘If you order this dish, your favourite maid will toss the spaghetti in front of you whilst singing you a song’ or ‘if you order the mixed juice we will shake it in front of you whilst singing’ are two phrases that stick in the memory. I of course ordered the mixed juju, and the childish patois of the menu lived up to the kindergarten-canteen nature of what came out of the kitchen. I also ordered a chocolate cake arranged on the plate to look like a teddy bear.
Faithful to her promise, our maid came over and shook the juice in a cocktail shaker, but I hadn’t expected the singing would be call and response. I echoed the series of Japanese phrases back at her as best I could. Once our order was complete on the counter, our maid Hiyori said a blessing over the food ‘to make it more delicious’ - MOI MOI KYUN (roughly translated as ‘new, fresh spring-like feelings may bloom’ followed by the sound of an arrow getting stuck in a heart) after which we were instructed to reply ‘yes Hiyori’.
We eavesdropped on conversations between clients and maids around us. One man started talking about depression and his difficulties at work. The maid consoled him with ‘it will be ok’. Another payed 500 yen to have a Polaroid shot taken with his maid, wearing some fluffy ears and making a heart sign with their hands. Tokky suggested that this man had a wife and kids at home, but found it difficult to communicate with them, and so satisfied his needs in this department at the maid cafe, talking to young women dressed as little girls who he is paying to listen to him. I’m struck by how child-like this whole fantasy world is. Originally, its two dimensional basis in the realm of cartoons catered to people who found it difficult to form relationships in the real world. But the popularity of this aspect of Japanese culture is growing strongly.
Strangely, some women were there having one-on-ones with maids, and a group of three ladies in their twenties were seated by a maid and announced that this was their third visit. As the milk and banana mixed juju was seductively (yet innocently) poured from the shaker, I couldn’t help thinking how sexual and fetish the whole affair is. Maybe that tension is what makes it so popular. You can look and role play along but you can’t touch. Maybe this is the modern form of GEISHA. Women entertaining their (mostly male) clients through shamisen playing and singing and poetry and conversation, the sense of a refined (not so refined in this manga-fusion case) sensual experience but no sex involved.
Our maid asked me where I was from. When I told her London, I thought I’d better return the question as she clearly wanted to offer me conversation. The answer I got was ‘planet strawberry’. Which indicates the dimensional level of reality of the whole experience. Well, I couldn’t resist paying my yen and getting a souvenir snap with Hiyori, of the planet Strawberry.

By far the most bizarre experience thus far, Tokky Chan took me to a MAID CAFE in the Akihabara area of Tokyo - a gaudy, electric city in its own right, full of colour and manga and tech stores, and these extraordinary little affairs where young bewigged ladies dressed in extreme fantasy maid costumes greet you as ‘master’ or ‘mistress’, and invite you to select from the menu of spaghetti, mixed juice or games with your favourite maid.

Around us sat a few solo middle aged male clients, being entertained by maids on the other side of their bar. One rather large man was playing a miniature version of connect four with a rather buxom maid and as we we’re ushered to our seats he proceeded to get a pair of binoculars out of his pocket with which to examine her more closely. She giggled coyly and made a peace sign with her fingers.

Our maid (periodically translated by my faithful companion who tried not to laugh) told us that we had to be out of the cafe after an hour max, before leafing her way through the menu and explaining what was on offer. ‘If you order this dish, your favourite maid will toss the spaghetti in front of you whilst singing you a song’ or ‘if you order the mixed juice we will shake it in front of you whilst singing’ are two phrases that stick in the memory. I of course ordered the mixed juju, and the childish patois of the menu lived up to the kindergarten-canteen nature of what came out of the kitchen. I also ordered a chocolate cake arranged on the plate to look like a teddy bear.

Faithful to her promise, our maid came over and shook the juice in a cocktail shaker, but I hadn’t expected the singing would be call and response. I echoed the series of Japanese phrases back at her as best I could. Once our order was complete on the counter, our maid Hiyori said a blessing over the food ‘to make it more delicious’ - MOI MOI KYUN (roughly translated as ‘new, fresh spring-like feelings may bloom’ followed by the sound of an arrow getting stuck in a heart) after which we were instructed to reply ‘yes Hiyori’.

We eavesdropped on conversations between clients and maids around us. One man started talking about depression and his difficulties at work. The maid consoled him with ‘it will be ok’. Another payed 500 yen to have a Polaroid shot taken with his maid, wearing some fluffy ears and making a heart sign with their hands. Tokky suggested that this man had a wife and kids at home, but found it difficult to communicate with them, and so satisfied his needs in this department at the maid cafe, talking to young women dressed as little girls who he is paying to listen to him. I’m struck by how child-like this whole fantasy world is. Originally, its two dimensional basis in the realm of cartoons catered to people who found it difficult to form relationships in the real world. But the popularity of this aspect of Japanese culture is growing strongly.

Strangely, some women were there having one-on-ones with maids, and a group of three ladies in their twenties were seated by a maid and announced that this was their third visit. As the milk and banana mixed juju was seductively (yet innocently) poured from the shaker, I couldn’t help thinking how sexual and fetish the whole affair is. Maybe that tension is what makes it so popular. You can look and role play along but you can’t touch. Maybe this is the modern form of GEISHA. Women entertaining their (mostly male) clients through shamisen playing and singing and poetry and conversation, the sense of a refined (not so refined in this manga-fusion case) sensual experience but no sex involved.

Our maid asked me where I was from. When I told her London, I thought I’d better return the question as she clearly wanted to offer me conversation. The answer I got was ‘planet strawberry’. Which indicates the dimensional level of reality of the whole experience. Well, I couldn’t resist paying my yen and getting a souvenir snap with Hiyori, of the planet Strawberry.

Tokyo Akihabara maid cafe food and drink subculture Japan Traditions

The National Arts Centre Tokyo, Ropponghi

I wasn’t interested in any of the exhibitions currently on at the National Arts Centre Tokyo, opened in 2007 in the extraordinary vicinity of the Ropponghi Hills development - a miniature city in itself. But I had to pay a visit if only to admire the stunning architecture of Kisho Kurokawa: the curved glass facade peeping through a plantation of trees, the huge sculptural concrete cones that miniaturise the human form in the lofty dimensions of the foyer, and the totally overpriced but stuffed-full-of-wonderful-curiosities gallery shop, which occupies the whole of the basement floor.

Oh, and everywhere you go in Tokyo has little umbrella stands outside the building to avoid floors getting wet from dripping brollies. Or else they provide very neat plastic condom-like covers that get wrapped around your soaking brolly by a machine at the door. But in more sophisticated venues (such as this gallery) an umbrella locker area is dedicated over to the safe-keeping of your Regenschirm. You bag the key to the clasp shut tight around its handle, so there’s no chance of desperate men stealing it in a downpour.

Tokyo Japan National Arts Centre Tokyo Ropponghi Hills Regenshirm Umbrella umbrella locker museums gallery art art gallery architecture design gift shop

secretseamstress:

deadlybite:

Harajuku Rainbow Decora Color Explosion Girls

(Source: Tokyo Fashion)

harajuku girls my muse

Harajuku Girls Harajuku Tokyo Japan fashion kawaii clothes

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of Kamakura (near Tokyo)

O ye who treated the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
      To Buddha at Kamakura!

For though he neither burns nor sees,
Nor hears ye thank your Deities,
Ye have not sinned with such as these,
      His children at Kamakura,

Yet spare us still the Western joke
When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke
The little sins of little folk
      That worship at Kamakura —

The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies
That flit beneath the Master’s eyes.
He is beyond the Mysteries
      But loves them at Kamakura.

And whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither creed nor priest,
May feel the Soul of all the East
      About him at Kamakura.

A tourist-show, a legend told,
A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
      The meaning of Kamakura?

But when the morning prayer is prayed,
Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made
      No nearer than Kamakura?

 - Rudyard Kipling (selected verses from ‘The Edge of the East’, 1892, collected in ‘The Five Nations’, 1903, and also used as introductory verses to his novel ‘Kim’, 1901.

Kamakura Japan Tokyo Great Buddha Daibutsu Rudyard Kipling Poetry bronze statue monument

Sensō-ji Temple, Asakusa

This ancient Buddhist temple, located in the heart of downtown Tokyo, is the city’s oldest temple (the first building on the site dates from 645). Dominating the entrance is the THUNDER GATE, featuring a huge paper lantern painted with vivid red and black designs to suggest thunder clouds and lightning. 

The Nakamise Dori is the name of the 250m long street that stretches from the thunder gate to the main temple. Its hustle and bustle attracts locals and tourists alike, with many traditional shops and eating places with Japan’s special dishes and souvenirs. 

However, more intriguing are the omikuji stalls in the temple itself. For a donation of 100 yen, visitors can consult the oracle and divine answers to their questions. Querents (those who seek) shake labelled sticks from enclosed metal containers and read the corresponding answers they retrieve from one of 100 possible drawers. 


ritual spirituality Buddhism Tokyo Temple Buddhist temple Japan religion
3pm on a Monday afternoon, the weary salary man yields to the mighty force of metro napping.

3pm on a Monday afternoon, the weary salary man yields to the mighty force of metro napping.

sleep napping Salary Men Tokyo metro Japan