Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Haruki Murakami - Kafka on the Shore

Finally got round to reading Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki. This link takes you to his official website complete with haunting music, cityscapes and black cats.

The book I have is a small, slippery paperback version that I picked up at the airport. I've managed to snap it's spinal chord and I fear it's not long for this world. The cover design is by Chip Kidd who sounds like a character in one of Murakami's novels. The print is very small, a factor that put me off reading it for a month. I'm now on page 359 out of 489 and am totally hooked.

In fact, I was gripped by the start of a novel for the first time in a long while. I like the parallel narratives, and am enjoying the way Murakami takes you on a journey through Japan, a journey to places I have been and seen. Much of the journey is spent in the countryside. Reading it in English, but being set in Japan, I feel as if it has been written for me and those like me - those with a fair knowledge of Japan as a setting, but who interpret Japan in the English tongue. It doesn't feel unnatural in the slightest to me, to be reading this Japanese novel in English.

I think that a lot of the credit for this must go to the translator, Philip Gabriel. The novel reads very smoothly. (You can read a short interview with him here). Every now and again, I find myself guessing at what the original version of the Japanese novel said, especially in parts of the dialogue. David Mitchell, ex-Hiroshima novelist, criticizes a homogeneity in tone among the cast in his review in The Guardian. He also felt the Americanization would annoy some non-Americophones citing "Jeez Louise!" as an example. I'm certainly no Americophone, but the only part of the English version that jarred so far for me, was when one of the characters asked for his rice to be "super-sized". But having said that, in a novel with characters like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker popping up, it doesn't seem so strange for the text to be McDonaldized.

So far, I reckon both Murakami and Gabriel have really hit the mark in this novel. Hoping that the last 130 pages don't disappoint.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Commute (9) Spring is in the air

Little did I realise it before snapping the photo, but my wife tells me these flowers are known as "Ooinu no fuguri". Unfortunately, this translates as "Big Dog's Bollocks". Not quite what I had in mind when I took the photo of these delicate meadow flowers.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


With the Rising Sun flag as a backdrop, and not a Union Jack to be seen, the sixth graders walked in to a rousing rendition of Land of Hope and Glory. Shivering parents beamed with pride. The odd tear was wiped from the corner of an eye.

All graduating students received a certificate in what was an impeccably choreographed ceremony. There was lots of bowing. Lots of standing up, and sitting down again, too. You can get seriously dizzy at one of these events. The younger students all chanted a message to the graduating classes, and the graduating classes replied in a similar vein.

The speeches were mercifully short. It was music that was at the forefront of the morning. A mini-slideshow of baby pictures was shown to the accompaniment of a current pop song. We had Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and there was the national anthem, kimigayo, of course. This is always an interesting couple of minutes as kimigayo arouses violent passions in many people. Glancing surreptitiously around the room it's possible to identify among the apolitical masses the staunch nationalists, and the communists, too.

I'm not a fan of formal gatherings, and if truth be told, Japanese formal gatherings in particular. But a ceremony to mark the graduation of your child makes you pause to reflect on life. It was all very moving. I sat there, like many around me I'm sure, gawking at just how quickly my daughter has grown, and wondering just where the last six years had gone.

The most moving moment of all came at the end when the graduating classes turned around to stand face-to-face with the younger students. Then, as one, they sang the school song with a gusto that brought a lump to your throat. The education system in Japan takes a lot of flak, especially from the likes of me, but there's no doubt that our local elementary school has done my daughter proud.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Yoronotaki was my first experience of an izakaya in Japan. Known as "You're in a taxi" by the linguistically challenged foreign community in Hiroshima, I remember it as being a bit grimy, wooden, full of wonderful kanji (and shouting cooks), and cheap Sapporo beer in big bottles. Early forays into Japanese cuisine included ebi chilli sauce, German potato, jaga butter, mixed pizza, and fried potatoes. We had a lot of drunken fun (and potatoes) in "You're in a taxi".

Getting on for two decades after that first experience, I found myself in my local Yoronotaki with some friends for some food and rather fewer beers than in the old days. I resisted the temptation to order the old favourites despite them being etched in my mind. Top of the picks this time was the fried burdock sticks.

Yoronotaki was named after a waterfall in Gifu Prefecture. The waterfall is known as the waterfall of filial piety. (The kanji characters in the logo at the top are support - old age - waterfall). The owner of the izakaya chain liked the elements of filial piety and diligence that went into the story of the waterfall, and felt that they were the elements required to make his business succeed.

This is the story that enchanted him so much:

In Mino, in the eighth century, there lived a poor family. The son of the old couple was a woodcutter, and he loved his parents dearly. One day, he went deep into the mountains and came upon a waterfall. Thinking of his father's love for a wee drop of the hard stuff, he wished that the water were sake. While thinking this filially pious thought, he slipped and fell, and knocked himself unconscious. When he came to, he scooped up some of the water from the falls to revive him. Miraculously it tasted of rather fine sake. He took some home with him, and he and his father could be heard throughout the neighbourhood laughing with glee. Word spread and soon reached the ears of the Emperor who was so impressed with the events that he named the waterfall Yoronotaki.

Not entirely sure what the moral of this story is, but, filial piety and a good drop of sake go a long way in this country.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Shitmen have Cometh … paying homage to the kumitori men

A summer scene in a country household:

"They’re here. Close the windows upstairs. Quick!"
"You do the windows in the tatami room, hurry!"
"Close the back door. And kids, don’t forget to close the vents at the top of the windows, too."

The family busied themselves shutting out the outside world. It was a hot, humid summer day, but it was paramount to stop the air from coming in for the next ten minutes. The boy came crashing downstairs with a grin on his face.

"Just in time."

The family converged on the kitchen. They heard the crunch of the boots on the gravel path outside. They heard the hose being dragged across the ground, banging against the flimsy metal gate. They heard the man remove the manhole cover and lean it against the air-conditioning unit. They heard his chirpy call.


He had already inserted the nozzle of the ribbed, thick hose into the pit. The mechanism on the lorry roared into life and then settled into a gentle chugging sound. Outside the kitchen door, the family could hear the activity. They tried to block out visions of the process. All except the boy that is. He looked at the rest of the family. They were all so squeamish.

"Sounds just like he's slurping up the last bits of a McDonald’s shake with a straw."

The smell hit them. Pungent and putrid. Noses were pinched. Eyes watered. Oh, boy, the shitmen have cometh.

The shitmen (kumitori men) are just about the most courteous people I have ever met. They take customer service to new levels. Whether on the phone, or in your backyard pumping out your fetid cesspit, they are politeness personified. They appear oblivious to the smell, a smell so extraordinarily tangible that you could cut it with a knife. Their insouciance is no mean feat. They seem like a real genuine bunch of guys, too, not in the least awkward about the nature of their job. I’m not sure I could be so well-mannered if I was the one pumping other people's shit.

Outside the noises abated. The kumitori men had finished. A knock on the door. A cheerful young face. It was the young father of a boy in my daughter’s class. He was a cool-looking guy with a goatee and a gentle smile. Not quite what you'd expect for someone who, well, kind of "shovels" shit for a living.

"Six thousand four hundred yen, please," he said pleasantly.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Japan/Kauai links

With the whipping wind and snow flurries here in northern Hiroshima, Hawaii is but a distant memory.

A quick nose on google to check links between Kauai and Japan resulted in more than two million hits.

Here’s a quick sample from the first page covering the dangerous, the historical, the environmental, a gigantic seal, Aloha shirts and the Japanese bureaucracy.

Report of a missile test off this part of the Kauai coast: A joint project carried out this week by the US Missile Defence Agency and Japan’s Defence Agency. (Hope they enjoyed the view).

For information on Japanese internment on Kauai during the war (and archaeological research conducted this week) see this article.

Gooney birds fly into Kauai (by plane!) and researchers from Japan and the US join forces in a project to save them. Read about it here.

And finally, a large number of the early Japanese to emigrate to Kauai were from Oshima, in Yamaguchi. Suo-Oshima is now a sister city of Kauai (a smart move by the Japanese bureaucrat that came up with that plan), and workers at the local town office wear Aloha shirts in the summer months while filing their paperwork in triplicate. The Hawaiian spirit only goes so far though, as the office workers have declined to use Kauai's official hanko (seal) as, being carved from monkeypod, it weighs in at 180 kilograms and may just be a little too hard to handle. You can see it in this photo.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Puff the Magic Dragon

"Puff the Magic Dragon,
Lived by the sea,
And frolicked in the autumn mist,
In a land called Hanalei"

So goes the song. This is a view across the Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii. You can see Puff's brown eyes at the end of the outcrop. This island and the other Hawaiian islands have a big connection with Japan, and particularly Hiroshima. A large proportion of the Japanese immigrants who headed out here to work the plantations came from the Hiroshima area. You are much more likely to meet a Taniguchi here in Kauai than a Makanui.