Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Wrong Shoes. Or Naked.

 For the first 18 months of life our dogs didn't sleep through the night. Hayate in particular liked to wake us up to show us how beautiful the sunrise was every single day. I took him for a 2am walk just to stop him from getting us evicted for waking all our neighbours before getting up again at 6 to go to work on more than one occasion. There were mornings when I was so tired that I burst into tears when the alarm went off. It passed eventually though and they started keeping quiet until the alarm went off. There were a blessed couple of months of rest... but then we had the great idea of moving to the 'burbs and now we can't get up later than 5:50 if we want to make it to work on time. The accumulated sleep deficit has left me feeling constantly light headed and vague. I guess I am ready for parenthood. I was sitting on the bus the other morning heading to work when I realised I hadn't brushed my hair or washed my face. I looked down in a panic to make sure I wasn't in my pyjamas. It will happen one day, I am sure of it. The combination of exhaustion and the multiple changes of shoes and costumes in Japan fills me with terror that one day I'll look down and realise that I am wearing my outdoor shoes in the gym or that I am naked at the swimming pool. It happens. 
This onsen is one of my favourites. There is a mixed-bathing section (pictured) where both men and women can bathe together in swim suits. We were relaxing there one day when a naked man wandered out onto the poolside. He stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, pulling the sea air deep into his lungs. Then he lowered his gaze and saw a number of elderly women in water wings doing their exercises and his mistake dawned on him. He bolted. The thing is, it would be such an easy mistake to make. You go into a changing room off the lobby and one door leads out into the segregated, naked onsen while the other goes out to the mixed section. Men's and women's changing rooms are alternated on different days so while you may have taken the right hand door to nudey land on one visit, the next time you go it might be the left hand door. 

I have these moments of panic that are probably unique to Japan: Am I supposed to be naked here? Which pair of shoes and I wearing again?
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Essential Oils for Protection Against Insects

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I read an article recently about Japanese mothers using essential oils as home-made insect repellents for their children instead of the sprays you can buy at the supermarket. The bugs around our new house are full on, and the aerosol sprays and mosquito coils I’ve relied on up until now just don’t work at all. I hadn’t thought about using essential oils on myself, which is silly, because we’ve been using them in preference to flea treatments on the dogs all year. Shiba have notoriously sensitive skin, and the monthly drops we used to prevent fleas and ticks made their skin red and itchy. When it came time to apply it the poor puppies would run and hide under the nearest piece of furniture and snarl furiously at the sight of the packet. We tried all the brands we could find and the only other option seemed to be a powder you brush in; not much use for dogs who don’t get brushed, ever, and who walk through tick infested grass quite often.

We now use a mix of geranium and lavender essential oils diluted in a carrier of jojoba oil, applied to their collars with a small spray bottle every few days. I love the scent of geranium and unlike the gross commercial flea liquid I am happy to carry the dogs against my skin right after applying the oils. So far we have had no problems, but I am not sure how effective the oils are against ticks so I still examine the dogs after walking through longer grass or forest.
I bought the oils and spray bottle from Muji because I wanted to make sure they were 100% essential oils (not "perfumed oil"). The initial outlay was quite expensive, but since we only need a few drops of each essential oil in the carrier it should work out cheaper in the long run. With any luck the height of bug season is past, but next year I will try using the oils on myself as well as the dogs.
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Monday, 24 September 2012

Naginata: Still the Domain of Women

If you know what naginata is, your image is probably reflected in this photo:
Strong, fierce women in hakama going at it with big biff-sticks

My experiences with naginata have looked more like... this.
"Don't cry baby, Mummy will be right back after she finishes her biff session"
Although it was not originally a woman’s weapon, naginata came to be associated almost exclusively with women (warrior monks also used naginata) during the Edo era. A naginata was part of a samurai woman’s dowry, and in the militaristic pre-war period naginata was taught as part of PE classes at girls’ schools. Outside Japan naginata seems to be practiced by slightly more men than women, but in Japan it is still very much a woman-dominated sport. I recently participated in the prefectural tournament and there were only two men competing. The scarcity is reflected in the newspaper article below. Men and foreigners are pretty much as rare as one-another.
Yup, that's me, being all perceptibly foreign
The difference in atmosphere between naginata and other martial sports like kendo or karate is profound. At tournaments there are always a gaggle of small children running around.
How cute is it that this club made their t-shirts in kids' sizes as well?!
Babies are passed from one set of available arms to another. I spent about an hour last year watching a baby… I still have no idea who her mother was. It wasn’t the woman who gave her to me, or the woman I eventually passed her to when my turn came to compete.

The woman on the right is grandmother to both the national champion and six or seven other high ranking naginata ladies
These dads came along to cheer on their wives, who were both competing while pregnant. Guess they missed out on that “Asian husbands are evil” memo too.
They are total sweet-hearts with kick-arse wives and cute kids
Helping out a team member who battled through morning sickness (and a small earthquake) to win all of her matches
I’ve been an absolutely terrible team member, taking off months at a time to work on my MA, move house, and so on. I’ve never been made to feel bad about missing practice. My teacher said once “it can’t be helped in a women’s sport. Women are so much busier than men.” I thought it was an interesting point and I wonder if it’s a common stereo-type in Japan. Most of the older women I know work at least part-time, but even the ones who work full time are responsible for all the house work, as well as the community volunteer activities like neighbourhood associations. One of the women at my club is a full time teacher, PTA member and regular volunteer at international events but still has to cook a full meal for her husband every night and make sure his laundry is done. He, on the other hand, just… works. Women of her generation (much like my own mother, it certainly isn’t an exclusively Japanese phenomenon) were caught in the double-burden of job opportunities opening up for women and an expectation for women to work, without a matching expectation for men to take on more domestic work. This is not a marriage dynamic I see in any friends my own age in Japan or otherwise. Still, the point that women have more demands on their time than men means that there is less pressure than I expected to contribute to my naginata club.

Finally, naginata is great for kids. Don't you wish this had been a school sport when you were seven?!
The little one on the left was actually six, that's her big sister helping her with her helmet
Don't be fooled by the cute smiles, all three of these girls out-rank me by four belts

Of course, naginata ALSO looks like this ;)
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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Empty Houses 空き家 and 廃墟

When we were looking for a house to move into a friend suggested an “aki-ie”, or “empty house”. At first I wasn’t sure on the distinction between an aki-ie and a haikyo, but it turns out that Non-Profit Organisations manage the renting of aki-ie and very low rates in order to prevent them from becoming haikyo. Let me explain that in a little more detail. Traditional Japanese houses are a little like hosts who require symbiotic parasites (humans) to reside in them in order to live. Or, if I absolutely have to avoid parasite analogies, Japanese houses need a lot of upkeep. Without occupants they very quickly become uninhabitable. This wasn’t an issue when they were first designed and people lived in extended families working the same land for generations. These days, however, young people tend to prefer to live in nuclear families and many (most?) leave the ‘family’ home to find work. They may then marry and start their own families living near their workplace. The result is that rural Japan is full of huge old houses which their very elderly residents struggle to maintain. When it becomes impossible (and there are a lot of volunteer services that work to try and help the elderly stay in their own homes as long as possible), the houses stand vacant. In time they begin to crumble away, sometimes still fully furnished and waiting for a son or grandson to “come home” (which he may have no intention of ever doing). I say son or grandson for a reason, but the primogenitor system of inheritance belongs in another post.

Haikyo make for some amazing and creepy photography subjects. There's even a hobby called haikyo that involves exploring them. Check out the gorgeous pictures at and and a website about the hobby at

Enter aki-ie. NPOs find tenets to move into the empty houses for a nominal rent so that they are maintained. At the very least the tatami will be aired and the house will be heated in winter. An example is
Look at the gorgeous old houses standing vacant

Photo taken from
Although it seems strange that renting the house out is a last, desperate resort, there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to open the family home to strangers. There are a few houses on the regular rental market, but none of the ones we looked at seemed to have been family homes. The house we are currently renting was built as a rental, and the owner has never lived here. A friend who has been living in Kyushu (for work reasons) for the last three decades recently told me that she was going “back” to Nagoya (her hometown) to clean her house before her daughter moved there. It took me a while to understand that for the last thirty-odd years they have maintained a house in Nagoya that no-one was using, while also renting an apartment down here. Apparently when her husband retires they will move back to Nagoya, despite all of their friends and the families their children grew up with being down here. Can you imagine sitting on an asset with the value of a house in Australia for thirty years and doing absolutely nothing with it? I don’t even know if I will ever be able to afford my own house, let alone have one and then rent another just because.  
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Emergency Evacuation Pack

In honour of emergency-preparedness month, here is a not particularly exciting but hopefully informative look at our evacuation packs. I put a lot of thought into my evacuation pack, and I’m going to run through the details with you here. I do not, however, have any expertise or qualification to give advice about this kind of topic. I’m just showing you what I have made and why I’ve chosen to include the things I have.

These two packs cover me, my husband and our two dogs. The contents should keep us warm, dry, able to call for help and contains food and water for around five days. Each bag contains both food and water, in case we were separated.

Point 1: The Packs Themselves

 It’s essential that your evacuation kit be hands-free (a backpack is best, but a satchel or messenger bag would do). A duffle-bag or anything that ties up your hands is a bad idea. In case of a flood, landslide or disrupted ground from an earthquake you need to be able to use a pole or stick to feel out your footing and avoid falling into deep water or mud sinks. If anyone with you is injured you may need to help carry them. You may need to link hands with your party members to stay together in the dark. Whatever the situation, it is best to have your hands free.
These packs were cheap (from Muji) but the straps are strong enough for the weight we wanted to pack in them. We chose white for better visibility and because we have two, we wanted to write the contents in marker on the outside of each bag to save having to search through both to find the first aid kit or rain gear.

Point 2: Super torch

The torch is the single most expensive item in the packs. It can be powered by batteries or by turning the handle and you can plug cell phones into it to charge. It is also a radio. And a siren.

Point 3: Water

Water is heavy but essential. You can survive for really quite a long time without food, but not long at all without water. In addition to plain bottled water we can give the dogs we also have enriched water with minerals and calcium. Theoretically you need about a litre per person per day, but given the food choices we have packed (see point 4) we could stretch this water to cover several days easily.
Actually, some of these cans are not ring-pull. But I was in a hurry to take the photo and didn't notice until afterwards.

Point 4: Food

Most camping food or emergency rations are dehydrated, condensed or just plain dry. In the emergency situations we are likely to face (most likely floods or earth quakes) water is going to be the scarcest resource. There’s also no point packing anything that needs heating or rehydrating unless you are also going to pack a stove and pots and pans. Our food is in two categories: instant energy and sustaining foods. For immediate energy we do have some high-calorie dry snack bars (but mainly fruit and nut chocolate), but all of our sustaining foods contain sufficient liquid to eat as they are (directly from the can since we don’t have any crockery) and also contribute to the liquid intake our bodies need. Everything we have contains protein. Importantly, all the cans are ring-pulled. No point wasting space on a can opener (or worse, needing one and not having one). The same principle applies to the dog food: we have semi-moist kibble and sachets of wet food that should provide a fair portion of their water needs.

Point 5: First Aid and Personal Care Necessities

What you want to include in your first aid kit is really personal. Probably the most important thing to include is any prescription or other medication you take regularly. I’ll list what we have in a minute, but here are some of the little things you may not have thought of:
  • Alcohol hand sanitiser. There is unlikely to be water for washing hands before giving first aid or even after going to the toilet.
  • Toilet paper. There are unlikely to be functioning sanitation systems.
  • Chemical toilet-in-a-bag (five uses) and a trowel. Since we live in the county side digging a hole is an easy option for us.
  • Sanitary pads. If you happened to be menstruating during a period of evacuation and didn’t have these… *shudder*. Originally I had tampons because they take up less space, but after thinking about lack of hand washing options they seemed like a bad idea. Also, pads can be used as wound dressings.
  •  Travel toothbrushes and toothpaste kits. These are light and don’t take much space, but would make a huge difference to one’s sense of well-being.
  • Caffeine pills. After my emphasis of water it may seem bizarre to pack a diuretic, but after a fair bit of discussion we decided that going through caffeine withdrawal and the associated headaches, moodiness and food cravings would be more problematic. If you smoke it would be sensible to include nicotine patches for similar reasons.

  • The first aid kit proper is in a separate bag for easy finding/transportation. The bag has a hook so it should be easy to keep up out of mud while having both hands free to administer first aid. My first aid kit is the weakest part of my evacuation pack. Any suggestions on how to improve it would be gratefully received. The kit contains
  1. Three-in-one anti-septic, anaesthetic and antibacterial cream
  2. Pain killers
  3. Bandaids, wound dressings and tape
  4. Compression bandage
  5. Tweezers and small scissors
  6. Space blanket
Toiletry bag re-purposed into a first aid kit

Point 6: Keeping Warm and Dry

Note that we also have a head-torch each for hands-free lighting
Except for the height of summer, keeping warm during night time potentially outdoors is an important consideration. Keeping dry is a year-round consideration in Japan. Our pack contains rain ponchos, which would not keep us dry for long but hopefully long enough to find or make shelter. They are brightly coloured for visibility. We have microfiber towels because they are light weight and dry almost instantly. We have a tarpaulin and rope with which we could make a (very rough)  shelter big enough for the four of us in the event that we could not find our way to an evacuation shelter or if we decided to camp outside a shelter in order to stay with the dogs. We may exchange the tarp for an actual (compact) tent, we’re still thinking about it. We also have a package of thick socks and thermal tops, as well as gardening gloves for dealing with broken glass, collapsed trees and the like.
Thermal underwear, socks and gloves

Point 7: Knowing What to Do

Our pack contains our emergency evacuation guide book, map with evacuation shelters marked and a first aid instruction manual. It is recommended to keep important documents such as passports in the evacuation guide but we don’t want to be dipping into the packs whenever we need them, so we just keep photocopies of our documents.
It sounds like a lot, but all this stuff fits easily into two packs light enough for us to carry for long distances. If we were caught in a disaster and had to evacuate, I think we have covered every eventuality we could reasonable prepare for. We could survive fairly comfortably with both dogs for several days and over a week if we rationed sparsely. The bags are stored in their own cupboard which is located on the way out of the house, and they are immediately grab-able. There’s no point making a kit and putting it on top of a bookcase you can’t reach without a step ladder or buried at the back of a full closet.

Finally, if you want a cute pictorial representation of natural disasters check out kawaii catastrophe.
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Sunday, 16 September 2012

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” Movie Re-made in Japan

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The 1997 German film Knockin' on Heaven's Door (co-written by director Thomas Jahn and one of the stars, Til Schweiger) is one of my all time favourite films. It came on late one night when I happened to be sitting in front of the TV and I was hooked in the first five minutes. When Rutger Hauer made his cameo appearance towards the end I felt like my heart would break from the perfection of it.

The story is a perfect combination of unlikely but passionate friendship, inevitable tragedy and cheeky action. The characters in the original film are a good-for-nothing bad boy and a timid, knitted vest-wearing man who meet in hospital after being told they both have weeks or maybe days to live. They steal a car to visit the ocean before they die, but the car belongs to gangsters who subsequently chase them across the country to get it (and the contents of the boot/trunk) back.

The Japanese version came out in 2009, so this isn’t really news, but I only just got around to watching it. I was curious how a Japanese film would handle the road-trip aspect of the story. In Germany driving to the sea side is a convincingly epic adventure, but in Japan no-where is all that far from the coast. And, of course, the Japanese version replaced the timid man with a fourteen-year-old girl. I was expecting it to be pretty terrible, but it was really good! It lacked the incredibly moving man-love that made the German original so compelling, but instead the bad-boy character (played by Tomoya Nagase) adopted a very sweet older-brother attitude to the young girl. It didn’t enter the creepy territory I had worried about. I had hoped that Rutger Hauer's character might have been played by Beat Takeshi, but sadly it was not to be. They changed the gangster boss to a tax-fraud motivational speaker, which was quite cleaver. They also suggested a link with the governor of Tokyo, which I suspect may have been a dig at Ishihara Shintaro (who certainly deserves it).

Some scenes were taken shot-for-shot from the original (lemons pouring from a cupboard in the hospital kitchens for example), while others were given a Japanese spin (shopping in Harajuku). I was disappointed that the bank robbery, one of my favourite scenes from the original, occurred off screen in the Japanese version. I did enjoy the Japanese take on it though: they rob a post office rather than a bank, but in Japan all post offices are also outlets for the post office bank. For the rest of the film they kept talking about the “not bank robbery, post office robbery”.

I definitely recommend seeing the original first if you haven’t. It packs a much bigger emotional wallop. But do also check out the Japanese version, it is a lovely re-make and quite sweet. If at all possible I would avoid “The Bucket List”, which takes one of the key premises from the German film.
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Saturday, 15 September 2012

School Lunch Blogging

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I first heard about “Never Seconds” when politicians tried to shut down the then-nine year old’s school-lunch blog. As these things tend to, their attempts backfired and her blog came to international attention. Since then she has been supported by Jamie Oliver and Neil Gaiman and raised a substantial amount of money for charity. Her blog has also received submissions from all over the world as children and teachers send her pictures and reviews of their school lunches (including some from Japan). If you have time, check out her blog! It is charming, and the pictures of school lunches from around the world are really interesting.
Oh, and look! A guest post from Japan!
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Beer Garden Cosplay Band


I’m less of a geek than I used to be. I haven’t watched anime much this year, I don’t have a Cylon toaster (but I’d really really love one), I’ve only mentioned the Chris Benoit conspiracy three times in the last six months and I haven’t even joined in the hilarious harassment of the Scifi Channel on Facebook. Nevertheless, I am occasionally reminded that I am still somewhat of a freak, even in Japan. Our welcome party for new ALTs was one such occasion.
We had fifty attendees for the party, so a beer garden was the only viable budget option. We ended up on the roof of a department store. We had been told that the entry price included live entertainment, and the website featured pictures of Hula dancers. As it turned out, the entertainment for the night we were there was a band in cosplay performing anime theme songs. Not many… they played the same set twice. I am pretty sure I recognised the guitarist from the local rockabilly nightclub, so my guess is that the cosplay band is a fun side project and not taken too seriously. The first song they played was “My Boyfriend is a Pilot” from Macross. Ahh, the memories. Macross was the first anime I ever saw. It was on TV in Australia (well, butchered into a version relabelled Robotec) in about 1995 and unusually for my family circumstances I was actually allowed to watch it. It left an indelible mark in my aesthetic sensibilities. The vocalist called out to the crowd to name the song. After a long an awkward silence someone offered an incorrect guess. The nostalgia coupled with the amount of alcohol I had already consumed led to me eventually jumping up, running to the stage and yelling the correct answer. In the interval the vocalist came over for a chat and, showing off far more than is excusable in polite society, I sang the theme song of the character she was cosplaying. After that all throughout the second set (which was actually just the first set repeated) she kept trying to get the rest of the crowd to identify songs, saying “come on Japan! How come the foreigners know more about anime than you?” then giving up, pointing the mike to our section and invariably we would all shout out the correct answer. Perhaps never before having had such an enthusiastic audience, she invited us to stand in front of the stage, where in true drunk gaijin fashion we started a mosh pit and the other nerds and I joined in loudly on all the choruses. At the end of this quite enjoyable evening I turned to leave and saw that an entire section of the Board of Education (my employer) had come in for their own party and had witnessed all of the frivolity. Fortunately they seemed to think that it was hilarious.

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