Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Anal Banality of Japanese Garbage

What I am about to tell you will never make you curse your blue box sorting again. As with everything in Japan the garbage is under a rigourous system that it is best not to think about because it will warp your mind. The garbage people do not go door to door here, each street or crescent (called a dai in Japanese) has a cement platform with cement sides and a net with poles that covers the garbage, this is placed over only when there is garbage in it. Luckily or unluckily our cement garbage platform is right across from our house.
Forget putting your garbage out the night before; here, you are not allowed to put your garbage out before 7:00 am and the truck comes around 8:30 - 9:00 am so one can see this leaves only a small margin for error. The truck comes playing happy music, everything here comes playing happy music (but this happy music, bells and whistles is entirely another blog entry).
The sorting system is nothing short of completely anal, Josh has no head for this sort of thing , so it has been me; Jackie the garbage sorting superhero who has taken on the task. I am happy to say that the whole thing is colour coded otherwise I would be at a complete loss.
Get ready! Here comes the sorting system:
Burnable garbage (your basic garbage, including paper for some reason that we cannot figure out) goes out in the blue bags on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Non-burnables (metal cans and other things like light bulbs, shoes, and extraneous odds and ends) goes out in the green bags on the first and third Wednesday of each month.
PET 1 Bottles (the hard plastic bottles used for pop) go out in the red bags on the third Thursday of each month. The caps must be taken off, they need to be rinsed and the labels cut off.
Glass Bottles get put in one of four what look like blue oil drums on our cement platform. The corks and lids must be taken off and there is a perfectly logical explanation for the four drums. Green bottles go in one drum, the brown ones in another and the clear ones get two drums as there are usually more of these. This was supposed to happen on the third Friday of each month but it appears to be moved up to the second Friday, good thing I was already out there with my burnable garbage in its blue bag to see other people sorting their bottles.
If you are wondering how one obtains all these coloured bags; the answer is you have to buy them from the store for extortionist rates.
If you were wondering where cartons, trays and other things go, that to the Canadian mind are not burnable garbage.... well.... we have to go down to the grocery store which has its own sorting system for everything and I mean everything. They even have little bins for different coloured caps from your PET1 bottles.
On to further craziness, the cement platform needs to be cleaned after each garbage removal. In Canada this would be some one's minimum wage job, not in Japan. There are two folders that go around the neighbourhood each in opposing circular directions, each household takes its turn cleaning the cement garbage platform. We received the burnables clipboard the week after we arrived. I went out on Tuesday and Friday and swept the platform and splashed water on it (the water seems only to be splashed to show the neighbourhood that it has been cleaned). Just when I thought we were out of the woods... we received the non-burnables clipboard from our nice neighbour to the right of our house. I went out the next Wednesday and swept and splashed the water. This was the easy part.
Yesterday I had to hand the non-burnables clipboard over to our not so nice neighbour to the left who has been spying on us through his curtains for the last month. Boy, did I not want to go and ring his doorbell. We signed the sheet and checked the map that shows the route the clipboard should take (all these things are included on the clipboard), I summoned up all my courage and rang the neighbour's doorbell.
I smile said 'konnichiwa' and gave him the board, he smiled and refused to accept it. At a loss, I went home. I checked the clipboard route and got a empty can formerly holding tomatoes and went back over and rang the door bell, I showed him the route and the tomato can (clearly indicating it was the non-burnable garbage clipboard) and said my house was 17 and his 1 so it was clearly his turn. He pointed at the signature and smiled and refused to accept it. I said 'Arigato Gozaimas' thank-you and returned to the house. Not five minutes later he rang our doorbell. I refused to deal with him and fed Josh to him. Apparently we had written the date under the signature. This was wrong... you are to write your house number under the signature. He could not deal with this breach of protocol and refused to deal with the clipboard until we had changed the 20 to a 17. He sat down with Josh and explained every detail I have told you about garbage in Japanese to Josh. Josh changed the 20 to a 17 and this time he did not refuse to take the clipboard. After a long session of deep bows and apologies we went our separate ways, we are sure he will continue to spy on us.
As you can see, the Japanese are highly efficient and systematic, but one little thing will throw them for a complete loop. It is sometimes (toki doki) like you are on an airplane that is crashing but the plane is on autopilot and will not deviate from its flight plan. So welcome to the algebraic equation that is Japanese garbage day.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Himeji Castle

Josh and I spent one of our days off last week at Himeji Castle. We drove there ourselves, this was our first experience with Japanese toll roads. We were a little nervous about negotiating this but in the end it worked out quite well. Except the roads do not give directions (north, south, east, west) they simply say the name of the next town. So if you are planning to ever come to Japan. bone up on your geography. Himeji Castle is the stuff that Akria Kurasoua films are made of. It is all white tile and actually glistens in the sun, hence its name to the Japanese "white crane castle".

It is also exceedingly tactically impressive. It has a double moat with accompanying double wall. The grounds are beautiful with ancient trees. Once it seems that the grounds were a setting for Japanese Nationalist Monuments which I am happy to say, were decrepit and clearly no longer venerated.

Back to the military intenseness of Himeji: It is built on a huge hill and the grounds are continuously circling upward with massive walls. The walls have three different types of murder holes. One for archers, one for canons and the last ones are triangle shaped for Portuguese arquebus.

Here is me examining one of the many murder holes.

Himeji Castle

Here is Josh in front of the Castle.

The grounds are immense and very well gardened, many of the trees are hundreds of years old, and because of all the obsessive Japanese gardeners, they are very strangely formed.

The inside of this castle is very well preserved, unlike Osaka castle which feels like a modern building inside. The use of massive wood beams goes a long way to explaining why there are few large trees in Japan's long abused forests. These beams are incredible, must have been quite the feat to construct given that it is all done with notch and peg work.

A castle grapefruit (affectionately known as a pamplemousse) tree

Another classical firewarding gargoyle fish.

Remember, if you are at Himeji Castle there is to be no scribbling!

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Day of Curry

When I received my schedule for Asahi Kindergarten there was a note on it that Friday January 22, 2010 was the 'day of curry'. Having some idea that curry was involved and having no idea how, one can see how this peaked my interest. I had visions of curry falling from the sky, or small Japanese children having a giant curry food fight or even the whole school dressing up in the horribly racist East Indian garb that seems to symbolize curry in this country.
Although, the day of curry was none of these things it was a lesson in Japanese etiquette. The mothers of Asahi Kindergaten cook a curry lunch for the whole school once and month. At first I was expecting the 'Great Hall' they have on the second floor to be set up like a dinning room and the whole school eating together, this was not the case. All the students ate in their respective classrooms with their teachers. The mothers came out to serve the curry and get this.... They were all wearing white train conductor hats, full body aprons and rubber gloves ... ahh the day of curry.
I ate at a appointed desk with the secretaries, a newly hired teacher and the head teacher. this is where the twilight zone began. The curry was served, no one touched their food, we sat and started at it. In Japan it is the height of rudeness to attack your food; to be polite one must look at it like some sort of anorexic at a greasy spoon. After some time, the head teacher made praying hands and said 'ittadakemas' (the Japanese before eating saying, its not religious more 'thanks for the food') then she ate, and the others, ate so I ate. I have never eaten so slow in my life. Nearly twenty minutes later we were finished eating.
During the meal, they talked in Japanese which was to be expected, I was brought up in conversation, it seemed to be positive so I pretended not to notice. I was asked about Canadian food (like curry is Japanese food) and had a terribly difficult time explaining what Canadian food is considering I did not want to bring up meat because North East Asians think that 'Westerners' eat meat as our staple rather than bread. So I mumbled something about Salmon, Lobster, Wild Rice and Maple Syrup.
After staring at our empty bowls for about five minutes, the head teacher put her hands together again and said the Japanese; 'I am finished eating' saying and I was free to go. Thanking everyone and bowing a lot, I walked out of the kindergarten past the train conductors serving curry and home with a deliciously full stomach. I will participate in 'the day of curry' every month!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bamboo Harvesting

Hello I thought I would tell you about our little excursion into the woods to cut bamboo. Josh is teaching in our tea room and I am in between classes waiting for boiled salt water to cool so I can proceed to pickle some diakon radishes.
We drove to Sasayama because we wanted to build a bamboo fence in our backyard, we have laid new beds for vegetable gardening in most of the backyard but have reserved a spot near the house for a Japanese tea garden, so we are putting a fence between the two, Josh has just laid the posts in the last two days.... but I digress.
We got to Kasu-gaeh and met Midori, our boss' mother, who told us not to go to the bamboo mountain that we had earlier been instructed to go to but to go to one of their back fields to the bamboo forest there. Never listen to Midori.....
We spent the whole afternoon cutting bamboo, it was quite easy. Just get a Japanese saw and go to town, Josh cut the big ones and I cut the little ones. (We needed both to build the fence.) I also got some turnips and diakon from my boss' field for pickling (yes they are still growing.) Number one rule about cutting bamboo: If you drive a tiny 'Mira Pico' always size up your bamboo first. We cut it all too long, once we got it to the car we had to re-cut it all a second time. We had a fabulous time and a great new experience.
We drove home and did not see a soul the whole time, which we found out later was a very good thing... apparently the farmer who 'owns' the bamboo forest told our boss last year that if our boss wanted to cut bamboo from his forest our boss would have to pay him. In the end, the one thing we learned is .... NEVER LISTEN TO MIDORI!

New Years in Kyoto

Our friends Seiji and Yayoi invited us to their family house in Kyoto for New Years. New Years is special to the Japanese as it is linked to a northeast-Asian lunar calendar event, known in Japan as 正月 Shogatsu held traditionally in February. Although since the Meiji era's modernization program Japan is out of step with the rest of Asia and celebrates New Years with the European Gregorian calendar. However the event has retained many of its traditional aspects and we were more than happy to have it coincide with our New Years.

During this holiday the Japanese eat only preserved foods in bento boxes, known as osechi-ryori お節料理. These sets include slightly sour preserved vegetables, mashed sweet potato/chesnut paste, rubbery fish cakes, boiled seaweed and sweet black soybeans. Most of the reasoning for this comes from the fact that Japanese people are too busy cleaning for New Years (a must do for everyone, and I mean CLEANING EVERYTHING) to cook and their tradition of not being able to shop during the New Years period (especially in the days before refrigeration) so everything keeps for a while. There are many specificities and special days during the shogatsu period but we got to witness the most important ones at our friends`place in Kyoto.

New Years is a bit strange in Japan as they all seem to watch the same television program called kohaku each new years, which we were obliged to watch. Look up "Enka" and "J-Pop" on you tube if you want to see what it is like, neither of us were fans of it at all. I was a fan of the family pilgrimage to temples and shrines for new years wishing and cleansing, the highlights of which were a wooden stilt temple named Kiyomizu-dera, built only with joist-work and no nails, and the ringing of the second largest bell in Japan (fourth heaviest in the world) at Chion-in temple. The bell ringing was interesting as Japanese buddhism has the year rung in with 108 clangs of their massive bells at each temple to chant down the 108 evil intentions man may have in their ontology. The Chion-in bell required 17 monks to pull the hammer back to ring the bell each time! Needless to say multitudes had gathered and the bell was very loud, but I do not think my evil intentions were hampered by the bell.

Seiji and clan were most hospitable, at least as hospitable as the Japanese can be, letting us stay for 3 days right in the middle of family ritual and visiting relatives. The house was amazing! It is located in central Gion district, the geisha area of Japan to you laymen, and at 100 years old and wooden construction it was an amazing place to be nonetheless stay in. From our bedroom you could see an incredible 5 storey pagoda and a large temple in the distance. The house also featured a bathroom made of wood that opened onto a traditional garden which was expertly carved out from a sliver of land surrounding the bathing area. Needless to say, this was the Japan of legends and it was the perfect place to ring in the New Year and our start in Japan.

Seiji showed us some of the most amazing temples, shrines and streetscapes we had seen in Japan as of yet. Much of it was wooden as this is the choice building material in Japan. Much of it was also made of hideous concrete and polyfill walls, it seems there is no halfway in Japan, they either do it up to the nines or just build an area with no care for aesthetics or public access. Kyoto is odd this way, you can be on an amazing street full of shops and culture, smiling people and the odd Geisha or Maiko and then around the corner sprung onto one of the most hideous factory ridden, wire strung, eroding rusty building, concrete covered river districts you have witnessed. Anyhow, this all made the place more interesting to me as I hate smoothed over tourist trap towns or towns that are ALL concrete such as Tokyo.
Here are some of the photos of our new years vacation, if you want to see a more complete set of pictures check out Josh's album on facebook!