31 July, 2016

Japan's cartoon-figure fixation

Japan seems to have a fixation on using cartoons for communication. I don't mind, really, it means that even if you can't read well, then you have a better chance of understanding what's going on. Here are some examples I've come across in the last few months:

On a footpath next to a park.

Outside our local gym, which is near a river, though there are two fences between it and the river at the moment.

On a local road, reminding drivers about pedestrians.

This is on a two-lane road a bit south of us. I shudder to think of how crowded the roads might be if an earthquake happened and people tried to evacuate.

Spotted on the hike I did with the fifth graders in May. Don't feed the monkeys? I do know it's related to rubbish, take your rubbish with you, I presume!

This was at our campsite at the end of March. It looks a bit like an elephant hitting someone...

But actually the use of cute cartoon figures goes way beyond signs. Many quite serious organisations, like banks, the Red Cross, and the police force have mascots. Here is the military's mascot, Prince Pickles!

This is an interesting article that suggests that part of this is because of the challenge of Japan's written language communication with the general public has included pictures for a long time. Apparently it wasn't until the mid-1800s that there was a move to make the language uniform. Not to mention that isn't not easy to learn to read.

Another article which gives some more information about them, interestingly suggesting that learning about mascots can help you connect with people (Japanese people like discussing mascots, apparently), they can help you learn Japanese, and even help you keep track of Japanese current affairs. So, I've looked up our city's mascot and she's a princess called Ruru-chan, you can see her at the top of our city's webpage. I honestly can say I've never noticed her before!

But I've digressed. I'm pretty sure it's true that we see more of these kinds of signs in Japan than we do in Australia. Or is it just that because I find it hard to read here, I notice them more? Feel free to share your own photos of signs with cartoons on them from wherever you live.

30 July, 2016

Nijō castle in Kyoto

WARNING: some Japanese history coming up!

We visited a Japanese castle when we were in Kyoto. It was built by the famous Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu as his Kyoto headquarters at the start of the 1600s. This is a flat-land castle and looks a lot different to European castles (not that I've ever been to one, just seen photos). 
In this case it includes two layers of fortifications (moats and formidable stone walls). Inside those are gardens and two palaces in traditional Japanese style. It's one of more than a dozen places in and around Kyoto that have been designated by UNESCO as a (single) World Heritage Site.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that virtually ruled Japan for nearly 300 years from 1600. He was a powerful lord who seized power in 1600 and was appointed by the emperor as shogun (hereditary military dictator) in 1603.

I've been doing a little bit of reading about him, here's a summary of what I've learned. He was born in 1543 towards the end of a century called the Age of Warring States, where there was no central control over the country, though there still was an Emporor in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, he had no real power over the country. 

Ieyasu's mother was sent back to her family when he was two and never lived with Ieyasu's father again. His father was killed when he was six. And he lived much of his childhood as a hostage because there was warring within his family.

The 45 years leading up to Tokugawa Ieyasu becoming shogun was a gradual period of unification (subduing) the country by a few powerful men, the most well known being Hideyoshi. One of the things this guy did was a "sword hunt", banning all non-samurai from owning weapons. To this day there are very strict laws about weapons of any sort in Japan, including knives!

Hideyoshi even tried to invade Korea twice in the 1590s, with the goal of taking over China (he was quite brilliant, but a little megalomaniacal), but suffered an untimely death in 1598. Hideyoshi's only heir was five at the time. 

Hideyoshi had established a regency council of leading lords, however within two years Ieyasu had gotten half to sign allegiance to him and then, at 59 years of age, he won a decisive battle near Kyoto in 1600, and became the de facto ruler of the country. In 1602 the Emperor gave Ieyasu the title of shogun.

Ieyasu moved the capital to Edo (now called Tokyo) and handed his son the shogun title in 1605. During the remaining eleven years of his life he spent consolidating the position of his family, including devising a complex administration structure to create a viable system for ruling this decentralised country. Having traveled a bit now in Japan, it amazes me that anyone was able to do that at all. The country has many nooks and crannies that are difficult to access, even today with motorised vehicles. 

One of the keys was that all the 300 feudal lords had to travel to Edo on a regular basis. Also there was a rigid class structure set up, so everyone know where in society they were and how they should behave. You see still reflections of this in Japanese language and culture today.

He managed to create a system that maintained peace and foster growing prosperity for over two centuries. However there was significant xenophobia and the doors to the outside world were closed for most of that time. It was Ieyasu that sighed a Christian Expulsion Edit in 1614 which banned the practice of Christianity and led to the expulsion of all foreign missionaries, marking the end of open Christian witness until the 1870s.

Back to Nijō castle
It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu (but funded by the feudal lords of Western Japan) as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa family. They were living in Tokyo, but still obviously came to Kyoto at times. Especially because the Emperor still resided in Kyoto (until the late 1800s).
This is one of the outside walls of the Ninomaru palace. The white is paper-
covered sliding doors! I don't know what happens when it rains.
There are two palaces in the complex, but we could only see inside one of them: Ninomaru. It is a wooden building that was used for administrative meetings. The rooms are huge, all covered with traditional tatami flooring. 

This was part of one of the gardens on the grounds.
I want to say that it is filled with beautiful artwork, but that gives you the impression of paintings on walls, statues on pedestals etc. But that's not what it is like at all. The walls are covered with amazing paintings that includes gold , the ceilings too. The upper parts of some of the walls separating rooms have incredible carvings that go all the way through, but are completely different images on each side. We were not allowed to take photos, so all I can offer you is this webpage.

The floors of the corridors are famous and called "nightingale floors". They squeak when you walk on them and have been constructed to prevent anyone from sneaking into the palace undetected.

Ieyasu came to the castle in 1603, but he never entered the Ninomaru palace as that wasn't completed until 1626, after he'd died.

The palace was where authority was returned to the Imperial Court in 1867. In 1939 the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

I'm enjoying this, I've always liked history, but never really gotten into Japanese history. My resolve is to keep reading and learning about Japanese history this year and hopefully well beyond that!

However that's probably enough history for here for one day! 

29 July, 2016

Photos from our summer in Tokyo #1

Today I present some photos from our recent summer days in Tokyo. 

Convenience stores were a big part of our camping trip. But they're also a part of our lives in Tokyo. Yesterday we bought part of our lunch at one while we were on the city. I'm particularly impressed at the summer deal you can see on the flag in the middle of this photo: iced coffee at ¥130. 

We spent a bit over an hour yesterday at the office of Japan Evangelical Missionary packing these magazines for posting. Unfortunately it is the Spring issue. Thankfully the Summer issue is following hot on it's tail, if we can overcome a couple of obstacles. Until I took this job on I had no idea how many factors could delay a publication like this getting into people's hands. The list of potential hitches seems endless. 

After that we walked about locally catching Pokemon and peering in the dozens of instrumental shops, the majority of which were guitar shops. 

This is a fascinating area of Tokyo. There are a number of universities (including Meiji University, Juntendo University, and Tokyo Dental and Medical University) as well as a several hospitals. Then there are the music stores. A bit down the hill are a bunch of bookstores and sports stores (including a camping store). 

We went to a bookstore that stocks loads of amazing board and other games. We've been here a few times and it never fails to amaze. 

Back home again and summer also means a very active and hungry turtle. 

This afternoon the guys playing a new deck-building game (bought at the game shop).

And a challenging jigsaw for all to ponder. 

Summer fruit also abounds, but it is expensive. This watermelon is on the cheap side, but was still AU$6.50 per kilo. 

28 July, 2016

Rock-paper-scissors is a cultural keystone in Japan

We've seen many situations where adults decide things using the rock-paper-scissor game. This article really is true.

The most memorable was when we were driving to church several years ago. To this day we call a certain intersection in our area by the name Jan-ken-poi (rock-paper-scissor) because we saw some adults who were going to record traffic flow on the intersection doing this to decide who got which corner!

27 July, 2016

What are you doing?

We've been home now for ten days and we're well and truly settled into holiday mode. Well I'm working, but on reduced hours. Breakfast is a eat-it-when-you-get-up affair and bedtimes are a little later. We're still eating lunch and dinner together most of the time.

The boys are sitting around doing lots of electronics, but our agreement does mean that we have leverage and they're being pretty good about taking some reading time also. Exercise has been a little harder to get out of one or two of them. Creativity? Varies per boy. Our eldest has been playing around on his guitar a lot and changed the strings today. Our youngest has been slowly putting together a scrapbook from our trip, but he's easily distracted by electronics. Board games and movie afternoons/evenings have also been a part of our days.

As I type the third dinner in a row is being prepared by a boy. The boys have varied considerably in their willingness and ability to manage doing this. Most of the time I've been needed as a consultant if not a motivator in the kitchen with them. This current meal is proceeding well at present (oldest boy, one would hope so).

Pokemon Go. Yes, that's entered our house (it came to Japan only last Friday). Because our boys don't have roaming data plans, they are stuck at home or at wifi spots, or, with David or I going with them with our phones as portable wifi. That limits them quite a lot, but is better for our pocket. David's gone walking with one boy a couple of times and this afternoon I'd planned to go for a ride to my favourite park. I really wanted to go on my own, because I enjoy the serenity. 

However I tried to be a good mum and tossed the idea out that anyone who wanted to come with me could. Well I ended up taking the two boys who have gotten into Pokemon. It was a bit of a deal. First one then the other couldn't link with the wifi on my phone, then one would lose GPS on the game or the app would become unresponsive. Most of all they needed to learn how to "lead" us around the park (i.e. check with the other about if it was okay to go and to say "let's go". These two boys don't usually get on that well, so it was all a bit of a challenge (complicated by my lack of understanding of the game). 

We went past this little playground in the park. It struck me as noteworthy
that my parenting has changed. The boys used to get so excited about swings and
slides and things to climb on...now they're excited about catching imaginary
things on their phones!

However we did get outside and ride more than 10km. And we're all still talking to one another! The park was nice, but as "tethered" as I was to these gaming boys, I couldn't go far. So I didn't find anything too fun to photograph.
This is a type of cherry blossom, obviously not blooming now. There was a Pokemon stop here and the app
named what type of tree it was, kind-of cool!

David's doing lots of reading, playing games on his iPad, and doing a particularly tricky jigsaw puzzle (penguins). Actually I think most people have been dropping in to do a couple of pieces every now and then—it's about all we can manage at once.

As for me, I'm gradually working my way through a To Do list that contains a number of projects in-between regular household tasks like grocery shopping, and vacuuming.

Tomorrow we will all get out of the house and go into the city to help pack and post the magazine issue I helped finish off while we were camping. We may stop for a treat while we're there...that's not been decided yet. Oh, and I believe a little bit of Pokemon hunting will be going on too.

25 July, 2016

Thinking about the importance of connection

To stay healthy I need to be connected to others, quite a lot of others. That's something that I need more than others in my family. Some in my family are happy to be fairly isolated, others need lots of connection. I guess that's a function that the extroversion vs introversion continuum seeks to report on.

As a result of my personal needs, I tend to drag my predominantly introverted family into more times of connectivity than a few of them think they want or need.
Last year at the end of July we camped
 on the west coast of Japan, spending a day
with a missionary family who work there.
At the end of the day we sat on the beach with
them and thousands of others watching a
spectacular fireworks show.

During CAJ's long summer holidays we have more time to connect with others, but often connect less, because the school schedule doesn't provide natural opportunities to do so and many who we'd normally connect with are travelling all over the world.

However we did manage to connect with three different families during our recent camping trip. The first live and work in Niigata, on the west coast of Japan. I've gotten to know the mum mostly through social media, though we connected first at CAJ homeschooling events that I was involved in in our early days in Tokyo, but also through the missionary women's retreat in March. The two of us have dragged our families together a couple of times in the last 13 months, both times when our family was camping in Niigata. It's been an interesting experiment, especially because we have different demographics in our families, but I think we've all enjoyed it.

I invited a colleague from my magazine work to join us sightseeing in Kyoto in the middle of our camping trip. She lives in Osaka, about a half-hour train ride from Kyoto. She's a relatively new member to our magazine team and it was good to spend time getting to know her and allowing her to get to know me too, even in the midst of a family outing.
This was the house of our friends who we
stayed with at the end of our camping trip.
It was a lovely place to stay.

Then on the last weekend of our camping trip we stayed two nights with a family we've gotten to know a little at CAJ. Their eldest son is in our eldest son's class, he boards with a family from the school and only goes home periodically (they live a couple of hours from Tokyo on the Pacific side of the island). It was good to get to know them better too, nothing like staying with someone for that! 

There is something special about visiting people where they are, especially if they live in a more isolated location. We've periodically done this in our other travels as a family.  On our trip to Uluru we visited a couple from our denomination working in Alice Springs, we also caught up with a former student of David's in Townsville and friends who lived in Mackay, all three units in full-time ministry. We also met up with former missionaries to Japan, now living in rural Queensland. I don't know how much an encouragement it was to each of these folk for us to visit them, but it certainly was an encouragement to us.

I chatted with another friend this morning using the phone call part of Facebook Messenger (what is that called?). She too is in full-time Christian ministry, but in Australia. When I was there we met regularly over coffee, it's been great to continue this with the use of technology since we've been apart. She was very encouraging about the above meetings I've described, the people we deliberately met on our recent camping trip. She commented on how it's just these sort of people who will understand better what we do and with whom we can provide the best mutual support for one another. So true!

Living where we do, near an international school, it is generally easy for us to spend time with other missionaries. Even if it is just as we commute too and from sporting events. But I'm glad that we've been able to connect up with others who are a little more isolated than us and pray that we've been a help to them too.

24 July, 2016


One of my sons saw my two most recent blog posts last night and was impressed that I'd written about food and then toilets. Today's might or might not be so impressive. As I look through my photos I'm struck by a lot of green, but also the prevalence of water.

At church this morning someone asked about our camping trip, especially noting that we got very wet. I pointed out that we really only had particularly two bad episodes with rain, at our first campsite and then our fourth. But water featured in other ways too, we camped next to water or in view of bodies of water several times.

But here is our 15-day camp from the viewpoint of water.

First day: stopped at Naeda falls

 Campsite one: Niigata ken, overlooking Joetsu city

This campsite had a great view, that included the Japan sea from this campsite, especially when it wasn't raining. Alas it rained quite a bit. Our tent leaked when a storm blew in within the first half an hour of setting up and our tarpaulin annex didn't hold up to the wind either. So we moved the tarp over the tent and shifted our kitchen to a more solid location.

 We also packed up in the rain at the end of that two-night stop.

Campsite two: Noto island. 

We drove through rain most of the day to get to this campsite. While setting up it was drizzling. We set up a wet tent because it had been raining when we took it down that morning. I mopped out the inside of the tent before we took our stuff in there. Thankfully we gradually dried out over the next couple of days and our bedding wasn't wet.

We had a water view here too, it's Toyama Bay, off the Japan sea.
We had a dry pack-up on Noto island and spent part of the day then driving around on the Noto peninsula. This is a spot on the wild west coast, again the Japan sea.

Campsite three: Kanazawa hinterland

It was a fairly dry set-up, though I'm pretty sure we had sprinkles at one point soon after set-up and the next morning we had fog. This was probably our least watery campsite, with no natural bodies of water nearby and no water views.

 There was water at the garden we visited in Kanazawa, though.

Beautiful water...

Campsite four: Lake Biwa

Gorgeous lake-side campsite. We gazed and gazed at the changing view. However this is the campsite that we got waterlogged on our first night. It rained hard and three of us were up at around 4am doing adjustments to tarps and bedding. Eventually David and our eldest son were able to stem the growing puddle under the tent, but not before most people got their toes wet inside the tent.

Campsite five: Kii peninsula

We went down this fairly remote peninsula to see Nachi falls, the tallest single-drop falls in Japan, but we weren't camped next to them. But another stream was close-by our tent, to the point where we couldn't tell if it was raining or not. It rained here just after we put our tent up as well! 

Nachi falls. Part of a World Heritage listing.

Campsite six: north of Nagoya

We again camped next to a stream. We also again encountered rain within the first hour of being set-up. This time it was a storm. Thankfully everything remained pretty dry inside the tent, despite a large amount of water being dumped on us in a short period of time. The stream was lots of fun to play in.

It was the rainy season after all...but we really didn't have that bad a time of it, not as bad as it apparently sounded!

23 July, 2016

Thoughtful toilets

You've got to be sick of me posting about camping. I'm sure I've got at least a couple more in me yet!

But this isn't directly about camping, though all these photos were taken on our trip. 

First, when camping in Japan you need to be willing to use one of these. Though I guess most campsites had one pedestal, you weren't guaranteed. I actually prefer a squatty when camping: there are no surfaces to avoid touching. 
Most of these photos were taken at an expressway rest stop where they really labeled everything well. You know what's in here, don't you?

I've never seen such a discrete place for little boys to do their business in a women's toilet. Usually it's just a urinal out in the open. 

Got to love the decorations. I'm wishing there were places like this when my boys were little. 

This was in a shopping centre. A much more common setup, but you don't see this in women's loos in Australia, do you? 

But I've never seen a tiny pedestal like this!

Then there's the interesting English signs in toilets.

This I've never seen in Australia. I've often wished for it though. A fold-down shelf for changing on, which means you don't have to stand on the dirty floor. 

And here's the sign outside that cubicle. 

But alas out camping facilities weren't quite up to this standard!

This was the shower block at Lake Biwa, but the toilets were in a similar grotty tube. Not the nicest facilities we've seen. 

The scariest toilets we encountered had a tribe of large spiders resident: about 8-10 of them between the men's and women's, at least that we saw, none smaller than my palm including legs. I didn't take any photos, but did take the broom with me at night. 

This was our last campsite's toilets. The most barebones we've seen. No door on the urinal (however a hedge meant you couldn't really see in unless you were walking very close) and the basin on the outside of the building. But they were fairly clean and insect free and very close to our campsite.

I'm not unhappy to be back at home with clean, insect-free toilets, and one just across the landing from my bed. However the prospect of less than perfect toilets doesn't stop me from wanting to camp. The joys of getting out there far outway the inconvenience.