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So When is Shogatsu Over?

Ringing in the new and tossing out the slightly old prompts an age-old question, one similar to Christmas trees in the West: when should you take your Shōgatsu decorations down?

Check out my latest article at GaijinPot and find out.


Shime Kazari

When you live forever in only one part of a country, it's easy to assume that the way things are done in your region are the same nationwide. It took me two decades to realize that sansha mairi (visiting three shrines at New Year's) was a custom limited to Fukuoka. 

Similarly, the shimé kazari, a New Year's decoration placed above the entrance to homes and buildings, varies from region to region. Shime-kazari is said to originate from shime-nawa (twisted hemp and rice straw rope placed at the entrance of shrines to indicated a sacred space) and meant to keep misfortune and unclean spirits away and greet Toshigami (年神), the gods and ancestors brought with the new year.




It's because of knuckleheads like these that I don't need an alarm clock. 



Asked several groups of young women if they could give me some common and not so common Japanese abbreviations.

Old standards, of course, include OL (Office Lady), OB (Old Boy, as in an alumni network), and TPO (Time Place Occasion).

Recently popular ones are CA (Cabinet Attendant, i.e. stewardess) and KY (Kuki-o yomenai, referring to someone who can't read the mood of a situation; someone who just doesn't get it.) Not sure when flight attendants started being called CAs here. For the longest time they were called stewardesses, or "succhi" for short.

Newer abbreviations are rather funny. My favorite, though, is PK.

"PK?" I asked. "PK, as in penalty kick?"

The girl laughed and said, "Yes, penalty kick." I could tell though that she wasn't telling me the truth.

"C'mon, what does it really mean?"

"It's embarrassing."

"Yes, but, you brought it up."

"パンツ食い込み. (Pants kuikomi)"

"A~h so~~~."

I don't recommend googling that when you're at work.


A Father's Advice

The other night I agreed to join a soccer team at the invitation of Stuart, an Englishman I’ve been acquainted with for years, but have only recently got to know. Whether I shine on the pitch next month or puke on it remains to be seen.

As the two of us were walking on the field, inspecting the turf, and talking about The Beautiful Game, Stuart relayed some advice his father had given him:

“Play for as long as you can, son.”

Stuart had taken his father’s words to heart and, at forty years of age, was still chasing a ball on the pitch. He worried, though, that he was only one injury away from being sidelined.

“All you can do,” he said with a wistful smile, “is enjoy it while you can.”

It was a nice piece of advice and I could sense that there was real affection between Stuart and his father.

As I rode the subway back home, I couldn’t help but think about my own father. He passed away a little over five years ago after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s an awful disease, Alzheimer’s. Steals a loved one from you years before death ever comes. Thanks to the disease and my living in Japan all these years, I never got the chance to speak to my father as an adult.

Maybe that’s why the only word of advice I can recall my father ever imparting upon me was something he said to me shortly before I left for college. He said: “Think with your big head.”

Not quite sure what he was getting at, I replied with a tentative, “Okay?”


I can be slow at times. When I was a young boy I spent quite a lot of time with my alcoholic grandfather, my old man’s old man. Whenever Gran’pa was well-oiled he’d do a sad little vaudeville routine, dancing around with spoons in this hand, tapping them on his knee like castanets, or rolling up a napkin and sticking it under his nose like faux mustachios. Ask any of my siblings to impersonate Gran’pa and they’ll immediately reach for a napkin, such is the man’s enduring legacy.

Now, there’s a joke that Gran’pa used to tell. It involved a policeman talking to a hippie who had witnessed a crime--this was back in the late 60s, early 70s, mind you. The policeman asks, “Was he a tall man?” And, according to Gran’pa, the hippie replies, “Not a tall man.”

“Was he a tall man? Not a tall man.”

I didn’t get it.

I didn’t get it when I was five years old, didn’t get it when I was six, nor when I was seven or eight. But then one day as I was walking home from Holy Family, my grade school, I mulled over the joke, trying to understand the enigmatic punch line.

“Was he a tall man? Not a tall man . . . Was he a tall man . . .”

The problem was my grandfather’s Boston Irish working class accent which lent the two lines a cadence that had thrown me far off course. After repeating the line a good dozen times or so, changing the intonation and pausing, it finally dawned on me what Gran’pa was saying: “Was he a tallman?” the police asks the hippy to which he replies, “Not at all, man.”

You might suppose that the heavens opened up and a choir of angels started singing, “Hallelujah!” but no. Instead, I shouted, “That is the stupidest joke in the world!”


“Think with your big head,” my father had said.

I went back to my room and started packing my things. “Think with your big head . . . Think with your big head . . . Think with your big . . .” Then it hit me. “Oh dear.”


Bloody Catholics

“Look at ‘em! Bloody Catholics filling the bloody world up with bloody people they can’t afford to bloody feed!”

              --from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life


When I was a kid--I couldn’t have been more than six--I asked my parents why they’d had so many goddamn children. I was Number Eleven myself, and Number Twelve had come into the world recently. It was in my mother’s arms, as new as the furniture in the living room that had also just arrived. The timing of the two was so uncanny that it wouldn’t have surprised me if my father had replied that we kids had all been promotional giveaways, my little sister having been thrown in for free when they bought the furniture at Ethan Allen.

What he told me, however, was no less remarkable:

“When two people, who are in love, sleep in the same bed together, babies happen.”

My parents, who still hugged and kissed each other after nearly twenty years of marriage, were clearly in love. Even a six-year-old could see that. What’s more, they slept together every night in a giant king-sized bed. Why, if you put two and two together, naturally you got twelve. A year and a half later, Number Thirteen showed up.

Now, compare that with the bleak conjugal life of my paternal grandparents and you’ll understand why I found what my father had told me had so convincing.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, so much so that most of my earliest childhood memories involve them.

Let me tell you, hardly a day went by when my grandmother and grandfather were not squabbling and bickering about something. I remember my grandmother would get so fed up with her husband’s grousing that she’d turn her hearing aid off. Out of earshot, out of mind.

On top of that, Grandma and Grandpa slept not only in separate beds, but in bedrooms that lay at opposite ends of a hallway. It made perfectly good sense to me then that the two would have only one child: my father.

Now that I'm in my forties, and a father myself, I understand that Catholicism probably played just as big a part in my parents' fecundity as that big bed of theirs.


Gran Via

I stood in front of the Hotel Granvia for about a half an hour, and as I waited for you I couldn’t help wondering what on earth “Granvia” was supposed to mean.

Was it a reference to Madrid’s Gran Via, literally “Great Way”, the so-called “Broadway of Spain”, the street that never sleeps? And if so, what did that have to do with muted Kyōto, a city where many restaurants close as early as nine in the evening? Or was it in some way an allusion to the “Great Vehicle” of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Probably not. Most likely, the owners just liked the “sound” of it.

These silly, often meaningless names that architects and planners insisted on slapping on buildings, even here in Kyōto, the very heart of Japan, often made me wonder if the Japanese hated their own culture and language.

Unfortunately, the folly wasn’t limited to naming. Infinitely worse, it expressed itself in monstruments like the awful Kyōto Tower that stood across the street from me like a massive cocktail pick. A fitting design, because the people who had the bright idea of creating it must have been drunk.

The bombings of WWII, which reduced most Japanese cities to ashes, spared Kyōto for the most part, meaning the ancient capital is one of the few cities in Japan with a large number of buildings predating the war. Or shall I say, was. Because that which managed to survive the war proved no match for wrecking balls, hydraulic excavators, and bulldozers.


 ー From A Woman's Tears, due out in late 2017. For more, go here.


School Lunch

My wife visited our son's elementary school today to attend a lecture about kyūshoku, or school lunch. The presentation ended up being more interesting than she had expected.

In Fukuoka City, there are 144 elementary schools (grades 1-6) with a total of 80,077 students. The schools are divided into five blocks to prevent shortages in ingredients as almost all of them are sourced locally from within the prefecture.

To my surprise, each school has its own kitchen and a staff of up to 8, including licensed nutritionists. (I had been under the impression that a central kitchen was being used.) Vegetables are hand washed and hand cut. Although most dishes are made from scratch, some of the items, such as today's paozi (steamed dumplings), are prepared in advance by third party producers.

The lunches, as I have noted before, include many international dishes as a way of introducing kids to other cultures ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and World Swimming Championship that are going to be held in Fukuoka.

Today's lunch included a Chinese style stir-fry, paozi dumplings, bread with locally grown fig jam, and milk.

Each meal costs on average ¥243 ($2.23) and contains about 530 calories. Meals for junior high kids contain 640 calories; those for high schoolers, 740.

And, no, the food is not gluten-free and may contain lethal quantities of peanuts.

Thai-style Gapao Rice and Japanese-style White Stew

Pork and Beans, Raisin Bread, and Cabbage/Kelp Stir Fry

Fish flavored with Sesame, Miso Soup, and Rice



Happy to say that this is now a thing. Check it out.



Sumiyoshi in Summer




Kampai! is Out!

A very, very nice surprise this morning.

My latest work, Kampai, has managed to break the top ten in Japan. 

I'm not crazy about the cover, to be honest. And, the final product is very different from what I intended to write, but, but, but, there's still a lot of interesting information thrown in with anecdotes of my life in Japan. A Kampai! 2 is in the works, and may come out perhaps next year.

Lemme tell ya, this has been perhaps the most productive nine months of my life. In addition to the dozen or so articles I have written for a number of different sites, mags, and journals, I have pumped out:

a new novel (A Woman's Hand), rewritten another (Rokuban), gotten half done on a third (A Woman's Tears),

two works of nonfiction (Kampai, Boys Have Dingdongs),

a collection of essays and stories (🖤 FUK, due out soonish),

a photo collection (Covered), 

and, two textbooks (Speak Up!).


I hope the next 12 months will be as productive or more.


For more on my writing go here.



Yasukuni, it ain't

During a long run in an unfamiliar corner of town this morning, I came upon a broad set of stone steps, flanked on either side by massive stone lanterns.

Thinking it was the entrance to a shrine, I climbed up the steps. To my surprise, I found a number of monuments dedicated to those who had died in modern Japan's wars and foreign engagements from the overthrow of the shogun and restoration of the Emperor to power, known as the Meiji Restoration (1886), to the Russo-Japan War (1904/5), the Manchurian Incident (1931), and on to the Pacific War which ended 72 years ago this summer. This sombre memorial to Japan's militaristic past is not listed on the map, nor were there any signs outside of the premises indicating what awaited visitors at the top of the stairs.




I will return in the summer during the Bon Festival to see if there are any special ceremonies taking place, like those which occur every year at Gokoku Jinja.


For more on "Tani Park", go here.


Month of No Water, indeed

Funny, but this year (2017) June truly has been the "Month of No Water" for Fukuoka. It has for the most part been nice and sunny since the start of the rainy season was announced on June 6th (aka. Roll Cake Day). Although we did get some rain last weekend--why is always Sunday--it looks like we are in for another dry spell.

Meanwhile, the dam level in Fukuoka prefecture is down to the mid 50s, or 30 to 40 percentage points lower than where it ought to be in a typical year. Some dams have fallen to as low as 18%.

If things don't improve anytime soon, we may find ourselves in a serious pickle. It won't be the first time, though. Back in the summer of '94, one year after one of the coolest and wettest summers that caused rice shortages throughout Japan (Remember that?), we had one of the driest summers. If memory serves me correctly, water had to be rationed for over a month.

At first water service was cut off from, I believe, 10 in the evening until 10 in the morning. In those days, I worked from about 9am to 9pm--don't ask--meaning I had one hour to shower, do my "duty", wash clothes, cook, and clean up. It was hell. After several weeks, water service was expanded a bit. And when a big typhoon hit, all was back to normal again. So, hurray for typhoons!


For more on why June is called the "Month of No Water", go here.


1000 Words


Students going through a list of the 1000 most frequently used English words to check which ones they were unfamiliar with discovered that four words "eat", "nature", "then", and "through" had all been included in the list twice.

One of the students commented, "The person who made the list must have been really tired."

"And hungry," said another.