Japanese Sewer Covers: The Trading Card Edition. Yes, Really.

Firstly, Happy 2021 everyone!

I’m kicking the year off with a post dedicated to a country to which I was supposed to have relocated last year.  Might 2021 make good on that?…

Oh, Japan, you weird, endlessly fascinating archipelago.  In one moment, you’re on top of the world, donating memorable antagonists to such movies as Gung Ho, and snapping up coal mines in such regions as Manchuria.  万歳 (ばんざい), banzai!

Next, however, you’re introducing to manic hobbyists sewer cover trading cards.

Manhole Cover/Card in Kodaira, Tokyo, Japan

Wait…WHAT??

In April 2016, the 下水報道プラットホーム, or Sewer PR Platform, decided to capitalize on Japan’s increasingly popular マンホールの蓋/ふた, or manhole cover designs, and introduced the first set of limited edition trading cards.  Although April Fool’s Day is not Japanese holiday – nor is it a holiday in any country, for that matter – the first edition was issued on April 1st.  And collectors are called manholers.

There’s got to be a joke somewhere in there.

Manhole Card Sign at Fukui City Hall

Roughly every quarter since then, a new batch has been introduced, showcasing manhole cover art from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. To get them, it might be as simple as going to a visitor information center next to a train station, or more awkwardly by paying a visit to a city/town hall or sewage treatment information center.  Whatever it is, the cards are free, and you’re limited to one per visit.  As far as I know, English versions of the cards also exist.

Having first noticed these sewer covers a number of years back, I just wish that these were printed way back then, if for no other reason than to learn the background story to the designs.  The front of a card shows a colorized manhole cover and city coordinates (and some type of manhole card collection legend in the lower right), and the back, a description of the art, as well as when the design was first executed:

Fukui City Manhole Card, Front Side
Fukui City Manhole Card, Reverse Side

After checking the invaluable Sewer PR Platform website, I decided to check out one of these sewer cards with my own eyes, this time in Fukui, the prefectural capital of Fukui…prefecture.

Although it’s best known for dinosaur fossils, according to the above, with Fukui suffering from the calamities of earthquakes and air raids, the city government adopted the 不死鳥 (ふしちょう・fushichou), or phoenix, as its symbol, and as the design on its manhole covers.  Though plenty of other Japanese cities could join them in choosing the phoenix for the same reasons, the backgrounder goes on to note that the phoenix was selected in 1989, to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of Fukui as a city.  Huzzah!


If you’re a Japanophile and keen to learn more about its history and pop culture, you’ll probably want to grab a couple of these manhole cards…or, you could do simply as a secondary source of vending machine income.

Lost in Translation: The “Hungry for Gold” Edition

Throughout my travels, I’ve come across a heady amount of signs, ads, and menus lost in translation.  Though it’s more fun when I’m able to read the original language, too, it’s very easy to bowl me over with copy that was clearly pasted into an online translator, and then pasted verbatim onto whatever deliverable for which it was being prepared.

Having spent much of my overseas time in East Asia, I can cheekily say that Japan and China share the gold medal for the volume and quality of their Engrish.  However, if I had to nominate two favorites – one from each country – I think it would be these.

Let’s start with China.

In Guangzhou, one of my favorite places to wander and dine is the neighborhood of Xiaobei, known for its population of folks from all around Africa, as well being a de facto hub for Islam.  The extraordinary amount of trade and commerce that occurs in this area, the seething relationship between African expats and locals, and the diverse food options all contribute to making it a unique part of the city, nay, country to visit.

In general, I would go there when hungry, either to get a bite of something Turkish, or for some superb Uyghur bread, called nan, covered in sesame or sunflower seeds:

To get back on topic, on the second floor of the same restaurant where I’d buy the nan, I would get mixed noodles with a cumin-laced soup, and a couple of kebabs.

The menu, however, had already made up its mind about who I was:

First of all, this one is so amusing in that they even got the Chinese wrong.  Whereas the Chinese says 馄饨 (húntun), or wonton, their translation is of the word 混沌 (hùndùn), which alternatively refers to a chaos that existed before earth.

In other words, mentally dense.

For you see, the character 混 means to mix/blend, and the character 沌 is chaotic/murky.  Somehow, when you combine the two, you get sucked up by Chinese creationist theory.  —

As for Japan, it’s a shorter story, but no less risible.

After arriving in the port city of Takamatsu, I started to feel peckish.  Yes, I would eat their famed Sanuki udon later that day, but for the time being, a Japanese bakery was in the cards.

For twenty years, I’ve been a fan of Japanese bakeries, starting with the corn kernel-stuffed buttery loaves, and right up to the tingly “mapo” roll found last year.

But then, I’ve never encountered this:

Even at a bakery named after a Scottish nursery rhyme, I’m still confused.

Is there an explanation?  Yes.  Somewhat.

The name of the bread is – wait for it – translated correctly.  クリーミ (kuriimi) is creamy, and ソフト (sofuto) is shorthand for software.  But,       ソフト also means soft.  Of course, the folks who printed up this label – whose description reads as a “moist and soft bread with custard cream folded inside” – would have chosen more wisely – though less memorably for marketing purposes – if they had gone with the Japanese word for soft,
柔らかい (yawarakai).


Would you have put these two entries in your pantheon of Engrish?  Which would be your two candidates?

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

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Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

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But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Language Learning on the Road, Guanajuato-Style (Mexico)

And you thought you came here to learn Spanish…

On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.

マジですか (maji desu ka- really?)

Is it that hordes of newlywed Japanese tourists are lining up to consummate their marriage at El Callejón del Beso (aka The Alley of the Kiss)?

違います! (chigaimasu – wrong!)

It’s all about the auto industry.

On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)

GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.

Thus, with the increase in Japanese car firms in the state came the need for Japanese engineers, technicians, and executives, some with families. In 2016, a Japanese consulate opened in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, to serve the thousands of recent expats in Guanajuato and nearby states. Since 2009, more than 80 Japanese companies have been established in Guanajuato alone, hence the need for a consulate.

Now, given that Mexico is also known for coffee, perhaps coffee ramen isn’t too far off?

Traveling to the Wrong Destination is Still Traveling

Ever end up in the wrong city?  I ask this, because I read a story a few years ago about someone flying to the wrong “Taiwan.”  Which is to say, the passenger meant to go to the island, but ended up in Taiyuan, China instead.  Never mind that the two places are spelled differently – in both English and Chinese, that the former isn’t a city, and that the person likely needed a visa for China, but I decided to see how common this type of mistake was.  Indeed, it does happen from time to time, that folks end up in the wrong place– just ask these travelers.

Although China did for a spell have a thing for building its own versions of European hotspots – Austrian villages, anyone? – supposedly, the central government has put the kibosh on those.  Then again, it’s unlikely one would confuse Paris, Tianducheng for Paris, France…or even Paris, Texas.

And then we have Atlanta, which really doesn’t want you to get anywhere quickly if you’re looking for an address on Peachtree Street.  (Hint: there are no less than 71 streets with the name Peachtree in them.)

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Located – I’m Shocked – on Peachtree Street

Thus, in the vein of this topic, I’ll pose this question to my readers– if someone offered you a trip to Mecca, which would you choose?:

Mecca, population ~ 7, 100, in California?  It is also close to the fascinatingly dubious Salton Sea, which I’ll get to in a later post.

Or…

Mecca, population ~ 1.5 million, in Saudi Arabia?

Suggestion: Having been to both, Saudi dates are the best I’ve ever tried.

Airline Route Map Rhetoric

Before starting to read books (this is ongoing), I chose maps.   That’s right, I can point out where all of the worlds Guineas are (what a novelty).  In fact, I participated in a couple of state geography bees (harsh reality?), but am still lamenting over not applying for a spot on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Contestants who were sent to place buzzers on the then-newly independent CIS states were perpetually bingung, rather, confused (sorry, haven’t written something in Indonesian for a while).

A predilection for cartographic creations has helped make flights seem less long, especially when the only movie offerings are Drop Dead Fred or The Room.  Having a pen makes it even more pleasant, as I get to gerrymander US states or Cypriot regions to the toot of my own horn (note: haven’t done this yet).  Remember when Iran was upset about National Geographic magazine calling it the Arabian Gulf instead of the Persian Gulf?  I don’t have a problem with the complaint, but just as thought-provoking, if less well-known, is that (Western) airlines generally used to added a suffix to their names in order to be able to fly to both China and Taiwan.  The Dutch airline KLM for example stayed that way on flights to the mainland, but was called KLM Asia to the latter.

This will probably be a thread I’ll continually update, once I’m able to find the Delta inflight magazine that showed Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, or the one where Xian, China is listed as the more archaic Chang’an.  Until those encounters happen, take a peek at the oddities, sometimes controversial, sometimes just …odd.  -ities:

The red lines stand for code-share flights, in other words not those actually operated by China Southern (airline code CZ), but a lot happens when you’ve been abroad for about a year.  Minneapolis relocates to Canada, south Florida travels back to 1995 and Maori Island becomes a misnomer.

China Southern Airlines (CZ) Nationalism

Juicy stuff here.  The Senkaku Islands(or as China calls them, the D/Tiaoyu Islands) AND the South China archipelago, (not to mention Taiwan- but that’s a been there, done that), are clearly in attendance on this page of the China Southern route map.  Might as well add “Africa” and the Solomon Islands to that map too…

El Al Route Map

El Al (LY), an Israeli/whatever airline, understandably can’t just overfly certain countries.  Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran (would you ever guess???)  Thus, their long-haul routes become that much more long-haul.  Say, when flying from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, they have stay right over the Red Sea, and on their Bangkok route, well, ouch.  But this recent news of potential Dubai-Tel Aviv flights might be the black swan moment in their route map’s history…

Etihad, Abu Dhabi AUH- Jakarta CGK “World Map”

Etihad (EY) of the United Arab Emirates went a bit overboard.  I was flying from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta, but they generously wanted to impress me with their knowledge of world geography.  Because what’s going on in Brasilia is directly going to affect my flight over the Bay of Bengal.  Good thing they don’t have any domestic routes.

China Airlines, TPE-HNL

If you squint well enough, you can see…the ocean.  Taipei-Honolulu, another route I’m not sure why I took.

East/West Seas, Asiana In-flight Map

This one’s got two-in-the-hand!  The West Sea is what the Korean Peninsula terms the Yellow Sea, nothing too offensive.  But the East Sea.  Well, in another never-ending spat with Japan, the Koreas can’t possibly agree with the Sea of Japan, so they just used their/an imagination.  By the way, the Sea of Japan has some delicious Echizen crab…

Maybe all airlines should just take a page from Oman Air’s book, and only label the origin and destination points:

Oman Air, Bangkok BKK to Muscat MCT, 2019

Have you noticed anything “nuanced” on airline route/in-flight maps?

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Amusingly, in a country where you might even see fried noodle-filled sandwiches, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen.

What is Falun Gong (法轮功)?

Truth (真)

Compassion (善)

Forbearance (忍)

Those three words represent the primary tenets of Falun Gong (法轮功/法輪功) aka Falun Dafa (法轮大法), a quasi-religious movement first practiced in China by Mr. Li Hongzhi in 1992.

Drawing from a combination of Buddhist and Taoist teachings, as well as employing qigong (气功) breathing exercises, the characters of Falun Gong translate as achievement (功) through the wheel (轮) of law (法).

Even if you haven’t heard the term Falun Gong, you have may seen propaganda littering hardware store windows and bus stops for Shen Yun, the performing arts show fully backed by Mr. Li and his acolytes.

Taken in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

Sounds harmless enough, right?  But, if Falun Gong merely exists as a way for people to improve their health by doing a few breathing exercises and lithe movements, what caused this spiritual movement to be banned in China by June 1999?

Simply put, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, and cannot tolerate any potentially competing ideology in its territory.  Unlike other health-focused movements such as Tai Ji (太极), adherents of Mr. Li were under the impression that through practicing Falun Gong, they were able to join a path to salvation and enlightenment, with some even believing Li to have the power to levitate.

At first glance, it’s a bit David and Goliath, isn’t it?  Then again, the CCP would absolutely not want a contemporary analog to the mid-1800s Taiping Rebellion, in which Mr. Hong Xiuquan believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and claimed to receive orders to rid China of all the non-native Manchu rulers.

Anti-Falun Gong messages, in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

As Falun Gong gained more followers, Beijing first prohibited the sale of its official text, called the Zhuan Falun (转 法轮).  Some periodicals even started claim that practitioners were so taken by Mr. Li’s gospel that they committed suicide.  After a mass display of loyalty to Mr. Li in front of the CCP headquarters in Beijing, Office 610 was set up in June 1999 to oversee the prohibition of Falun Gong in China, as well as to “disappear” thousands of believers.

Mr. Li fled to a usual suspect, the United States – notably, there is no extradition treaty between the US and China – and in New York state, he set up the secretive Dragon Springs Falun Gong facility in Cuddebackville.  As with other religious beliefs, it is likely that there are still underground followers in mainland China.  However, being that Falun Gong is one of the CCP’s “Five Poisons” – along with Uyghurs, Tibetans, democracy movements, and Taiwanese separatists – any news of their successes and practices is suppressed and/or censored.