Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 19, 2016

Mizoguchi Kenji (Great Auteur Directors 2)

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), was with Ozu Yasujiro and Kurosawa Akira one of the three greatest Japanese directors of all time. For some obscure reason, however, both in Japan and abroad he now seems to be less popular than those other two directors. Only 7 of his films are available in the Criterion series, against 20 by Ozu and 26 by Kurosawa (although I regard the sometimes rather bombastic Kurosawa definitely as a lesser director than Mizoguchi). And in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the best movies of all time, Ozu came in at third position with Tokyo Monogatari, but Mizoguchi had only a shared 50th place. Let's hope this is a temporary dip, for Mizoguchi deserves better.

In the 1950s, Mizoguchi was the idol of the French New Wave, because his moving-camera, long-shot long-take technique exemplified the aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing (and which they also found in films by, for example, Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls). Rivette adored him for the mastery of his mise-en-scene, Godard eulogized his elegance, metaphysics and instinct as a director and called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” To this day, Mizoguchi remains the apogee of Japanese film to the French, while Kurosawa retains a greater appeal for the "action and ethics"-oriented audiences of Britain and the United States.

[Mizoguchi Kenji (Photo Wikipedia)]

Mizoguchi Kenji was born into a wealthy family, but his father's ambitious business ventures failed and the family fell into poverty. His mother died and his elder sister was obliged to enter a geisha house to support the family. Her earnings paid for Mizoguchi's education. In 1920 Mizoguchi joined Nikkatsu as an actor; three years later he became a full-fledged director. Between 1923 and his relatively early death in 1956, he made 85 films, of which however only 30 are extent today. The condition of the prints of some of the pre-war films is also rather bad. It were the films Mizoguchi made in the 1950s, especially the triad of The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, that made him one of the first Japanese directors to be reckoned with internationally, winning prizes year after year at the Venice Film Festival.

One of the first Mizoguchi films that has come down to us, is The Water Magician (Taki no Shiraito, 1933), a silent film that was in fact his 48th film! It is a melodrama about "Taki of the White Threads," a carnival performer whose spectacular displays using water fountains have made her famous. She falls in love with a poor student, Kin-san (working as a rickshaw puller), and agrees to put him through college in Tokyo, sending him regularly money by letter, but after her savings run out they loose contact. Now penniless herself, she is driven to murder an usurer who wants to make her his sex slave. She is arrested and put on trial for her crime, and who is her judge but the student she has put through college! He has to give her the death sentence... (after which he himself commits suicide).

This type of story (based on a play by Izumi Kyoka, who in turn loosely derived it from a classical Chinese story) is typical for Mizoguchi, for his favorite subject were women, and then especially "all-suffering women" (paired with typically "weak men"). These women are like "mothers" to the transgressing men, in the sense that they are full of compassion; we could also make the comparison with the Kannon, a compassionate Bodhisattva who was feminized in Japan and extremely popular.

Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women. In all cases, Mizoguchi expressed his deep sympathy for women victimized by an oppressive, patriarchal society. That does not mean he was a "proto-feminist" in the sense that he fought for change - he was too conservative for that. In fact he has been criticized as misogynistic and sadistic, because his stoic heroines just seem to undergo a series endurance tests - evidence from his personal life is also often brought up, how as a young man he depended on his geisha sister, how he bullied his actresses, etc. But I don't believe these criticisms are correct. From the films speaks a real empathy with his suffering heroines, who always emerge from their ordeal with their dignity and moral superiority intact.

After The Water Magician, in the 1930s Mizoguchi continued making great films as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (see below); he also made somewhat lesser but still interesting films as Oyuki the Virgin (Maria no Oyuki, 1935), based on Boule de Suif by Maupassant, or the melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (Aienkyo, 1937). But in the war years his subject matter was curtailed by censorship to films set in the world of the traditional performance arts (geidomono) or nationalistic, historical films. An successful example of the first category is The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (see below); in the other group fits The Loyal 47 Ronin (Genroku Chushingura, 1941) a slow and hieratic work that didn't have Mizoguchi's own interest, but that strangely enough still manages to find some viewers in the West.

Immediately after the war, under the influence of the American occupation authorities, Mizoguchi made some pro-democracy films (such as Utamaro and His Five Women in which the artist is made into a proto-democrat; or the indictment of forced prostitution after the war in Women of the Night, a film about "pan-pan girls"), after which comes his slew of great films in the 1950s (see below). He also made two unusual spectacle movies, Yokihi about the story of Yang Kweifei, the concubine of a Chinese emperor, and a period film, New Tales of the Taira Clan. Both works are colorful but static, as this was not really Mizoguchi's element. As was already clear from his Chushingura, he was a director of women and not of samurai.

His best films are:

1. Naniwa Elegy (Naniwa ereji, 1936)
Mizoguchi's first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata, who would become one of his fixed collaborators. Naniwa, by the way, is the traditional name for Osaka. A young switchboard operator of a pharmaceutical company, a modern woman (played by Yamada Isuzu), is ruined when she is coaxed into an affair with her married boss in order to pay off her father's debts and finance the education of her ungrateful brother. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution, especially when a scheme to cheat the boss' friend out of his money backfires and lands her in police custody. Her weak fiancé stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist as a big question mark. This was the film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction. Also an invaluable document of Japanese urban life in the mid-thirties, with documentary-like shots of flashing neon lights, cafés, department stores, subway stations and other modern urban spaces (with Miki Minoru's deep-focus photography). The reality of the location is emphasized by the use of Osaka dialect. But the 1930s were a conservative period in Japan and the film's progressive take on the social pressures faced by independent and modern Japanese women made it controversial. 

2. Sisters of the Gion (Gion no kyodai, 1936)
After Osaka's modernity, Sisters of the Gion takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's decorous Gion district. Mizoguchi sets up an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who remains faithful to her patron even after he has gone broke, and a defiant, younger one (Yamada Isuzu) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money, regarding being a geisha as purely "business." Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Scripted by Yoda from an original story by Mizoguchi; remade 17 years later by Mizoguchi as Gion Festival Music (Gionbayashi) - another very fine film - in which it was updated to the postwar situation and the harshness was replaced by humor. Sisters of the Gion is Mizoguchi's best prewar film.

3. Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939)
The tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki theater, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with the family maid, Otoku. He in fact owes his career to her tireless devotion, she sacrifices herself for her lover's success, even at the expense of her health. But his theatrical family will only allow him to continue his career if he gives up seeing the maid. He complies, and while he holds a festive parade as the new star actor of the company, Otoku dies a lonely death. Melodrama filmed in a refined way. In these ultra-nationalistic times, Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making films about Japanese traditions (geidomono), a safe topic. It is also a traditional theme, that at the basis of every man's success, lies the devotion of a woman. But Mizoguchi does give a twist to this theme, for he shows that only a moron can rejoice in success built on the destruction of someone who shines with innate goodness. In other words, any happiness the male protagonist might feel over his success, is utterly out of place.

4. Women of the Night (Yoru no Onnatachi, 1948)
Another film set in Osaka, but here a very different city from the vibrantly modern one in Osaka Elegy: we are now among the rubble and devastation of bombed-out, postwar occupation-era Osaka. It is also a world apart from Sisters of the Gion: we meet a group of women forced into prostitution by the hardship of the immediate postwar years ("panpan girls"). The film contains many superb scenes as well as a message of sympathy for the panpan girls. Helped to bring about a ban on street prostitution (although only in the late 1950s). Filmed on location with a gritty neo-realist approach by Mizoguchi. His second film with Tanaka Kinuyo, who would become closely associated with the director both on screen and off.

5. Portrait of Madame Yuki (Yuki fujin ezu, 1950)
Set in the resort of Atami, this film is about an affluent heiress (Kogure Michiyo), married to a vulgar, oppressive, womanizing and spendthrift husband. She is in love with an earnest young scholar (Uehara Ken), but remains physically drawn to her brutish husband - her body-mind split finally ends in tragedy. This is also because her lover is too passive to make even the slightest effort to help her by breaking the cycle - in fact, he is just as worthless as her husband. Beautiful portrait of a proud and delicate woman threatened by the insensitivity around her. This film, with Lady Musashino and Miss Oyu, is often treated as "lesser" Mizoguchi, as a creative slump, but I don't agree. All three are very fine films. Take only the cinematography in Portrait of Madame Yuki, as the scene of the mist-covered, reed-filled lake into which the female protagonist is about to throw herself at the end.
P.S. The next year Mizoguchi would treat similar material in Lady Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), based on a novel by Oka Shohei. Here Tanaka Kinuyo is a disillusioned young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage to her translator husband (Mori Masayuki), living in the western Tokyo suburbs; she eventually becomes entangled in a destructive affair with her cousin, who (again) is too weak to support her love. 

6. Miss Oyu (Oyu-sama, 1951)
Loosely based on the novel Ashikari (The Reed Cutter) by Tanizaki Junichiro. Oyu (Tanaka Kinuyo) is a young widow who falls in love with Shinnosuke, the man introduced (via a formal miai marriage arrangement) as the prospective partner for her younger sister Shizu. Oyu herself can not remarry as in the traditional family system it is her task to solely devote herself to the upbringing of her young son, who will become the head of the deceased husband's family. Shizu not only notices that her sister has lost her heart to her husband-to-be, but also that her feelings are reciprocated. So she plans to go ahead with the marriage and have that serve as a façade for an otherwise socially impossible affair. The result is an interesting clandestine ménage à trois - Shizu even foregoes consummating her marriage to Shinnosuke so that he can remain pure for Oyu. This was Mizoguchi's first collaboration with cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, known for his elegant long takes. Particularly lovely is the first scene of the introductory meeting between prospective bride and groom in a Japanese-style garden. A gentle, bittersweet film.

7. The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952)
Loosely based on a classical novel by 17th c. author Iharu Saikaku. The atypical period film chronicles the inexorable decline of a court lady (Tanaka Kinuyo in one of her best roles) who falls in love with a man below her station (the man is dutifully executed for his trespass; the court lady is banished from Kyoto) and finally ends up as a cheap harlot, via being the concubine of a lord (solely to produce a baby), a geisha, and the wife of a fan maker. In this way, Tanaka Kinuyo (then aged 42) plays a variety of ages across the decades, in a relentless downward move through the social strata, rendering a grueling depiction of a woman at the mercy of patriarchalism. Finally, Oharu becomes a mendicant Buddhist nun, traveling the countryside, begging like a pilgrim in order to do penance for her "sins." Of course, the truth is that she was sinned against. Imbued with a sad beauty. Contains sublime examples of Mizoguchi's fluid tracking shots and his signature one-scene one-take style. This distinguished film became Mizoguchi's international breakthrough when it won the International prize at the Venice Film Festival. Read my detailed review.

8. Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953)
Adapted from stories by Ueda Akinari and Maupassant. One of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema, an exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real. Set during the civil wars of the 16th century, a potter (Mori Masayuki) leaves wife and child behind to go to the city to sell his wares. There he falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kyo Machiko) who later turns out to be the ghost of a princess. She had never tasted love in her life and therefore must now seduce and destroy men. When at long last he manages to free himself from this beautiful, but malevolent spirit (who wants to take him back to the land of the dead), the potter returns home where he is relieved to find his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) waiting for him, with his small son. She fixes him a warm meal and mends his clothes, but the next morning the potter discovers that in fact she has been dead for some time - she is also a ghost. The difference is that she has become a benevolent ancestral spirit who watches over her husband and her son. Despite the supernatural elements, this is not a horror film: it is eerie rather than frightening, with a strong spiritual dimension. The meeting with the mysterious lady and the potter's subsequent seduction is shown in a dreamlike sequence which is one of the highlights of world cinema.

9. Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954)
Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, which itself goes back to a medieval legend, this heartbreaking film is an expression of human resilience in the face of evil. An eleven-century family is broken up by politics - the father, a governor who disobeyed the ruling feudal lord, dies in exile. The wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) and her two children are left to fend for themselves and eventually fall prey to slave traders. The son is finally reunited with the mother through the self-sacrifice of his sister (she commits suicide so that he can escape). One of cinema's greatest masterpieces, with gorgeous photography and elegant camerawork. As is his wont, Mizoguchi keeps his camera distant and his takes long, resulting in a contemplative style. Venice Film Festival San Marco Silver Lion. With this and previous films, Mizoguchi raised the genre of the historical film to a high level of historic validity and universality.

10. Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai, 1956)
Street of Shame is a sensitive yet unvarnished tale of a brothel called "Dreamland" in Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, and a group of five women whose dreams are constantly being shattered by the socioeconomic realities surrounding them in a male-oriented world. The film became Mizoguchi's swan song (he died this same year at age 58 of leukemia); it contains excellent character portrayals, of the cynical hooker Mickey or the aging Yumeko who is shattered when her son rejects her because of her profession. Made while the National Diet of Japan was debating an anti-prostitution law (which was finally passed shortly after the film’s release). Akasen Chitai however takes an equivocal position: in the society of that time, there is no work for the women outside of prostitution; moreover, marriage is presented as a form of slavery. Fine performances by Kyo Machiko, Wakao Ayako, and Kogure Michiko. Awarded with a Special Mention at the 17th Venice Film Festival.

About Mizoguchi: Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Oxford / New York, 2008).
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles (to be continued)
See also my posts A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance

May 10, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 18 (Fujiwara no Toshiyuki)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 18

Suminoe no
kishi ni yoru nami
yoru sae ya
yume no kayoiji
hito me yokuramu


Are you so afraid of people's eyes
that not even at night, 
over dream paths, 
you come to me like the waves 
that approach the shore of Suminoe?

Fujiwara no Toshiyuki (d. 901)

[Japan's oldest lighthouse in Sumiyoshi Park, Osaka (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The complaint of a woman about her lover who doesn't come by.

"Different from the approach of the waves to the shore of Suminoe, which come both day and night, that I can’t even meet you at night along the paths of my dreams, must be because even in dreams you avoid people’s eyes."

It was believed in Heian Japan that lovers could meet in their dreams. In this case, even that is not possible, something which is rhetorically ascribed to the extreme fear of the lover that other people might see him.

This is a poem written in the voice of a woman (although composed by a man), and not a complaint by a man. This is evident because in aristocratic Heian society it was impossible for a woman to go out and visit her lover. Women always stayed in their mansions, sitting in half-dark halls, hidden from the gaze of others behind heavy screens and curtains. The only occasion they could go out would be a pilgrimage to a famous Kannon temple or to see the Kamo festival, but then also they would ride in carriages behind curtains or be veiled themselves. So it were the men who visited the women, but unless they were married, even lovers were not allowed to gaze upon the face of their beloved. Sometimes aristocratic women even didn't want their voice to be heard by men who were not their family, so they would communicate through one of the many servants with whom they were always surrounded, or via a poem.

By the way, even after marriage couples would not live together - the wife stayed with her father or other family members and the husband would visit her there, usually for a few nights at a time. This system made polygyny possible for the men; in the Genji Monogatari and the diaries of Heian court ladies we can read how much distress this unequal system caused.

The reason that the man here is afraid to be seen, could be that this is a case of "forbidden love," that is love for a married woman or love for a woman of very different status (again a situation we often encounter in The Tale of Genji).

[Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

"Suminoe" is Sumiyoshi in southern Osaka, the location of the ancient Sumiyoshi Shrine (a deity of not only seamen, fishers and farmers, but also of waka poets!), which now has National Treasure status and is one of the most interesting places to visit in Osaka. The Sumiyoshi deity was very popular in the Heian period and also plays an important role in the Tale of Genji: he helps Genji, after his banishment to Suma, to regain a successful career in the capital. Although now built up and changed beyond recognition because of land acquisition, the coast at Suminoe used to be very beautiful and was especially famous for its pine trees. Those pine trees are silently alluded to in the poem, as they are homonyms with the verb "waiting," and that is after all the fate of the woman in the poem...

In the Kokinshu this poem is accompanied by a head note stating that it was written during a poetry contest in 953 ("The Empress' Poetry Contest of the Kanpyo Era") and this explains why the male poet here wrote in the voice of a woman - it must have been part of the contest.

The poet is Fujiwara no Toshiyuki (d. 901), who also was a renowned calligrapher and middle-ranking official. He is one of the 36 Poetic Immortals and has 28 poems in various imperial anthologies.

[Kokinshu poem 559]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

April 29, 2016

Best Places to See in the Kobe Area

It may come as a surprise to hear that my present hometown Kobe is a popular tourist destination (more than 22 million annual visitors incl. day trippers)... but these are mainly Japanese tourists and they come in my view for the wrong places (and not only as tourists but also to marry - Kobe is a popular wedding ceremony destination!).

What I mean with the "wrong places" is that Japanese visitors throng to the Ijinkan, the foreigner's houses in Kitano, or to Kobe's Chinatown – both solid tourist traps, without anything of historical value to attract the serious visitor. No wonder that most foreign tourists prefer to remain among the temples of Kyoto.

That being said, there are several extremely interesting destinations in the wider Kobe area (incl. Ashiya, Takarazuka and the Hanshin area between Kobe and Osaka) that are worth giving up your Zen garden for and traveling the short distance to this port city, but these are not very well known (and perhaps a bit specialist in nature). But if you are interested in sake, architecture, literature or art, they are certainly worth your time!

Here they are:

[Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

1. For sake buffs: Nada Gogo - Sake breweries and brewery museums
Wedged between the green Rokko Mountains and the blue waters of Osaka Bay, the sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all several tens of large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style.

In the Edo-period, it became clear that the Nada area was optimally suitable for sake brewing due to the climate (cold winds blowing down from the Rokko mountains in winter); the water (the famous Miyamizu, the iron-less, mineral-rich water found in certain wells in Nishinomiya); the streams running down from the mountains which made rice polishing by water mills possible; the availability of good rice in the immediate vicinity; and, finally, being at the seaside with good natural harbors which made transport of the sake to Edo (Tokyo) easy.

Several breweries in the area operate small museums that offer visitors a glimpse into the history, traditions and methods of the craft of sake brewing. They also give visitors ample opportunity to find out what makes Nada sake special — and to taste the difference. I will publish a full guide to the Nada Gogo on this blog, so here are just two highlights from among the museums with exhibits of traditional sake brewing tools: those of Kikumasamune and Sawanotsuru, both housed in traditional wooden buildings.

The Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum is located in the Mikage district. Kikumasamune was founded in 1659 by the Kano family. One of the largest breweries in Japan, it already started exports to the U.K. in 1877. Its dry-tasting sake is representative of the sake of Nada. In the museum grounds you can see a well (with the traditional mechanism for hoisting up buckets of water) as well as the water mill for rice polishing (in the Edo-period, these mills made a higher rice polishing ratio possible, which led to a clearer taste of Nada sake and therefore an advantage in the competition with other breweries which still used hand-polishing). Inside, the museum illustrates the entire brewing process with such implements as brewing vats, koshiki (steam baskets) and a sake press.

[10 min walk south of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; 9:30-16:30; CL New Year holidays; free].

[Sawanotsuru Sake Museum (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The Sawanotsuru Brewery, too, is one of Japan's largest brewing companies. It was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes and is known for its deep-tasting products in the dry Nada-style. The Sawanotsuru Sake Museum was carefully rebuilt after being toppled in the 1995 earthquake. During the reconstruction, part of the site was excavated and an old sake press was discovered, with large ceramic pots set in the ground to receive the pressed sake. Besides a large number of impressive brewing vats and huge sake presses, particularly beautiful is also the replica of a koji room, with the small koji boxes neatly stocked against the wall.

[10 min walk southwest from Oishi St on the Hanshin line; 10:00-16:00; CL Wednesdays, Obon holidays, New Year holidays; free]

[Entrance Yodoko Guest House (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

2. For architecture buffs: Yodoko Guest House or "Yamamura Residence" by Frank Lloyd Wright
A private residence designed by world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the only private residence he designed in Japan. Now called "Yodoko Guest House," as its owner is Yodogawa Steel Works, its original name was "Yamamura Residence." The house was constructed from 1918-1924 as a summer villa for the well-heeled sake brewer Yamamura Tazaemon (of the Sakuramasamune Brewery in Uozaki, Kobe).

[Sitting room (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The four floors of the house have been set into the hill in symmetrical steps, so that the house is nowhere taller than two stories. From all levels there are wonderful views of Kobe Port and Osaka Bay. The house has not been built from concrete, but from blocks of soft-textured Oya stone. The design is ingenious, and the decoration inside is marvelous as well, with mahogany framework, characteristic light fixtures and square copper plates with a delicate leaf design. See my separate post about this wonderful and magical place, designed by an architect who was in love with Japan.

[10 min walk from the north side of Ashiyagawa Station on the Hankyu Line. There is a map on the website. Hours: Open on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and National Holidays. 10:00-16:00; fee]

[Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

3. Also for architecture buffs: Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum (Takenaka Daiku Dogukan)
If you have ever wondered with what technical means Japan's temples, castles and palaces were built (and who hasn't?), then it is a good idea to make your way to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. This beautifully furbished museum offers an in-depth overview of carpentry tools, their development and how they were used to build Japan's wooden architecture. The museum owns more than 15,000 traditional tools and various materials concerning their use and development. It was set up by the Takenaka construction company which originated in a carpenter's shop established in 1612. Learn all about the ax (ono) and the adze (chona), chisel (nomi) and gimlet (kiri), saw (nokogiri), hammer (tsuchi) and plane (kanna), carpenter’s square (sashigane) and marking gauge (kebiki) and the all-important and beautiful ink pot (sumitsubo) for marking straight lines on various surfaces. This is the most beautiful tool you'll find in the museum: a thread wound around a wooden spool has a needle attached to its other end. The needle is stuck in the surface and the thread unwound to mark the straight line - as it unwinds, it passes cleverly through a small ink pot.

[3-min walk from Shinkobe St. (map on the English museum website); 9:30 – 16:30; CL Mondays (the following day when Monday falls on a national holiday ), New Year holidays, occasional days; fee.]

[Ishoan (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

4. For literature buffs: Ishoan - the residence of Tanizaki Junichiro
Tanizaki Junichiro, Japan's foremost 20th century author, lived from 1923 to 1943 in the Ashiya-Kobe area and Ishoan is the name of the house he rented from 1936 to 1943 (the name means "leaning on pine trees" but the trees are gone as the house originally stood on a slightly different spot). Tanizaki lived here with his third wife, Matsuko, her daughter from a previous marriage and her two sisters in a menage that must have resembled that of the The Makioka Sisters. In this house Tanizaki made his (first) modern-Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji and also started writing The Makioka Sisters. Much of the action in this novel is based on events in the lives of Tanizaki and his family in the late 1930s. I am not talking about the larger plot - the work was not autobiographical but purely a work of fiction - but about the small, seemingly inconsequential details of daily existence that together give life to the novel. The house also has many small interesting details. Note the dining room table which though small, can be extended - an example of the rational simplicity Tanizaki liked. The lamp hanging from the ceiling in the sitting room is a copy of the original and expresses Tanizaki's dislike of the bright lights you usually find in Western-style rooms: as stated in his In Praise of Shadows, he preferred half-dark and shadowy spaces, so the bottom side of this lamp is closed, and the light is only indirect. This house is a magical place (see my previous, detailed post for more details)!

[450 meters north of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; or 150 meters north of Uozaki St on the Rokko Liner; or 900 meters south of Sumiyoshi St on the JR line; only open on Saturday and Sunday, now closed for repairs until February 2017; 10:00-16:00; free]

[Tessai Museum]

5. For art buffs: Tessai Museum
The Tessai Museum stands in the grounds of the popular Kiyoshikojin Seichoji Temple (one of the most interesting temples in the wider Kobe area, not because of its statues, architecture or gardens, but because it is a living temple and one of the few that has retained its fusion with Shinto and various folk beliefs). The museum houses a large collection of representative works of the last great Nanga or “literati painter,” Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924), a tradition that found its inspiration in the literati landscape painting of the Southern School (“Nanga”) in Yuan, Ming and Qing China. Important painters of this tradition in Japan had been Ike Taiga, Buson and Urakami Gyokudo.

Tomioka Tessai was born in Kyoto where he studied Chinese and Japanese classics. He championed traditional ways against the influx of Western ideas, also in painting, and traveled widely in Japan. He mostly lived and worked in Kyoto and was a very prolific painter with a total output of about 20,000 works. The works of his last years, after he had turned 80, are considered his best. Besides the literati style, he also worked in other styles as the “native” Yamato-e style, the folksy Otsu-e style and he made humorous haiga, haiku paintings. He was also a great calligrapher. His best works are large landscape paintings characterized by strong and free brushwork.

The collection is shown in rotating exhibitions of about fifty works each. The museum is a fitting tribute to this eccentric painter and the beautiful works he created.

[15 min walk from Kiyoshikojin St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-16:30; CL Mondays, irregularly for re-installation, summer / winter times, etc., so check in advance at; fee]

[Kosetsu Museum of Art (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

6. Also for art buffs: Small museums in the Hanshin area 
The area between Osaka and Kobe ("Hanshin area"), along the various train lines that connect both cities, is characterized by the presence of many interesting private museums, set up by entrepreneurs from Osaka, who also had their residences here. Although they possess interesting collections with rare art works, these museums are easy to miss as they are only open a few weeks each spring and autumn (therefore, be sure to check if the museum is open before going there!). Here follows a brief overview of the best small museums:

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Kosetsu Museum of Art
Sitting in a quiet street close to Mikage Station, this museum houses the small (about 500 pieces) but fine collection of Murayama Ryuhei (artistic name: Kosetsu), the founder of the Asahi Newspaper. There are Chinese paintings and ceramics, Japanese paintings, Buddhist images, swords, armor, tea ceremony utensils and Korean ceramics. Exhibitions are held twice a year in spring and autumn, when about 50 objects are on view. The quality of this small collection is excellent.
[5-min walk south-east from Mikage station on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-17:00; only open in spring and autumn, check in advance; no CL during exhibitions; fee;]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum 
Kano Jihei, president of the Hakutsuru Breweries, founded the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum in 1931 as one of Japan’s first private museums, housed in a traditional-style building. That building from 1934 is a delight: a two-storied building in Oriental style, its roof and other design features mimicking Momoyama architecture. The main part of the 1,300 pieces strong collection is formed by Chinese art, from bronzes to ceramics and paintings. Japanese items include archaeological treasures, decorated sutras, handscrolls and screens. The museum shows a selection of about 120 pieces in two thematic exhibitions a year. (Note that this museum is different from the sake brewery museum also operated by Hakutsuru and located near Hanshin Uozaki St)
[15-min walk northeast (and uphill) from Mikage St on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-16:30; only open mid-Mar - early Jun & mid-Sept - late Nov., CL Mondays - check in advance at; fee]

[Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Ashiyagawa: Tekisui Museum
Tekisui (“Fresh Green”) was the artistic pseudonym of banker Yamaguchi Kichirobei, who founded the Yamaguchi Bank in Osaka, and after his retirement enjoyed his hobby of collecting tea utensils and tea ceremony objects. What adds color to the collection are the other interests of Tekisui: karuta or Japanese playing cards, clay dolls and hagoita or battledores. The collection consists of about 1,500 objects.

[10-min walk from Ashiyagawa station on the Hankyu Kobe Line (in fact, not far from the Yodoko Guest House); 10:00-16:00 (enter by 15:00); CL Monday, summer, winter - check in advance; fee;]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Shukugawa: Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures
A collection of rare artefacts from China and Japan, set up by Kurokawa Koshichi, a financier from Osaka, to administer the collection of art and antiquities of his family. As the name indicates, it is primarily a research facility. Many of the 10,000 pieces owned by the institute are rare and unusual. They are from both China and Japan. In the Chinese section, we find oracle bones, jade and bronzes from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties; belt hooks, roof tiles and tomb slabs from the Han dynasty; and bronze mirrors from all periods. From the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties we have paintings and calligraphy, as well as inkstones, ink sticks, seals and rubbings. In the Japanese section we find bronze bells from the Kofun period and mirrors and roof tiles from all periods. There is also a large collection of swords and sword ornaments. Then we have a large group of sutras (Nara and Heian) and objects used in Buddhist rituals. Besides calligraphy, we also find paintings by Korin, Hoitsu, Kiitsu and Goshun.

[Take a bus from Hankyu Shukugawa St and get off at Kayando stop, then walk 800 m west (walk back in the direction from which the bus came and take the first road to the right - there is a sign also in English pointing here. Follow this road uphill). Or take a 10-min taxi from Hankyu Shukugawa St; 10:00-16:00; CL Mondays; only open during spring and autumn exhibitions, see website for dates:; fee]

Hankyu Takarazuka line:
Ikeda: Itsuo Art Museum
This museum houses the art objects collected by Kobayashi Ichizo (1893-1957), the founder of the Hankyu and Toho consortia of companies. The emphasis is on works related to the tea ceremony, as well as paintings by Buson and Goshun. Mr. Kobayashi was born in Yamanashi Prefecture and came to Tokyo where he joined the Mitsui Company after university. He founded his own company, the Hankyu Railway at age 34 and went on to establish the Hankyu Department Store and the Toho Movie and Theater Company not long afterwards. He set up several other business organizations as well. In the war years he served as cabinet minister, but a more enduring feat was the establishment of the Takarazuka All Girl’s Revue. From his forties he also took an interest in the tea ceremony and started a large collection of tea utensils, calligraphy and paintings for the tea room, lacquer ware and Buddhist objects. The total collection of Kobayashi Ichizo comprises 5,000 pieces, among which are fifteen important cultural properties.

[10 min walk from Ikeda St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-17:00; CL Mon (except NH), NY, BE (check in advance); fee;]

Hankyu Imazu Line (for Takarazuka)
Kotoen: Egawa Museum of Art
The small Egawa Museum exhibits the collection of Mr Egawa Tosuke, former chairman of thr Kofuku Bank. Set up in 1973, unfortunately the museum experienced some problems in the period after Japan's economic bubble burst, and had to sell off part of its holdings. But there is still enough to see. The collection is focused on paintings (suibokuga and Edo-period literati paintings, such as work by Ike Taiga) and implements for the tea ceremony. A small but fine museum.

[5 min walk from Kotoen St on the Hankyu Imazu line; 10:00-16:00; only open for exhibitions in spring and autumn, CL Mondays; fee;]

April 22, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 17 (Ariwara no Narihira)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 17

kamiyo mo kikazu
karakurenai ni
mizu kuguru to wa


Not even heard of
in the legendary age
of the mighty gods:
the River Tatsuta in scarlet
and the water flowing under it.

Or, when kuguru is read as kukuru, the last two lines become:
the waters of the River Tatsuta
tie-dyed in scarlet.

Ariwara no Narihira (825-880)

[Scarlet autumn leaves (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The beauty of the red maple leaves in autumn at the River Tatsuta.

The River Tatsuta flows through the lowlands east of the Ikoma Mountains south of Nara City. The area is famous for its maple trees and its autumn foliage and figures prominently in classical poetry.

The present poem was not actually written at the River Tatsuta, but on a screen painting of that river. The custom to write poems on screens with paintings in Yamatoe-style came up at the end of the 9th c. and was quite common in the 10th c. This is made clear by a head-note in the Kokinshu which reads: "Composed on a the topic of autumn leaves flowing down the Tatsuta River, as painted on a screen belonging to the Nijo Empress when she was still called the Mother of the Heir Apparent." In other words, the poem celebrates the success and glory of the Nijo Empress in giving birth to the Heir Apparent, with its reference to the Age of the Gods. The present poem is one of the first such "screen poems" (byobu uta); in the 10th c. both Yamatoe screens and accompanying poems were produced in large numbers.

"Chihayaburu" is a makurakotoba for the Age of the Gods. "Karakurenai" is scarlet, literally "Chinese scarlet," as this particular color nuance probably came from China.

The meaning of the last two lines changes depending on whether one reads the verb as kukuru or kuguru. Kukuru is probably the original reading, meaning "to tie-dye." So the waters of the Tatsuta look as if they have been tie-dyed in scarlet - tie-dyeing was a technique that came up in the 8th c., in which cloth was bound, folded or compressed to achieve different colored patterns. This is quite a complex and refined comparison (mitate). But in later centuries (and also in the time of Hyakunin Isshu compiler Fujiwara Teika) the verb was read kuguru which means "to pass under," resulting in the interpretation of blue water flowing under the surface covering of the fallen red foliage. And that is also beautiful.

[Narihira looking for the ghost of Ono no Komachi, by Yoshitoshi (Photo Wikipedia)]

The courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) was counted both among the Six and Thirty-six Poetic Immortals. He was also thought to be the protagonist of the mid 9th c. Ise Monogatari (The Ise Stories), which formed around a collection of his poems, and was inspired by his many renowned love affairs. The grandson of two emperors (Heizei and Kanmu), he was a model of the handsome, amorous nobleman. Various imperial anthologies contain almost 90 of his poems. Donald Keene has remarked about him: "Narihira combined all the qualities most admired in a Heian courtier: he was of high birth, extremely handsome, a gifted poet, and an all-conquering lover. He was probably also an expert horseman, adept in arms, and a competent official. These aspects of his life are not emphasized in the Tales of Ise, but they distinguish Narihira from other heroes of Heian literature, including Prince Genji." But because of his many love affairs he was also criticized in contemporary records as "unrestrained in self-indulgence." He would perhaps have been the perfect lover for Ono no Komachi, but there is no indication that they ever met, although speculation has always been rife.

[Also included in Kokinshu 294]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

April 15, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 16 (Ariwara no Yukihira)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 16

Inaba no yama no
mine ni ouru
matsu to shi kikaba
ima kaerikomu


Even if I depart now
and leave for Mount Inaba,
on whose peak grow pines,
if I hear you pine for me
I will right away hurry back!

Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893)

[Pine tree in the mountains (Photo Wikipedia)]

Regret about the parting from friends in the capital when being sent as governor to the provinces. The poet stresses how difficult it is for him to leave. This poem was probably written during the farewell party held for the poet. 

The courtier, bureaucrat and poet Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893) was the scholarly older brother (by a different mother) of Ariwara no Narihira (Poem 17) and a grandson of Emperor Heizei, via Prince Abo. He reached the court rank of Chunagon, middle counselor. Four authentic poems have been preserved in the Kokinshu, and four more in the Gosenshu. The present poem was written in 855 when Yukihira was sent to serve as governor of Inaba Province (now part of Tottori Prefecture). Provincial governor was a middle-ranking position, financially not unattractive, but unpopular as it meant one had to leave the bright lights (and career possibilities) of the capital. 

The poem contains two pivot words (kakekotoba). Mount Inaba (a mountain in Inaba Province, close to the seat of the provincial government) is also a pun on "inaba," "even if I depart." And "matsu" in line four means both "pine tree" and "to wait" - or "to pine." Additionally, the first three lines form a jokotoba (preface) to "matsu." Note that the pine tree standing lonely on the mountain is also a symbol for the loneliness of the poet in Inaba Province.

[Ariwara no Yukihira in exile on Suma Beach, with the two fishing girl sisters, by Yoshitoshi (Photo Wikipedia)]

Mostow tells that Yukihira was in the first place known for his exile to Suma (in present-day Kobe), where he presumably had a love affair with two fisher girls, Matsukaze and Murasame. The sisters waited in vain for Yukihira after he had returned to the capital Heiankyo (Kyoto). This story was picked up in the Noh play Matsukaze and also led to a popular change in interpretation of the present poem: instead of reading it as written when Yukihira left Heiankyo to go to Inaba, it was interpreted as written when Yukihira was leaving Inaba, to return to the sisters on the beach of Suma (although this disregards the opening line!). Yukihira's exile in Suma may also have inspired Murasaki Shikibu to have her hero Genji exiled to the same place in the Suma and Akashi chapters of the The Tale of Genji.

[Also included in Kokinshu 365]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

April 6, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 15 (Emperor Koko)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 15

kimi ga tame
haru no no ni idete
wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni
yuki wa furitsutsu


For your sake
I went into the fields of spring
to pick young greens,
while on the sleeves of my robe
the snow kept falling.

Emperor Koko (830-887, r. 884-887)

[Fields in early spring at the foot of Mt Nijo, Nara (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

A poem sent with a gift of young greens.

Picking young greens in the fields and eating these was a romantic custom of the palace that formed part of the New Year festivities. It was considered to guarantee good health in the new year and is the predecessor of the modern custom the eat Seven Herb Porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7. In the modern case, small amounts of seven different herbs are added to the porridge and these may well have been similar to the greens picked in the Heian period: nazuna or shepherd's purse, hakobe or chickweed, seri or water dropworth, gogyo or cudweed, hotokenoza or henbit, suzuna or turnip and daikon or white radish.

[The modern Nanakusa herbs (Photo Wikipedia)]

The poet, Emperor Koko, was the third son of Emperor Ninmyo and placed on the throne at the age of 55 by the Fujiwara regent Mototsune to replace Emperor Yozei (see Poem 13). It was in his reign that the politically powerful system of the Fujiwara regency was instituted. He has 14 poems in imperial anthologies. 

The Kokinshu includes a head note for this poem, stating that it "was sent together with young greens to someone when the emperor was still a prince." The addressee is unknown. Sending such greens formed a wish for good luck and longevity to the receiver in the new year.

[Same poem in Kokinshu 21]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

April 3, 2016

Best Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto

Where can you find the best hanami spots in Kyoto?

Here are my five favorite cherry blossom locations:

[The canal in Okazaki Park]

1. Okazaki Park, Keage Incline and Tetsugaku no Michi
This is my favorite walk because of the great variety of scenery, the many, different cherry blossoms, and the combination of "industrial archaeology" with ancient temples. For starters, in Okazaki Park (which is easily reached from Jingumichi St on the Tozai subway line) you have a nice scene of cherry trees along the canal which runs next to Niomondori, south of the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. (In April, boat rides on the canal are available).

[The Keage Incline]

Follow Niomondori east; just before the crossing with Shirakawadori you will see the Lake Biwa Canal Museum and in this area you'll also find a staircase where you can go down to the starting point of the Incline (see my article about the Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum, a hydro-electric engineering project from the Meiji-period that was to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto for irrigation and electricity generation). Follow the Incline all the way up, past the boats, and you will walk between the cherry trees that have been planted on both sides of the Incline (see here for another post with more photos). At the very end, above Keage Station, is a park with a statue of the young engineer Tanabe Sakuro, who was in charge of this project; here you can also have a picnic if you have brought a bento. This finishes the first leg of the walk and you can return by going down to Keage Station (Tozai line); when you still have stamina left and want to continue, pass through the tunnel below the Incline and enter the grounds of Nanzenji.

[The Philosopher's Path, Tetsugaku no Michi]

There are occasional cherry trees here, but the nice part of the walk is Tetsugaku no Michi (the Philosopher's Path, named after Kyoto University professor Nishida Kitaro who liked to stroll here), starting past Eikando temple, where in 1922 cherry trees were planted along the stream by painter Hashimoto Kansetsu who lived here in the neighborhood. The path is a bit narrow, so avoid the weekends. Near the northern end of the path, you will find a few interesting temples. Reikanji (a nunnery with an excellent collection of dolls) and Anrakuji (a temple with an interesting legend about two disciples of Honen and the palace ladies they converted) have special openings (Reikanji the first week of April, Anrakuji on Saturdays during the first ten days of April) and Honenin, which always has part of its garden open, in addition opens its Main Hall and Abbot's garden to visitors during the first week of April. A nice bonus to the sakura along the Philosopher's Path.

[Cherry blossoms and pagoda in Ninnaji Temple]

2. Ninnaji Temple and Hirano Shrine
Ninnaji is famous for its late blossoming yaezakura, so plan this as your late-in-season hanami. Called "Omuro-zakura," the trees do not grow taller than just two meters and the branches hang low, so it feels as if you are wading through low hanging blossom clouds! It is also interesting to see the pagoda of Ninnaji temple rise up from these blossom clouds. Here is another post on Ninnaji's cherry blossoms. (If you like Buddhist art, also have a look at the wonderful sculptures in the Ninnaji Museum).

[Blossoms and stone statues in Rengeji Temple]

Don't forget to drop by at Rengeji, a small temple to the east of Ninnaji, which has some interesting stone statues sitting amid the blossoms.

An easy way to get to Ninnaji is to take the Keifuku Electric Railroad to Omura Ninnaji Station.

[Heian court ladies during the Cherry Blossom Festival of the Hirano Shrine]

If you can plan your visit to Ninnaji on April 10, you can take the Keifuku Line to its terminus, Kitano Hakubaicho, and then walk north along Nishiojidori until you reach the Hirano Shrine (on the east side of Nishiojidori after passing the crossing with Kamitachiuridori). The Hirano Shrine is famous for its yozakura, which are lighted up in the evening, but the best event to see here is the Cherry Blossom Festival (Okasai) on April 10, which features a mikoshi procession of people dressed in Heian court dress - the colorful costumes make a nice contrast with the blossoms. It starts at 10:00; the mikoshi return in the early afternoon, so you can also first go to Ninnaji.

[Cherry blossoms and tulips in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

3. Kyoto Botanical Park and Nakaragi no Michi, on the bank of the Kamo River
The 24,000 sq.m. large Kyoto Botanical Park stands in northern Kyoto, along the banks of the Kamo River, and incorporates an original piece of woodland. There are 500 cherry trees, of the varieties Somei, Yoshino and Shidarezakura. They stand along the paths and in grassy areas and you are allowed to picnic under the trees, although alcohol is forbidden. But as this is a botanical garden, you have other flowers as well. I particularly like the combination of the red tulips at the entrance to the gardens with the backdrop of pink cherries.

[Nakaragi no Michi alongside the Kamo River]

The best way to enter the botanical gardens is the north exit, as this is immediately next to Kitayama Station on the subway line. See my post about these gardens with more pictures here. Again, there is an interesting bonus: next to the north gate stands the Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts, a plaza with walls of cascading water, designed by Ando Tadao in his familiar style of smooth concrete, where eight famous paintings of world art have been copied on large ceramic tiles (see my post about this museum).

And finally, take a stroll along the path running between the botanical gardens and the Kamo River, called "Nakaragi no Michi" - here, too, are some beautiful cherry blossoms. There are benches here, so you can sit down and enjoy the river scenery (and finally break open your cup sake).

[Cherry blossoms and boats in Arashiyama]

4. Arashiyama (and Seiryoji)
Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. Arashiyama is a popular cherry blossom spot, and the old-fashioned Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the river here can get crowded, but as it happens the nicest blossom viewing spot is from the extensive (and not crowded) Kameyama Park (on the east bank). From the hill at the back of the park, you have a great view over the steep gorge of the Hozu River, where the sakura hang as pink clouds on the mountain slope. The trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

[Gorge of the Hozu River]

The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all. Read more in my previous article on sakura in Arashiyama.

[Kyogen performance in Seiryoji]

And again we have a bonus: Seiryoji Temple, where on April 3, 9 and 10 the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen is held, a unique ancient religious theater performance, started by the Buddhist monk Enkaku in the hope of seeing his deceased mother again. The performances which begin at 13:30, 14:30 and 15:30 are free. In the same period, the birth of the Buddha (which took place on April 8) is celebrated at Seiryoji. In addition, the treasure hall with great statues is also open. Don't forget to see the Chinese-style Shaka statue in the main hall.

Seiryoji is 15 minutes by foot from JR Sanin Main Line Saga-Arashiyama Station; Arashiyama can be reached from the same station, or from the Arashiyama Hankyu and Keifuku stations.

[Weeping cherry tree in Shojiji]

5. Oharano with Shojiji and Shoboji temples
Finally, a "hidden spot," that is to say, a hanami spot where you will find very few other visitors and almost certainly no tourists. In Oharano, in Kyoto's Western Hills, you will find a cluster of temples: Shojiji, Hobodaiin, Shoboji and the Oharano Shrine. Shojiji is nicknamed "hana no tera," "Blossom Temple," and features a cherry tree presumable planted by the poet Saigyo when he was head of the temple (in reality, it is a descendant of that tree). Saigyo is known for the many poems he wrote about cherry blossoms, and also for his wish to die under a cherry tree in the blossom season - a wish that seems to have been fulfilled to the letter. Shojiji also has some good weeping cherry trees, and an interesting array of Buddhist statues in its small museum. Even more interesting statues - a very sensual Boddhisattva statue - can be found in neighboring Hobodaiin.

[Single blossoming tree with borrowed scenery in the modern garden of Shoboji]

But for more blossom beauty, you'll have to walk to another temple in this area, Shoboji. Sit down on the veranda and observe the garden, which incorporates the Eastern Hills lying on the horizon as borrowed scenery (shakkei). It was a masterful stroke of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks in the (modern) garden form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall and then on towards the distant mountain scenery.

The temples in this area, far from the path trodden by tourists, are very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms.

You can reach these temples by first taking the JR to JR Mukomachi Station or the Hankyu line to Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, and then either a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi (after which it is a 15-min walk) or a bus to Rakusaikokomae (20-min walk). There is about one bus per hour.

April 2, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 14 (Minamoto no Toru)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 14

Michinoku no
shinobu mojizuri
tare yue ni
midare someishi
ware naranaku ni


That my love has become confused
like the tangle-patterned prints
of Shinobu from the far north,
is not my fault,
but only because of you!

Minamoto no Toru (822-895)

[Mojizuri Stone in the Mojizuri Kannon temple, Fukushima (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The poet complains that it is not his fault that he has fallen into a forbidden love, but the "fault" of the lady in question who is just too attractive. In the Heian-period, a forbidden or secret love was love for the wife of another man, or for a lady of a much higher rank than one's own.

"Michinoku," the area mentioned in the poem, is the eastern part of the Tohoku region; "Shinobu" is an actual place name for a locality which now lies in the outskirts of Fukushima city.

"Shinobu-mojizuri" refers to an ancient dyeing process in which moss fern (shinobu) was rubbed into cloth, creating a "wild" pattern; shinobu is also a pivot word with as second meaning "to love secretly." The whole phrase "Michinoku no / shinobu mojizuri" is a preface (jo) to the word midare, disordered.

"The tangle-patterned prints of Shinobu from the far north" are symbolic for a heart moved by love - just as the prints were pressed on textiles, so the heart of the poet has been imprinted with feelings of love; and just as the prints are tangle-patterned, so his heart is confused (or wild).

That does not exhaust the many rhetorical tricks of this poem, for "some" in "somenishi" is also a pivot word meaning both "to dye" and "to begin." In the meaning "to dye" it moreover provides engo or word association back to shinobu of which we already noted the double meaning of a "fern" and "secret or forbidden love."

[Mojizuri Kannon Temple in Fukushima (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The poet is Minamoto no Toru (822-95), the luxury-loving son of Emperor Saga, who had been made a commoner with the family name "Minamoto" (or Genji), just like the fictional Genji in the Genji Monogatari (in fact, Minamoto no Toru may have provided one of the models for the character of Genji). He became an official of the highest rank and was known as "the Riverbank Minister of the Left" (Kawara Sadaijin) after a huge mansion he had built on the west bank of the Kamo River in Kyoto, where he hosted poetry gatherings. There was also a large garden where he evoked a romantic scene at Matsushima Bay in Tohoku by boiling vats of salt water (like the people in that area did for salt production). He was therefore considered a model of courtly elegance (furyu).

In fact, the above poem gave rise to the (undoubtedly fictional) story that he had indeed traveled to far-away northeastern Japan on some official business. In the village of Shinobu, known for its production of the unusual fern-type kimono design, he fell in love with a local woman and delayed his return to the capital. Eventually he had to leave and that is when he supposedly wrote the poem about his love confusion.

But although this story is undoubtedly untrue and Minamoto no Toru probably never left the capital, it became a famous utamakura (an allusive place-name used in waka poetry).

[Minamoto no Toru (Photo Wikipedia)]

As the famous haiku poet Basho centuries later undertook his trip to the north described in Oku no Hosomichi to visit the utamakura of that region, he also came to Shinobu and the Mojizuri Stone and wrote the following haiku:

The skilled hands picking up 
rice seedlings remind me of the 
making of tangle-patterned cloth in the past.

[Sanae toru / temoto ya mukashi / shinobu-zuri]

He visited in spring and saw how the local women were setting out rice seedlings in the paddies - this reminded him that in the past those same skilled hands had been making the "tangle-patterned prints" of Shinobu.

[Basho statue in the grounds of the Mojizuri Kannon Temple (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

In Shinobu in the outskirts of Fukushima City now stands a small Kannon temple. In the grounds lies a big rock, the Mojizuri Stone, which supposedly was used to rub the fern patterns into the cloth. It also figures in a continuation of the story of the village woman loved by Minamoto no Toru: after she visited this Kannon temple for 100 days, she was allowed to see the face of her far-away lover, as in a mirror, in the Mojizuri Stone...

To make things more complicated, this poem is also quoted in quite a different context in the first story in The Ise Stories (Ise Monogatari), where a man, hunting in the village of Kasuga in Nara, through a crack in their fence spies on two lovely sisters and sends them a poem written on a piece of the hem of his hunting cloak - which happened to be printed with a Shinobu leaf-tangle pattern. The present Hyakunin Isshu poem is then quoted as the answer from the sisters. 

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -