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

December 12, 2014

"The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" by Mishima Yukio (Book review)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (in Japanese Kinkakuji) is a novel about beauty so perfect that its becomes unbearable and has to be destroyed.

The novel, written in 1956 by Mishima Yukio, is based on a real event. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 a.m. the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple (official name: Rokuonji) in northwestern Kyoto was torched by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the hill behind the temple. He survived and was arrested. Later he was sentenced to seven years in prison, showing no contrition, but released because of mental illness (schizophrenia); he died of tuberculosis in 1956. The pavilion was a wonder of architecture, a marvelous wooden, three-storied structure, a national monument that many times through history had been spared destruction. It now burned to the ground, with the statues inside, and the loss of the precious, seven-centuries old architecture severely shocked Japan and the world.

Kinkakuji, Winter 2007
[The new Golden Pavilion in light snow (2007) - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Of course, today the Golden Pavilion is again one of the top tourist attractions of Kyoto, but what all those tourist throngs don't know is that they are looking at a copy, a reconstruction vintage 1955. The present Golden pavilion looks even better than the real one, for while the old one was just a bare wooden structure without any gold on its outside walls, the new one has in the late 1980s - Japan's nouveau-riche period - been covered in an obscenely thick layer of gold. Yes, it looks good on photos, especially after it has been powdered by a thin layer of snow, but it is not the original national treasure anymore. And it is debatable whether the original pavilion really was ever covered in gold on the outside of the whole building, instead, as was usual, only on the inside.

Mishima regularly based his novels on real events - another example is After the Banquet, about machinations in the political world, based on the lives of the proprietress of a famous traditional restaurant and a well-known politician (who in fact successfully sued Mishima for violation of his privacy). Also for the present novel Mishima carefully studied the reports of the case, including the transcripts of the trial. But of course Mishima was a writer, not a journalist, so he changed events and characters to obtain an artistically satisfying story. The resulting novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the pathology of the perpetrator.

[The original Golden Pavilion in 1886 - isn't it without gold much more beautiful than the "new" one? - Photo Wikimedia]

In the novel, the arsonist-acolyte is called Mizoguchi, a person afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, who from his youth has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion (possibly as a symbol for the whole of Japanese traditional culture) that he gradually - especially after the war has been lost - starts feeling the urge to destroy it. His character defect has made him jealous of beauty, in his view true beauty is something that overpowers and finally destroys. He is prodded on by his friend and "bad angel" Kashiwagi, a cynic, who has a club-foot, and likes to hold long "philosophical" digressions.

Already during his childhood, on the coast of the Japan Sea in Maizuru, Mizoguchi was assured by his country-priest father that the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. But he is a friendless, stammering boy, who seeks compensation for his weakness in vengeful fantasies. At the height of the war, in 1944, his fate is sealed when he becomes a novice at the Rinzai Zen temple Rokuonji that in 1397 was set up to control the Golden Pavilion. At that time, it is almost deserted, as most monks have been drafted into the army. When American planes are destroying one Japanese city after another with their terrible firebombings (which took many more lives than the atomic bombs), Mizoguchi has an ecstatic vision that also the Golden Pavilion will be burnt to ashes. Unfortunately for him, the Americans have the decency to spare the cultural capital, Kyoto, and the war ends in bitter disappointment for Mizoguchi. There is the suggestion that he later destroys the Golden Pavilion because it survived the war.

[The Golden Pavilion after arson - photo Wikimedia]

The Pavilion has such a huge hold over Mizoguchi that it even makes him impotent - Kashiwagi (who is as little popular with women as Mizoguchi) has taught him a trick how to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him, but when Mizoguchi successfully puts this advice into practice, and is about to embrace his girlfriend, his mind is so filled with the image of the Golden Pavilion that his desire is blocked. It is as though the temple is shutting off Mizoguchi's access to the normal world. The Golden Pavilion in all its arrogance becomes his mortal enemy. And after Mizoguchi has finally set fire to the Pavilion, he feels properly relieved - instead of trying to commit suicide as the real arsonist did, he sits down on the hill above the temple and lights a cigarette, enjoying the view of the blaze.

Japanese tradition fares badly in this novel. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden viewing - and not to forget Zen Buddhism - provide occasions for acts of sadism, arson and treachery. Beautiful traditional symbols are deliberately contrasted with the ugliest of actions and placed in a world of lost ethics and perverted values. The abbot of Kinkakuji Temple is caught by Mizoguchi when he secretly visits a geisha. At a tea ceremony, a woman who is taking leave of her lover who has been called into battle, squirts milk from her breast into the man's traditional tea bowl. An American soldier walking in the garden of the Golden Pavilion with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend, tempts Mizoguchi into kicking her in the belly, so that she has a miscarriage. The novel, a study in evil, has therefore been called "an expression of postwar nihilism." But the novel can also be understood from Mishima's (anti-) aesthetics: the Golden Pavilion simply is too beautiful, it has to be robbed of its arrogance and power. Mizoguchi - and also Mishima - seems to feel that he will only become free through its destruction.

***

[Mishima Yukio in 1956 - Photo from Wikipedia]

Mishima Yukio (Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) was one the major twentieth century Japanese authors, and also one of the most problematical. Highly talented, Mishima started writing at the end of the war and at high speed produced many acclaimed novels, short stories and literary essays, as well as modern plays for the Kabuki and Noh theater. He was originally inspired by such Western authors as Wilde, Rilke and Mauriac. His breakthrough novel, written at age 24, was Confessions of a Mask, about a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. This novel also introduced Mishima's masochistic fantasies, as well as his preoccupation with the beauty and decline of the (male) body, themes which recur in his later work as well. Many of his later short stories and novels deal with the themes of suicide and violent death. That preoccupation also influenced his extra-literary activities, as he for example posed in photographs of "St Sebastian shot through with arrows" (showing off his bodybuilding) or acted a doomed yakuza in a 1960s film, or played the officer who commits (a rather distasteful) seppuku in the film version of his own story Patriotism.

Mishima, who spoke fluent English, in the 1950-1960s befriended several American and British Japanologists in Tokyo, who later became translators of his novels, so the ratio of his work that was translated was higher than was the case with contemporaries. Other famous works are, for example, After the Banquet (1960), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963), Death in Midsummer (1963), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1965-70). In the late 1960s, Mishima was several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he was passed over due to the extreme right-wing ideas and activities he had developed by that time (including a private militia of 100 radical youths). The Nobel Prize, rightly, went to Kawabata Yasunari in 1968.

While interest in his work declined in Japan in the course of the 1960s, Mishima gradually conceived a chaotic, extreme right-wing ideology, becoming an adherent of his own brand of bushido. That ideology formed the background for the terrorist attack with his militia on the head-quarters of the Self-Defense forces in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970. They took the commandant hostage and Mishima held a speech for the soldiers at the base, from the HQ balcony (giving occasion to an all-too famous press photo), trying to incite them to a coup d'état, and revive the ghosts of the nationalistic past that had been happily laid to rest in 1945. But the soldiers kept their heads cool and only laughed and jeered at Mishima, after which he went inside and committed ritual suicide (the seppuku was botched, so Mishima died a most painful death). In the view of most Japanese at the time, Mishima's deed was just as schizophrenic as the torching of the Golden Pavilion.

The English translation is by Ivan Morris and dates from 1959 (Vintage International).

December 7, 2014

Kounji Temple and its Garden

Although lying next to the much trodden Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) at the foot of the Higashiyama range in Shishigatani in Kyoto, Kounji is only open a few weeks each year and therefore happily free from tourist throngs. I had previously caught glimpses of its garden and also marveled at its huge tiled roof just below me when walking along the Philosopher's Path.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Kounji Temple, Kyoto]

The temple in fact belongs to Nanzenji (as a outside subtemple), but originally came from Osaka where it was presumably founded in 1280 by Daimin Kokushi, the founder of Nanzenji. After it fell into disrepair due to various wars, in 1664 it was rebuilt and revived on the present site by the 280th abbot of Nanzenji, Eichu. The present main hall and belfry still date from that period, but most other buildings and land were lost in the mists of modern history.

Kounji was in fact re-established in 1664 as the family temple of Tofukumonin (Tokugawa Masako, 1607-1678), the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada and consort of Emperor Gomizunoo. She was the mother of Empress Meisho (reigned from 1629-1643), the seventh out of only eight women to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meisho dedicated the above mentioned belfry to the temple. Tofukumonin was an important patron of the arts and used her wealth to help restore many temples and other significant buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the centuries of internal wars that had ended with the peace of the Tokugawas.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Garden of Kounji Temple]

The main image of the temple is a serene Shaka statue with two disciples. There is also a very fine Sho Kannon statue that used to be the object of personal devotions of Tofukumonin. The high and spacious main hall also houses a statue of Tofukumonin herself, clad in imperial robes and with a golden crown on her head.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Stepping stones - Garden of Kounji Temple]

The small but exquisite garden of Kounji already existed in the 18th century, as it is mentioned in travelogues of that period, but it only took its present shape under the hands of the famous modern garden master Ogawa Jihei VII (Ueji; 1860-1933). Ogawa Jihei was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine, the Murinan Garden and Maruyama Park, where he worked with water as he did in Kounji. He restored the Kounji garden in 1927. It is a pond stroll garden with the Higashiyama hills as borrowed scenery (visitors have to view the garden from the temple, it is not possible to enter it; but as it is quite small, that is in fact a wise arrangement).

Kounji serves as the Nanzenji Zen Center and also offers Zazen sessions (English website of the head priest, Tanaka Kanju). Kounji lies just west of the southern end of the Philosopher's Path, not far from the Eikando Temple. It is only open to general visitors for a few weeks in autumn, at the end of November.

December 2, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: December

The twelfth month is traditionally called Shiwasu. This name is often explained as "Buddhist priests (shi) busily running around (hasu, wasu) to hold year-end Buddhist services in people's houses" - something which etymologically doesn't sound very convincing, but there seems to be no better explanation for the poetical name of the twelfth month. It is the season that the trees shed their leaves (ochiba), although - depending on the weather - the momiji can still be beautiful in early December. But winter inexorably deepens and the sunlight becomes weaker - although never as weak as in my native north-western Europe where it can remain almost dark the whole day. There are more winter showers and a cold north wind starts blowing.

One of the seasonal points is called Daisetsu, Great Snow, around the 7th or 8th of December, when winter is deemed to be starting in earnest. Fifteen days later, on the 22nd or 23rd of December falls Toji, the winter solstice, with the shortest day time and longest night time of the year. There is an old belief that taking a bath with yuzu citrus floating in it (yuzu-yu) will help one stay healthy through the cold winter. Another winter solstice custom is to eat kabocha squash.

Yuzu
[Yuzu]

After November with its enjoyment of nature by way of viewing the gorgeous autumn colors, December is a rather colorless and above all busy month. The 13th of December is called Kotohajime, the Start of Preparations for the New Year, a custom originating in Edo Castle in the Edo period. The first thing to do is housecleaning (soji), not only in order to start the new year with a spic-and-span dwelling, but also as a sort of ritual cleansing of the evil that may have accumulated in the house during the year. At Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto, Buddhist priests clean the dust away in the huge temple on December 20 in a ritual called Susuharai.

People may also be busy buying and sending out Seibo or Year-End Gifts. Oseibo are given to persons who have supported one personally or professionally during the past year and are generally of a higher value than the summer gifts (Ochugen). Usually expensive food items are bought, of course nicely packaged - many companies devise special gift sets for Oseibo. The busiest time of Oseibo shopping is from early through mid-December when the winter bonus is paid to workers of companies and government agencies.

In December, people are also kept busy with Bonenkai or Year-End Parties. These are held with colleagues or friends to forget the hardships of the past year, to thank each other and ask for continued support in the new year. Depending on the size of one's social network, some people have to attend many of these parties and as the drinking is usually quite heavy, there are a lot of people suffering from head-aches during the daytime.

Kadomatsu
[Kadomatsu]

At the end of December, but before the 28th, the New Year Decorations such as Kadomatsu have to be put up by the entrance to welcome the God of the New Year (Toshigami). This has to be done early so that the deity can be welcomed in a relaxed way. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on both sides of entrances to homes, shops, offices, etc. These consist of three diagonally cut bamboo poles of varying length, symbolizing strength and growth, and pine branches which symbolize long life, bound with a newly woven straw rope and sitting on a straw mat at the bottom. As these are very expensive, ordinary homes instead may only put up Shimekazari: a small rope made from rice straw (shimenawa), with zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide, small pine branches and a citrus fruit as the daidai to add color - these are hung above doorways, both inside and outside the house, and serve to keep bad spirits away.

Also around the 28th of December (the exact date can become earlier when it happens to be in a weekend) falls Goyo Osame, "Concluding the Year's Work," by the employees of public organizations and government agencies. In companies, this is called shigoto osame. The work of the year is formally completed, so that one can make a fresh start in the new year.

Kera-mairi, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
[Kera-mairi - lighting the rope with the sacred fire]

Then comes December 31 or New Year's Eve, in Japan called Omisoka. People stay up late and many visit a shrine or temple at midnight to make an auspicious start of the new year. One way to spend the long evening is to watch Kohaku Utagassen, the Red vs. White Song Competition, which is broadcast live by NHK since 1951.  In the four hour long show a red (female) and white (male) team each consisting of about 25 of the most popular artists of the year compete in acts that are often the highlights of a singer's career. New Year's Eve is also the time to eat Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles, something which originally started as a simple and quick dish for merchants who were still busy settling their books on this day, but which now continues because of the expression "to live long like a soba noodle." Finally, at midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times to eliminate the 108 delusions and false attachments to which human beings are subject. This is called Joya no kane. There are many temples where visitors can join in ringing the bell. A nice custom exists in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, where on New Year's Eve watch fires and toro lanterns are lit using the roots of a medicinal herb called Okera, which is believed to help cast away evil influences from the past year. This festival is called Okera-Mairi. In the past, visitors, used to take back embers from this fire to prepare the ozoni for New Year. Nowadays, visitors can buy a bamboo rope and kindle this symbolically with the herbal root fire. You have to keep swinging the rope to keep the fuse burning, and it is a nice sight to see people walking in the darkness with those small red flames - although it is now impractical to take these ropes home.

There are several other festivals in December. One, also in Kyoto, is the Kyoto Minamiza Kichirei Kaomise, or the annual Appearance of the All-Star Cast of Kabuki at the Minamiza Theater. It is a stage for actors from east and west Japan to meet each other and also a greeting by the cast to the audience, asking for their continued patronage.

December is also the month of Chushingura or the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. This tale of feudal loyalty, based on a historical incident, has inspired countless media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. The Forty-seven Ronin refers to the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano of the Ako clan, led by Oishi Kuranosuke. As their revenge on Asano's rival, Kira Yoshinao, took place on a snowy night on December 14, this has become the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) Lord Asano himself were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. (in Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on the same date - see my post about Ako).

Sensoji, Tokyo (Hagoita Fair)
[Hagoita Market, Sensoji, Tokyo]

A more bright event are the Hagoita Markets (Hagoita Ichi) held throughout Japan from mid-December. A hagoita is a paddle used in the game called hanetsuki, a sort of badminton which in the past was a popular pastime at New Year. However, the hagoita sold at these markets today are purely ornamental - they are beautifully decorated with pasted pictures of Kabuki heroes, geisha, film/TV stars and anime characters. By far the largest and most famous Hagoita Market is held in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo from Dec. 17 through 19.

The flower of December is the tsubaki (sancha) or camellia, an evergreen shrub with flowers that range from white via pink to deep red. Depending on the sort, tsubaki can bloom either in winter or in spring. The winter type starts blooming in October, keeps blooming during winter, and looses it flowers in spring. The flower is indigenous in China and Japan and was brought to Europe by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who called them "Japan Roses." In the 19th century it was a popular luxury flower in Europe, as appears from Dumas' La Dame aux camélias.

Tsubaki
[Tsubaki]

A popular fruit of December is the yuzu, which was already mentioned above. Winter is also the time that enormous amounts of mikan, Japanese mandarins, are consumed. Typical vegetables of December are shungiku (kikuna), edible chrysanthemum leaves, which add a bitter note to stews and one-pot dishes, and of course the versatile daikon or giant white radish that is eaten boiled in various dishes. Several temples and shrines in Kyoto have days that they serve daikon-daki, boiled slices of daikon, often with abura-age, for example Daihoonji (also called Senbon Shakado, Dec. 7 & 8) or Ryotokuji (Dec. 9 & 10).

A popular fish of December, finally, is buri or yellowtail, This is an auspicious fish that has its name changed as it grows from infant to adult as though it were given a "promotion." It is also a must for the New year dinner in West Japan, and often used as a year-end gift.

November 30, 2014

Two Shishigatani Temples: Reikanji and Anrakuji

Shishigatani is the area between the small Shirakawa River and the thickly wooded slopes of Higashiyama, just south of Ginkakuji. For centuries this shallow valley was farmer's land, interrupted only occasionally by a small temple or a country villa. But then, after WWII, the city started expanding and a wave of stucco houses swept also over Shishigatani. But with the Philosopher's path and the little, almost hidden temples - and despite the unpleasant rise in numbers of tourists - Shishigatani is still one of my favorite Kyoto haunts.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Reikanji temple halls on the hill slope]

Reikanji and Anrakuji both form part of this string of secluded, little temples that cling to the hillside where the slope of Higashiyama begins to get steep. They are usually closed and only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring and autumn.

***

Reikanji or "Sacred Mirror Temple" is a nunnery of the Rinzai school of Zen. It was established in 1654 for the 10th daughter of the retired Emperor Gomuzinoo, Johosshinin no Miya Socho. The new temple took over as main image the Nyoirin Kannon statue (as well as sacred mirror) of a temple in the area that had been closed.

Until the Meiji Restoration, Reikanji served as a monzeki monastery that always had an imperial princess for its abbess. The Shoin, the first building one passes, possesses screens by Kano Motonobu. Opposite is a small moss-covered rock garden with old stone lanterns and a pond which used to contain water, but now stands dry. On a somewhat higher level and connected via a corridor, stands the main hall housing the small Kannon statue.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Maple leaves at Reikanji]

The garden spreads out over the hill and the one-way path leads first steeply up, and later again down, through flowering bushes and trees. The flowering trees in the northern part of the garden include red and white camellias, plums and cherries. It is a fine, though small, garden. One exits via a path that leads under the corridor between the two temple buildings and finally can enter the Shoin, where usually some treasures of the temple are exhibited. These include fine makie lacquer work, and infallibly one also finds some of the marvelous dolls the princesses owned (like the Imperial nuns of Hokyoji). The temple is only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring (early April), when the cherry trees are in full bloom, and autumn (late November) when the maple trees are on fire.

***

Anrakuji is a Jodo (Pure Land) temple that legend has firmly linked to Honen (1133-1212), the founder of that school, and two of his disciples, Anraku and Juren. It was probably founded around 1211-1212, to the memory of both these priests, although it was only named after one of them. It stands about one kilometer from the spot where Anraku and Juren had set up their cottage called "Shishigatani Soan." Both priests were experts in shomyo, Buddhist chanting, and their beautiful singsong had attracted many followers. Among them were also two court ladies of Emperor Gotoba, Matsumushi-hime (Pine Beetle) and Suzumushi-hime (Bell Cricket). They were so entranced by the teachings of the musical priests that they fled the palace and became nuns. Legend adds as spicy elements that the Emperor was especially fond of them and that the other palace ladies had become extremely jealous.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Main Hall of Anrakuji]

So the rumor machine worked at full speed, suggesting that the intentions of Anraku and Juren were not honorable. The handsome priests were accused of having a love affair with the beautiful palace ladies. As a result, Emperor Gotoba - who had already for a long time been pronged by the traditional schools to put a stop to the teachings of Honen - became furious and exiled the aged Honen. Anraku and Juren were hit by a harder fate, for they were executed on the bank of the Kamo River on a charge of immorality. The grounds of Anrakuji contain the small graves of Anraku and Juren, and - chastely in a different spot - those of the palace ladies, who became nuns and died at a later time.

The grounds of Anrakuji are well-planted and have fine camellia trees. The graves are to the right (Anraku/Juren) and far right (at the back) of the entrance path; the path leading to the main hall, standing to the left, crosses this at a right angle. Both sets of graves are surrounded by low fences.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Anrakuji - The graves of the two court ladies]

The present main hall dates from the late 16th century. The central trinity in this hall of Amida, Kannon and Seishi, has been ascribed to Eshin (942-1017). The altar also contains an ancient Jizo statue. To the left of the main altar stands a smaller altar with a statue of Honen and his most important follower, Shinran. Here one also finds a walking stick and hat said to have belonged to Shinran, but both look suspiciously newer. A right-hand altar contains the images of Anraku, Juren, Matsumushi-hime and Suzumushi-hime. The court ladies are depicted as nuns.

Connected to the main hall is a shoin type building, which has a nice garden with azalea bushes on its east side, against the green background of the Higashiyama hills. One can sit down here and relax. Anrakuji is filled with peace.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Anrakuji - the Shoin garden with clipped azalea bushes]



November 26, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (2): Okochi Sanso

Okichi Sanso is a mountain villa, laid out on the sides and top of a steep hill next to Kameyama Park in Arashiyama. It affords grand views over both the city of Kyoto (towards the Higashiyama range) and over the gorge of the Hozu River. There are evergreen pine trees, but also maple trees and cherry trees which dress the garden in the color of the season. There are also several buildings, such as a shrine, a tea house and a private residence in traditional style, but these are not open to the public.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the lawn in front of the main house with a gorgeous Ginkgo tree]

Okochi Sanso is named after the man who constructed house and garden: Okochi Denjiro (real name Obe Masuo; 1898-1962), one of Japan's most famous film actors. Okochi's career started in 1926 with silent films, and he mostly - though not exclusively - acted in period films (jidaigeki). He worked with directors as Kurosawa Akira, Ito Daisuke, Yamanaka Sadao, Kinugasa Teinosuke, Inagaki Hiroshi and Makino Masahiro, and played next to famous stars as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Shimura Takashi and Hara Setsuko.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the main house called Daijokaku]

Among Okochi's famous films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo), a jidaigeki comedy made in 1935 by Yamanaka Sadao; and Sugata Sanshiro (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi, 1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946), all by Kurosawa Akira. His most famous genre roles in period film were that of the wandering gambler Kunisada Chuji and the nihilistic ronin Tange Sazen, who has lost his right eye and right arm due to betrayal. In non-period films (made during the Occupation after WWII, when jidaigeki were forbidden), he usually depicts a traditional, overbearing father.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - Mossy garden next to the Tekisuian tea house]

The 20 thousand square meter garden was constructed over a period of 30 years. The main structures, such as the Daijokaku main house and Tekisuian tea house were built in the 1930s and 1940s; only the Jibutsudo Buddhist shrine dates from the Meiji period and was brought here from elsewhere. This unique garden has only few flat spaces - the largest one is in front of the main house, where visitors can sit down on benches and enjoy the view over Kyoto. Another one is close to the entrance, where there is a restaurant serving the cup of green tea and a sweet included in the (somewhat higher than usual) entrance fee. There is also a mossy garden next to the exquisite Tekisuian tea house. But for the rest this garden consists of narrow paths running steeply up or down the hill, all with one-way traffic - to see the garden, one has to do quite a lot of climbing. At the top of the hill is a viewpoint affording a view of the Hozu River gorge and Daihikaku Temple on the opposite hillside - but the view over the same river gorge from nearby Kameyama Park is better, as that allows a broader and more open view of the valley.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the view towards Kyoto]

As a bonus there is a small outdoor museum with pictures of Okochi Denjiro in various film roles; but unfortunately for foreign visitors, no effort at translation has been made here. The garden is open around the year and although one has to do some effort to see it, the reward for that is a rich seasonal feeling.

November 24, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (1): Hogonin

A few weeks ago, when the leafs on the trees were just starting to show some color, I visited two beautiful gardens in Kyoto's Arashiyama: the garden of Hogonin temple and the garden of the Okochi Sanso (Mountain Villa). Here follows first Hogonin.

Hogonin is one of the subtemples of Tenryuji, the Rinzai Zen temple that sits in a central position in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Hogonin was originally founded in the 15th century in central Kyoto, suffered several times destruction, then was restored in the grounds of Kogenji, another subtemple of Tenryuji, before being set up in the present independent location - a spot where originally another subtemple of Tenryuji had stood which was closed down. After that, during a spat of fighting with rebellious Satsuma forces in 1877, Hogonin's buildings were again destroyed, together with those of Tenryuji. In other words, the present buildings of the temple were all reconstructed in the 20th century, and you come here not for the architecture, but for the garden.

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Hogonin garden with large rock shaped like a Shishi lion]

That garden, which predates Hogonin, is ascribed to a disciple of Muso Soseki, the famous priest credited with the creation of the great Tenryuji garden. But as far as I can see, there is no proof for that ascription. We only know for certain that the garden did exist in the Edo-period, as it is mentioned in travelogues of the 18th century (such as the Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zukan or Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako dating from 1799). The name of the garden is "Shishiku," which means "Lion's Roar" - an image of the preaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (in modern Japanese it also means "making an impassioned speech").

The garden is usually described as a "shakkei kaiyushiki teien," a "circuit stroll garden (often centered on a pond, but not here) that incorporates the surrounding scenery into its design." This is also called "borrowed scenery" (shakkei), but gardens with borrowed scenery usually have a framing device through which the borrowed scenery is viewed - as Mt Hiei seen through a frame of strategically placed trees in the case of the Entsuji garden. That is not the case here and as the Arashiyama hill serves more as a diffuse background and continuation of the tall trees in the Hogonin garden itself, I doubt whether it formally could be called a "borrowed scenery garden."

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Arashiyama seen through the trees of Hogonin]

That does not make the garden less interesting, on the contrary: this is an enclosed "forest garden" (my term, not a traditional one!) with tall Japanese maple trees (iroha momiji), various varieties of moss, and several colossal rocks. In one place, a pine tree grows from a rock, having split the stone in two. The garden almost seems to be natural, but of course is carefully tended. The moss is so beautiful that Hogonin is a good alternative to the so-called Moss Garden Temple (Kokedera) elsewhere in Arashiyama, which restricts visitors by a super-high entrance fee and compulsory sutra copying. The rocks in Hogonin must have been eroded in the past by the nearby Oi River - thanks to the human "Rorschach fallacy," one of them looks indeed like the Shishi lion that gives the garden its name.

What makes this garden interesting is the natural atmosphere - the murmuring of a small stream that flows through it, the bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, these are all like "wordless preaching." There are some benches where visitors can sit down to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Adding to the rustic character are several interesting bamboo fences, one made with bamboo branches (not poles) packed tightly together (takeho-gaki); there is also an unusual hanging bamboo gate as used in tea ceremony gardens, made from strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern (shiorido). Although these elements are newly made by the gardeners, they wonderfully fit the garden. The only element that I could do without is the small "themed garden" that has been laid out near the entrance and that shows the Buddhist River Styx (made with large, round stones), with a boat-stone to pass to the "other side (higan) where three large upright stones symbolizing the Amida trinity wait - this is just too artificial.

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Maple leaf on the moss]

For an extra fee, one can have matcha in the tea house in the garden; and for another extra fee it is also possible to enter the main hall and see the screens by contemporary painter Tamura Noriko - but for me, the garden with its beginning autumn colors was more than sufficient. As an added bonus there is a cute set of arhats (rakan) called the "Arashiyama Rakan" sitting outside, opposite the gate of Hogonji. It is good this fine temple is nowadays open (something which only started recently), if only for a few weeks in spring and in autumn.



November 4, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: November

November is traditionally called Shimotsuki, or “Month of Frost.” It is the time that temperatures get lower and days shorter - one week into November the seasonal turning point of Ritto comes along and actual winter is deemed to start.

But November is in fact a most beautiful month as it is the time of momiji (maple leaves). Although less well-known outside Japan than cherry blossoms, in Japan the koyo or colored leaves of autumn are just as big an event. Like hanami or blossom viewing, momijigari ("hunting for colored maple leaves") draws huge crowds. Not only the famed "sakura zensen," but also the "koyo zensen" or "front map of autumn colors" is heavily reported, from TV to magazines and internet. Based on the information given by the media, people plan day trips or short holidays to enjoy the fall colors. In the past, the beauty of autumn leaves was eulogized in poems and paintings. In the Heian-period, aristocrats would enjoy lavish banquets under the autumn leaves, gathering the fallen leaves, and writing poetry.

Autumn in Kiyomizu Temple, 2008

November is also characterized by several interesting public holidays and other events. November 3 is Culture day, when the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. There are also many art festivals and cultural activities nationwide. Museums have special exhibitions, such as the annual Shosoin Exhibition of priceless treasures and household goods once belonging to the 8th century Emperor Shomu held around this time at the Nara National Museum. There are also special temple openings in Kyoto, which are normally closed to the public, such as of subtemples of Daitokuji (these seasonal openings are nowadays held - depending on the temple - somewhere between late October and early December).

November 15 is a good day to visit a Shinto Shrine, as this is Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine Visiting Day), the "seven-five-three" festival when parents with boys of five, girls of seven and either boys and girls of three dress their children in gay clothes and take them to shrines where they pray for their children's future. These three numbers were chosen since odd numbers are considered lucky and also go back to old dress customs.

Tori-no-ichi or "Cock Market" is held in the Otori Shrine in the Taito Ward of Tokyo on the two or three days of the cock falling in November according to the old calendar. It is nowadays held for success in business and among the lucky items for sale are kumade or bamboo rakes, to rake in good fortune.

On November 22 and 23 (a public holiday as this is Labor Thanksgiving Day) at the Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka the annual Shinnosai is held. This small shrine in the pharmaceutical district is dedicated to the Chinese and Japanese gods of Medicine and on the festival days it is customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) as a prayer for good health (see my post about the Sukunahiko Shrine and Doshomachi).

Although the weather in November is generally good, in early November (or sometimes already in late October) a cold wintry wind coming from the northwest called Kogarashi blows - “Kogarashi” is literally the wind that sears the leaves of the trees. The first such withering blast is called “Kogarashi Ichigo.” Early and mid-winter are also the season of Shigure, rain showers. These showers occur after the sky suddenly clouds over, but they pass quickly. Shimoyo is the name for nights when the stars are bright in the sky and there is a blanket of frost on the ground. November actually knows also many beautiful, clear days and these are known as Koharu(-bi), or “Little Spring” as the weather can be quite balmy.

As foods go, November is the season that kaki or oysters come to market, which are cultivated on a large scale, for example in Hiroshima. They are eaten raw, fried, cooked in hotpot or mixed through rice (kakimeshi). Another wintry seafood that starts being sold in November are large crabs from the coast of the Sea of Japan called zuwaigani. They are served in various forms, as sashimi and tempura, or just with some vinegar. It is also the season of ginnan or gingko nuts, from the prehistoric Gingko tree, which have a subtle taste and are eaten skewered, grilled or in chawan mushi.

Bessho Onsen 2004

As fruit goes, in November the season of kaki or persimmons starts. This autumn fruit rich in Vitamin C is either eaten raw or dried (hoshigaki); persimmons in Japan are usually sweet but there are also astringent varieties. Dried persimmons also form part of the New Year decoration. The orange kaki fruits hanging on the trees or after plucking strung under the eaves of farm houses are a beautiful sight in the Japanese countryside.

In the tea ceremony, finally, from November starts the use of the sunken hearth (ro), instead of the portable stove which is used in summer.

November 3, 2014

How to spend Culture Day (November 3) in Japan

Culture Day (Bunka no Hi) on November 3 is originally the holiday dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, whose birthday according to the Lunar Calendar fell around this date. Before the war, people would gather at shrines throughout the country and bow in the direction of the Imperial Palace. Under the postwar constitution the day was rechristened as "Culture Day", as after all autumn is a time for cultural pursuits. Moreover, on this day in 1946, the new constitution was officially announced.

Meiji Shrine
[Meiji Shrine, Tokyo]

On November 3 the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. The Emperor presents the awards (shaped as a mandarin orange blossom with purple cord; the mandarin orange was planted in the palace courtyard since Heian times and symbolizes eternity - in this way the timelessness of culture is expressed) during a ceremony held in the palace. There are also many art festivals and cultural activities nationwide, where lesser awards are given by all kinds of organisations.

The best news: it is always sunny weather on November 3, at least in Tokyo or Kyoto, so it is a great day to go out! Some suggestions:

- In Tokyo, visit the Meiji Shrine for the last day of the Shrine's Festival (held from Oct. 29 to Nov 3). Various activities are held, including yabusame (archery on horseback) and other demonstrations of martial arts.

- In Nara, visit the National Museum to see the Annual Exhibition of Shosoin Treasures. These are 650 items, all personal belongings of Emperor Shomu, given to the Great Buddha of Todaiji by his widow, the Empress Komyo in the 8th century. Among the priceless treasures are many Persian and Chinese items that reached Japan via the Silk Road. Carefully kept under lock by Todaiji for many centuries, the Shosoin is now under the care of the Imperial Household Agency. The annual exhibition shows a limited number of items, usually for about 3 weeks from the last week of October. See the webpage of the Museum for details.

- In Hakone, go and see the Daimyo Procession in Hakone Yumoto (and while you are there, have a look at Sounji Temple).

- Go out into nature to view the maple leaves (momiji-gari). In the city it is still to early (both Tokyo and Kyoto have the best leaves from the middle of November on), but if you travel to Nikko or Hakone you will be greeted already by a carpet of red and yellow. In the Kansai, Koyosan should be beautiful around this time.

November 2, 2014

Why Murakami Will (Probably) Never Win the Nobel Prize

This year even Japanese television, NHK, was excited. Perhaps they really thought that, after the triple Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Japan would also get the Nobel in Literature in the person of popular author Murakami Haruki. The result was, of course, disappointment among Murakami's worldwide fan base. What surprised me, however, was not that Murakami again missed this prestigious prize. I was instead amazed that so many readers seriously believed Murakami could ever win the Nobel. That has nothing to do with whether Murakami is a good writer or not (although in my view he doesn't measure up to true Japanese giants as Soseki, Ogai, Akutagawa, Kafu, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Abe and Oe), - there are after all many excellent authors who never received the Nobel - it is simply for the objective reason that he doesn't fit the profile for the coveted prize.

Before we look at that profile, we first have to realize that the Nobel Prizes for Literature, Economics and Peace are very different from the Nobels for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. While those last three are "hard" sciences, where one can determine rather objectively how important a certain discovery has been (for example, because it has given rise to a whole new field of subsequent research), the prizes for literature, economics and peace are determined by ideology, by ideas. Should a market economy be controlled by a strict market master or should it be completely free? Should a country always invest in times of economic downturn, even if it already has a large debt, or should it be frugal and first clear-up that debt? These are all ideological choices, not science based facts. Even more so in the case of literature, where there are many different tastes and ideas about what constitutes great literature. So according to what general standard does the Nobel Committee make its literary choices? What is the profile of winning authors?

In accordance with the wishes of the founder of the prize, the Nobel Prize Committee makes its selection from a certain standard about what great literature should be. The standard has varied a bit since the prize was first awarded in 1901, but since WWII it is - just like the dominant culture in Europe - basically liberal and humanist, affirming the value of human life, emphasizing originality and autonomy, as well as addressing moral ambiguities and individual struggles with conscience. It is often engaged with the larger issues of society, without getting too overtly political; and it may be geared a little towards the left, again as is normal among European intellectuals. But the choice is always for individual human beings and their freedom, and not for ideology. As regards style, prizewinning authors are generally characterized by a complex and mature literary expression, without becoming too consciously artistic or turning into modernist fireworks.

By its selection, the prestigious Nobel institution sets up a standard of what according to them constitutes great, serious literature and then propagates that as the universal standard. In doing so, they often put the spotlight on authors who have unjustly remained somewhat in the shadows. This means of course that the Nobel Committee is not at all interested in how many fans a certain author has or who stands highest in the betting pools. The Nobel prize is not a popularity contest, but an informed and deliberate choice.

It will be clear this is not a profile into which Murakami Haruki easily fits. Take his contents, which are often said to have a rather narrow focus (with as possible exception his best novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), being mostly centered on the boredom and loneliness of young persons or others who seem to have never matured out of adolescence. He mixes in a generous amount of magic-realist elements, which is not wrong in itself (see Nobel winner Garcia Marquez) as long as it stays playful and ironic - Murakami's problem seems to be that, at least since Kafka on the Shore, he has started taking these supernatural intrusions too seriously. On the other hand, we don't find any struggles with conscience or moral problems in his novels - this in sharp contrast to this year's Nobel winner, Patrick Modiano, who writes about "the tyranny of memory of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation"and received the prize for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

It is also often said that Murakami is not improving with the years, on the contrary: a recent novel as 1Q84 is mostly judged as rather superficial and two-dimensional. So there seems to be a general down-ward trend in his work since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

And as regards the style of writing, Murakami's prose is rather bland and wooden - something which is not the fault of his translators, for it is the same in Japanese. Although that alone should not be an obstacle to getting the Nobel, it doesn't help, either.

But what does it all matter? Why would Murakami need a Nobel prize, except for reasons of (national) prestige or fan-base self-satisfaction? He is already a million seller. Countless readers are enjoying his books and - Nobel or no Nobel - will continue doing so... are prizes really relevant?

P.S.1 I like Murakami's early novels as A Wild Sheep Chase and especially his short stories best - I believe that is where his talent mainly lies. 
P.S.2 It is often stated that the Nobel Prize in the course of the 20th c., and especially at its beginning, missed a lot of great authors. That is true, but it is not the intention of the Nobel Committee to include all great authors from the world (that is over-estimating the value of the Nobel Prize!) - it would also be impossible with only one prize a year. What they want to do is much more modest: just ask attention for some of the authors who match their standard about what great literature should be. And of course everyone is free to disagree with that standard...
P.S.3 And who knows, next year the Nobel Committee changes its standard and Murakami wins after all. In that case I will be glad I put the word "probably" in my title... 

October 17, 2014

Two Basho Huts in Kyoto

Matsuo Basho made frequent visits to Kyoto, but today only two physical monuments remain: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” in western Kyoto, owned by his haiku disciple Kyorai, where Basho wrote his Saga Diary, and the “Basho Hut” on the flank of the eastern mountains set up by enthusiastic follower Buson to commemorate the haiku master.

West: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” 
To the west of Kyoto lie the scenic areas Arashiyama and Sagano. They were already popular with aristocrats of the Heian-period, who came here for outings or built their summer villas among the bamboo groves. Since the 17th century, the Hozugawa River at Arashiyama has been spanned by the Togetsukyo bridge, making traffic easier. Not far from the bridge stands the Tenryuji Temple with its famous landscape garden. In Sagano one also finds such temples as Daikakuji, a former imperial villa, Nisonin, where Fujiwara Teika compiled the tanka anthology A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets, and Seiryoji with its exotic Shaka statue.

Basho's student Kyorai owned a cottage here, which bore the poetic name of “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” (Rakushisha). Mukai Kyorai (1651 - 1704) was one of Basho’s major disciples. The son of a wealthy physician from Nagasaki, and well-to-do himself, he was able to play host to Basho and other haiku poets when they visited Kyoto. His poetry faithfully observes the principles of Basho and the Master even said he was “in charge of haiku in Western Japan” (Basho himself lived in Edo, in the East).

Rakushisha, Kyoto
[Rakushisha, Kyoto]

Here is the story how the cottage received its remarkable name. Kyorai had about 40 persimmon trees in the garden of his Saga cottage. In autumn, their fruit had ripened to a shiny orange. Too much to eat on his own, Kyorai sold his persimmons. However, the night of the day before the fruit was going to be picked, a gale blew over the Arashiyama area - a name that itself means 'Stormy Mountain' and presumably was given for good reasons! All the fruit was destroyed and Kyorai had to pay back the advance money he had received from the merchant. The loss of the persimmons was seen by Kyorai as a humorous lesson not to strive after worldly gain. On top of that, it led to a Satori experience: through the branches of the trees, now bare, Kyorai had an excellent view of Arashiyama. He saw the mountain in a way he had never seen it before. The storm and Stormy Mountain proved not to be unconnected. Here is the haiku he wrote about it:
“master of persimmons” -
so close to the tree tops
Stormy Mountain 
Basho visited Rakushisha three times: in 1689, 1691 and again in 1694, a few months before his death. During his second visit, which took place during the months April and May, he wrote the Saga Nikki or “Saga Diary.” In contrast to Basho's usual travel accounts, this is a real diary, with exact dates, about his fifteen day sojourn in the Rakushisha. Apparently, it was a pleasant and relaxed stay, interspersed with boating on the nearby river, as well as temple visits. Almost every day, local disciples and others came to visit Basho. In between, the poet did a lot of reading - he mentions the books he brought with him, such as the works of the Tang-poet Bai Juyi and the Tale of Genji.

Rakushisha, Kyoto
[Rakushisha, Kyoto]

The cottage is still there, not far from the foot of Mr. Ogura where the Niosonin Temple stands, and right next to the Hinoyashiro, the tomb site of an imperial princess, daughter of Emperor Saga (8th c.). Or, I should rather say that the cottage is there again, because the original dwelling fell into ruin after Kyorai’s death. In the late eighteenth century, Basho followers bought the present site and erected a structure that is thought to resemble Kyorai's original dwelling. It indeed serves eminently to recall the past atmosphere of haiku-gatherings in the beautiful surroundings of Sagano. The bamboo hat and straw raincoat hanging in the wall of the cottage used to indicate that the occupant was at home.

Today, Rakushisha is a tasteful monument to Kyorai and Basho. Besides tourists, Basho fans and haiku enthusiasts come here, with a reverent look on their faces, some silently mumbling haiku. The most famous haiku Basho himself wrote here is:
summer rain
on the wall traces
of torn poem cards
Basho wrote this poem when he was about to leave Rakushisha. Having enjoyed the serene life in the countryside of Sagano and feeling sorry to leave, the poet wanders around the rooms. The rains mentioned in the haiku are the rains of the rainy season, when the monsoon from the south brings weeks of damp and wet weather. The “poem cards” are shikishi, square pieces of cardboard on which one could write a haiku, but could also paint a picture. They were glued to the walls and are a reminder of haiku sessions Basho has held with his visitors in the “Hut of Fallen Persimmons.” The fact that they are peeling, in some cases only leaving traces (perhaps caused by the damp weather) is a fitting symbol for the fact that Basho's “session” in Rakushisha is over: he has to “peel” himself loose, too!


East: the Basho Hut in Konpukuji Temple 
The other Basho spot lies right at the other side of Kyoto, in the northern part of the Eastern Hills. Konpukuji (“Temple of Golden Bliss”) stands close to Shisendo, in a quiet area which until not too long ago was countryside. It was founded in the second half of the 9th century by the priest Enchin, who enshrined a Kannon statue here. Later the temple fell into ruins until it was rebuilt in the 17th century by a priest called Tesshu. At that time it also became a Rinzai Zen temple. It is just a small temple, consisting of only one modest hall, but it is famous among haiku lovers for the Basho Hut (Basho-an) that stands on the low hillside at its back.

Ironically, it is not certain Basho ever really came here. It is a mere tradition that, during one of his many visits to Kyoto, he spent some time in a small cottage in the grounds of Konpukuji, and the above-mentioned priest Tesshu therefore gave that humble dwelling the name "Basho-an." The cottage had fallen into ruins when Japan's second great haiku master, Buson (1716-1784), paid a visit here in 1760. In 1776 he started to rebuild it, with the aid of the then priest, Shoso, a work that was only finished in 1781.

Konpukuji, Kyoto
[Konpukuji, Kyoto]

From 1776 on, Buson would regularly come here in spring and autumn with his disciples to hold haiku sessions. Buson also wrote a haibun about the hut, called “A Record on the Restoration of the Basho Hut in Eastern Kyoto.” He expresses his longing for this “deeply hidden place,” “where green moss has covered all traces of footsteps,” but that at the same time is not completely cut off from the world, as one can hear dogs barking across the fence, and even buy tofu nearby. There is an echo here from Basho's Genju-an, a haibun about a hut near Ishiyama at Lake Biwa where Basho lived for a few months after his trip along the “Narrow Road.” At that time, Buson was already famous as both a painter and a poet.

The cottage (even today still looking very new, so probably many times restored) stands on the hill at the back of Konpukuji. It sports a straw roof and is in fact quite spacious. It is a warm and sunny place, with dense vegetation even in winter. Beside the Basho Hut stands a stone monument dedicated to Basho, carrying an inscription that relates his life. This stele was also put up by Buson. Higher up the hill is a cluster of graves, with the main one that of Buson himself. Buson loved the place so much, that he asked to be buried here, at the side of the Basho monument, near the Basho-an in Konpukuji, a wish that was respected by his disciples.
when dead let me lie
next to my Basho stone
withered pampas grass

How to get to Rakushisha: 10 min. on foot from Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Line.
How to get to Konpukuji: 10 min walk from Ichijo-Sagarimatsu-cho bus stop (bus 5 from Kyoto St). (Closed 1/16-31 and 8/5-20)

October 16, 2014

"A Portrait of Shunkin" by Tanizaki Junichiro (1933)

A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho) is the most celebrated novella by Japan's greatest 20th century author, Tanizaki Junichiro, and like The Bridge of Dreams it is a story of an ideal world that is artificially (even monstrously) kept intact. The story is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka (see my post about this area) and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style (with very little punctuation as in classical Japanese). By the way, this use of a classical style was not a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story.

[Tanizaki in 1913]

The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian (living around the time the story was written, so the early 1930s) who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods (her life is given as from 1829 to 1886). This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Besides using different registers, Tanizaki also uses the in Japan all-important titles deftly: Sasuke does not allow his own pupils to call him "Master" (oshisosan) because that is his designation for Shunkin; the narrator, however, refers to him as "Kengyo," the most exalted, official title for a shamisen master and one that Shunkin never attained.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons.

Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption).

Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. The apogee of sadomasochistic devotion!


Osaka, Doshomachi
[Detail of a monument in the grounds of the Sukunahikona Shrine
in Osaka's Doshomachi district, dedicated to Shunkinsho.
It shows the beginning of Tanizaki's manuscript.]

That is the story, as a casual reader will pick it up. But there are always many false bottoms in Tanizaki's literature, especially here. In the first place we have to note that the story has several layers of unreliability:

- As the narrator, a sort of local historian, notes, the Life of Mozuya Shunkin, the biography which is his main source for the story he tells us, is rather unreliable. It displays strong hagiographic tendencies, and on top of that the person who is praised most is not Shunkin, but rather Sasuke who is always presented as an example of the highest and most self-sacrificing devotion (note that Sasuke was the one who had The Life compiled). In other words, it is more "A Portrait of Sasuke" than of Shunkin...
- But also the narrator is not objective, and he, too, is on the side of Sasuke - note that after Shunkin's death, Sasuke became a much more famous musician than Shunkin had ever been, and the narrator may have been influenced by Sasuke's greater renown,
- The only other source is a maid who served Shunkin and Sasuke later in life - obviously, this maid was not present during the crucial events that took place earlier in the lives of the two artists.

Faced with so many uncertainties, we should ask ourselves if everything we read is true:

- Was Sasuke really unselfishly devoted to Shunkin?
- Was Shunkin really exceptionally cruel to Sasuke (note that teacher-pupil relations in the arts and crafts in traditional Japan - and even occasionally today - contain a certain amount of, if not outright cruelty, at least harshness)?
- Remember that when Sasuke became Shunkin's servant, he was twelve and she eight; although girls are earlier ripe than boys, with such an early age difference, initially Sasuke most have been more dominant.
- Considering their formal relation, how could Sasuke be the father of Shunkin's child, if he was not in a controlling position (he is the only one who can be considered, as Shunkin led a secluded life and had no other, private contacts)?
- Who threw the hot water in Shunkin's face? The story about a thief or pupil with a grudge looks very weak, intruders usually don't have the leisure to boil a kettle of water...

Here follows the most probably explanation, based on The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Harvard, 1994) by Anthony Hood Chambers:

Sasuke must have been the one who dominated Shunkin, instead of being controlled himself by a cruel and sadistic mistress. Outwardly, he played the servant and pupil who was masochistically dedicated to his mistress, but behind the scenes he, the older one, pulled the strings. When we follow these lines, Sasuke becomes rather repugnant, for wasn't Shunkin in that case little more than his sexual playmate whom he had completely in his power? More monstrous is that Sasuke himself may have been the one who threw the scalding hot water in Shunkin's face, to destroy her beauty out of jealousy, because he didn't want to share her with others at parties and gatherings, where she was admired for her beauty and where he was pestered and lost control over her. Destroying her beauty meant that she could not go out anymore and he would again have her completely in his power. By blinding himself and so for outsiders (and Shunkin) playing the perfectly devoted servant - and perhaps also on an unconscious level doing penance for his crime -, he finalized and stabilized his control over her. However warped it was, Sasuke had created a sort of private "ideal world."

The meaning we thus discover in the story is the opposite of what it seemed at first sight. As Anthony Hood Chambers puts it in The Secret Window: "Sasuke has molded a woman to dominate his fantasy life as his "ideal woman," and when he has maneuvered her right to where he wants her, he throws himself at her feet. When she has outlived her usefulness, he creates an idealized mental image to replace her." Instead of a masochistic slave, controlled by Shunkin, Sasuke was himself the sadistic keeper and even gaoler of Shunkin.

One passage of the story indeed gives a strong hint of Shunkin as Sasuke's prisoner. Shunkin liked to keep birds, nightingales and larks, and these captivated song birds are indeed an apt symbol for her own position as a musician who was the prisoner of Sasuke. Once, when one of her larks flew up to the clouds and didn't return, she seemed to follow his flight into the free azure longingly with her blind eyes...




September 4, 2014

"The Bridge of Dreams" (Yume no Ukihashi, 1959) by Tanizaki Junichiro (Book review)

Tanizaki Junichiro wrote several top class novellas, such as The Reed-cutter (Ashikari), Arrowroot (Yoshino-kuzu) and A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho), but my favorite is The Bridge of Dreams, although also for an extra-literary reason: it is set in Shimogamo, a beautiful area in Kyoto where I lived in the 1980s. Tanizaki himself had lived next to the Shimogamo Shrine from 1949 to 1956 - his residence was called Sekisontei and he used this as the basis for the house and garden in The Bridge of Dreams. In this story, published in 1959, two of Tanizaki's major obsessions are perfectly united: the search for a lost traditional Japan and the search for a lost mother, who combines the maternal with the seductive.

This is also what the title points at: the "(Floating) Bridge of Dreams" is the name of the final chapter of the Genji Monogatari, and here meant as a reference to the whole novel, which starts with the affair the protagonist has with his stepmother Fujitsubo. And the title is of course also a metaphor for the dreamlike quality of life and of the world of love.

Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Bridge in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto]

The story is set in the womb-like enclosed environment of a traditional house and garden where three people live: a father, his wife Chinu and their young son Tadasu (named after the forest of the Shimogamo Shrine). It is an isolated but perfect world, the ideal retreat, full of literary and historical allusions, on which the story is wholly focused - daily activities that fall outside this estate are usually not mentioned. The garden stands deep in a grove and is far removed from the dusty world. You reach it, of course, by crossing a narrow stone bridge.

Here Tadasu lives in the warmth and security of his mother's embrace, a dim, white world:
"The mingled scents of her hair and milk hovered there in her bosom, around my face. As dark as it was, I could still dimly see her white breasts. She would sing while I drifted off into a peaceful sleep, still clutching her breasts and running my tongue around her nipples. Gradually I would slip into the world of dreams."
By the way, the most conspicuous image of the pond garden is the water mortar, a bamboo tube that fills with water from a small stream where the father (and after growing up also Tadasu) used to cool his beer. When the pipe is full, it tips of its own weight and hits a flat stone with a characteristic clacking sound. Empty, it sways up again and the process repeats itself. Such devices were originally employed by farmers to scare away wild boars, but from the 17th century they were as ornaments incorporated in gardens, like the famous Shisendo garden in Kyoto - an enclosed hermit garden with which Tadasu's estate has many elements in common. When Tadasu went to sleep, the distant, rhythmic clack of this water mortar would mingle with the voice of his mother singing a lullaby and would penetrate his dreams. It became therefore strongly associated with memories of his mother.

But humans are mortal and when Tadasu is only five years old, his mother dies. After a while, his father remarries and now something strange happens: he has his new wife impersonate the deceased one. She has to take the same name, Chinu, wear the same type of clothes and allow Tadasu to sleep with her in the same way he did with his own mother. She also plays the koto and practices calligraphy, like Tadasu's first mother. And so the idyllic life in the enclosed paradise garden continues even after the intrusion of death, the stepmother conflated with the real mother... When he nurses on his stepmother's breast, Tadasu again hears the clack of the water mortar - everything is again the way it used to be...

What happens further is not so clear, for Tadasu is an unreliable narrator - what he tells is true, but he doesn't tell everything. Time passes and when he is eighteen years old and at high school, Tadasu learns that his stepmother is pregnant. A boy, Takeshi, is born, but the baby is soon sent away by his father to be brought up by farmers. A weird scene happens in the seclusion of a small tea house in the garden, where the stepmother has Takeshi suck the milk from her breasts, heavy so soon after giving birth. As a grown-up man, he is allowed to enter the milky white world of childhood again, now mixed with a decidedly erotic element...

Later that year, Tadasu's father - who had been ill since more than a year before - dies and asks Tadasu to take good care of his (step-) mother. In other words, Tadasu is asked to take over the role of the father. By now, Tadasu has learnt his stepmother's real name, and also that she was a geisha before she married his father. In order to keep up appearances (there is after all an outside world) Tadasu marries the daughter of their gardener, Sawako - but it is clear he is more interested in his stepmother.

A few years pass. Then the stepmother dies - she had a weak heart and was frightened by a centipede, while undergoing massage by Sawako. Tadasu now separates from Sawako and seeks out his half-brother, Takeshi, whom he decides to bring up himself. But he has to sell the large estate and instead moves to a smaller house near Honenin temple - not accidentally a place just as secluded as the first one.

The ambiguous story leaves us with several questions - the reader has to act as detective:
  • Was the death of Tadasu's stepmother homicide? Did Sawako kill her out of jealousy - Sawako who after all was a disparate element in the household, and who was treated very coldly by Tadasu? Was that the reason Tadasu decided on a separation?
  • Whose child was Takeshi? Was he really Tadasu's half-brother, or was he his son? There are some hints that Tadasu's custom of cuddling up to his stepmother and suckling her breasts when he was a young boy, continued also when he grew up and then developed into outright lovemaking... On top of that, the father was already ill when the child was conceived. In addition, this would explain not only why the baby was sent away but also why Tadasu later decided to bring the boy into his house and take care of his upbringing.
  • And, finally, the most radical interpretation: was it perhaps Tadasu himself who killed his stepmother rather than Sawako (the killing was of course in either case indirect, by dropping a centipede on her to frighten her)? There are indeed some hints that Tadasu was getting tired of her as she was getting plump and therefore was losing the image of his original mother... (while in Takeshi, Tadasu found the face of his mother again). Another fact supporting this interpretation, is that the negotiations for the separation from Sawako took two years and also that Tadasu had to sell his estate - in other words, he probably had to pay a large amount of money to Sawako and her family to buy their silence about the real events.
But the story does not give us any clear clue to the right interpretation, and in that vagueness lies its beauty. Life is a dream and dreams can be wild and convoluted, shimmering like a chimera...

P.S. Perhaps we can also see the secluded estate as a symbol for a traditional Japan that had been lost in the 20th century, a loss finalized by postwar Americanization.
The Bridge of Dreams has been translated by Howard Hibbett in the collection Seven Japanese Tales (together with six other works by Tanizaki, including "A Portrait of Shunkin"), published in various editions by both Tuttle and Vintage. The novella is discussed in The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction by Anthony Hood Chambers (Harvard University Press, 1994). The interpretations mentioned above are based on Chambers.

August 31, 2014

Issa’s haiku in Obuse (Nagano): Chestnuts

Obuse is a small, attractive town with enough places to visit to warrant a day excursion from Nagano. Thanks to rows of old warehouses, it preserves a classical atmosphere and is nice to wander around in - everything can be seen on foot from the station.

Nowadays, Obuse is perhaps most famous for the Hokusai Museum, which displays about 40 scrolls and screens painted by the master (rather than his ukiyo-e) as well as two large festival floats he decorated. Hokusai's connection with Obuse came about later in his long life, when the prosperous Obuse-merchant Takai Kozan invited him to come and stay. Nearby the Hokusai Museum is also the house of Kozan, with Hokusai's studio and also paintings of demons on display by Kozan himzelf. A third museum in the town is the modern Obuse Museum, which has a wing dedicated to modern Japanese-style painter Nakajima Chinami, who is famous for his meticulous renderings of cherry blossoms and cherry trees. And, finally, a fourth one is the Japanese Lamp Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of lighting devices from the past.

[Hokusai painting on the ceiling of Ganshoji Temple in Obuse - Photo Wikipedia]

The other thing Obuse is famous for is rather sweet: chestnut cakes and chestnut candies. You will find factories in old storehouses and shops throughout the town. Two famous names are Chikufudo and Obusedo. Chestnuts are intimately linked to Obuse's history, as it was the Muromachi-period warlord Ogino Jorin who brought chestnut tress from Tanba and planted them in the Mabukawa Delta, a place with acid soil and therefore perfectly suited for this purpose. These chestnuts were so good that they were sent as presents to the shogun.

Haiku poet Issa, whose hometown was Kashiwabara, not far from Obuse, wrote the following "chestnut haiku:"

nobody picks it up
a wonderful chestnut
so big 
hirowarenu | kuri no migoto yo | okisa yo
Issa 


This haiku stone stands in front of Obuse Station. 

August 24, 2014

"The Gate" by Natsume Soseki (Book review)

The Gate (Mon), published in 1910, is one of Natsume Soseki's most delightful novels, thanks to the warm-hearted portrait of the happy love for each other of a married couple. There are countless novels in world literature about adultery and broken marriages, but how many are there of couples who are simply happy together?

No that the life of this couple, Sosuke and Oyone, is easy. They live in a sort of gentile poverty, Sosuke earns just enough as a low-ranking civil servant to make both ends meet. They rent a rather dark and cheerless house in Tokyo, and have no contact with family, no friends or acquaintances. Their solitary existence is wholly uneventful. You could almost say that they live as recluses in the big city, their gate always closed.

Engakuji, Kamakura
[Gate of Engakuji Temple in Kamakura - as Soseki had connections with Engakuji, this is probably the temple that plays a role in The Gate - see below]

This seclusion has been caused by a dark spot in their lives. When he was a promising student at Kyoto University, Sosuke had a good friend, Yasui. One year after the summer holidays, this Yasui suddenly set up house with a quiet young woman - the author does not make clear whether she was his wife or his girlfriend - and Sosuke also got to know her gradually. This young woman was Oyone. She and Sosuke fell in love and she broke with Yasui to marry Sosuke. This caused a scandal in the university town - these were strict times in which students were supposed to be models of society - and Sosuke was forced to leave university, ending his prospects for a flourishing career. He was also ostracized by his family and, to get away from scandalous rumors, moved with Oyone to Western Japan. Yasui voluntarily left the university to establish himself as a sort of adventurer-business man in Mongolia. Only after several hard years could Sosuke get his present government job and return to Tokyo, the city where he and Oyone were born.

The joint betrayal of Yasui has left both Sosuke and Oyone with a feeling of guilt. They have remained childless, although they would have liked children. Oyone has had three miscarriages, and they ascribe this fate to the "wrongdoing" which was involved in bringing them together. But their shared feeling of guilt also forms a strong bond and they are happy with each other. Their love is the one abiding element in their lives.

Natsume Soseki gives detailed descriptions of their daily life, the halting conversations they have together, and the Tokyo scenery of the late Meiji-period. The atmosphere of their almost featureless days is unfailingly conveyed, but never gets boring thanks to the superior writing. Of course, readers who are looking for dramatic plots are at the wrong address, Japanese literature is not about plot but about atmosphere. That being said, drama is smoldering quietly below the surface of this novel, all connected to the betrayal that has connected Sosuke and Oyone. For example, after the event Sosuke has become sluggish and a procrastinator - he has even allowed his uncle to strip him of part of his inheritance without speaking up. His younger brother, Koroku, who is still at university, used to be financially supported by that uncle, but the money now stops and Koroku comes to live with Sosuke and Oyone, disturbing their quiet routine. Again, it takes time until a solution is found. On a positive note, the solitary Sosuke has come to know their wealthy landlord, Sakai, an extroverted and generous person, who lives on the hill behind their house and has a large family. Sosuke is often invited for a talk by this landlord and that leads to a small drama: Sakai invites him to a dinner where also a man called Yasui, recently returned from Mongolia, will be present...

Sosuke is completely shaken by this news and to avoid the dinner runs off to a Zen monastery in Kamakura, hoping by meditation to find some way out of his anguish. But already in the early 20th century, Zen was so far from the daily lives of ordinary Japanese, that Sosuke had no idea what was waiting for him in the temple. After struggling for ten days in vain with a koan, on a meager diet, he again leaves in despair. He has been unable to open the symbolical three gates of enlightenment (Sangedatsumon), those of emptiness, formlessness and inaction.

But although enlightenment is not waiting for him, nor the worldly success of his neighbor Sakai, he is happy to be quietly home again. Miraculously, most problems, small as they were, have evaporated as non-occurrences: Yasui has returned to Mongolia without causing trouble, a solution has been found for Koroku (who becomes a shosei, a student lodger in the house of the landlord) and although a restructuring is undertaken in the ministry, Sosuke's job is spared and he even gets a small rise.

In the final pages of the novel Sosuke is back with Oyone and settles down again in a quiet vein behind their own gate. Spring is in the air, Sosuke who has just been to the hairdresser, tells Oyone that other customers were talking about hearing the first bush warbler of the year.
Gazing through the glass shoji at the sparkling light, Oyone's face brightened. "What a sight for sore eyes. Spring at last!"
Sosuke had stepped out on the veranda and was trimming his fingernails, which had grown quite long.
"True, but then it will be winter again before you know it," he said, head lowered, as he snipped away with the scissors.
This is a novel without illusions, but filled with a gentle compassion.

Read The Gate in the excellent new translation by William F. Sibley, published by New York Review Books (and replacing the older translation by Francis Mathy in Tuttle Books). Of the Japanese original many editions exist, and it is also available as a free etext at Aozora.  

August 22, 2014

Hyakumanben, Kyoto

"Hyakumanben" is the crossing between Imadegawa and Higashi-oji streets, near Kyoto University, and there couldn't be a stranger name: "one million times."

In fact, the name belongs to the temple standing in the northeastern corner of the crossing: Chionji, and that means the "one million times" has a religious intent. In 1331 a plague struck Kyoto and all supernatural means to stop it were ineffective, until the priest Kuen of Chionji chanted the "Namu Amida Butsu" incantation one million times... Emperor Godaigo afterwards gave that name to the temple and now it is the designation of the whole neighborhood.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The spacious grounds of Hyakumanben Chionji]

"Namu Amida Butsu" means "I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida" and chanting this brief prayer, with faith, was essential to ensure rebirth in the paradise of the Buddha Amida. This was the religious revolution caused by Honen, who considered modern people to be too decadent to be able to reach enlightenment by meditation or other forms of hard practice. In Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism, believers have to chant this so-called "Nembutsu" as many times as possible, the more the better - thus the one million times to stem the plague. Honen's disciple Shinran further simplified the practice, by posing that one recitation in one's lifetime, if done with faith, was sufficient - that is now common in Jodo Shin Buddhism, the New Pure Land sect.

The temple came only to this spot long after the "hyakumanben" event - it was moved here in 1661 from its original location north of the imperial palace - it seems to have been a jinguji, a temple of the Kamo Shrines. The link with Pure Land Buddhism was made because Honen once stayed there when in the capital for missionary work.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The giant prayer beads]

Chionji is a relaxed temple that makes its spacious grounds often available for secondhand book markets or handicraft markets (on the 15th of every month). There are no great statues or gardens here, but it is a nice place for a casual visit. The main hall is interesting for the huge prayer beads (juzu) hanging along the walls, all around the large building. They are used for the memorial services for Honen.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[Shinshindo]

Being close to Kyoto's major university, Hyakumanben is a nice area with small student cafes and bookshops. My favorite place is Shinshindo ("Notre Pain Quotidien"), a bakery and student cafe where you sit on simple benches at long and heavy wooden tables, scarred by years of use. It is a favorite student haunt, a nice place to write or study. Lots of space to spread out books and newspapers, although now you see most professors and students staring at the screen of their smartphone or tablet. There is also a small shady garden at the back where visitors can take their coffee. The menu is simple and you have to order your coffee with or without milk - they put it in for you (no customizing here), but the atmosphere is nicely nostalgic.

The cafe was founded in 1930 by Tsuzuki Hitoshi, the first Japanese to study for two years authentic French baking in Paris. Do not confuse this academic cafe with the chain of Shinshindo coffee shops you find all over central Kyoto - these are nothing special, although they apparently share the same founder.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The entrance of Kyoto University close to Hyakumanben]

(Revision of a post that has briefly appeared some years ago on a previous version of Japan Navigator)