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

July 30, 2014

Matsumoto Seicho’s "Zero Focus" and Noto

One of the first Japanese novels that I read in the original language was Zero no Shoten (Zero Focus) by popular mystery author Matsumoto Seicho - it is thirty years ago that I found a copy in a secondhand bookstore in Kyoto. I especially enjoyed the atmosphere of the story: after the husband of a young newlywed disappears on what was supposed to be a brief business trip, the young woman, Teiko, travels from the comforts of Tokyo to snowy Kanazawa to search for him. Gradually she unravels the threads of the double life he led...

Years after reading the novel, I saw the film version Zero Focus by Nomura Yoshitaro on Japanese TV. It is a film noir as ever there was one, with strong hints of Hitchcock, and here, too, the atmosphere is great. During a second trip to Kanazawa, Teiko visits the Noto Peninsula, which in the film appears as a snowbound landscape full of dangers. Sheer cliffs tower over raging seas, dilapidated houses cling to rocky slopes, and the snow keeps falling relentlessly. If anything, the last scene where Teiko confronts the murderer on this cliff has been drawn out too long, there are too many flashbacks while she challenges the woman behind the mystery to a confession. But I can easily imagine Nomura Yoshitaro liked this landscape so much he just went on filming here...

Yase no Dangai, Noto
[Yase no Dangai Cliff, Noto]

Since then, I have had the chance to visit Noto and finally I could stand on the same cliff as Teiko in that dramatic last scene, 50 meters above the sea: Yase no Dangai. It was a beautiful summer day, and the sea was a calm field of green-blue. No raging waves, no violent storm, no snow. The only things that reminded me of the danger of the place were the many signs warning against suicide. The bodies of people who jump down here from the cliff are carried far away by the tide. Think about the faces of your parents.

Matsumoto Seicho Poem, Noto 
[Matsumoto Seicho Poem, Noto]

Matsumoto Seicho also came here, of course, and he left the following poem that has been carved on a stone near Ganmon, a little bit to the south on the same rocky coast:
sagging clouds
alone facing
the raging waves
I feel sadness
first trip to Noto

kumo tarete | hitori takereru | aranami wo | kanashi to omoeri | noto no hatsutabi

Read more about places to visit in Noto in Ten Best Scenes on the Noto Peninsula.

July 26, 2014

Ten best scenes on the Noto Peninsula (Travel)

"The fancy took me to go to Noto," wrote astronomer Percival Lowell in his travel book Noto (1891) - and off he went, to a place at that time virtually unknown. The man who would later discover the canals on Mars and speculate about intelligent life on the red planet, seems to have enjoyed wild places and inconvenient travel. Unfortunately, Lowell's travel account spends more time telling us about the hazards of the trip to Noto, than about the beauties of the peninsula itself.

Noto coast
[Cliffs on Noto's Sotoura West Coast]

Noto is an axe-shaped peninsula, with a rugged and eroded (but beautiful) west coast and a more indented, sheltered east coast. Most places to see are on the west coast. Noto's charms are low-key but authentic, and the scenery is unspoiled by billboards or pachinko halls - instead you will find sleepy fishing ports, villages huddled together for protection against wind and waves, and a quiet agricultural inland. The best means of transport is a car (can be rented at Noto airport, or in Kanazawa if you travel from the capital of Ishikawa prefecture) - bus service is spotty and the trains only go as far as Wakura Onsen since the unfortunate demise of the line to Wajima. There are also tour buses. Also in the case of public transport the best basis for setting out to Noto is the city of Kanazawa.


Here are the 10 best spots in Noto:


  • 1. Sojiji (officially: Daihonzan Sojiji Soin). Soto Zen temple with attractive halls in a meditatively green garden. The buildings are from the Meiji-period, after a fire destroyed the old ones, but the atmosphere is authentic. The temple was founded in 1321 and stands in the town of Monzen ("before the gate," the town traditionally catering to the needs of a temple). With Eiheiji, Sojiji used to be one of the two head-temples of the Soto School, but after the fire in 1891 the main temple was rebuilt in Yokohama; Noto's Sojiji was also rebuilt and sitting far from the hustle and bustle of the world, still is a strict training centre for Zen monks. If you reserve in advance it is possible to stay overnight in the shukubo, take part in a Zen session and have a vegetarian meal. [0768-42-0005]
Sojiji Temple, Monzen
[Sojiji Temple]

  • 2. Wajima Lacquer Art Museum. Wajima is the cultural heart of Noto and its most interesting town, although the (in)famous Morning Market with elderly women hawking everything conceivable is a tourist trap. Most of all, Wajima is a capital for lacquerware (urushi) and you can see the best laquerware in the Wajima Lacquer Art Museum [0768-22-9788], both the local Wajima Nuri, as well as some stunning modern lacquer art. You can see craftsmen at work in another facility, the Wajima Lacquerware Center [0768-22-2155]. Another place to visit is the Kiriko Kaikan, a hall housing the giant and colorful paper lanterns used in Noto's festivals. Those festivals are held in summer in various places in Noto.

  • 3. Gojinja Daiko. Wild, thunderous drumming by men wearing demon masks and seaweed wigs, said to commemorate a ruse to scare off the army of an invading warlord by villagers pretending to be a huge army. The main festival is on July 31 in Nabune, but all summer you can see short performances in front of the (disused) station of Wajima. (You can see such drummers in action in the samurai film Goyokin by Gosha Hideo - see my post about Samurai Films).


Shimo Tokikuni-ke, Noto
[Shimo Tokikuni-ke and its magnificent thatched roof]

  • 4. Shimo Tokikuni-ke and Kami Tokikuni-ke. Two magnificent traditional (Edo-period) farmhouses. The local Tokikuni family claims descent from a Taira clan noble exiled here in the late 12th c. Most impressive are the immense thatched roofs. Shimokuni-ke has a nice garden. Kamikuni-ke is the richer house of the main branch of the family, even sporting a curved entrance gable. Both houses stand close together in Sosogi. [0678-32-0075, Shimo Tokikuni-ke]

  • 5. Myojoji. Nichiren sect temple in a contemplative environment near Hakui. Founded in 1293, the fine buildings date from the early 1600s when the temple was restored by the Maeda clan. Especially lovely is the five-storied pagoda; the best place to view it is from the shoin, with a small traditional garden in between. [0767-27-1226]

Glass Art Museum, Noto
[Futuristic structures of the Notojima Glass Museum]

  • 6. Notojima Glass Art Museum. More than the glass, it is in the first place the hypermodern architecture of contemporary architect Mozuna Kikko that attracts visitors to this museum. The plan hints at something cosmical. The exhibition features glass from all over the world, including Japanese artists as the internationally renowned Fujita Kyohei; outside also stand various scultptures. The museum faces Toyama Bay on picturesque Noto Island. [0767-84-1175]

  • 7. Coast of Noto Kongo, Monzen and Sosogi. Dramatic views of impressive sea cliffs created by the pounding waves of the Japan Sea. Ganmon is a deep grotto in a rock that projects into the sea; Yase no Gankai, a periously overhanging cliff 50 meters above the roaring waves. There are also two "wedded rocks" as in Ise. Several narrow inlets sheltered by high cliffs are said to be places where Yoshitsune, when on the run for his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo, hid with his boat. Some of these cliffs will be familiar to viewers of Japanese TV thrillers, where the last scene in which the criminal confesses is often set at such a dramatic point - a convention started by Matsumoto Seicho (in Zero no Shuten, a story in fact set in this area).

Sunset, Noto coast near Monzen
[The sunset at the coast near Monzen is the most beautiful in Japan]

  • 8. The sunset from the Sotoura west coast, especially from the area near Monzen, is reputedly the most beautiful in Japan. You look right to the west from here and can watch the blazing sun sink into the sea until the last flicker of light is gone. The red light seems to create a path on the waves that leads directly to the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida... (some people seem to take that literally, so at Yase no Dangai there are many signs warning against suicide!).

  • 9. Senmaida ("thousand rice fields"). In a hillside overlooking the sea tiny, terraced rice fields have been carved out, the smallest (it is claimed) only the size of a hat. They are at their most beautiful in spring when the fields are filled with water.
Senmaida, Noto
[Senmaida]

  • 10. Keta Shrine. One of the greatest shrines of the Hokuriku region, in Hakui. Stands near a sacred primeval forest where nobody may enter at the seashore. Founded in the 8th c., the present buildings date from the mid 17th c. The main hall presents a picturesque scene.
See the English website Tourism Ishikawa for more information about travel in Noto and Ishikawa Prefecture!

July 18, 2014

"A Cat, a Man and Two Women" by Tanizaki Junichiro (and other Japanese cat literature)

That the Japanese are great cat-lovers is obvious to any visitor here. This feline infatuation springs not only from the fact that cats are elegant and mysterious, but above all finds its origin in the feeling of iyashi, of peacefulness, that cats impart, and that makes you forget your daily worries. And, of course, as Japan is also the "country of cuteness," you'll stumble everywhere over cat bags, cat mugs, cat plates, and countless other daily items with feline images.

Cat in Kobe
[Cat on a Kobe street - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Although we find some great cats in ukiyo-e - for example those by Kuniyoshi - cats really came into their own as protagonists in modern Japanese literature. The first famous literary cat is the unnamed feline of I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) written in 1905 by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), one of Japan's greatest 20th c. novelists. The satirical story is narrated by a cat living in the household of a teacher of modest means and abilities. From a rather haughty point of view, the cat listens in on the discussions between the teacher and his family and friends: the cat is convinced that his master is selfish and lazy, if not a fool, and that he himself is a sort of special royalty - as cats indeed often think.

The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) wrote the surrealistic short story The Town of Cats (1935) where a traveler in a strange town suddenly has a vision that all the roads around him are filled with cats - nothing but cats wherever he looks, something he finds horrifying. Obviously, here the cat is not a messenger of peace but rather a harbinger of the uncanny. (Did Murakami Haruki think of this story when he wrote about his own "cat town" in 1Q84?).

The cat also appears in crime fiction, such as in the popular whodunit Neko wa shite ita (1957) by Niki Etsuko (1928-1986), about a series of murders in a clinic where a black cat called Chimi is mysteriously involved. Another, even more famous example is the "Mikeneko Holmes" series ("Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat") by bestselling author Akagawa Jiro. The police detective in these popular books cannot bear the sight of blood and has phobias about heights and women, so it is a good thing that an intelligent cat comes to his rescue. Holmes stalks the crime scenes with feline composure, offering hints that lead to the solution and in fact doing all the detective work.

Cats also figure in contemporary novels. One example is Tama ya (Oh, Tama!) by Kanai Mieko, about an afflicted young man, his circle of bohemian friends and a pregnant cat that he is forced to take in. Another feline adventure is The Guest Cat (Neko no Kyaku) by Hiraide Takashi about a couple of freelancers working at home, who are visited by a small cat of the neighbors and end up falling in love with the "guest cat" they call Chibi.

Shinto cat - Umemiya Jinja
[Cat in a Shinto shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But the best literary treatment of the feline phenomenon is without a doubt A Cat, a Man and Two Women (Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) written in 1935-36 by the masterful Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965). This is a charming, comic novella with a female tortoiseshell cat called Lilly as the absolute star. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who is utterly in love with his cat Lilly - he loves her more than any of the two women who figure in his life. At the beginning of the story he is playing with Lily on the veranda of his house, sharing his mackerel with her and having her leap up to get the fish. His wife Fukuko clearly resents the close bond between her husband and his cat. Fukuko is Shozo's second wife - his young, new wife. The chastened ex-wife, Shinako, has been chased away by Shozo's scheming mother, who also lives in his house (the family has a shop) and in fact rules it with an iron hand.

So when a letter arrives from Shinako offering to take Lily off their hands, Fukuko is very much in favor, as is the mother... and Shozo is such a weak, submissive person that he agrees to give away his beloved Lily (only asking to be allowed to keep her for one more week). But after Lily is gone, Fukuko realizes with a shock it must have been a trick of Shinako: where Lily goes, Shozo also goes - isn't Shinako trying to get her husband back? Didn't Shinako in fact hate Lily? (That may be so, but when Lily comes to stay with her, Shinako develops a deep attachment to Lily and takes good care of her.) What will happen - will Shozo stay with Fukuko or go back to Shinako? I will not give the end away, which anyhow is rather open, but only remind you of the fact that Shozo loves Lily more than his two wives!

This is a humorous story which also provides an interesting glance at life in the Osaka-Kobe area in the 1930s (the story is situated in Ashiya), something which Tanizaki would do on a much grander scale in his masterwork, The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki).

But above all it is a very perceptive and touching story about the relation between a cat and the people around her, demonstrating Tanizaki's great understanding of feline behavior (Tanizaki was a great cat-lover himself) - and that all expressed in his usual, beautiful language.

[Kunisada - Image Wikipedia]

Some Japanese cats in translation:

A Cat, a Man and Two Women by Tanizaki Junichiro has been translated by Paul McCarthy and published by Kodansha International and Harper Flamingo Books in 1990. Unfortunately, out of print today.

I am a Cat (3 vols) by Natsume Soseki has been translated by Graeme Wilson and Aiko Ito in 1972 and is still in print (Tuttle Books).

The Town of Cats by Hagiwara Sakutaro has been translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler; another translation called Cat Town will be published in November of this year by the New York Review of Books (by Hiroaki Sato).

Oh, Tama! by Kanai Mieko has been translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy and is available from Kurodahan Press.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide has been translated by Eric Selland and is available from New Directions.

July 14, 2014

Miyako Odori and other dance performances of Kyoto's Flower Towns

There are five  different "Flower Towns" (kagai) or geisha districts in Kyoto.

Gion Kobu - the foremost of Kyoto's Flower Districts, named after the Yasaka Shrine ("Gion-san"). The most traditional of the five. Dance and music training is in the classical Inoue-school. The major public performance is the Miyako Odori in April.

Gion Higashi - originally formed one flower town with Gion Kobu, but became independent in 1881. Follows a different dance school, the Fujima School. Performance called Gion Odori is held in autumn.

Both Gion districts were popular with pilgrims visiting the Gion shrine/temple complex (now Yasaka Jinja); they were also close to the Tokaido which enters Kyoto over Sanjo Bridge, just north of the area.

Maiko Spring Dance (1) Miyako Odori
[Miyako Odori]

Miyagawacho - on the east bank of the Kamo River, between Gojo and Shijo. The riverbank here was from the early 17th century on an area of tea-houses and theaters. The famous Okuni performed the first Kabuki here. Wakayagi School. Kyo-Odori dances are staged for a few weeks in April. Miyagawa-cho is close to Gojo Bridge, and was frequented by pilgrims visiting Kiyomizu Temple.

Pontocho
- along a very narrow street (with a great atmosphere) on the west bank of the Kamo River between Shijo and Sanjo. It developed in the early Edo-period after a new embankment was built here. Symbol is the plover, a bird associated with the Kamo River. Onoe School. The Kamo Odori is held for a whole month in May. Pontocho was close to the Tokaido Highway.

Kamishichiken - Developed in the Muromachi period and is therefore the oldest Flower Town in Kyoto. Was built with wood left over after a reconstruction of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, next to which it is located. The name means "Upper Seven Houses." The symbol of the town is a string of dumplings, offered to Hideyoshi when he held his Great Tea Party in the shrine. Hanayagi School. Performance called Kitano Odori in April lasts just a few weeks. Kamishichiken, of course, catered to visitors of the popular Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.


Gion during Miyako Odori 2008
[Gion district with lantern and poster advertising the Miyako Odori]

As you see, all Flower Towns have there public dance performances, held in their own theater. This is of course a modern development. Geiko and maiko only used to perform at small parties, for guests, and not on a public stage. The tradition started in 1872 in Gion, and was a bright idea of Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu and Vice-Governor Makimura Masanao.

At that time, Kyoto was in decline. Three years before the capital had been moved to Tokyo and the new Meiji Emperor and his court had departed Kyoto, leaving an empty shell behind. To promote the city, the Prefectural Government organized an exhibition to showcase the art, culture and industry still thriving in Kyoto. To attract people, the Governor and Vice-Governor requested Mr. Sugiura, the representative of the Gion district and owner of the restaurant "Mantei" (now Ichiriki) to stage a public dance performance by geiko and maiko. Mr. Sugiura asked the help of the master of the Kyomai dance school, Ms. Inoue Yachiyo III, and together they devised a highly stylized group performance based on the "Kamenoko Odori" dance from the Furuichi district in Ise.

Kamogawa Odori, Pontocho
[Kamogawa Odori in Pontocho]

A traditional Japanese orchestra and singers were added and in March 1872 the the first Miyako Odori, or "Dances of the Imperial Capital" were performed to great acclaim. This performance become the prototype of all subsequent Miyako Odori of the Gion Kobu (and in a wider sense of the dance performances of the other Flower Towns as well), and the choreography is still the exclusive domain of the Inoue Kyomai dance school - now headed by Inoue Yachiyo V. In 1873 the "Miyako Odori" moved to the more spacious premises of the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater.

The Gion Orchestra (1) Miyako Odori
[The Jikata singers and shamisen players at the Miyako Odori]

The style of the Miyako Odori is classical and dignified and is the best way to see the country's top geiko and maiko in their beautful kimono's!

P.S. I took the above pictures of the dance performances about 25 years ago. Unfortunately, nowadays it is no longer allowed to take pictures.








July 8, 2014

Best Samurai Films

On my other site, Splendid Labyrinths, I have been looking at several film genres, such as Pre-Code Film, the Screwball ComedyNoir Film and Neo-Noir Film. On this site I have discussed Japanese Cult Films, Japanese Horror Films and Yakuza Movies. Here we will have a look at the Japanese genre that is popularly called the "Samurai Film."

Samurai Film is often compared to the American western, but was in fact much more important for the Japanese: until the early 1960s, at least half of all annual film production in Japan consisted of period films.

In Japan, samurai films are called jidaigeki or chambara. The first category, "period films" usually consists of the more serious and artistic films, while chambara films (so called after the sound swords make when clanging on each other) are often considered as B-films. The problem is that jidaigeki is not a genre - it only points to films of which the story is set before 1868 - this can also be a film version of the court novel Genji Monogatari!



So for "samurai films" we have to look for another defining genre element: the incorporation of a choreographed (sword) fight called "satsujin" or "tate" in Japanese. Besides that, the hero usually is a samurai, a ronin (masterless samurai), or a pre-modern yakuza. In other words, one or more fights, usually with swords, are central to the genre. Films lacking such scenes are not "samurai films."

"Satsujin" sounds like the Japanese for "murder," but is a different word, written with different characters, literally meaning "killing formation." The same character combination is also pronounced as "tate." The usual translation is "staging (or mise-en-scène ) of a sword fight." These mise-en-scènes were initially based on Kabuki, and next borrowed from the more realistic Shingeki theater. But until the end of the fifties they remained quite stylized - it is Kurosawa Akira who liberated the sword fight scenes from convention and started a trend of realistic violence which is typical of the samurai movies of the 1960s. The choreography of such fight scenes was in the hands of specialists.

In this definition, artistic period films such as Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi), humorous films as Bakamatsu Taiyoden (by Kawashima Yuzo), realistic drama as Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka), or period horror films as Yotsuya Kaidan, are not samurai films and will therefore left out of the list below.

What are the best samurai films? A selection of ten films:

1. Miyamoto Musashi aka Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954-56) by Inagaki Hiroshi, with Mifune Toshiro, Mikuni Rentaro and Yachigusa Kaoru. In three films Inagaki follows the exploits of Japan's greatest legendary swordsman, based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. The first film is rather sentimental, but Mifune Toshiro shines in an explosive performance. The story improves in Part Two, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Part Three, Duel on Ganryu Island. Read more about the historical Miyamoto Musashi here. Inagaki's epos is the archetypal samurai film, one that everyone who is even slightly interested in the genre, should see. It is also quite well-known outside Japan, thanks to its inclusion in the Criterion series and the winning of an Academy Award. Inagaki was a specialist in Musashi: he made his first Musashi series in the 1940s, so that the present one is in fact a remake of his own film. Much less known is that there exists another great Musashi series, this time five films, made by director Uchida Tomu for the Toei studios in the early sixties with Nakamura Kinnosuke, who also gives a great performance. I found him better as the young Musashi (Mifune looks a bit too mature for the role), and as good as Mifune in the final two films. Unfortunately, by spacing out the tale over five films, the 2nd and 3rd do not have such strong story lines, but on the other hand they do incorporate more elements from the novel and have more space for character development. By the way, you may notice in the Inagaki film that there is an episode where a village that is frequently attacked by armed robbers, hires a group of samurai for protection. That is the story germ that Kurosawa borrowed from the novel and built up into his superb Seven Samurai!



2. Bloody Spear at Mt Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955) by Uchida Tomu, with Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke and Kitagawa Chizuru. This film was the comeback of Uchida Tomu - who already had started his directing career long before the war - , after many years of captivity in the Soviet Union. Bloody Spear is also remarkable for the fact that Kataoka Chiezo, who was Toei's greatest star actor and would later become one of the company's directors, plays a "servant" instead of a samurai master (but of course he is the real hero). And its finale contains one of the most supremely choreographed fight scenes (satsujin) of all samurai film. The story is a sort of picaresque road movie, a samurai and his servant (Gonpachi) who carries a large spear, are on their way to Edo over the Tokaido. On the road, they encounter many colorful people: a traveling singer with her child, a father taking his daughter to be sold into prostitution, a pilgrim, a policeman searching for a notorious thief, and a suspicious man the officer has his eyes on - all these different stories will play out in the film. Gonpachi is also followed by an orphaned boy who wants to become a samurai and who brings some comic relief to the film, for example when a group of samurai sits blocking the road to enjoy the view of Mt Fuji, keeping all travelers waiting, and the boy relieves himself in the tall grass next to their banquet which sets them running off to evade the stench. The point is that the servant Gonpachi is more intelligent and brave than his master the samurai, who also cannot hold his liquor and anyway is rather foolish. This leads to tragedy at the end of the film, when the master gets into a brawl with a group of samurai and is killed by them. Gonpachi arrives too late to save him, but in his fury takes on the group of samurai with only his large spear as weapon... A well-judged blend of comedy and violence.

3. Yojinbo (1961) by Kurosawa Akira, with Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Kurosawa made many superb samurai films and it is difficult to choose one here. Seven Samurai is objectively seen probably the greatest film made by this famous director, but I opt here for Yojinbo because of its sardonic antihero played by Mifune Toshiro (take alone the way he scratches his back at the beginning of the film!), setting the tone for the samurai film of the sixties and also heavily influencing spaghetti Westerns (if not giving rise to the genre). It tells the story of an anonymous ronin, portrayed by Mifune Toshiro, who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. Locale is established at the start when a dog runs across the screen carrying a severed hand in his mouth. The two bosses each try to hire the deadly newcomer as a bodyguard (yojinbo). But by deftly switching sides, the wily ronin turns the range war between the two gangster groups to his own advantage and manages to rid the terror-stricken village of corruption. The gangsters (and citizens who are in league with them) in both groups are depicted as grotesque monsters made of flesh in this black comedy. By the way, the story of a town torn apart by warring factions and the hero who cynically agitates them further, so that they destroy each other as so much fighting insects, was probably lifted by Kurosawa from a famous American novel: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In 1964, Yojinbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. In short, Yojinbo is one of the most influential and entertaining samurai films of all time! Finally, I can't leave out mention of two other Kurosawa samurai films: Tsubaki Sanjuro, a sort of humorous sequel to Yojinbo, which has the earliest instance of over-the-top violence that would become characteristic of later samurai films: an impossible "fountain of blood" in the final killing; and The Hidden Fortress, another funny samurai film with two bumbling peasants and a run-away princess, to which George Lucas payed homage in his first Star Wars film.

4. Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) by Kobayashi Masaki, with Nakadai Tatsuya, Mikuni Rentaro and Iwashita Shima. Stark, deep-cutting film that exposes the moral emptiness at the heart of Bushido, made by Kobayashi Masaki of Kwaidan-fame. It is 1630, there is peace under the Tokugawa government. A suffering ronin who has lost his job as samurai because of the peace, comes to the Ii manor requesting to be allowed to commit ritual suicide on the property - but actually angling for a position and hoping to be hired by them. However, they coolly preside over his cruel and agonizingly painful death - he has to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, because he has no better left. His father-in-law, a great performance by Nakadai Tatsuya, decides to take revenge by shaming the Ii clan before their retainers. He also comes to the manor requesting to be allowed to commit seppuku (harakiri) - but when preparing himself, he tosses the topknots of three of the major retainers of the Ii clan in front of their leader - he has disgraced two of them who cowardly surrendered, and killed the third one. The clan head now sets his retainers upon the ronin who kills several more of them. His bold defiance of feudal authority - and the ultimate brittleness of the feudal system - is symbolized when he tears apart a yoroi, a ceremonial piece of armor, decorated in the hall of the mansion. How cynical a power the Ii are is emphasized when at the end they don't kill him by the sword, but give up the samurai code and call in a couple of guns... The clan reports all the deaths of its retainers as due to "illness," in order to avoid loss of face for being vanquished by a single ronin. In other words, Bushido was just a hypocritical pretext serving those in power - it did not have any intrinsic value. (Somebody should have told Edward Zwick who in his terrible The Last Samurai reveals himself as a latter-day believer...).
P.S. You can still see the Ii Castle in Hikone (Shiga Prefecture, a day trip from Kyoto); there is also an interesting museum.

5. The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari, 1962) by Misumi Kenji, with Katsu Shintaro. The first in a series of 25 (which are evenly good), starring Katsu Shintaro as a blind masseur, gambler and swordmaster. Zatoichi is not a samurai (on the contrary, he is an outcast, the lowest stratum of society), so he is not allowed to carry a sword - he therefore uses a cane sword (shikomi-zue), a sword hidden in his stick. And, although he can not see, he is an expert with the sword, lightning fast in pulling it out of his stick and cutting with it, relying on his ears and other senses: he can cut a candle in two after throwing it into the air, splitting even the wick! (After turning the room into blackness in this way, he will mutter: "Darkness is my advantage.") As a gambler and masseur who travels along Japan's highways, his status is that of a yakuza and he has to pay his respect to the gangster bosses in the towns he passes through. The gambling gives rise to various comic scenes: the other players think they can cheat or win easily as Zatoichi can't see the dice, but they are very mistaken - even more so, when they try to strip him of his earnings... But Zatoichi is also a good and wise man who protects the weak. In each film, he comes across someone who needs his help - often a helpless woman, to serve the love interest of the film, somewhat like the "madonnas" in Tora-san. The set-up is often copied from Yojinbo: two rival gangs making a village unsafe. Although formulaic and based on a fixed template, this is a series full of fun. Some special installments are Zatoichi meets Yojinbo (yes, with Mifune Toshiro) and Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman with wuxia hero Jimmy Wang Yu from the Shaw Borthers Studios in Hong Kong. The original series ran from 1962 to 1973, with in the initial years often three new films a year. After that, the story ran for 100 installments on TV. In 1984 Katsu Shintaro made a single "remake," just called Zatoichi. The present century (where originality in film has become scarce) has witnessed several more remakes by other directors, of which the most important is Kitano Takeshi's pastiche Zatoichi (2003), but of course the original series is vastly superior. Director Misumi Kenji was one of the more interesting specialists in chambara, besides Zatoichi also known for Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure okami). His films are far better than the average swordplay movie thanks to his depth of characterization, attention to historical detail and the visual flamboyance he brings to the screen.


6. Thirteen Assassins (Jusannin no shikyaku, 1963) by Kudo Eiichi, with Kataoka Chiezo. When you Google for "Thirteen Assassins," the results are spammed by Miike Takeshi's 2010 remake of this film - so much so, that the original film by Kudo Eiichi, which is vastly superior to Miike's weak pastiche, does not even show up in the results. Forget about Miike, and watch the tight and impressive original, filmed in stark black-and-white and 'Scope. A film about the arbitrary abuse of power and the violent measures necessary to oppose it. A sadistic daimyo (feudal lord) is guilty of rape and murder, but as he is the Shogun's younger brother, the matter is hushed up - even though one of his own vassals commits ritual suicide to bring attention to the crime. But instead of being punished, the daimyo is even going to be promoted to a higher position, from which he can wreak more havoc. Open punishment is anyway out of the question - it would bring shame on the Shogunate as the criminal is a family member. So in deepest secrecy the council of ministers decides to have the daimyo assassinated. Thirteen men are called together for a desperate mission they know they will not (and will not be allowed to) survive. When the daimyo is on his way from Edo back to his fief in Western Japan, with a large retinue of samurai, the Thirteen Assassins under the leadership of the elderly samurai Shimada Shinzaemon turn a small mountain village into an elaborate maze of booby traps and camouflaged fortifications. The daimyo, however, has been forewarned and a terrible carnage is the result... This is the film on which the reputation of Kudo Eiichi rests, together with two similar movies, The Great Melee (Daisatsujin, 1964) and Eleven Samurai (Juichinin no samurai, 1967). All three films are examinations of the fine line between legitimate and tyrannical authority and shine because of their austere composition, reminding viewers of the ritualistic quality of Harakiri.

7. Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken, 1964) by Ikehiro Kazuo, with Ichikawa Raizo. A series of 12 eccentric films (of which this one is the best), made by the Daiei Studios between 1963 and 1969, about a nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during the Black Mass." Total pulp, and rather politically incorrect - take for example the sword technique of Nemuri Kyoshiro, who is skilled in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. This installment features three interwoven narratives on the theme of addiction: a cunning and vile merchant smuggling opium from China, a sadistic princess, the Shogun's daughter, who hides her face behind a Noh mask and enjoys seeing her addicted but purposely drug-starved court ladies writhe in pain, and finally the Christians, practicing a forbidden religion and hated by Nemuri Kyoshiro, who tell him that "the Virgin Shima" knows more about the circumstances of his birth... The fourth film of the series, here Nemuri is fully unleashed as the nihilistic bastard he is - this is perhaps the first Japanese film in which the protagonist cuts down an unarmed woman. It is quite a feat of Ichikawa Raizo that viewers still feel drawn to him - he definitely has lots of charisma. The visuals are bold, with expressionistic camera angles and overt symbolism. Interesting is also the superimposition showing the trajectory of Nemuri Kyoshiro's sword when he performs his famous "full moon cut." A delightfully trashy film, in many ways ahead of its time, in others (the attitude towards women) today way behind the times... Ikehiro Kazuo was one of Daiei's most flamboyant chambara directors. Many of his films were contributions to long running series, such as the present one, where he contributed two more installments. The stylized plots in Nemuri Kyoshiro allowed Ikehiro's imagination free rein, leading to his most memorable work.

8. Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) by Okamoto Kihachi (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Mifune Toshiro. Dark film about a sociopathic samurai who is a murder-machine. Again featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a fantastic act. He plays a gifted swordsman, living during the turbulent final days of the Shogunate, who kills without remorse and without mercy, a way of life that ultimately leads to madness. Tsukue Ryunosuke was the first nihilistic protagonist in the samurai genre. At the start of the film, he comes across an elderly Buddhist pilgrim who is tired and kneels in front of a stone image, praying for death... and with one swipe of his sword he cuts him down. Tsukue suffers from a sort of "sword-rage," going completely berserk, especially in the final scene in a burning courtesan house, where the maelstrom of killing lasts almost ten minutes. Based on a hugely popular novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, for example by Daiei with Ichikawa Raizo and by Toei with Kataoka Chiezo. Okamoto Kihachi made the most modern and nihilistic version. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned - the earlier films were all trilogies) in fact fits very well to this essay in absurdist violence. Okamoto Kichachi was a specialist in action cinema and the intensity of his direction conveys with great clarity the theme of how Bushido values could be easily misused as a cover for individual psychopathy.  

9. Goyokin (1969) by Gosha Hideo (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya, Tanba Tetsuro and Asaoka Ruriko. Another film in which Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude to cover the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. The cash-strapped Sabae clan has its fief on the lonely and snowy Japan Sea coast, where the ships carrying the gold from the mines on Sado Island (the personal property of the Shogun - the film's title, Goyokin, literally means "Official Gold") pass regularly by. Three years earlier, the clan leaders have sank one of these ships to steal the gold and repair their own finances - and they have murdered the local fishermen who were used to retrieve the loot. Nakadai Tatsuya plays a guilt-ridden samurai who was unable to stop the massacre at that time. Now, the cynical clan government is again planning to sink a ship and steal the Shogunate's gold - and of course, again, kill the villagers they force into helping them. Magobei (Nakadai) wants to stop this at all cost and faces off with the clan's evil chamberlain (Tanba Tetsuro), who wants to use a fake bonfire (which functions as a modern lighthouse) to lure the ship to the jagged rocks and its destruction. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with the bonfire, around which the eerily masked villagers dance to the tune of huge Taiko drums. A lush and finely crafted film, with striking visuals.



10. Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) by Yamada Yoji, with Sanada Hiroyuki and Miyazawa Rie. Beautiful film about the passing of the samurai age. Sanada Hiroyuki plays the poor samurai Seibei who works as clerk for a small han in northern Japan; Miyazawa Rie shines as his love interest Tomoe. Iguchi Seibei is nicknamed Twilight (Tasogare) because he always has to go home at dusk, after work, and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues - like a modern salaryman. This is because of family circumstances: his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an aging, almost senile mother. He would like to marry Tomoe, the sister of a friend, but  feels he cannot take a new wife because of his poverty. He is heavily in debt, and dresses shabbily - he tends his vegetable garden to earn some extra cash. This film shows the everyday reality of the lives of many samurai in the poorer parts of Japan, who were part-time farmers. Another point the film makes is that samurai were not the fighting machines the movies have turned them into: they were rather boring government officials, high and low, and worked in the bureaucracy of the clan, or the national one of the Tokugawa in Edo. But in Twilight Samurai, the clan tries to uphold feudalism even when its time is past, which spells tragedy for unheroic but brave and upright Seibei. He is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is blackmailed by the clan leaders into a last stand for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight - he would rather tend his garden and care for his family. The fight in the house is claustrophobic and very anti-heroic - you can physically feel the tiredness and the despair. This film is the best of the three well-crafted and inspired samurai movies veteran helmer Yamada Yoji (of Tora-san fame) has made late in his career. The other two are The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006). Like Tasogare Seibei, these films also focus on ordinary people and Yamada Yoji deftly deflates the cinematic myth of the samurai. In Twilight Samurai (which symbolically is also the twilight of the samurai as a caste) he has shown us the reality of the "last samurai" - a far cry from the false and mawkish myth-making of Edward Zwick's inflated Hollywood product.

There are many more great samurai movies, but I will keep that for another post sometime in the future!

July 4, 2014

The Kamo River, the heart of Kyoto

The Kamo River (Kamogawa) is the beating heart of Kyoto. Modern Japanese cities often turn their back on the rivers flowing through them, but not so Kyoto. With is wide green banks the river forms an integral part of the city. There are pleasant pathways on the riverbanks, restaurants are open towards the water and near Shijo Bridge is a stone embankment where couples sit at evenly spaced distances. 

The Kamo River originates in the mountains northwest of Kyoto. It then passes through rural and secluded Kumogahata, entering the city proper at Kamigamo. Near the Shimogamo Shrine it is joined by the Takano River. After flowing in a straight line through the center of Kyoto, it turns west to combine with the Katsura River near Fushimi, after which both rivers flow out into the Yodo, which in its turn pours its waters into the Bay of Osaka.

Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Confluence of the Kamo and Takano Rovers near the Shimogamo Shrine]

The Kamo River is 23 kilometers long and – as most Japanese rivers – rather shallow. Its average depth is one meter, in winter the river even turns into a collection of patches of brown grasses through which small trickles of water flow. But in spring and early summer, especially in the rainy season, the Kamo River transforms itself into a real river again. When looking at the seething spring waters, it is not difficult to imagine that in the past the Kamo River was feared for its floods. Famous is the dictum of Retired Emperor Shirakawa (11th c.) that only three things refused to obey his will: “The waters of the Kamo River, the fall of the backgammon dice and the priests of Enryakuji Temple.”

The name Kamo goes back to the clan that dominated the area around the river before Kyoto became the capital in the late 8th century. Their name also lives on in the two great Shinto shrines that stand near the river: the Shimogamo Shrine (Lower Kamo) and the Kamigamo Shrine (Upper Kamo), both originally tutelary shrines of the Kamo family. The deities enshrined in Shimogamo are Kamo Taketsunemi and his daughter Princess Tamayori. This princess once was sitting at the boards of the Kamo River (in fact in the past rivers were used as toilets), when a fiery red arrow came drifting towards her on the waves and touched her between the legs. From the resulting pregnancy Kamo Wake-ikazuchi was born, a god who was subsequently enshrined in the Kamigamo Shrine further upstream.

Before being adopted as ancestors by the Kamo clan and “humanised” with stories as the above, these deities clearly were natural forces. The Shimogamo Shrine stands downstream, where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together, so Kamo Taketsunemi must have been a sort of river god to whom prayers were said to guard against floods. The Kamigamo Shrine stands farther north, at the foot of Koyama Hill, where the deity first descended to an iwakura, a rock formation at the top. As his name reveals, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi was probably a thunder god to whom supplications for rain and abundant harvests were addressed.


Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Mitarashi Ablution Pond in the Shimogamo Shrine]

The Kamo River has clear and pure waters and was frequently used for Shinto ablution ceremonies (misogi). Sacred bathing was a summer custom at both Kamo Shrines and is still ritually enacted at the Shimogamo Shrine in the form of the Mitarashi Festival in summer. The Shimogamo Shrine and its Tadasu Forest stand on the wedge where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together and the river is at its most beautiful here, providing open vistas towards the north. In spring, the Kamo River is shaded by pink cherry blossoms, in summer it is alive with sweetfish. In this season, wagtails and herons also make their appearance.

Already in the Edo period the Tadasu forest was a favorite spot for taking in some cool air on summer evenings. Today you see children playing with fireworks in the Kamogawa Park. In late autumn and winter, blackheaded gulls from Siberia fly in via Lake Biwa - sometimes dancing around in large groups as if it were snowing gulls. The Kamo River also used to be famous for its plovers - they form the symbol of the Pontocho geisha quarters.

Geisha lantern
[Plover lantern in the Pontocho geisha district]

The sub-shrine Kawai Jinja, standing at the tip of the wedge, is associated with the medieval writer Kamo no Chomei. In the Hojoki, one of the most famous pieces of Japanese classical literature, he writes about the flow of the river that never stops and the waters that never are the same. “The foam that floats in its pools, now vanishing, now re-forming, never lasts long: so it is with human beings and their dwelling places here on earth.” Standing at the Kamo River it is clear where Chomei’s inspiration came from!

The clearness of the Kamo River is most evident at its upper reaches, in Kumogahata. Here in unspoiled nature stands Shimyoin Temple, an ancient cult site of ascetic mountain Buddhism. The temple is dedicated to the esoteric deity Fudo and probably already goes back to the 10th century, but repeated fires have left no interesting historical buildings. Nature itself is the temple here: quaint rocks and huge boulders stand under a dense canopy of trees; flat stones invite to the practice of zazen; and you can easily imagine priests standing under the many waterfalls or meditating in dark grottoes. This is sacred ground and not surprisingly the temple maintains strict rules for visitors.

Yuka on the Kamo riverbank
[Noryo-toko built over the Takase Canal, next to the Kamo River]

Less sacred were other uses of the river in downtown Kyoto. When in the late 16th c. Kyoto was rebuilt by Hideyoshi, Teramachi became the eastern perimeter of the new capital. Next to that lay the broad area given to the Kamo River and its wide banks. Here on the dry riverbed, the “kawara” - a name you find back in Kawaramachi (the town built on the "kawara" in later times) – entertainers, prostitutes and outcasts lived and plied their various trades. The river banks were a kind of no man's land where the authorities turned a blind eye to goings-on. Here Kabuki was born from the theatricals of the dancer Okuni; here, also, many tea houses were set up, initially on boats, where men could be entertained by geisha, a true “water trade.”

Not surprisingly, with the exception of Kamishichiken near the Kitano Shrine, all “flower towns” of Kyoto originate in the Kamo River: both Gion towns started on the east embankment, where people thronged to what is now the Yasaka Shrine, while Pontocho grew on a narrow dyke on the east bank. Miyagawacho was again set up on the west bank just north of the Gojo Bridge, where countless pilgrims passed on their way to the Kiyomizu temple.

The Gojo Bridge is also the place where according to legend the superhumanly strong warrior monk Benkei posted himself to divest passersby of their swords. He had already collected 999 swords, but number 1,000 became his undoing – he lost the fencing match with the young hero Yoshitsune. In the style of the fat little boys popular in Kyoto’s Palace Dolls (Gosho Ningyo), their statues stand on Gojo Bridge, fencing above the waters of the Kamo.

Other bridges also have their statues: Shijo Bridge is adorned with an effigy of Okuni, the charming kabuki dancer, and near Sanjo Bridge, the end of the Tokaido highway, you will find Yaji and Kita, the heroes from a hilarious 19th c. novel about two good-for-nothings who traveled from Edo to Kyoto while only interested in food, sake and women.

Bridge over the Kamo River
[Giboshi on Sanjo Bridge]

With its metal giboshi (the onion-shaped flares on its handrails) the Sanjo Bridge is the most beautiful of the 48 bridges spanning the Kamo River. It was probably first built by Hideyoshi around 1590, although the present version dates from the mid 20th century. On a more somber note, the riverbank was also the place where public executions were held and the cut-off heads of criminals were exhibited to edify the public. One of the most famous executions was that of Japan's 16th century Robin Hood, Ishikawa Goemon, who according to a not wholly reliable tradition was boiled alive in an iron cauldron on the riverbank at Sanjo. Since then, iron bath tubs have been cynically called “Goemon tubs.”

Near Sanjo you can also see what solution was found for the fact that the Kamo River could not be navigated by boats. In the early 17th c. Suminokura Ryoi, one of Japan’s earliest entrepreneurs, had a canal dug that ran parallel to the Kamo River. Called the Takase River and extending for 10 kilometers from the Uji River to Nijo, this small canal was plied by flat-bottomed boats, hauling up firewood, coal and lumber. The lumber went to the timber merchants in Kiyamachi, a street running parallel with the canal, which between Shijodori and Sanjodori now has magically transformed itself into a pleasure town with countless hostess bars.

Nakaragi no Michi, Kyoto
[Nakaragi no Michi along the Kamo River bank]

Several parts of the Kamo embankment have been planted with cherry trees but the best cherry-blossom viewing spot is the path that runs along the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, between Kitayama-dori and Kitaoji-dori. Called Nakaragi no Michi, the sakura turn this path into a veritable blossom tunnel. Don’t forget to check out the blossoms inside the botanical gardens as well - the forest in the northern part still retains the impression of the woods that stood in the past along the Kamo River.

One of the most beautiful events held at the river is the Yuzen Nagashi, when bolts of colorful, dyed cloth are washed in the Kamo River between the Sanjo and Shijo Bridges. Until about 1965 this was regularly done to remove the paste resist mask of the cloth, as part of the normal industrial process. But as it is also very polluting, it is not allowed anymore and only revived as a florid spectacle during the first weekend of August.

This is also the time the restaurants along the river already have put up their Noryo-toko, platforms high above the river embankment where customers can sit outside and enjoy the cool breeze. There is no better way to spend an early summer evening in Kyoto than here, at the banks of the Kamo River!

Shimogamo Shrine (075-781-0010): 6:30-17:00. 10 min on foot from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan line; or bus 4 or 205 from Kyoto Station to Shimogamo Jinja-mae. Grounds free. The Mitarashi festival is held each year on a different date in July or August (Doyo no Ushi). The greatest festival, held together with the Kamigamo Shrine, is the courtly procession of the Aoi Matsuri on May 15. http://www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/ 
Kamigamo Shrine (075-781-0011): Grounds free. Bus 37 from Kitaoji bus station to Kamigamo Misonobashi bus stop. http://www.kamigamojinja.jp/ 
Shimyoin (075-406-2061): 7:00-16:30, 300 yen. Kumogahata "Mokumoku" Bus from Kitaoji St. Only two buses every day. See the (Japanese) schedule at http://kumogahata.net/mokumoku.pdf 
The Noryo-toko can be enjoyed from May 1 to September 30.

July 1, 2014

Best Free Sights in Tokyo

Tokyo, the most expensive city in the world? Yes, if you look at real estate prices, expat rents or the price of fruit in department stores (but who wants those overpriced melons? The Japanese themselves only use them as gifts in formal situations). But not at all, if you look at the entree fees of tourist destinations!

Surprisingly, Tokyo destinations are more often than not free or accessible for just a small price. Of course, I am not talking about the hotel bill, but in contrast to Kyoto and Nara with their increasingly pricey (read overpriced) temples, financially Tokyo is a breeze.

Here are the best free (and almost free) destinations in Tokyo: 

1. Start by looking at Tokyo from the air - and skip the Tokyo Skytree (which costs more than 2,000 yen), Roppongi Hills (1,500 yen) or the ancient Tokyo Tower (1,600). Come to the absolutely free observation platforms of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and at the same time, take the opportunity to see the interesting "Gotham City" architecture of top architect Tange Kenzo.

2. The 05:00 a.m. tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market has long been a top priority for those interested in Japanese cuisine and those tormented by jet-lagged sleeplessness alike. But note that because of the huge stream of visitors Tsukiji has sharpened the rules: only 120 visitors a day, and registration necessary at the office at the entrance to the market - and no free roaming. But Tsukiji remains a must-see place. Note that the market is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays. See here for the full visiting conditions.

3. Visit the Imperial Palace, the green heart of Tokyo. Of course, you come here not for the palace, but for the remnants of the shogun's castle that occupies the same spot. You can freely see the East Gardens, which do contain a beautiful traditional garden, impressive walls and turrets, and a small free museum, the Sannomaru Shozokan. Note that they are closed on Mondays and Fridays. See here fore more details about opening times. Also see my post about the lost glory of the shoguns.

4. The most popular free temple is of course Sensoji in Asakusa, but there are alternatives less jammed with visitors. What about making a trip to the Itabashi ward and the free Jorenji Temple, which boasts a beautiful big Buddha, Tokyo's answer to Kamakura? The nearby Akatsuka Botanical Garden is also free, as is the Itabashi Historical Museum. See my previous post for visiting details and how to get there.

5. If you like mingei (folk art), the Japan Folk Crafts Museum will set you back 1,100 yen, but the excellent collection of the Hachiro Yuasa Memorial Museum located in the pleasantly wooded campus of the International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka, is free. Dr Yuasa was the first President of the University and an avid collector of folk art from Japan and around the world, with a sharp eye. The museum also has a section with archaeological objects dating back to Jomon times, excavated from the campus. Note that the museum is closed on Sunday, Monday, Saturday and Public Holidays, as well as in the months of March, July and August. See here for visiting information.

6. Again a must for foodies: visit a "depachika," a department store basement dedicated to food in all its possible variations, Japanese and Western, from lunch boxes to single ingredients, from Japanese tea to sake, from cakes to wagashi, fish, meat and fruit, and this all presented in the most unbelievably beautiful way. If it makes your mouth water, note that sometimes free samples are given away. The best depachika is that of Isetan in Shinjuku, but the Daimaru next to Tokyo Station is also great.

7. Finally, a destination that is not free, but the best value for money in Tokyo: the huge standing exhibits of the Tokyo National Museum. For only 620 yen, you can easily spend a whole day in the four buildings that stand in its grounds, not only for the collection of traditional Japanese art, but also the Asian collection, the archaeological collection and the Horyuji treasures. Bring a bento or sandwiches to eat in the garden or the lounge of the Heiseikan (you can't go out and return).

June 30, 2014

Nagai Kafu: A Strange Tale from East of the River (Bokuto Kidan, 1937)

Nagai Kafu is the greatest flâneur among all Japanese authors - he explored on foot all downtown neighborhoods of Tokyo, something which not only found its reflection in essayistic works like Hiyori Geta ('Fair-weather Geta,' 1915), but also in the stories he wrote. Never has the geography of Tokyo been described in such detail, be it the boards of the River Sumida in 1910 in the eponymous story, or the district east of the Sumida in the late 1930s in A Strange Tale from East of the River.

(Nagai Kafu in 1927 - Photo Wikipedia)

Kafu's descriptions of Tokyo are so reliable that Edward Seidensticker used his writings as important sources for his two books about the modern history of the metropolis: High City, Low City and Tokyo Rising.

This is what I love in Kafu's work - life in Tokyo is evoked so lively and naturally, that for a while we as readers also become 'Tokyoites.'

But Kafu is not only a great wanderer or evoker of atmosphere, he is in the first place a great writer. In this respect, Kafu has often been misunderstood - even by his translator, Edward Seidensticker, who deprecatingly called him a 'scribbler,' blinded by a restricted and too traditional view of what a novel should be. In fact, Kafu was one of the best Japanese authors of the 20th century, also someone who was fully aware of major trends in Western literature, which he read in the original French or English.

The literary interest of  A Strange Tale from East of the River - in my view his best work - lies in the original mode of narration -  the setting is that of an author who is writing a novel for which he is collecting materials. Like Kafu, he enjoys wandering through Tokyo, and that is why he visits the Tamanoi, a raw, low-life prostitution area east of the river Sumida. Kafu gives parts of the novel the narrator of his story is writing, interspersed with the adventure of the narrator, and several general observations, poems, etc. (The haiku in the story are a reminder that Kafu was also a good haiku poet!). This is true metafiction. As William Tyler says in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan (1913-1938), Kafu fuses elements of classical lyricism, the 'novel within the novel' of Edo-prose, and the modernistic 'novel as commentary on the novel.'

A Strange Tale from East of the River is not only a well-crafted novella, it also has an unforgettable atmosphere: the long walk of the narrator through Asakusa where he visits a second-hand bookshop, the interrogation at a police post (these were the years leading into the war, and the authorities were not easy on the population), the view of Tamanoi with its dilapidated houses seen from the railway dyke, then the sudden rain and the meeting with the prostitute Oyuki who deftly entices him to her room by borrowing his umbrella.

That summer, he keeps visiting her mosquito infested room in the evening for long talks (and something else, which he whispers into her ear without revealing it to the reader), never disclosing his true identity as a writer - and she also keeps silent about her background and past. She appeals to the narrator because she wears a kimono and old-fashioned hairdo, reminding him of a woman of the Meiji-period. But when autumn starts, he decides it has been enough and stops his visits.

The summer evenings spent with Oyuki have become an unforgettable experience for the narrator, and Oyuki has unwittingly served as his muse.

The Tamanoi, which has now of course disappeared (the area today is called Higashi-Mukojima), was a rather rough red-light district, mostly visited by laborers - the unlicensed prostitutes rented small rooms and sat at the window and called out to the men passing by through the narrow alleys. Passersby were lured into the alleys by signs claiming this was a 'shortcut.' The details in the novella are all historically and geographically accurate.

The Tamanoi was decidedly unglamorous, as is Higashi-Mukojima today. The oldest trade in the world has left, and now the area consists of small shops, small houses and huge concrete apartments. It is a bit boring and looks the same as other areas east of the river. Even the somewhat notorious name 'Tamanoi' has been erased: the Tobu line station of that designation has been renamed 'Higashi-Mukojima.' Only where small private homes still remain can the visitor get a whiff of the atmosphere of old Tokyo thanks to the many potted plants in front of the houses. And of course we have the small Shirahige Shrine, mentioned in the story, and Mukojima Hyakkaen, the Garden of a Hundred Flowers, a garden dating from the Edo-period... and that all in the shadow of the futuristic Tokyo Skytree.

Original: Available online as etext from Aozora Bunko; or from Iwanami Bunko.
Translation: Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu 1879-1959, by Edward Seisensticker (Stanford U.P., 1965). Reprint of the story by Tuttle Books. Both seem to be out of print now, which is a shame - high time to reprint these great stories!

May 1, 2014

Gansenji and the stone Buddhas of the Tono Hills

Around Nara, there are several areas of gentle, green hills where priests of large temples as Todaiji and Kofukuji who wanted quiet for meditation could retire to. Muro is one such area, the district between the Kasuga Shrine and Yagyu another. But the largest one lies just over the present-day prefectural border inside Kyoto and is called "Minami-Yamashiro." It includes the Kasagi mountains and the gentle Tono area. Surrounded by streams and lush verdure, this region was the sacred hinterland of Nara. As a result, Minami-Yamashiro is dotted with early temples founded in the Nara (710-794) to the Heian (794-1185) periods. Deeply embedded in the rocks one also finds many reliefs of stone Buddhas, a testimonial to the religious austerities that took place in these silent hills.

[Gansenji, main hall and pond]

Tono is a quiet village surrounded by low hills, near the border of Kyoto and Nara prefectures. Joruriji with its Nine Amida hall is the most famous ancient temple here, but the one most clearly connected with the stone carvings is Gansenji, a beautiful small temple set in a narrow valley where in all seasons flowers bloom. As an added bonus, the temple has a great Amida statue.

Gansenji was purportedly founded in the Nara period, but little is certain about its early history - the temple's engi, the history of its origin written by the temple itself, is as usual rather unreliable, trying to plug the temple into the history of the nation by linking it with the imperial house and several famous priests. But there is no proof for this. The earliest reliable date is the inscription on Gansenji's main statue, a seated Amida Buddha, which is dated Tengyo 9 or 946.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Pagoda of Gansenji among the fresh green leaves of early spring]

That statue is 284.5 cm high, made from one piece of keyaki wood (Japanese zelkova), lacquered and gilded. It is an important cultural asset that conveys the prosperity of the Heian-period. It is also an early instance of the Amida cult, which would a century later find an even more perfect expression in the Byodoin temple in Uji.

The temple also has a set of Shitenno (Four Deva Kings), protectors of the altar, dating from the Kamakura period and a Heian-period Fugen Bosatsu in a beautiful cabinet. The stone reliefs one finds in the vicinity of Gansenji date all from the Kamakura-period, giving an idea of the period during which the temple flourished. The present temple buildings are more recent - the pagoda dates, for example, from 1442.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Fudo Myoo carving on a rock]

It is said that a carved rock at the entrance to the temple, which looks like a boat or a bath tub (or a coffin, if you want) is the origin of the temple name: Gansenji, Rock Boat Temple. But in Japanese mythology, gods are believed to come down from heaven in "rock boats" and these are usually just big rocks - and many such huge rocks can be found in the vicinity of the temple (big rocks were also believed to be places where gods dwelt in), so that seems a better explanation for the temple name.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Amida Triad, "the smiling Buddha"]

Most of the stone reliefs lie along the path that runs from Gansenji to Joruriji, a walk of just 40 minutes. This path is called Sekibutsu no Michi, or "Path of the Stone Buddhas." The first part of the path goes steeply down a sandy hill, but there is a handrail. Later the path passes over a ridge before descending to some rice paddies. The last part is over an ordinary road. 

Besides a humorous Fudo Myoo (difficult to see as the relief has been damaged by the dampness here), we find several Amida statues or Amida Triads, as well as the omni-present Jizo.

Gansenji & Path of Stone Buddhas, Tono, Minami-Yamashiro
[Amida]






April 17, 2014

Haiku on Nara by Shiki: "Persimmon and Temple Bell"

In previous posts I have introduced five haiku written by Basho during his visits to Nara. The ancient capital was also favorite with other poets and here is an example of a haiku by Shiki, written during a visits to the venerable Horyuji Temple.

[Bell Tower of Horyuji]

as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts booming
Horyuji

kaki kueba | kane ga narunari | Horyuji

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) wrote this haiku in the autumn of 1895 and gave it the title 'Stopping at a Teashop at Horyuji Temple.' It is deservedly one of his most famous poems. Horyuji, of course, is one of Japan's oldest and grandest temples, a great treasury of 7th c. art. It possesses the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

Shiki's treatment of this solemn establishment is almost jocular and certainly very modern. Buddhism is ultimately concerned with causes and results, actions and their resulting karma. The ideal Buddhist situation is not to have any conscious actions and stop the Wheel of Karma that leads to countless rebirths and thus suffering. What then is the link between setting one's teeth in a persimmon and the resulting boom of Horyuji's temple bell?
The haiku stone stands at the edge of the pond in front of the Shoryoin Hall of Horyuji.From Kintetsu or JR Nara station 50-min by bus to Horyuji bus stop. Or a 15-min walk from JR Horyuji Station (which is 11 min by train from JR Nara Station).

April 6, 2014

Cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto, 2014 (Incline and Okazaki Park)

One of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto is the Incline near Keage (on the Tozai subway line), the pass through the Higashiyama hills connecting Kyoto with Yamashina, near the Westin Miyako Hotel and Nanzenji temple.

The Lake Biwa Canal - which brings water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto and in the Meiji-period was also used for shipping - comes here out of the tunnel bored in the hills and then has to cope with a sharp drop of 36 meters. The water passes through large pipes and the natural force with which it drops down was used in Meiji times to drive the first hydro-electric plant in Japan.

Sakura on the Incline, Kyoto
[The Incline with the rails over which the boats navigating the Lake Biwa Canal were transported on railway carts]

The flat-bottomed boats which carried goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa were put on railway carts on the slope and pulled up and down between the points where the canal ended and started again.

Sakura on the Incline, Kyoto

The slope over which the rail carts were pulled was called "the Incline." Together with the Lake Biwa Canal Museum, the hydro-electric plant and the slope with its rails, carts and even models of the boats it has now become an industrial museum. Please see my more detailed post about the Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum.

Sakura in Okazaki Park, Kyoto
[The Lake Biwa Canal at Okazaki]

The incline has been planted with cherry trees, like nearby Okazaki Park, where the canal starts again, running along the Kyoto zoo and the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. On top of the Incline is a small park with a statue of the young engineer who designed the canal and power plant, Tanabe Sakuro. The Incline seems to be less crowded than other blossom spots and the cherry trees, against the green background of the Nanzenji grounds, are beautiful.

Sakura and the torii of Heian Jingu, Kyoto
[The torii of the Heian Shrine in Okazaki]


March 30, 2014

Shodenji and its Garden, Kyoto

Shodenji is a small Zen temple, in a corner of northern Kyoto that has been blissfully forgotten by tourists. It is known for its dry garden with plantings of azalea bushes, from which in the distance the top of Mt Hiei is visible (like that other northern Kyoto garden, Entsuji). The garden was restored by famous garden architect Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975), the first restoration of an old temple garden he would undertake that in fact was almost a new creation.

Shodenji, Kyoto
[Shodenji]

Shodenji's garden originally dates from the 17th century. The temple today stands at the end of a residential district with still some fields and greenhouses left between the "my-homes," on a densely wooded hillside. The path to the temple, a long series of steps under high trees, seems to lead to another world, and indeed, as the temple sits on a flattened shelf, only the tops of trees and a distant mountain range are visible. Nothing discordant intrudes into this vision, and the only dissonant is aural: a machine gathering balls on a nearby golf course.

Shodenji's garden lies east of the Hojo (Superior's Quarters). On two sides it is enclosed by a tile-capped white clay wall; on the third side is a densely planted border. Original for this garden is the fact that groupings of stones usual in Zen gardens have been replaced by groupings of clipped azalea bushes. These azaleas are arranged in kare-sansui style: in groups of 7-5-3 (shichi-go-san), just as the rocks in Zen gardens. This grouping was considered as auspicious, and is - as usual - compared to "a lion family crossing a river."


Shodenji, Kyoto
[Garden of Shodenji - groupings of three and five azalea bushes]

The groupings increase in size from left to right, leading the eye to the right where there is a gate in the wall. The dark trees provide a nice contrast to the white walls, the white gravel and the plantings which in late April - early May color bright red. 

The upper outline of Mt Hiei is clearly visible above the wall and has been incorporated into the composition of this pristine, little garden. 

[The planting of seven azalea bushes and the gate in the garden of Shodenji]

The Rinzai Zen temple Shodenji was founded in 1268 by Togan Ean at Imadegawa, to "transmit the correct teaching" ("shoden") of the Chinese Song-dynasty Zen priest Gottan Funei. It was moved to the present location in 1282, on land donated by the head priest of the Kamigamo Shrine.

The area in which Shodenji is located is called Nishigamo and is a 20-30 min walk from either the Kamigamo Shrine to the east, or the Takagamine area to the west (with interesting temples as Koetsuji, Joshoji and Genkoan).
The bus stop nearest to Shodenji is Jinkoin-mae, one stop before the end of either line 9 or 37 to Nishigamo Shako. 
9:00-17:00. 400 yen. 

March 24, 2014

Basho's Haiku on Nara (5): "With young leaves"

On one of his visits to Nara, Basho also came to Toshodaiji where he saw the dry-lacquer portrait statue made of the temple's founder, the Chinese monk Ganjin. Ganjin had reached Japan only after many tribulations and gone blind because of his hardships. Still, he was determined to make the dangerous sea voyage to bring the correct Buddhist precepts and rules for monastic life to Japan. After working in Todaiji, at the end of his life he retired to Toshodaiji, his private temple and a school for training monks in the Vinaya.

The statue shows him seated in deep meditation, peaceful but also powerful. Thanks to the soft dry-lacquer used, and the natural paint that has still not faded, it makes a very realistic impression. It was reputedly made a few days before his death, after his chief disciple had had the ominous dream of seeing the roof of the temple collapse. Ganjin died on the 6th day of the 5th lunar month 763, aged 76. He passed away calmly and quietly, seated upright and facing west.

[Grave of Ganjin in Toshodaiji]

with young leaves
the dew from your eyes
I want to wipe

wakaba shite | onme no shizuku | muguwabaya

The slightly swollen eyes of the statue seem to hint at Ganjin's blindness. The closed eyes, with the eyelashes painted on, attract the viewer's attention to the face. It is a moving statue that manages to capture the essence of Ganjin. Basho must have harbored the same sentiment. The tears ('dew') are rather Basho's own tears, on meeting the blind monk, who almost lost his life when bringing the Buddhist Precepts to Japan.

Wiping the eyes with green leaves is also a compassionate gesture towards the monk who can not see the green, young leaves of the new spring. In this way, he can feel their soft new life and smell their freshness... Indeed, the Ganjin statue almost seems alive. Facing him, one can not help but being filled with great respect and affection.

The haiku stone stands in front of the former Kaisando of Toshodaiji (just north of the Raido).
15-min walk from Nishi-no-Kyo or Amagatsuji Stations on the Kintetsu Line; 15-min walk from Yakushiji.

March 21, 2014

Basho's Haiku on Nara (4): "Pine Tree of Taimadera"

Basho loved Chinese literature and one of his favorite books was the Zhuangzi, the Taoist anthology from the 3rd c. BCE. There is a Zhuangzi story about a pine tree large enough to cover 1,000 head of cattle. This tree had in fact lived so long that it served no practical purpose anymore. About the present pine tree, reputedly also 1,000 years old, Basho remarks in the foreword to the haiku that it is very fortunate the tree has escaped the penalty of being cut down with an ax. This is of course thanks to the Buddha's protection - that is what he refers to with 'Law,' which is the Teaching of the Buddha.

The tree, by the way, seems to have fallen victim to the axe after Basho's visit, because the present insignificant weed certainly does not have a trunk 'to hold a bull.' The haiku was meant as a complimentary greeting to the great temple, where this tree could live so long, while many generations of priests had passed away, their lives as brief as the morning glory. The long-lived tree symbolizes Taimadera, a temple that has kept the Light of the Law burning through the ages.


 [Pine Tree of Taimadera]

priests, morning-glories,
how many have died,
while this pine lasts as long as the Law

so asagao | iku shinikaeru | nori no matsu

The haiku stone stands in the front garden of the Nakanobo subtemple in the Taimadera complex; the pine tree can be found outside the gate of this Nakanobo.
10-min. walk from Taimadera Station on the Kintetsu Line.
The Chuang Tzu has been translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1996).