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

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).

March 16, 2014

Basho's haiku on Nara (3): "Deer crying"

Nara's deer are considered the messengers of the main deity of the Kasuga Shrine, Takemigatsuchi, who came riding a deer all the way from Kashima in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture to Nara. At the same time, they remind of the Deer Park in Benares, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. They therefore have both a Shinto and Buddhist meaning and admirably fit the religious multiplex of Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha shrine which originally stood here. There are about 1,000 of them and they have always been a protected species. In the past, people who killed one of these animals received the death sentence by being buried alive; now offenders are punished in a somewhat lighter manner. It seems, unfortunately, that this protection has rather spoiled the deer, who have lost their natural meekness and have become positively aggressive. They have been observed to snatch and consume handbags of unsuspecting visitors.

[Deer in Nara Park near Kofukuji]

At night the deer are gathered in an enclosure lying to the side of the path leading to the Kasuga Shrine. A trumpet signal calls them together. To prevent them from getting into fights in rut time, their antlers are cut every year from the middle of October to early November. This is done in a special ceremony on Sundays and holidays in that period and attracts many spectators.

On the 8th day of the 9th month in 1694 (so just before his visit to Shonenji) Basho, accompanied by three disciples, took an evening walk near Sarusawa pond and heard the melancholy call of the deer in the distance. Autumn is rut time, when the deer let their cry resound through the forest. These cries in fact vary from a short presence cry, to a long and sad languishing cry (as in the haiku), a defiance cry on a high note, a pursuit cry (when the buck runs behind the doe) and triumph cry. To hear the languishing, melancholy cry in the forest, while around you the shadows are falling, can impart a feeling of deep loneliness, especially when you are a traveler.

languishing cry
sadly drawn out
deer at night

bii to naku | shirigoe kanashi | yoru no shika

[Deer in the Kasuga Shrine]

Nara's deer inspired Basho also to other haiku, for example when he came across a baby deer born on the very day the Buddha's Birthday was celebrated (April 8 in the modern calendar, the Kanbutsu Festival, also called Flower Festival):
happening to be born
on Buddha's birthday
a baby deer!

kanbutsu no | hi ni umare-au | ka no ko kana

The haiku stone stands in front of the deer enclosure to the right side of the path leading to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. This is where the deer are gathered at night and where the ceremony of cutting the antlers takes place.30-min. walk from Kintetsu Nara Station. Or bus from JR or Kintetsu Nara Stations to Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop. The place where the haiku stone stands is always freely accessible. 

March 13, 2014

Basho's Haiku on Nara (2): "Water Drawing"

Omizutori, 'water-drawing,' is a central rite of the Shunie (literally, 'rite observed in February') held at the Nigatsudo Hall of Todaiji Temple in Nara. The entire shunie lasts from March 1 to 14 (that is, in the modern calendar), during which period every evening an otaimatsu ceremony is held on the balcony of Nigatsudo: the waving of huge blazing torches from the hall's veranda, in fact whole trees set afire, sprinkling sparks over the crowd below (from 19:30, the biggest event is on March 12). The water drawing proper takes place in the night from March 12 to March 13 between around 01:30 and 02:30, when the priests draw water by torchlight from a well at the base of the hall. It is believed that water with special restorative powers is only available at that particular time. The water is offered to the image of the Eleven-Headed Kannon, the central Bodhisattva of the Nigatsudo Hall, who is a 'secret' statue. The rite symbolizes the arrival of spring and was first held in 752.

[Nigatsudo Hall of Todaiji, location of the Omizutori rite]

Otaimatsu is a most impressive ceremony and the monks who wave the torches come running down the verandah of the Nigatsudo on their wooden clogs, giving off a particular staccato rattle. This sound struck Basho and he aptly combines it with the icy cold which in March is still in the air in Nara, especially after dark.

Water Drawing!
the clogs of the monks
make an icy sound

mizutori ya | kori no so no | kutsu no oto


[Stone monuments at Nigatsudo, Todaiji]

When Basho visited Todaiji, the temple was still under repair after the destruction wrought by the civil wars of the sixteenth century. The Great Buddha statue was only finally completed in 1692, after the visit by Basho described above, and the statue sat for years in the open like the Great Buddha in Kamakura. The new Buddha Hall (which is the present one) was finally finished in 1708, but Basho did not live to see this. He grieved for the Buddha in its sad state, for at that time even the head had not been restored yet. Basho saw only the rump of the statue, slowly being covered by the first snow of the year, and he wrote:

first snow!
when will the temple building start
for the Great Buddha?

hatsu yuki ya | itsu Daibutsu no | hashira date

The haiku stone stands to the side of the steps leading up to the Nigatsudo Hall in Todaiji. No entrance fee.
30-min walk from Nara Kintetsu Station or JR Nara station.

March 10, 2014

Basho's haiku on Nara (1): "Scent of Ancient Buddhas"

Basho was born in 1644 in the castle town of Iga-Ueno, in the Kansai area, but at a young age settled in Edo. He made several trips back to western Japan and then also often visited the Nara area or Yamatoji as it is called in Japanese. In 1684 he visited Yoshino and the next year he observed the Water Drawing Ceremony in Todaiji and an outside Noh performance (Takigi-Noh) in Kofukuji. He also visited Horyuji. These visits have been described in Nogarashi Kiko, 'The Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton.' In 1686 he was again in the Kansai, and this time he wrote Oi no Kobumi, 'The Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel,' about his peregrinations, this time to Hase, Tonomine, Yoshino, Katsuragi, Nara, Ishinogami, Miwa, Yagi and Taima. Next he was back in 1689 for the famous Wakamiya Festival of the Kasuga Shrine. In 1691 he again saw the outside Noh performance at Kofukuji. In 1694, the year of his death, finally, he spent one night in Nara on the way to Osaka.

Here is the fist of several posts with haiku Basho wrote inspired by the temples and shrines of Nara: about the many Buddha statues in the ancient town, the crying deer of the Kasuga Shrine, the Water Drawing Ceremony in Todaiji and an old pine tree at Taimadera temple. Most moving of all is the haiku he wrote about the blind Ganjin, the founder of Toshodaiji.

We start with the "Scent of Ancient Buddhas."


[Ancient Buddha - Binzuru statue of Todaiji]

scent of chrysanthemums
in Nara
ancient Buddhas

kiku no ka ya | Nara ni wa furuki | hotoketachi

Shonenji is a tiny Jodo sect temple standing in the southwest corner of the block that forms the old Nara town. It is almost not part of that old town anymore, standing within hearing distance of a busy road and encircled by small, ugly apartments. The laundry of the inhabitants, hanging from their balconies, almost wholly covers the grounds of Shonenji. One would expect Buddhist banners and pennants here, but instead finds T-shirts and underwear fluttering in the wind.

The temple was founded by Chogen (1121-1206), the Todaiji priest who was responsible for the rebuilding of the temple after it had been destroyed in the Genpei War in 1180. It must therefore date from the 12th or early 13th c.; the only reminder of those days is a statue of Shandao (one of the founders of Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism) brought back from China by Chonen and now still in the temple. It is not normally on view.

In fact, one only comes to this temple to see the famous Basho haiku, inscribed on a stone in front of the small temple hall. Basho was in Nara on the ninth day of the ninth month, 1694, the day the Choyo no Sekku or Chrysanthemum Festival was celebrated. He wrote this haiku while taking a rest in Shonenji and one imagines that the temple grounds were filled with chrysanthemums rather than pants and shirts. The haiku stone is old: it was put up in 1793, to commemorate that already one century had passed since the demise of the haiku master. The haiku wonderfully catches the atmosphere of Japan's ancient capital.

{Shonenji's main hall and the haiku stone}
The haiku stone stands in front of the main hall of Shonenji temple. One can freely enter the grounds to see the haiku stone; the temple hall itself is closed.
20-min walk from Nara Kintetsu Station or JR Nara station.

February 21, 2014

The "Ero-Guro" mysteries of Edogawa Ranpo

Edogawa Ranpo (real name Hirai Taro, 1894-1965; Ranpo is also spelled as "Rampo") is Japan's greatest pre-war writer of crime stories. And, like Okamoto Kido - but in his own way -, he is very Japanese. Instead of writing the type of puzzle mysteries that were popular in England and America in the 1920s and 1930s (except in a handful of early stories), he choose to write in the genre of Ero-Guro-Nansensu or “Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense.” Called Ero-Guro for short, this was a Japanese cultural movement that emphasized eroticism and decadence. “Guro” refers to things that are malformed, unnatural or horrific. This interest in the deviant and bizarre came up in the 1920s, in a social atmosphere of nihilistic hedonism. But it has older roots in Japanese culture: it goes for example back to such 19th century ukiyo-e artists as Yoshitoshi, who depicted decapitations and other acts of violence, including bondage. There was also a similar streak of the macabre with sexual overtones in the Kabuki, as in the famous "horror" play Yotsuya Kaidan. And today we still find it in certain manga and anime, as well as some Japanese cult films.

[Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Eimei nijuhasshuku
(Twenty-eight famous murders; from Wikipedia)]

We also find the association of the macabre with the erotic in the Japanese literature of the period: Edogawa Ranpo was very much inspired by the novels and stories of Tanizaki Junichiro, who did write many of such erotically tinted, macabre stories in the first decades of the 20th century, starting with the famous The Tattooer from 1910. Interestingly, Tanizaki also tried his hand at quite a few crime stories. As in Ranpo, we often find neurotic confessions. Take for example the story "The Secret" ("Himitsu"), translated by Anthony Chambers in The Gourmet Club, about a man suffering from ennui who experiments with cross-dressing to savor the thrill of duplicity. So Edogawa Ranpo is rather a "Tanizaki for the masses." Tanizaki and Edogawa Ranpo knew each other personally and Tanizaki supported Ranpo as an artist.

Hirai Taro was born into the family of an ex-samurai in Mie Prefecture and, after studying economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, had a whole string of odd jobs before settling down as author. This was in 1923, after the success of his first detective story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” ("Nisen doka"), which was the first story written by a Japanese to focus on logical deduction (ratiocination). Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Ranpo, a conscious homage to Edgar Allan Poe (when you pronounce it quickly, it indeed resembles the English name; the meaning of the Japanese characters is tongue-in-cheek “A leisurely stroll along the River Edo”).  As the selection of his pen name already shows, Edogawa Ranpo felt closer to this author of the macabre than to the "scientific" Arthur Conan Doyle of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He wrote in fact only a handful of straight detective stories and soon Ero-Guro elements start to proliferate, before in the 1930s wholly taking over his fiction. His strongest works are those which contain a combination of both, such as Beast in the Shadows (Inju, see below). Wholly Ero-Guro novels are for example Blind Beast (Moju) and Black Lizard (Kurotogake), both from the 1930s, but there are many others.

Later, circumstances would force Ranpo to give up this type of fiction. When Japan entered upon its several mid-century wars, society frowned on Ero-Guro and even detective novels, so Ranpo switched to writing adventure stories for boys, which he continued to do for many decades. And after the war, although he did write some original creative work, Ranpo was in the first place active in the critical field, where he made a large contribution to establishing the mystery novel as an important literary genre. He also set up a new magazine, Hoseki (Jewel), which took over the function of Shin Seinen as the main magazine outlet for detective stories. But in the postwar years, the time of Ero-Guro was long past, so we find Edogawa Ranpo pleading for the puzzle detective, a subgenre he himself hardly practiced...

[Edogawa Ranpo; photo from Wikipedia]

Let's have a look at some of Ranpo's major works:

"The Two-Sen Copper Coin" ("Ni-sen Doka," 1923). This is Edogawa Ranpo's first detective story, published in the magazine Shin Seinen (New Youth), which thanks to Ranpo's contributions became the main venue for detective stories in the 1920s and 1930s. The magazine was meant for young adults, but seems also to have appealed to a somewhat more mature generation. In this first Ranpo story figures a code, as in Poe's "The Golden Bug." But Ranpo was only inspired by the idea of using a code and borrowed nothing else, his story is wholly original. So is the code Ranpo introduces, based on the Japanese braille combined with the Buddhist invocation "Namu Amida Butsu." This first detective story by Ranpo contains an instance of ingenious ratiocination, but interestingly, at the end Ranpo reveals that the narrator has played a trick on his roommate, the would-be detective, so that the rug is pulled from under the reader's feet who is left with a hoax. In other words, from the very start Ranpo seems not very interested in writing "straight" detective stories in the style of his American and English contemporaries (Van Dine, Christie, Queen and Carr)!
The story has been masterfully translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler.

"The Case of the Murder at D-Slope" ("D-zaka no satsujin jiken," 1925). The story in which Ranpo's serial detective, Akechi Kogoro, makes his first appearance, and for once a classical detective story. Interestingly, it is a very Japanese variant of the "locked room mystery." In the traditional Japanese house with its sliding doors and movable partitions, a locked room does not exist - there often are not even locks! But in a busy down-town neighborhood of Tokyo (in the story, the real district of Dangozaka in Sendagi is used), people are always watching each other - this "mutual surveillance" creates in fact a virtual locked room. The beautiful wife of a second-hand book seller is found strangled in the living room behind the shop, but as various neighborhood people have been watching both the front and the back of the shop, it is impossible that a stranger has slipped in, so we have the equivalent of a "locked room." Akechi Kogoro is not the Western-suited dandy he would become later, but rather a poor student in traditional Japanese garb. Even in this classical story Ranpo could not desist from one of his favorite Ero-Guro elements: the murdered woman has died in the heat of a sadomasochistic game...
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Psychological Test" ("Shinri Shiken,"1925). A student imitates Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in murdering an old woman and stealing her money. He thinks he has committed the perfect crime. It is not his sense of guilt which brings him to justice (as Dostoyevsky's protagonist), and neither is it the Western-style psychological test given him by Dr. Kasamori, which he passes rather too smoothly. No - it is Akechi Kogoro who catches this too great perfectionist in a psychological trap by asking the right questions - just like Judge Oka in the colorful days of the eighteenth century, concludes Edogawa Ranpo. What also reminds one of the Judge Oka stories is the fact that the identity of the criminal is already known to the reader - the emphasis is on the cleverness of the detective (see my post Hanshichi, Japan's first fictional detective).
This is one of the ten stories translated by James B. Harris together with the author and first published in 1956 as Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (still available as a reprint in Tuttle Books). The translator could not read Japanese but could speak and understand it; Edogawa Ranpo could read English but not speak it. Together they managed the translation, which was checked by Ranpo and can therefore be called an "authorized" version. Although not very literal, it manages to catch the atmosphere of the stories rather well.

"The Human Chair" ("Ningen Isu," 1925). One of Ranpo's most grotesquely erotic stories: a man hides in a Western armchair to enjoy the feeling of female bodies sitting on top of him. Yoshiko is a talented authoress who shuts herself up in her study to write every day after her husband has left for the Foreign Office. One morning, she receives a manuscript in which the "chair man" (who is a furniture maker) confesses his strange obsession, which finds its origin in his ugliness and the aversion women feel towards him. First he inhabits the hollow space inside an upholstered armchair he has made for the lobby of a Western-style hotel where he is "caressed" by many different female bottoms - mostly of foreign origin. Then the hotel closes and the chair is sold to a high-ranking official, who puts it in the study of his wife. The chair man develops a deep feeling of love for this purely Japanese woman, enjoying her featherlike gentleness of touch, while he lovingly cradles her on his knees - the reader can already see Yoshiko's shock coming, as she sits reading the manuscript in that very chair... but there is another twist at the end. This is not a detective story, but a pure Ero-Guro artifact in the mock confessional style of Tanizaki Junichiro.
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books). 

"The Red Chamber" ("Akai heya," 1925). A sort of "secret society" of Japanese men meets regularly in a Gothic room to share horror tales - a setting that reminded me of certain stories by Stevenson. Tonight, a new member, T., will share his first tale of horror. He tells how, out of chronic ennui, he began committing crimes only for the sake of finding excitement. At that time, incidentally, he discovered a way to murder without being caught: by causing fatal accidents of which random people become the victim - for example by having a blind masseur walk right into a construction pit, or calling out to an old woman who is crossing a busy street, so that she hesitates and is hit by a trolley. Of cause he takes care that he seems to have no responsibility for these deaths. His murder count stands at 99, he says - who will be the next victim? Of course there is an interesting twist at the end, even a double one.
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books).  

The Dwarf (Issun-boshi, 1926). A sprawling Ero-Guro novel, in which Akechi Kogoro faces off with a mysterious, evil dwarf. Michiko, a young upper class woman has disappeared. Her beautiful mother, Yurie, calls in Akechi but it seems already too late as the victim's limbs are appearing in various places all over Tokyo. The dwarf has been spotted in nightly Asasuka Park carrying a female arm around and he has also been on the scene in a department store where a mannequin showing the latest kimono fashion boasts an arm which is too real to be true. But the dwarf's repertory of evil is not yet exhausted: next we find him, wearing prostheses to hide his stunted limbs, blackmailing Yurie into a rendezvous... he has been in love with her for ten years, he confesses...
Together with Blind Beast, the present story served as the basis for Ishii Teruo's self-produced (and no-budget) DV-shot Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (Moju vs Issunboshi, 2004), featuring director Tsukamoto Shin'ya in the role of Akechi Kogoro.
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Stalker in the Attic" ("Yaneura no Sanposha," 1926). In this masterful tale Ranpo combines Ero-Guro and detection elements. It is set in a newly built boarding house, where Goda Saburo - a young man bored with life, who seeks thrills by cross-dressing and going out in disguise like the protagonist in Tanizaki's "The Secret" - discovers that via the large Japanese-style built-in cupboard in his room, he has access to the unused attic which runs above all the rooms of the boarding house. He finds a new voyeuristic thrill by spying through cracks in the floor on his fellow boarders as a Peeping Tom. Also just for a thrill, he decides to murder a fellow boarder, Endo, who has the habit of sleeping with wide open mouth below one such a hole in the wooden ceiling. The method Goda uses is very ingenious, but he is no match for detective Akechi Kogoro.
The various film versions made of this story strongly emphasize the Ero-Guro elements and even introduce new ones (such as the 1976 "pink eiga" version by Tanaka Nobuo) - in comparison Ranpo's story is even rather tame.
Translated by Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008).

Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Panorama-to Kidan, 1926). A short novel on the theme of the doppelganger and appropriated identity. Hitomi Hirosuke is a poor man who dreams of creating a utopia on earth. He sees his chance when a rich man, Komoda, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, dies - Hitomi fakes his own suicide and then takes over the life of Komoda, pretending to have been only apparently dead. There is one problem: Komoda's wife will undoubtedly notice the difference when he sleeps with her, so he tries to practice abstention, but that is not at all easy as Chiyoko is very beautiful... He throws himself, however, into his project of turning an uninhabited island that belongs to the Komoda family into his dreamed utopia, "Panorama Island." He fills the whole island with clever optical illusions and mechanically produced simulated realities. When the island utopia is finished, Hitomi takes "his" wife to visit the island together. In the meantime, his false identity has been guessed by her and he decides to kill her during the visit.
Together with Koto no Oni, this story formed the (loose) inspiration for Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo - see my review in Best Japanese Cult Movies.
Translated by Elaine Kazu Gerbert (University of Hawai'i Press, 2013). 

Beast in the Shadows (Inju, 1928). A novella that again combines classic detective elements with the erotic and grotesque. It also contains the doppelganger motif we so often find in Ranpo's fiction. The narrator is a detective novelist who is asked for help by an alluring young woman named Shizuko. She claims she is receiving threatening letters from a jilted lover who also is a detective novelist (a rival of the narrator) who apparently writes Ero-Guro mysteries under the pen name Oe Shundei. The letters contain many intimate details, as if Shundei is even peeping into her bedroom from above the ceiling (like "The Stalker in the Attic") and observing her relation with her husband, a rich businessman. However, the narrator is led to believe that Shizuko's husband is the culprit, and that he is impersonating Shundei who in fact does not exist. A riding crop the narrator spots in the couple's bedroom suggests a sadomasochistic relationship. In the meantime, the narrator and Shizuko slip into a secret romance. Then the husband is found murdered, his body drifting in the River Sumida which flows behind the house. Now the narrator starts thinking that perhaps Shizuko is the culprit - she may have used the story about Shundei as a ruse to be able to murder her husband. But when Shizuko commits suicide because of the accusations leveled at her, the narrator is shocked... was his suspicion of Shizuko premature? Does a man called Shundei exist or is he purely fictional? Where lies the truth? Although there is a lot of ratiocination in this story, it ultimately leads nowhere, as if Ranpo wants to say that in a world of doppelgangers and mirrors the truth is elusive.
This novella was filmed in 1977 by Kato tai as Edogawa Ranpo no Inju.
Translation by Ian Hughes included in The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (Kurodahan Press 2006). Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Caterpillar" ("Imomushi," 1929). The "caterpillar" is the symbol for Lieutenant Sunaga, a war veteran whose body has been terribly mutilated in battle: he has lost both legs and arms, and can neither hear nor speak. He has only his eyesight left. The lieutenant crawls through the room like a hideous insect, in nothing resembling the handsome man he once was. His wife, who has to nurse him, is filled with hatred for this ugly lump of flesh, but at the same time she is strangely attracted to it. She plays cruel games with her amputee husband, the stress and sexual frustration arouse her basest instincts, leading to further mutilation and ultimate disaster. This has been interpreted as an antiwar story, but in fact, the emphasis is wholly on the Ero-Guro elements. 
"The Caterpillar" is one of the four short films in the compilation Ranpo Jigoku (Rampo Noir) from 2005, an episode filmed by "splatter" and "pink movie" director Sato Hisayasu. The story also served as the basis for the film Caterpillar (Kyatapira), made by Wakamatsu Koji in 2010, in which the antiwar message has become central. 
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books); also translated by Michael Tangeman in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler.

The Demon of the Desert Isle (Koto no Oni, 1929-30). Called one of "the most deliberately, bizarrely outre of Ranpo's works" (Mark Silver), a hybrid between a murder mystery, adventure tale and science fiction. Before the main story gets underway, Hatsuyo, the girlfriend of the narrator (an ordinary accountant named Minoura) has been found murdered in a locked room; the mystery is solved by a detective - the culprit is a ten-year old child contortionist, who is himself murdered before the motive can be made clear. The main story is the quest for that motive, which brings Minoura with his friend Moroto (who pesters him with homosexual advances) to a desert isle presided over by Takegoro, a hunchback and a sort of Japanese Dr. Moreau, who wants to "rid Japan of healthy people and fill it with freaks." His project is to abduct children, stunt their growth in tight-fitting boxes, and surgically graft foreign body parts unto them, even animal fur. Among the children is an adolescent pair of opposite-sex Siamese twins who have been surgically attached at the hip - one a beautiful young woman, the other a foul-mouthed and unkempt boy. The young woman proves to be Hatsuyo's sister, and the motive for the original murder is a treasure belonging to her family, which lies buried deep in the catacombs under the island. Minoura manages to find it and finally marries Hatsuyo's sister (after she has been surgically detached from the boy), but his hair has literally become white because of all the dangers he has had to face...
Together with Panorama-to Kidan, this story formed the (loose) inspiration for Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo - see my review in Best Japanese Cult Movies.
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

The Blind Beast (Moju, 1931). Pure Ero-Guro: a deranged, blind sculptor captures a singer and imprisons her in a labyrinth of giant sculptured body parts, before killing and dismembering her and scattering her limbs, head and torso all over Tokyo. But far from being satisfied, the blind killer continues on his sexually-charged spree of amputation and decapitation, all with one purpose: an exhibition of human sculptures which are a bit too life-like for comfort...
This story was used as the inspiration for Moju: The Blind Beast, a great cult film made in 1969 by Masumura Yasuzo (see my review in Best Japanese Cult Films; also see my post on Masumura Yasuzo). 
Translated by Anthony Whyte (Shinbaku Books, 2009).

Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1934). Pure Ero-Guro camp. Akechi Kogoro competes in cleverness with the Queen of the Underworld, the Black Lizard, who has kidnapped the daughter of a jeweller to obtain a precious diamond. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked life-size dolls...
Made into a great cult film by Kinji Fukasaku in 1968 (see my review in Best Japanese Cult Films).
Translation by Ian Hughes included in The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (Kurodahan Press 2006).

The Fiend with Twenty Faces (Kaijin Nijumenso, 1936). Due to the wars waged by Japan in the second half of the 1930s, both classical and Ero-Guro mysteries were increasingly frowned upon by society, so Edogawa Ranpo moved to mystery and adventure stories for boys, starting with The Fiend with Twenty Faces in 1936. Akechi Kogoro figures as detective in the story and he is helped by a twelve year old boy called Kobayashi (as well as "the Boy Detectives Club") in his fight against an Arsene Lupin-like master-thief, called "The Fiend with the Twenty Faces." Ranpo wrote 34 installments in this long-running and very popular series (the last one dates from 1962), often recycling and infantilizing previous work. It at least has the merit that it made a whole generation of Japanese enthusiastic for the detective genre, which helped foster the postwar boom of the genre. The "Fiend with Twenty Faces" became a proverbial celebrity, and also Akechi Kogoro probably has at least part of his great fame to thank to this series of adolescent novels.
The 2008 film K-20: Legend of the Mask by Sato Shimako only borrows the characters of Akechi and Kobayashi, its plot is based on a novel by Kitamura So and has no direct relation with Edogawa Ranpo.
Translated by Dan Luffey for Kurodahan Press (2011). 


Edogawa Ranpo is still a popular writer in Japan, as attested to by the many films and TV dramas that are being based on his stories. In the authoritative Tozai Mystery Best 100 list, published by Bungei Shunju, he is present with several works, both in the list from 1985 and the updated version from 2012. "The Two-Sen Copper Coin," Strange Tale of Panorama Island, Beast in the Shadows and The Demon of the Desert Isle figure on both lists; "The Psychological Test" and "The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture" in addition on the 1985 list. 
Edogawa Ranpo's works are easily available in various versions; my preference goes to the Edogawa Ranpo Zenshu in 30 volumes published as large, brick-like paperbacks by Kobunsha. The literary publisher Iwanami Shoten has also recently discovered Ranpo in their short story collection Edogawa Ranpo Tanpenshu. 
Long neglected by academia, we now see a blossoming of theses on this author, including the detailed discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008). In Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler, Ranpo is discussed as an important example of the modernist trend in Japan. About Ero-Guro in general, see Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times by Miriam Silverberg (2006).

February 13, 2014

Hanshichi, Japan's first fictional detective

The first fictional detective of Japanese origin was not a copy of an imported thinking machine a la Holmes, but a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi. It seems right that Japan first delved into its own culture before wholeheartedly adapting the foreign detective story to its needs.

Hanshichi, the detective created by Okamoto Kido in 69 stories written between 1917 and 1937, also has the honor of being the first Japanese serial investigator – appearing seven years earlier than Edogawa Ranpo's Akechi Kogoro. The Hanshichi stories are intrinsically Japanese. Perhaps Okamoto was indebted to Conan Doyle (read avidly in the original English original by him) for the idea of writing detective stories in itself, but in fact the strongest model for Hanshichi are Edo-period crime stories as those about the wise judge Oka Echizen.

In the Edo-period (1600-1868), Japan knew the genre of crime stories but these were very different from the modern Western crime novel. Crime literature consisted of courtroom narratives such as Iharu Saikaku's Honcho Oin Hiji (Trials in the Shade of a Cherry Tree, 1689; based on the Chinese Tangyin Bishi) and the anonymous Oka Seidan (Oka's Rulings). These stories emphasized the authority of the state in the form of wise and infallible judges. The criminal would be known to the reader from the start and the suspense was wholly on the question how the judge would discover him. Forced confessions and torture were also part of the trial. Based on Chinese examples and thus strongly influenced by moralistic Confucianism, these stories also put a strong emphasis on the punishment of the victim, often described in gruesome detail. Punishment was important, because the balance of Heaven which had been upset by the crime, had to be restored.

Oka Tadasuke (1677-1752), also known as Oka Echizen no Kami, who was famous for his acumen and fairness, was not a judge in the Western sense (these did not exist in premodern Japan), but a magistrate. He was machibugyo or civil governor of Edo under the shogun Yoshimune in the early part of the 18th c. One of the most famous stories in the Oka Seidan is called "The Case of the Stolen Smell." An innkeeper accuses a poor student of stealing the smell of his cooking. As this was evidently a case of paranoia on the part of the innkeeper, everyone expected Oka to throw the case out as ridiculous. Instead, he came to the following judgment: he ordered the student to pass the money he had in one hand to his other hand, ruling that the price of the smell of food is the sound of money!

In the Meiji-period, the old Edo-tales were replaced by another wave of moralism: on the one hand sensational stories about criminal woman as poisoners (there was a surge of interest in this subject after a notorious case), on the other hand very free adaptations of 19th c. Western adventure and crime novels such as those by newspaper editor Kuroiwa Ruiko (1862-1920). Kuroiwa also wrote two original novels, but the intention remained a moralistic one, not so remote from the confessional narratives of criminals appearing in the other pages of his mass publications. So we have to wait until 1917 for the appearance of Japan's first real detective, Hanshichi.

Hanshichi was the creation of Okamoto Kido (1872-1939), the son of a former senior retainer of the Shogunate. Due to a decline in his family's fortunes, Okamoto could not attend university, but started working as a journalist and reviewer of stage works. The stage was his real love and he also wrote plays himself – his breakthrough came in 1911 with the play Shuzenji Monogatari, which is still occasionally staged. He also wrote modernized Kabuki plays (Shin-Kabuki). Okamoto considered his stage work as his main accomplishment, rather than the detective and other fiction he wrote.

Posterity has judged differently: Okamoto's fame now rests in the first place on his Hanshichi stories, which have never gone out of print and are still available in various editions, from pocketbooks to ebooks. Okamoto called his stories “torimonocho,” or “casebooks,” and this designation was adopted by several other authors of historical detective fiction.

Of course, detectives in the modern sense did not yet exist in the Edo-period. Hanshichi is an okappiki, a helper of the machibugyo who was hired in an unofficial capacity. It was the task of the okappiki to make arrests, but also do a certain amount of investigation to solve cases. In that sense the job was indeed somewhat comparable to that of a detective on the police force. Okamoto has wisely left out another aspect of the okappiki's job, that of torturing criminals to obtain a confession.

On the contrary, Hanshichi is not violent at all, but rather a wise man like Okamoto's historical model, Oka Echizen. He is also very Japanese. Culturally, Japan was not a country of logical reasoning, but rather of intuition (think Zen), and that difference is clear when you compare Hanshichi to Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes. Hanshichi does not use ratiocination, but rather his intuition plus his detailed knowledge of Edo, the city in which he lived. Besides that, he is also helped by simple good luck and coincidence.

Hanshichi is also not a law-enforcer in the Anglo-Saxon sense, where the law is abstractly upheld without regard for persons or circumstances. Hanshichi is a humane man and above all he is out to uphold the fabric of society. He may spare a criminal in order to preserve the reputation of a certain family, he avoids creating waves that would upset society.

The Hanshichi stories belong to the sub-category of the historical mystery, which only took off in the West after the boost by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in 1980, while in Japan it stood at the head of detective fiction. One could say that besides Hanshichi, the city of Edo itself is also an important "character" in these stories, with its samurai mansions and its brothels, its teahouses and its bathhouses, and its colorful superstitions. The stories are full of interesting characters and events and the pace is fast. The mystery elements are limited and there is no menace or danger. Instead, there is a lot of good humored fun.

The stories have been written according to a fixed template but Okamoto's inspiration never flags. He also deftly uses a double time frame: the stories themselves take place somewhere in the middle of the 19th century (50s and 60s), but they always start with an introduction placed in the Meiji-period (80s and 90s) in which the retired Hanshichi tells one of his experiences to the young Okamoto.

The feeling of nostalgia for a past irrevocably ended is strong, and Okamoto has been called reactionary for his looking back to Edo (for example by Mark Silver in Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature), but he does not idealize. Moreover, Edo nostalgia was popular at the time he started writing about Hanshichi – think for example of the stories of Nagai Kafu as The River Sumida (1911). The Hanshichi stories are made all the more interesting because of the encyclopedic knowledge of the Edo-period Okamoto Kido could bring to his project.

The original stories are available online at Aozora Bunko. They have also been published as Kindle editions and on paper as Bunkobon (Kobunsha and others). 
We are lucky to have a magnificent translation of the first fourteen stories by Ian MacDonald as The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo. Warmly recommended. (Avoid the slight adaptations made of four stories by Edgar Seidensticker as The Snake that Bowed - these are insipid and not worthy of the great translator).

February 6, 2014

Setsubun Rite (Tsuinashiki) in the Nagata Shrine in Kobe

Monday (February 3) was Setsubun (see my previous post about the Setsubun Festival), a festival that welcomes the start of spring and therefore a new beginning. This is done by purifying oneself and getting rid of all bad things - these "bad things" are symbolized as demons that are driven out. In this way, one can spend the year in good health. Temples and shrines all over Japan hold Setsubun ceremonies and rituals. Some of these are very superficial, such as those of Zojoji in Tokyo or the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe, where popstars, sports people and other cardboard figures throw handfuls of soy beans at the spectators. But there also exist interesting ceremonies with deep historical roots, such as those of the Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto, or the Nagata Shrine in Kobe.


The Nagata Shrine stands in the area of Kobe that was hit hardest by the 1995 earthquake. The town has been rebuilt by pouring tons of concrete, but the Nagata Shrine stands in a small wood and seems far away from the danchi (clusters of apartment buildings). The oldest record about the shrine dates from the 9th century. But, on the other hand, archeological finds show there was a community in this area already in the Yayoi-period (200 BCE - 200 CE). The shrine probably originated in an old cult place of this community where nearby Mt Takatori (a so-called kannabi or sacred mountain) was venerated, so it does go back a long time, although in a more misty way than mythology asserts - in myth, its founding is ascribed to the ahistorical Empress Jingu, who presumably passed here in 201 CE on her way back from just such an ahistorical "conquest of Korea." Forget mythology - the shrine must have originated in a nature cult, like so many old shrines in Japan, and its amorphous kami was later deified, as happened all over the country when powerful clans took the reins and projected their deified ancestors over the originally formless natural forces. The ancestor deity here is Kotoshironushi, who came from the politically ascendant Yamato area (Nara area). It was probably adopted by the clan ruling at the foot of Mt Takatori to express an alliance with a powerful Yamato clan.


As all shrines in Japan, for most of its history the Nagata Shrine was under the management of Buddhism, until the forced (and unnatural) separation of the two creeds by the Meiji Government in the early 1870s. Before the Meiji regime destroyed them, there also stood several temple buildings in the shrine grounds. One of these was a hall dedicated to Yakushi, the Buddha of Healing, and it was at this Yakushi Hall that the tsuinashiki Setsubun rite developed in the Muromachi period (1337-1573).


The rite features several oni (demons) who are played by costumed men wearing ancient wooden demon masks. The men must be supporters of the shrine for many years and they undergo seclusion and purification the night before the ceremony. Carrying a large torch (taimatsu) and with a sword on the left side, they dance a pantomime on the stage in front of the shrine. During the dance they strike various poses (almost like sumo wrestlers), glaring at the public and swaying their torches to shower sparks on the devotees. This "purification by fire" has the same meaning as the large Omizutori ceremony at Todaiji in Nara in mid-March. The flames of the torches burn away all calamitous influences, just as the blades of the swords symbolically cut away all evil coming near.


The dance is accompanied by the beat of a large drum and blowing on horagai (conch shells). In the evening, the ceremony (which starts at 14:00) ends with a mochi cracking ceremony, after which the onlookers take home bits of the extinguished torches and pieces of the cracked mochi.

P.S. It is also customary to eat Ehomaki, large uncut sushi rolls on Setsubun.
The Nagata Shrine is a 7 min walk N of Kosoku Nagata St on the Hankyu/Hanshin/Sanyo Dentetsu lines, or Nagata St on the Kobe subway line. The annual festival of the shrine is held on Oct. 17-19. The shrine is also a popular Hatsumode destination.

November 29, 2013

"Villain" (Akunin) by Yoshida Shuichi (Book review)

A few days ago I happened to pick up Yoshida Shuichi's Akunin in the English translation by Philip Gabriel, Villain. I had ignored the book previously, as I thought it was another of those Japanese thrillers that for some obscure reason nowadays are being translated in such large numbers. Think Higashino Keigo (Naoko) or Miyabe Miyuki (Crossfire) with their silly New Age supernatural elements, cardboard characters and improbable plots.

But this was different: Villain is not a thriller, nor a police procedural or a who-done-it (it is never a secret who the murderer is), but a novel about a crime and its effects on the perpetrator and the people around him and as well as those around the victim. The author, Yoshida Shuichi, is not a crime writer either, but a literary author who has written several "crossover" works. He was born in 1968 in Nagasaki, and studied business administration in Tokyo. In 1997 he published his first novel, Saigo no musuko (The Last Son) and in 2002 he obtained the 127th Akutagawa Prize for the novella Park Life. In the same year he received the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize for the novel Parade. That he won both a prize in pure literature and in popular literature in the same year, shows how he straddles the fence between both fields - or perhaps it proves that in our post-postmodern times there are no fences anymore. Villain (2007) received both the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award and the Osaragi Jiro prize and sold more than 2.1 million copies.

Villain is a psychological examination of the lives of a construction worker (Yuichi), the girlfriend he murders (Yoshino, an insurance saleswoman), and the new girlfriend he falls in love with (Mitsuyo, a saleswoman in a jumbo men's clothes store). At first, we see Yuichi as a beast and the first girlfriend, Yoshino, as an innocent victim, but gradually, when we learn more about them, Yoshino is revealed to be loose and shallow, while Yuichi may be hard to fathom, but he takes good care of the grandparents with whom he lives.

Yuichi meets his girlfriends via dating sites. Yoshino uses such dating sites not so much to meet boyfriends, but to make money as she prostitutes herself for a fee (plus travel expenses!) to the men she meets. After the murder, Yuichi meets Michiyo who is getting older and sees her boring life slip by in the provincial town where she lives. They fall desperately in love, but as Yuichi is a wanted murderer, they both realize they have no future.

Villain is a dark novel that paints an ugly picture of contemporary Japan, where loneliness and alienation seem the hallmarks of the nation's youth. The novel concentrates on ordinary, recognizable people, those below the level of the salarymen, and provides a realistic view of their daily lives: the prices of highway tolls and gasoline, what to have for dinner, the struggle for customers by a barber whose style is too old-fashioned, the dates in love hotels and the ubiquity of convenience stores. Even more interesting are the typical Japanese circumstances, such as the public reaction to Yoshino's murder - instead of receiving sympathy, the parents are flooded with obnoxious phone calls and messages telling them their daughter deserved to die because of her sleazy character.

The end of the book is uplifting. Communication is restored between the parents of Yoshino, Yuichi's grandmother who was being extorted out of her savings by gangsters, decides to stand up to them, and even Michiyo's life is transformed. But the greatest change is seen in Yuichi, who redeems himself by an act of altruism, that is all the greater as he hides it from the receiver.

The title should be read with a question mark: is Yuichi really such a villain, or are it rather social and other circumstances that make him so? The author holds no apology for Yuichi, but does ask us to have a more nuanced view.

The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and never descends into melodrama. There are also some chapters in interior monologue, which directly shows us the thoughts of the major characters. The translation is excellent, as we are used to from Philip Gabriel who has an impressive list of translations to his name, including novels by Oe Kenzaburo and Murakami Haruki.

In short, this is a realistic novel, about recognizable people, written in a clear style. Above all, it is an interesting picture of Japanese society, although a bit on the negative side.

P.S. A blurb on the back cover of the translation contains a misleading comparison to Stieg Larsson - happily, this realistic novel has nothing whatsoever in common with the sensational fables of Larsson which are more rooted in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo) than contemporary reality.

October 4, 2013

Graves in Kyoto's shopping arcades (Seiganji)

Kyoto, the old capital, is full of graves. When you walk through Shinkyogoku, the popular shopping street between Shijo and Sanjo that is almost a Harajuku look-alike, you are in the midst of a huge graveyard. Nobody notices, young people are on shopping sprees as if there were no other things in the world.

I learned the truth by looking over walls, and by staying in the business hotels on Kawaramachi Street, where you look down on the many small temples from your room. Then you get a very different view of the area: an endless graveyard with a snake of oblivious youth and abandon slithering through it...

Grave of Izumi Shikibu, Kyoto
[Tomb of Izumi Shikibu in Seishin-in Temple]

One of the most famous graves here is that of Izumi Shikibu, a woman court poet and diarist who lived around the year 1000. Izumi Shikibu lived a life of love and passion that earned her the nickname "The Floating Lady." So she must still feel at home here, in Kyoto's entertainment center and perhaps she likes the sounds of youth passing by. But nobody stops for her anymore and her grave is stone cold.

The major temple in this area is Seiganji, now standing somewhat forlorn in Shinkyogoku, Kyoto's busy shopping street. But the gate and doors of the main hall are always wide open and from the street passersby can greet the large Amida Buddha seated in the hall.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The welcoming entrance of Seiganji]

Although the graves remain, Seiganji has lost most of its land. It used to be a huge temple that even claims to have been founded in the late 7th c. Under the influence of Honen it turned to Pure Land Buddhism, as testified by its Amida statue. It only came to this location in last quarter of the 16th c., due to the redesign of Kyoto by Hideyoshi. One of Hideyoshi's concubines sponsored the temple, which then had many halls and even a pagoda. The area around Seiganji became a “town in front of the temple gate" where boisterous temple markets were held and that is how it spent the Edo-period.

The infamous Temmei fire 1788 claimed most of the temple buildings, including its original main statue, and modernisation did the rest. In the early Meiji-period, Kyoto Governor Makimura Masanao wanted to revitalize the city which had lost the Emperor, and he did this by creating a modern entertainment district with cinemas and theaters. That was Shinkyogoku and Seiganji gradually was dwarfed into oblivion.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[Wishes written on fans]

It is interesting to note that Seiganji did already have a link with entertainment. The most famous abbot of Seiganji was Anrakuan Sakuden (1554 – 1642), the man credited as being the earliest Rakugo comic story teller. His stories have been preserved in the aptly named compilation Sobering Laughter - apparently he started using comic stories while preaching, in order to keep his audience from falling asleep.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The Fan Grave]

Thanks to the artistic impulse of Sakuden, the temple became popular with performers and artists who wanted to advance in their profession. The Fan Grave was built as a monument to the remembrance of Sakuden - the fan is the only implement used by Rakugo storytellers - and instead of the usual wooden votive planks, at Seiganji people write their wish on fans. And that is a form of elegance that very well fits the area...

September 29, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Kansai (Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama & Yuasa)

The Kansai area boasts many interesting old towns for those fond of strolling through history. Here is a first selection of three, lesser-known places: Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama (both in Hyogo Prefecture) and Yuasa (Wakayama Prefecture).


Tatsuno
[Tatsuno - Castle]

1. Tatsuno
Tatsuno is a small former castle town in south-western Hyogo Prefecture, at just 15 kilometers distance from Himeji in the Harima region. Located on the Ibo River, Tatsuno thrived as a center of industry and transport. It is famous for three things: it was (and is) the center for the production of soy sauce in the Kansai (together with Shodoshima and - to a lesser degree - Yuasa below); it was (and is) also the center for the production of somen noodles in Western Japan (another center is Sakurai in Nara Pref.); and it was the birthplace of the poet Miki Rofu who wrote the children's song "Akatombo" ("Red Dragonfly"), which every Japanese knows. The old part of the small town, across the river, still exudes a nice historic atmosphere. You will be pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists.

Places to visit:
  • Tatsuno "Usukuchi" Soy Sauce Museum
    Soy sauce developed from miso (it was initially a by-product of miso manufacture) in the 16th century, initially in Yuasa (see below). As a heavy press is necessary for making soy sauce, a real industry developed in contrast to the production of miso which often took place in small shops. Edo-period production centers for soy sauce were Noda, Choshi (both in Chiba Prefecture), Shodoshima and Tatsuno. Soy production in Tatsuno was started in the period 1587-1590 by Maruoya Magozaemon; in 1666 Maruoya Magouemon developed light colored shoyu ("usukuchi shoyu"), which became very popular in the Kansai region, as it adds flavor without coloring the ingredients, something which fits the delicate cuisine of Kyoto. This soy sauce became possible thanks to the water of the Ibo River which is soft, with minimal iron content (the higher the iron content, the darker the sauce sauce; and hard water is less suitable to extract subtle flavors than soft water). Other ingredients are also local, such as the salt from Ako. Tatsuno producers also make use of amazake (a sweet rice drink) to enhance the flavor, aroma and color of their soy sauce. Note, by the way, that despite the lighter color, Usukuchi Shoyu is somewhat saltier than the darker type. Tatsuno soy sauce has flourished through the ages and is still being produced by Higashimaru and others. The museum has been established in a retro building that used to be the office of the Higashimaru soy sauce company and displays soy sauce making tools that were used until the early Showa period. 
  • Site of Tatsuno Castle. The present castle with its white walls and turrets is a reconstruction. The original dates back to 1499 and sat on the top of the mountain; after that, a new castle was built in the present location at the foot of the same mountain in 1672. The castle grounds are a good sakura blossom spot. There is also a reconstruction of the Honmaru palace.
  • In Tatsuno Park stands a monument to the famous children's song "Akatombo (Red Dragonfly)" - it will even play the song for those who have forgotten the melody. 
  • In the small Tatsuno Municipal Museum of the History and Culture (near the castle) you can learn more about this interesting town.
  • Visit the "Somen no Sato" Museum of the Ibonoito company, a 15 min walk from the next JR station, Higashi-Hashisaki, to learn more about tenobe (hand-stretched) somen noodles. These fine wheat noodles have been produced in the area since 1418. The facility features a demonstration and sampling corner, a production site, shops, a diorama of somen making, etc. 
How to get there: The historical area in Tatsuno is a 20-minute walk from JR Hon-Tatsuno Station (across the river); Hon-Tatsuno is 20 minutes by local train on the JR Kishin line from Himeji. 



Tanba-Sasayama
[Tanba-Sasayama - Tanba Pottery Museum]

2. Tanba-Sasayama
Sasayama in the Tanba area of Hyogo is a small castle town, located on a bucolic plain, that preserves many old buildings around the castle and in its old merchant's quarter. The tourist center of the town is housed in a retro building dating to 1924, called Taisho Romankan; there are also a restaurant inside, and a shop selling local produce, such as kuromame (black soy beans). Despite the long list of museums below, the greatest pleasure of Sasayama is just to stroll through the old town and make your own discoveries. As museums go, the three at the top of the below list are the best.

Places to visit:
  • Tanba Kotokan (Old Tanba Pottery Museum). Museum dedicated to traditional Tanba pottery, housed in a wonderful group of old rice storehouses. Beautiful old pots (ranging from the Kamakura-period to the Edo-period) in a wonderful environment. Tanba-yaki is not made in Tanba-Sasayama, but in the village of Tachikui, where you will find the kilns, and which also is home to the The Museum of Ceramic Art, Hyogo
  • Nohgaku Shiryokan (Noh Museum). Museum dedicated to the Noh Theater, displaying masks, robes, and instruments. A model of a Noh stage shows the large pots (of course, made from Tanba-yaki) placed beneath the wooden floor for acoustical effect. The connection of Tanba-Sasayama with Noh is via the Aoyama castle lords who in 1858 built a Noh stage at the local Kasuga Shrine.
  • Sasayama Rekishi Bijutsukan (Sasayama Historical Art Museum). The museum is housed in Japan's oldest district court building, which was in use from 1890 to 1981. On display are both artworks (often originally belonging to the Aoyama castle lords) and historical objects: screens, maps, the local pottery called Ohjiyama-yaki, lacquerware, porcelain, old armor, etc. 
  • Castle Ruin and Oshoin. Sasayama castle was built in 1609 at the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Oshoin palace building was destroyed by fire in 1944. It has now been reconstructed, using ancient building techniques, and with much attention to detail. 
  • Aoyama History MuseumThe entrance gate is a Nagaya gate from the Edo-period. Exhibits include printing blocks and other artifacts from the Edo-period. 
  • Anma's Historical Museum (Buke-yashiki Samurai House). Anma was a vassal of Aoyama, the feudal lord of Sasayama. In this traditional samurai house some furniture and cooking vessels are on display. 
  • Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum. The Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum explains the origin of the important Tamba Toji master brewers as well as the sake brewing process with displays of old-fashioned tools. There is also a sake brewery in town, the Homei Brewery, which is housed in a nice old building.
How to get there: Take the JR Takarazuka Line rapid service from Amagasaki to Sasayamaguchi, then 15 min bus to the center of the old town. Sasayama Tourism page. 


Yuasa Soy Town
[Yuasa - the old town]

3. Yuasa
Yuasa, located about half an hour by train south of Wakayama City, is like Tatsuno another old soy town. In fact, it is the oldest soy town in Japan for it was here that soy sauce was discovered as a by-product from the manufacture of miso paste. That miso was called Kinzanji miso and it was made in Kokokuji Temple in nearby Yura. It is still being produced in Yuasa and served in its restaurants - as a pickled side dish, containing small bits of vegetables. Miso was not only used for soups, but was perhaps first and for all a pickling agent. The liquid that dripped out of the miso as it matures is technically known as miso-damari, and is a very thick sort of soy sauce. Yuasa flourished from the 17th to 19th centuries thanks to the production of both soy sauce and Kinzanji miso. In its heyday, there were 92 soy sauce factories, of which now four remain.

Places to visit:

  • The old quarter with historical homes is a 10 min walk from Yuasa station. There are no big destinations here, but Yuasa is just fun to walk around in. You will find a small (free) soy museum where old tools for making soy sauce are on display. In the same street are two old shops, Kadocho making and selling premium soy sauce (since 1841), and Ohta Hisasuke Ginsei making and selling miso. There is also a small (free) historical museum called Jinburo. Among the several temples in town, Jinsenji is probably the most interesting: it has a small dry garden in front of the main hall (dating from 1663) and outside, next to the gate, stands a monument dedicated to the great earthquake and tsunami of 1854. The townscape here has been designated as a special preservation district.
  • Yuasa Soy Sauce. Marushin Honke had retreated from soy sauce manufacturing in 1965, and concentrated on the more profitable Kinzanji Miso. However, in recent years under the name Yuasa Soy Sauce a separate soy sauce company was again set up. Traditional soy making takes place here and the factory is always open to visitors - with large parking lots for tour buses it is a bit commercialised, but the friendly staff gives detailed explanations, making a visit certainly worthwhile. They make various premium kinds of soy sauce - for example with black beans from Tanba - and are active in export. The factory and shop stand along Route 42, on the opposite side from the old town when coming from Yuasa Station. From the station, turn right and follow the road until you reach the large grounds of a school. Here turn right again, and keep going straight on, crossing the railroad, until you reach a busy road (Route 42). Here turn left and you will soon see the signboards of Yuasa Soy Sauce. 
  • Yuasa is part of the municipality of Arida, which thanks to the warm climate is one of the most famous mikan producing areas in Japan. In the season, you will see the mikan-tress on the hillsides when your train approaches Yuasa, and you can buy the fruit everywhere in town.
  • Another local delicacy is shirasu-don, whitebait over rice. You can taste it (together with Kinzanji miso) in Kadoya, a restaurant standing to the left on the opposite side of the street from the station.
How to get there: Yuasa is just over 40 min. from Wakayama City by JR Kinokuni line.  

September 3, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Western Japan (Takahashi, Tomonoura and Onomichi)

There are still several traditional towns in Japan where modernization ("concrete-ization") has been less rampant than in the larger cities. Here are a few of my favorites in Western Japan (Okayama and Hiroshima Prefectures): Bitchu-Takahashi, Tomonoura, and Onomichi. Although I give suggestions for visits to temples and small museums in these towns, in the first place they are all just nice for a relaxed stroll through narrow lanes with old houses...


[Takahashi - Raikyuji's Garden]
1. Bitchu-Takahashi
The tiny former castle town of Takahashi stretches north to south along the Takahashi River. Lying in a mountainous region of great scenic beauty, it has a thriving merchant district of Edo-era buildings near the river and a well-preserved section of samurai homes, still occupied by the descendants of that martial class. Takahashi also features several interesting temples, of which Shorenji and Yakushi-en stand on high stone platforms. The place to visit is, however, Raikyuji, which boasts a fine garden laid out by Kobori Enshu. The samurai houses stand in the Ishibayacho district, just beyond Raikyuji. The castle was built in 1683 and sitting at 420 meters above sea level, is the highest castle in Japan. There is a great view of the surrounding hills from the castle hill (but it is a pain to get there, so you may opt to observe the castle hill from the town!) P.S. "Bitchu" is the name of this region in Okayama; it is added to the name of the town because there are more towns of the name "Takahashi" in Japan.

Places to visit are:
  • The Zen-temple Raikyuji. The renowned garden designer and tea master Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) served as governor of Takahashiand at that time lived in Raikyuji. He designed the present garden in 1604. The shakkei garden is characterized by a bold, wavelike hedge and in its daring design can stand comparison with the best gardens in Kyoto. 
  • Shorenji. This Nichiren temple is noted for its stone-walled terraces, which create an unusual effect.
  • Ishibaiyacho district with samurai houses. Two samurai residences (the Haibara Samurai Residence and the Orii Samurai Residence) are open to the public. 
  • In the merchant quarter near the river, one merchant residence can be visited: the Ikegami Merchant House, a soy sauce producer.
  • There are two small museums in town, the Takahashi Folk Museum (in an atmospheric building) and the Takahashi Historical Museum.
  • Bitchu-Matsuyama-jo. The highest mountain fortress in Japan. It retains the features of a medieval mountain fortress, although the present keep is more modern, from 1683. The castle is little visited as it stands a 20 min taxi ride outside the town. Climbing the hill takes another 15 min.

    Bitchu-Takahashi is 36 min by Yakumo Express from Okayama City, or 55 min by ordinary train via the Hakubi Line.

    Bitchu-Takahashi in Japan Guide (with a handy map). Japan Times article


    P.S. Fukiya, deeper into the mountains, is a copper mining town with old rust-colored houses, but as it is an hour by infrequent bus from Bitchu-Takahashi, it is rather difficult to get to by public transport.

[Tomo no Ura] 

2. Tomonoura
A little gem of a fisher's village with superb views over the Inland Sea, and an interesting place to stroll through the winding, narrow streets. Located on the southern point of the Nunakuma Peninsula, Tomonoura has been a famous scenic spot since the Nara period, when it was eulogized in the Manyoshu poetry collection. It was always a center for Inland Sea trade and many travellers passed through the town - the most important are the Korean embassies which came to Japan in the Edo-period (it was usual for travelers from Kyushu to Edo to travel through the Inland Sea by boat, before landing in Muronotsu in Hyogo Pref. and then - after visiting Osaka and Kyoto - hitting the Tokaido Highway). They would lodge in the Taichoro Pavilion of Fukuzenji Temple from which they could enjoy the view of three small islands in the bay, one adorned with a red pagoda. This Chinese-style landscape would be perfectly framed in the windows of their lodgings. Another visitor to Tomonoura was koto-composer Miyagi Michio (1894–1956), who was here inspired to write his masterwork, "Haru no Umi," or "The Spring Sea." In addition, anime-director Miyazaki Hayao developed his idea for the film Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008) while staying in Tomonoura.

Note: Tomonoura is in some danger of having its scenery spoiled by "development," such as a large bridge which may cut right through the small port town. See this article by WMF (the World Monuments Fund). 

Places to visit are:
  • Fukuzenji and Taichoro (Wave-facing Pavilion), the temple with pavilion where the Korean Embassies lodged, just next to the modern ferry landing. There are several memorabilia from these embassies on view, such as a calligraphy dated 1711 praising the view.
  • The Old Town with rows of fine old houses plus a distillery that makes Homeishu, a traditional medicinal liqueur.
  • The Temple and Shrine quarter in the north-east part of the town. The most interesting temple is Ankokuji, which has a 13th c.  Shaka Hall which is said to be one of the oldest Zen-style halls in Japan; the temple also has an interesting wooden Amida Triad; the Nunakuma Shrine - though itself concrete - has an early 17th c. Noh stage (presumably from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto).
  • Tomonoura Museum of History and Folklore. Local history and folklore museum. Includes a display of tai-ami, the fishing for sea bream (tai) which takes place in May with one large net pulled by a number of small boats. Other displays include a blacksmith's workshop for anchor making, and a koto used by Miyagi Michio.

    Tomonoura is 35 min by Tomotetsu bus from Fukuyama Station on the Shinkansen and Sanyo lines.

    English website of Fukuyama Tourist Information. Japan Times article.


Onomichi
 [Onomichi]

3. Onomichi
Onomichi is a port town on the inland sea, a traditional shipping center. For non-Japanese it is famous thanks to the iconic images at the beginning and end of Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Story, where it is the hometown of the elderly couple. It does not lie on the open sea, but across a channel we find the aptly name Mukai ("opposite") Island, now linked via a bridge. Onomichi lies on a steep hillside, crisscrossed by a warren of narrow slopes. The hills are studded with temples and there are also a few interesting small museums, as well as many literature monuments and film shooting spots. There is also a suitably old-fashioned Shotengai (arcaded shopping street). Onomichi is a starting point for trips to islands in the Inland Sea, either by bus via the new bridge system (Shimanami Kaido) or, as of old, by boat.

Places to visit are:
  • Jodoji Temple, at the eastern end of the town. The temple boasts a Main hall and a Tahoto Pagoda which are both national treasures. Visitors can also view a tea house that purportedly came from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, and an interesting treasure house. Jodoji is a good starting point for a walk along the other temples, as Tenneiji (three-storied pagoda) and Saikokuji (with its gigantic straw sandals). Take a 5-min bus or taxi to Jodoji, and then walk back in a western direction towards the station and the hill with Senkoji.
  • Senkoji Temple can be reached by ropeway and is a sort of tourist trap, but the good thing is the view over the Inland sea from the temple, which is justly celebrated (and you can hike up the hill instead of using the ropeway). There is also a "literature walk" on the hill along stones on which haiku and other works have been carved (but you need some Japanese ability to appreciate this). 
  • The Onomichi Motion Picture Museum - see my previous post on Ozu Museums and Shooting Locations.
  • The Onomichi Literature Museum - comprising the residence of 20th c. writer Shiga Naoya. Another famous author who lived in Onomichi is Hayashi Fumiko (she went to high school here).
  • The Onomichi Museum of Art, designed by Ando Tadao.

    Onomichi has a Shinkansen Station, but that lies rather far from the city center. Coming from the east, it is easier to take an ordinary train on the JR Sanyo Line from Fukuyama - this takes only 18 min.

    Onomichi City English website. Japan Times article. Japan Guide with map.