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

June 17, 2017

Sake from Kyoto Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Kyoto Prefecture is in volume the second sake producing prefecture in Japan (71,286kl or 16.0% - figures 2015) - after Hyogo (28.5%) and before Niigata (8.4%). That is thanks to the breweries in the southern part of Kyoto city, in Fushimi, which are good for 90% of the total output. There are 43 active breweries in the whole of Kyoto Prefecture, of which 23 in Fushimi (numbers based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association). Except for the huge, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo), these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake.

Fushimi is in the first place famous for its excellent water: until the early Meiji-period, it was called "Fushimizu," alluding to the underground water (fusui) that flows down from nearby Mt. Momoyama and fills the wells of the district with delicate and mild water. That water is honored in the Gokonomiya Shrine ("Shrine of the Honorable Fragrance"), which according to legend was so named when in 861 fragrant water gushed up from a well that appeared in this area - the water even healed the sick.

[Old sake breweries in Fushimi along the Horikawa canal]

The sake brewed in Kyoto has always been of high quality - after all, it was destined to be consumed by such demanding customers as the imperial court and its nobles. Important technological innovations, such as the isolation of koji spores and use of a yeast starter can also be written on the account of the brewers of the Old Capital. In the Middle Ages (Kamakura and Muromachi periods) there were hundreds and hundreds of small breweries in Kyoto - at that time, not in Fushimi, but in the city itself.

But in the Edo-period, Kyoto was superseded by Nada as a sake center. Conditions for large scale production were not good in the crowded inner city. That changed when in the Meiji-period (1867-1912) more and more sake producers started moving to the suburb of Fushimi where they found space, good water and better transport possibilities. Many of those breweries had a history going back to the 17th century.

From Fushimi, sake could be transported directly by rail to Tokyo, and this greatly boosted the industry. Another modern development was that Fushimi's breweries as Gekkeikan started to ship their sake in hygienic glass bottles instead of wooden vats (also making it impossible for shops to dilute the sake!) - you will find these early bottles on display in Gekkeikan's museum.

Thanks to the softness of the water, Fushimi's sake has been called "feminine," in contrast to Nada's hard water sake, which is more "masculine." Kyoto's sake has a soft, full and sweet taste (the sweetness comes from the soft water). It is delicate and graceful, as befits the Old Capital.

Besides Fushimi, there are three breweries located elsewhere in Kyoto City itself and one in Joyo.

A second large sake area is the northern part of Kyoto prefecture, such as Miyazu on the Japan sea coast, where you will find many small and relatively unknown breweries. Kyotango counts six breweries; Miyazu five; Fukuchiyama two; Kyotamba (incl. Kameoka) three. Not accidentally, there are also many good ports here - some of them were important as naval bases from the Meiji to early Showa periods. This is also the area where the Tango Toji came from, a small group of Kyoto-based brew masters.

As sake rice goes, the brand "Iwai" has been developed in the prefecture - it is low in proteins and helps make light sake; also popular are Miyama-Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku.

[Sake vats in the Gokonomiya Shrine, Fushimi, Kyoto]

Some of the main breweries are (by region and in alphabetical order):

Kyoto City, mainly Fushimi area:
  • Eikun (Saitoh Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Heroic decoration," the company selected this brand name at the ascension to the throne of the Taisho Emperor. Est. 1895. Has developed its own fragrant yeast. Uses underground spring water "Shiragikusui."  Iwai sake rice for ginjo sakes. Smooth texture. Other brand names: Koto Sennen, Izutsuya Ihei, Igin. 
  • Gekkeikan (Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd., Kyoto). "Laurel Wreath." Est. 1637. The company took its present, Western-sounding name in the Meiji-period. Its original brand name was Tama no Izumi, "Well of the Jewel." Gekkeikan is not only the second largest sake producer nationwide, but is also known for its technological innovations, such as being the first to use glass bottles in the Meiji-period. Was also the first, in the early sixties, to start brewing year round instead of only in winter. Besides six breweries in Japan, it also has facilities in California and Taiwan, plus exports to 60 countries. Gekkeikan started at an early time selling sake at railway stations. It also won prizes in the first national sake competitions (and still continues to do so, for besides ordinary sake it also makes good Daiginjo). Master brewers working in its factories come from such regions as Nanbu, Tajima and Hiroshima. In Fushimi, it has a beautiful museum, a mini-brewery "Gekkeikan Shukobo," and other impressive traditional buildings. These include an office now used as a shop/restaurant and the (closed) former residence of the Okura's. The old wooden buildings look particularly beautiful seen from over the Horikawa Canal which flows through Fushimi. Gekkeikan is still experimenting, such as with the bubbling "champagne-sake" called Zipang. Their top brand is Horin Junmai Daiginjo.
  • Kizakura (Kizakura Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Yellow Cherry Blossom." Est. 1925. Originally known for mass market sake, advertised with the help of images of naked, imbibing "kappa" imps, Kizakura started to brew Ginjo sakes in the mid-seventies and has since won the gold medal at the annual competition for new sakes. It is also putting effort into the Yamahai style. Kizakura operates three factories. Kizakura has set up "Kappa Country" in its old warehouses in Fushimi, featuring a gallery, a garden, a restaurant (with kikizake possibilities) and a well-stocked shop.
  • Momo no Shizuku (Matsumoto Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Droplets from the Peach." Est. 1791 in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, moved in 1923 to Fushimi. Other brand (for regular sake): Hinode Sakari, "Prime of Sunrise." Momo no Shizuku is a smooth, light pure-rice sake, of which the name is based on a haiku by Basho (and the fact that Momoyama in Fushimi in the Edo-period was indeed known for its peach forest). The traditional red brick warehouses of Matsumoto Shuzo, standing along the Takasegawa River, have been declared a special industrial heritage (especially beautiful in spring when the yellow rape flowers are blooming). One of the founders of the Pure Sake Association, a society that at an early time propagated the abolishment of adding alcohol to sake.
  • Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Pine, Bamboo and Plum," a traditional auspicious symbol in Japan (these "Three Friends of Winter" do not wither as the cold days deepen into winter, so they represent steadfastness and perseverance). Est. 1842. The third largest brewery in Japan. Known for brewing all manner of alcoholic products, including mirinshochu and chuhai. In 2001 established Shirakabegura in Kobe, a more traditional brewery for premium sake, where also kimoto sake is made, utilizing miyamizu water. Also known for its sparkling sake Mio. Opened a brewery in the U.S. (California) in 1982. 
  • Shoutoku (Shoutoku Brewery Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Inviting Virtue." Postwar merger of four old companies, one, Kimuraya, going back to 1645. Started selling junmaishu (pure rice sake) in 1974 and founded the Pure Sake Association with Matsumoto Shuzo and Tama no Hikari. Has a large repertory of Junmai Ginjo's. All sakes make a quiet and elegant impression, which befits the Old Capital. Uses Kyoto's recently revived sake rice Iwai in its sake called "Kyo Iwai Mai."
  • Tama no Hikari (Tamanohikari Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Light of the Spirits" (the "spirits" are those of the deities Izanagi and Izanami of the historical Kumano Hayatama Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama) Est. 1673 in Wakayama. Relocated to Kyoto after WWII. One of the first companies to start making only pure-rice sake, already in 1959. Charming and sweet, this has been called a "quintessentially Kyoto sake." Specializes in full-flavored junmai ginjo's, using various types of sake rice, such as Omachi from Okayama (the brewery played an important role in reviving this strain of sake rice), Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo and Okuhomare from Fukui. Founding member of the Pure Sake Association. Exports to the U.S. and SE Asia. 
  • Tomio (Kitagawa Honke, Kyoto). "The Rich Sage" (from a Chinese saying that people with a rich mind will lead a happy life when they grow old). Other limited production brand: Anaze. Est 1657. Originally in the 17th c. an inn "Funaya" at the canals and rivers here; shipped its sake later by flat-bottomed boats over the Yodo River to Osaka and from there to Edo. Echizen toji. Mellow and sweetish taste, which goes well with Kyoto cuisine. 
  • Tsuki no Katsura (Masuda Tokubei Shoten Co., Ltd., Kyoto), "The Judas Tree in the Moon" (a Chinese legend). Est. 1675. This company specializes in nigori sake ("clouded" due to a sediment of rice and koji). Was also the first company to develop a sparkling nigori sake (through a second fermentation in the bottle) with the help of the famous Tokyo University Fermentation Professor Sakaguchi Kinichiro. Further makes an aged sake "Kohaku Hikari." Its (non-nigori) junmai ginjo "Heiankyo" is a long seller. Uses Iwai sake rice. A very individualistic company, located near the Toba Kaido in Fushimi. Exports to USA, Europe and SE Asia.
[Traditional red brick facade of Matsumoto Shuzo in Fushimi]

Kyoto (elsewhere):
  • Kagura (Matsui Shuzo, Kyoto) "Kura of the Gods." Est 1726. The only brewery left in the center of Kyoto, on the first floor of an apartment building near Demachiyanagi. Other brand names: Kyo-Chitose, Fuji-Chitose. Operates a shop in nice old premises.
  • Okina-Tsuru (Oishi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Kameoka) "Crane of the Old Sage." Going back to "Tarobei Sake Store" in the Genroku period in Edo times. Located in a rich rice-growing area, Tanba. Kameoka is an old castle town, linked to Kyoto via the scenic Hozu River. Toji from Tanba. Operates shop, tasting corner and exhibition space in Main Building of brewery. Also operates a sake store in front of Kameoka St. 
  • Shutendoji (Hakurei Brewing Co., Ltd., Miyazu)  "The Boy Drinking Sake," taken from a famous legend about a red ogre living on Mt. Oe. Est. 1832. Other brand names: Hakurei, "White Peak," after Yuragatake, a peak in the nearby Oe mountain range; and Kouden, "Fragrant Paddies." Established by Niiya Rokuemon of the Nakanishi clan, after obtaining a permit from the local daimyo. Uses fresh water from the Fudo no Taki waterfall, which flows down from the Oe mountain range. Brews with locally grown Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku rice, as well as Iwai rice. 
  • Tamagawa (The Kinoshita Brewery, Kyotango) "Jewel River" Est. 1842. Full-flavored sake. Also makes Yamahai and Kimoto sakes (which it calls "spontaneous fermentation sakes"). Operates shop for visitors. This is the brewery where Philip Harper, author of The Book of Sake, is working.
  • Tanzan (Tanzan Shuzo, Kameoka) "Mt. Cinnaber" Est. 1882. Uses the same water source as Kameoka Castle. Cultivates its own sake rice.
[Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Fushimi]

Sake Museums in Kyoto:
  • Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, old tools and Meiji-period advertisement materials, shown in a wooden sake warehouse built in 1909; if you make a reservation in advance, you can also see the 1906 Uchigura Sake Brewery, a mini-brewery.
  • The Horino Memorial Museum was the town house and brewery of the makers of Kinshi Masamune; the brewery moved to Fushimi, but the Machiya from 1781 remains as a museum. There are also a brewery making local beer and a restaurant.
  • Kizakura has a gallery showing drawings of the Kappa (river imps) used by the company in its advertising, plus some tools and information on sake brewing.
[Kizukara Kappaland in Fushimi]

Restaurants of Sake Breweries:
  • Torisei, the restaurant of the Shinsei brewery in Fushimi (est. 1677), with a menu mainly consisting of yakitori.
  • Kizakura Kappaland, also in Fushimi, offers various dishes in a large and spacious restaurant, with sets for sake tasting and also beer tasting (Kizakura also brews local beer). There is also an open courtyard where you can sit outside.
  • There are seven liquor shops in Fushimi selling local sake and one of them, Aburacho in the Otemon shopping arcade, also features a small bar (right in the shop!) where you can get sake tasting sets.
  • Fushimi Yume Hyakushu, the former head office of Gekkeikan built in 1919, is now a café. Tasting sets available of each brewery located in Fushimi. 
[Matsui Shuzo near Demachiyanagi, Kyoto]

Other Things To Do in Fushimi:
  • A boating tour on the Horikawa canal. Jukkokubune were boats to transport rice and sake, Sanjukkokubune served as passenger ferries on the canals between Fushimi and the Yodo River (all the way to Osaka). Between April and November, you can make a small ride on a modern copy of these boats through the Horikawa canal, along the beautiful wooden sake breweries, to where it enters the Yodo River, where the boats stop for a while so that passengers can visit a small museum.
  • The Gokonomiya Shrine is famous for the quality of its water.
  • The Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine has no connection with sake, but is famous for the tunnels of red torii gates leading up the mountain behind the shrine.
  • Last but not least (though not in Fushimi but in Arashiyama), note that Kyoto is also home to the foremost shrine associated with sake brewing, Matsuo Taisha. In many sake breweries you will find a small altar dedicated to Matsuo-san. Read my article about Matsuo Taisha
[Matsuo taisha]

Association of Sake Breweries in Fushimi
Association of Sake Breweries in Kyoto City (except Fushimi)
Kyoto Prefecture Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

June 8, 2017

Okera mairi (Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto)

The Yasaka Shrine on the eastern edge of Kyoto plays an important role in the cultural life of the old capital, now and in the past. In July it organizes Kyoto's largest festival, the Gion Matsuri, and and top of that it is one of the most popular destinations for a New Year shrine visit (hatsumode). It also gave rise to the large pleasure quarter at its gates, catering to native townsmen and visitors from all over the country, of which the elegant Gion geisha quarters still form a vivid testimony.

The Yasaka Shrine is also the location of an interesting observance that already starts on New Year's eve and continues throughout the night: okera mairi. People come to the shrine to light a length of straw rope at a ritually pure fire to which okera plants have been added. Okera is a herb used in Chinese medicine (it is related to the chrysanthemum) and is believed to help against stomach trouble. It is burned in the New Year fires of the shrine because it keeps the air dry and pure. The slow-burning straw ropes, by the way, are sold by vendors in the shrine grounds for rather inflated prices (700 yen).

[The holy fire]

The Yasaka Shrine is a 24 hours affair even on ordinary days. Its large red Romon gate, that is turned towards Shijodori as if in a welcoming gesture, is open also at night and in fact, after dark, when the lanterns on the Kagura platform are lighted, the shrine is at its best. So too, on Omisoka, New Year's Eve, when the grounds are literally ablaze with light.

We carry our rope to the lanterns where the okera is burned together with gomagi, oblong wooden tablets on which wishes have been written (in fact, a Buddhist custom - the shrine used to be half Buddhist in the past as also its name Gion testifies - Gion is the name of the first Buddhist temple set up in India, already during the lifetime of the Buddha).

[Lighting the rope in the holy fire]

Traditionally, the flame was taken home to light the first hearth fire in the New Year, but that is not very practical anymore in this modern age of electric stoves and automatic gas burners. Still, people walk around gaily twirling the ropes to keep the sacred flame alive and for a while, we join the crowds, swinging the rope so that its burning end makes red circles in the night air.

It helps that we have come early, there are no lines, there is no danger to set each other afire. From 12:00 the main gates which have been temporarily shut, will open to let in the masses, and then the shrine grounds will become one-way traffic from Shijodori to Maruyama Park.

[The shrine is prepared for New Year with a fresh supply of amulets and other religious goods. Note the shinya, hanging down from under the eaves, the holy arrows that people come to buy for decorating in their homes]

It is clear that the shrine has prepared itself carefully for the coming onslaught of the masses. There are more booths than usual, all loaded to the brim with fresh supplies of amulets and holy arrows. The shrine maidens (mostly part-timers, I guess) sit primly ready in their neat costumes. This is the largest income generating event in the whole year for shrines and temples and nobody takes it lightly. New Year is when the whole of Japan stocks up on luck.

Having obtained our fire, we walk back, into the park, past the many small stalls selling everything edible conceivable, huge sausages, squid on a stick, toffee apples, octopus balls, yakisoba, sweet sake, and even Kitty candyfloss. The red and white of the stalls and the many lanterns create a magic atmosphere.

Before going down the steps for the subway at Higashiyama station, we remember at the last moment: better to extinguish our holy fire before boarding.

June 4, 2017

Sake from Hyogo Prefecture (Sake by Region)

The largest sake producing area in the whole of Japan can be found in Hyogo Prefecture, at the seaside of Nishinomiya and in the eastern part of Kobe. This area is called "Nada" and as there are five sake producing districts, one speaks about the "Five Nada Districts" (Nada Gogo). From east to west these are: Imazu, Nishinomiya, Uozaki, Mikage and Nishi.

[Miyamizu wells in Nishinomiya]

There are about 26 breweries in Nada. The first brewer, Zakoya Bunzaemon, moved from Itami to Nishinomiya in the Kanei-period (1624-43). Gradually more followed and the Nada Five Districts came to prominence about 200 years ago in the Edo-period (1600-1867), thanks to the following factors:
  • Technical: the use of water mills to polish the rice used for making sake (other breweries in Japan at that time still milled by human effort, by men stepping on levers) - this in turn was possible thanks to the water power offered by small rivers as the Shukugawa, Ashiyagawa and Sumiyoshigawa, flowing down from the steep Rokko mountains to the sea. Moreover, while milling by human power could only remove up to 8% of the husk and bran, the water mills could take off 20%, reaching a rice-polishing ratio of 80%, which resulted in a better and clearer taste.
  • Nature: the cold wind blowing down from Mt Rokko in winter called "Rokko-Oroshi" created excellent brewing conditions (cold weather helps slow the fermentation process and keeps unwanted micro-organisms away). The breweries therefore built elongated structures stretching east to west with windows in the north wall to allow as much of this freezing air as possible into the brewery.
  • Logistics: from the coast with its many ports, the sake could easily be shipped to Edo (now Tokyo); the sake was shipped on Taru Kaisen, boat services exclusively for sake casks. Vessels could carry 3,000 casks and took 20 days to reach Edo. The main port for Nada was Imazu, where the Ozeki Brewery built a lighthouse.
  • Water: in 1840 "miyamizu" was discovered by Yamamura Tazaemon, the water from certain wells in Nishinomiya that thanks to its high mineral composition (and lack of iron!) proved eminently suitable for sake brewing (it contains phosporic acid, but also potassium and magnesium - three elements that help the yeast and make the brewing process quicker). The story about Tazaemon goes as follows: he was active in breweries in both Nishinomiya and Uozaki and one day noticed that the taste of the sake made in these two locations was markedly different - the one from Nishinomiya being much more tasty. Tazaemon closely monitored the brewing process and ingredients on both locations and came to the conclusion that the difference had to be ascribed to the water. In other words: the Nishinomiya water was particularly suitable for sake brewing. Later the name "Nishinomiya water" was shortened to "Miya water," - our miyamizu (Nishinomiya is named after its Shinto shrine, the "Western Shrine" dedicated to the deity Ebisu; miya means shine or palace and is therefore auspicious in meaning). The water is transported by tank lorries to the various breweries - the largest ones have their own wells. 
  • Rice: the availability of excellent sake rice in the area north of the Rokko mountains and the early introduction of the system of contracting farmers and fields, ensuring a stable production. In 1936, the famous Yamada Nishiki strain of sake rice with its large-sized grains full of starch was cultivated by crossing various other strains. 
  • Skills:The toji or brewmasters from Tanba (from the area around Tsuchiyama) are nationally famous for their brewing skills; they are known for their dry and strong sake. In the north of the prefecture one also finds the Tajima brewmasters.
Although eight of the fourteen largest brewers in Japan are located in Nada (these are the companies whose mainstay is regular sake, sold in paper packs or glass cups), you will also find plenty of small brewers specialized in high-quality products.

The sake from Hyogo usually tastes strong and dry - it has been called "masculine," otokozake, especially when consumed in spring before storage, when it has a strong bite and deep flavor. During the summer storage, it mellows and is therefore called akibare or "Clear Autumn Sky" when drunk in autumn. Anyway, it is a full and solid rather than fruity sake - quite a contrast with the sake from nearby Kyoto.

The most famous sake rice of Hyogo is of course the expensive brand "Yamada Nishiki" developed in the prefecture by crossbreeding in the thirties of the last century. It is now used nationwide for brewing premium sake. It has a large, lustrous white kernel and absorbs water extremely well. It is superbly fit for making koji rice. Other brands are "Hyogo Kita Nishiki" and "Hyogo Yume Nishiki."

Number of active breweries (Hyogo Sake Brewers Association website): about 74 (based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association; there are also a few non-members)

Taste: Dry, strong, with a certain amount of acidity.

Production: 126,747kl in 2015 (28.5% of nationwide production)

[Hama Fukutsuru Meijo]

Examples of Breweries (some of the major ones with websites; first the name of the brewery is given, then between brackets the year of founding and the name of the major brand - which is often different from the name of the brewery!):

The foremost sake region in Hyogo one consists of the "Five Nada districts:"

Nada: Uozaki district:
  • Hama Fukutsuru Meijo (1950; Hama Fukutsuru、”Crane of Good Fortune on the Beach") - Specializes in high-quality ginjo and daiginjo sake, concentrating on fresh and fruity (unpasteurized) namazake. The modern brewery is always open to visitors (through glass). Close to Uozaki Station (Hanshin and Rokko Liner).

  • Sakura Masamune (1717; Sakura Masamune, "Cherryblossom Masamune") - Concentrates on junmai and ginjo type quality sake. Brewery restaurant and shop "Sakura-en." Yamamura Tazaemon of this brewery discovered the famous "miyamizu" in 1840. Company developed the first Association Yeast in 1905. In 2009 Sakura Masamune acquired the fine Taki no Koi brand when Taki no Koi (Kimura Shuzo, originally est. in 1758) had to close down. By the way, the Yamamura family also built the wonderful Yamamura Residence in Ashiyagawa, the only private residence in Japan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
[Kikumasamune Shuzo]

Nada: Mikage district:
  • Hakutsuru Shuzo (1743; Hakutsuru, "White Crane") - the largest brewery in Japan. Set up in 1734 by lumber dealer Kano Jihei. English website, brewery museum and (elsewhere in Mikage) a great art museum, with especially Chinese antiquities, set up in 1934 by the 7th owner of the brewery. Set up U.S. factory in 2005. Rather light taste compared to other Nada breweries.

  • Kenbishi Shuzo (1505 or earlier; Kenbishi, "Sword and Diamond") is the oldest sake brand name in Japan. The logo combines the tip of a sword and a diamond shape. The company was originally located in Itami, and moved to its present Kobe location well into the 20th c. Produces a deep-flavored (but dry) sake by cultivating an excellent "sohaze" koji in small trays, using the Yamahai method for the yeast starter, and brewing the main mash at low temperatures during 30 days. Also uses its own strain of koji, proprietary yeast and its own brewing rice called Aiyama. Kenbishi has been called "the real Nada taste." The company is rather secretive about its production methods and allows no brewery visits. Ranks no. 14 in size nationwide.

  • Kikumasamune Shuzo (1659; Kikumasamune, "Chrysanthemum Masamune") - the 9th largest brewery in Japan. Set up 1659 by the Kano family. Already exported sake to the U.K. in 1877. Was one the first of the Big Breweries to stop adding sugar in 1981; upgraded all products to the Honjozo grade in 1988. Large and informative English website; interesting museum with traditional tools (Kikumasamune Shuzo Kinenkan, arguably the best brewery museum in Kobe). Dry-tasting sake, representative of Nada.

  • Kobe Shushinkan (1751; Fukuju, abbreviation for Fukurokuju, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune) Small brewery making exclusively handcrafted quality sake, sold under the brandname Fukuju. Toji from Tajima. English website. Brewery visit possible (on appointment, see website). The brewery, which was completely rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake, also operates an excellent restaurant, Sakabayashi, where home-made tofu is served. There is also a large shop.


Nada: Nishi district:
  • Sawanotsuru (1717; Sawanotsuru, "Crane of the Marsh") - ranks no 13 in size. Operates a small but nice brewery museum "Mukashi no Shuzo" (a replica of the original kura building that was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake). Was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes. Also has developed some deep-tasting products as a Kimoto Junmai sake and an Koshu "aged" sake. Other products are dry according to the Nada taste.
[Cart to transport Miyamizu water
in Hakushika Brewery Museum]

Nada: Nishinomiya
  • Hakutaka (1862; Hakutaka, "White Hawk" - a sacred bird which only appears once every thousand years) - Has always put quality above quantity. Washes the vats for its Taruzake (sake kept in vats for the typical wood taste) with sake instead of water. Strives after a powerful taste by using the Kimoto method. Also uses the finest Yamada Nishiki rice. Brewery tours possible upon reservation. Hakutaka Rokusuien is a copy of the Edo-period merchant house of the brewery's founder, Tatsuuma Etsuzo, and includes a souvenir shop, Japanese restaurant, bar, multi-purpose hall and tea ceremony room. In addition, there are exhibition rooms for traditional brewing tools (7 min south on foot from Nishinomiya St on the Hanshin line). Also operates the small Tatsuuma Art Museum dedicated to archaeology (near Koroen Station on the Hanshin Line). 

  • Nihonsakari (1889; Nihonsakari, "Prime of Japan"). Set up by a group of twelve young entrepreneurs. No 6 in size. one of its products is a "green pack" sake with a reduced sugar content. Has also developed a new koji with a large amount of inositol, a vitamin good for the liver fucntion ("Kenjo").

  • Tatsuuma Honke Shuzo (1662; Hakushika, White Deer") - English website. One of Japan's largest brands (No 12 in size), made its foreign appearance already in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. The name ”White Deer” goes back to an old Chinese legend; also Jurojin, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, is always depicted as accompanied by a white deer. A smooth and lively sake. Art museum (with many Jurojin and deer images!) as well brewery museum (rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake), both in Nishinomiya, 10 min walk south of the Hanshin Station. The Tatsuuma founding family has played the role of maecenas in Nishinomiya as well.
[The Nishinomiya Shrine, dedicated to Ebisu,
is popular among the sake brewers of the region]

Nada: Imazu (plus non-Nada Itami):
  • Ozeki (1711; Ozeki, - Ozeki is a top sumo-rank). No 4 in size in Japan. In the Edo-period, their sake was called Manryo and very popular in Edo. Name change in 1889 to what then was the highest rank in sumo (unfortunately, later an even higher rank, Yokozuna, was added!). In 1924, Ozeki opened the first bottling plant in Japan. Introduced sake sold in glasses from vending machines in 1964, for the Tokyo Olympic Games, under the brandname "One Cup Ozeki." Already in 1979 set up factory in the U.S. Known for its marketing power. Has its own sake research center.

  • Konishi Shuzo (1550; Shirayuki, "White Snow" - referring to snow on Mt Fuji, as seen by the brewery owner in 1635 as his ship transporting sake to Edo passed the Fuji) - English website; also importer of Belgian beer and Californian wine; producer of local beer. Brewery restaurant and shop. Ranks as no. 10 in size. Only sake brewery left in Itami (in the Edo-period most breweries moved from Itami to Nada because of the better logistical conditions). Sake is softer and less dry than Nada sakes.
As regards sake producing areas in Hyogo apart from Nada, west from Kobe, in Akashi and Himeji (Inland Sea Coast west of Kobe), you will find some excellent breweries:
  • Akashi Hakko Kogyo (1919; Akashi Tai, "Bream of Akashi") - In the port town of Akashi, west of Kobe. English website. Also makes shochu, mirin and umeshu. Named after the tai (sea bream) caught off the coast of Akashi, where the company is located. Robust and full-bodied.

  • Eigashima Shuzo (1679; Kamitaka, "Divine Hawk") - Also in Akashi. Brewery and museum can be visited on weekdays, on appointment. There are seven traditional kura, the oldest dating from 1889. This company also makes whiskey ("White Oak"), and owns a winery in Yamanashi Prefecture ("Charman Wine"). Sake is very dry, master brewer from Tamba. 

  • Honda Shoten (1921; Tatsuriki, "Dragon Power" and also the Japanese designation for Nagarjuna, one of the Indian founders of Esoteric Buddhism) - In the famous castle town of Himeji, west of Kobe. Established by the then master brewer of Hakutsuru. Junmaishu and junmai ginjos made from the highest grade Yamada Nishiki rice (from the Akitsu region around the town of Tojo, where the company has contracted many farmers). The brewery draws pure underflow water more than 100 meters beneath the Ibo River. Full-flavored, rich sake. Daiginjos make up one third of Tatsuriki's production.

  • Yaegaki Shuzo (1666; Mu, "Nothingness", Yaegaki, "Eightfold Fence") - Also from Himeji. The brewery takes its name "Eightfold Fence" from a famous poem in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest extant chronicle. Uses underflow water from the Hayashidagawa River in Himeji, fed upstream by the Shikagatsubo waterfall. Uses Yamahai method, makes very good junmai sakes. Hand production, also of koji (with small boxes). Factory in the U.S. since 1987.
[Miyamizu monument in Nishinomiya]

Inland sake producing areas as Tanba and Tajima:
  • Homei Shuzo (1797; Homei, "The Call of the fenix" ). In the historical town of Tanba Sasayama. Their brewery, the 200-year old Horoyoi Jokagura, can be visited.

  • Kasumitsuru (1725; Kasumitsuru, "Crane from Kasumi") - English website. Located in the town of Kami, on the scenic Japan Sea Coast, one of the leading fishing ports for snow crab; also close to famous Kinosaki Onsen. Full-tasting sake made according to the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, very different in taste from the dry Nada sakes. Makes well-balanced ginjo's, but also keeps making regular sake for the local population.

  • Nishiyama Shuzojo (1849; Kotsuzumi, "Small Hand-drum") - Located in Tanba City, near Tanba Takeda Station on the JR Fukuchiyama Line. Brewery visit on appointment, Feb and March. Uses soft water from a well in the brewery. Delicate sake, different from the usual Hyogo sake. Company uses interesting and fun labels and bottles, well-coordinated. Artistic is also the family of the owner - for three generations they are haiku poets in the tradition of Takahama Kyoshi (who also devised the brandname "Kotsuzumi"). Uses Association Yeast No. 10 for all its products, resulting in soft taste with little sourness. All koji made by hand. Sake rice is Hyogo Kita Nishiki.
Hyogo Brewing Association Alliance Society
Nada Gogo Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

June 2, 2017

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 25 (Fujiwara no Sadakata)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 25

na ni shi owaba
Osakayama no
hito ni shirarede
kuru yoshi mo gana


If its name is true,
"come sleep vine" of "Meeting Slope Hill,"
isn't there some way
without anyone knowing
that it can reel me in to you?

Fujiwara no Sadakata (873–932)

"Osakayama" does not refer to Osaka, but points again at the "Ausaka" or "Meeting Slope" on the highway between present-day Kyoto and Otsu, which also figures prominently in poem 10.

[Marker of "Meeting Slope"]

Sanekazura is a specific Japanese plant, "Kadsura Japonica." It has deep green, glossy leaves and is cultivated as an ornamental plant in gardens. Extract from this plant is also used for traditional Japanese washi paper making. In our poem only its rope-like quality is alluded to, its ability to "pull" the poet towards his beloved. There is however a second sly allusion here: the name of the plant starts with the elements "sa ne" which can also mean "come, sleep!," so this becomes a rather open declaration of the poet's intention.

"Kuru" in the last line means "to come," but is a homonym with another kuru which means "to reel in."

There is a head-note attached to the poem which reads "Sent to a woman's house." It was usual to attach poems sent to others to some object, as a flower, and in this case the poem was probably attached to an actual piece of the Kadsura Japonica vine.

Although some commentators / translators interpret the last line in the sense that it is the poet who is "reeling in" his beloved, like a vine, in the actual Heian situation that was impossible. As we saw in earlier poems, women of status kept separate residences where they were visited not only by lovers, but even by their husbands; aristocratic women were quite immobile and never left their houses, certainly not for trysts - the only exception were pilgrimages to Kannon temples.

Fujiwara no Sadakata, also known as Sanjo Udaijin or Sanjo Minister of the Right, was the son of Fujiwara no Takafuji, and the cousin and father-in-law of Fujiwara no Kanesuke (poem 27). His son Asatada was also a poet (see poem 44).

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

May 2, 2017

"Japanese Pilgrimage" by Oliver Statler (Best Non-Fiction)

This is where one begins. On this mountaintop, at the holiest spot of this sprawling complex of temples, in the shadow of these towering cedars, one stands before the tomb of the saint whose life and legacy inspire the pilgrimage. Here one asks his blessing, his guidance and protection, his company, on the pilgrimage to come. (Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler, describing a visit to Koyasan before embarking on the Shikoku Pilgrimage)
One of the things still squarely on my ToDo list, is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 Temples. A few times, I have dipped in a toe, so to speak, by visiting No. 1, Ryozenji, in Tokushima; No. 31, Chikurinji in Kochi; No. 51, Ishiteji, in Matsuyama; and No. 84, Yashimaji near Takamatsu. But these were random visits and not part of a pilgrimage. While this big but pleasant task is still glittering in my future, I am thinking about the book that first aroused my interest in the Shikoku Pilgrimage: Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler. It was Statler's fascinating account that made me fantasize about threading in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi. In this expertly written book, the author combines a personal account of the Pilgrimage with substantial cultural information on the topic. I first read Japanese Pilgrimage in the mid-1980s and that book now is so brown and broken that I have to be careful when turning the brittle pages. I think I have read it at least three times.

[Ishiteji Temple in Dogo Spa, Matsuyama]

Oliver Statler (1915-2002) graduated from the University of Chicago and came to Japan with the American army in 1947. He was gripped by the beauty of wood block prints of which he became an internationally known expert. His interest in the Pilgrimage dated from a first visit to Shikoku, in 1961; he first performed the whole 1000-mile circular pilgrimage in 1968. From 1969-1971 he lived in Matsuyama on Shikoku in order to further study the pilgrimage, and in 1971 he made the entire pilgrimage again (with a Japanese friend - this is the biographical account we find in the book). It was a Guggenheim Fellowship which permitted him in 1973 to finally write the book, which was first published in 1983.

As Japanese Pilgrimage shows, Statler was a beautiful stylist of the English language. His account is a lyrical, impressionistic portrait of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, anecdotal and episodic and yet securely built on an underlying narrative plan. It is well-researched and highly evocative of Japanese religiosity as it functions in daily life. It also contains biographical information about the priests and pilgrims prominent in the long history of the pilgrimage, starting with Kobo Daishi (774-835), saint, miracle worker, flamboyant evangelist, scholar, poet and even (later) a deity. He struggled to find the "right way" here in the mountains of Shikoku; and he sought it in China where he inherited the mantle of a great esoteric Buddhist master. He finally reached the understanding that all human beings possess the seed of Buddha and can, with hard effort, nurture that seed and reach enlightenment during this present life.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first one ("Master"), Statler gives an outline of the historical personage of Kukai (later known honorifically as Kobo Daishi), the 8th/9th-century monk and founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism in Japan upon whom the pilgrimage is focused. In the second part ("Savior"), Statler attempts to portray how layers of legend and belief enlarged Kobo Daishi and how faith in him as a divine savior was spread among the populace by wandering, itinerant holy men (hijiri). Finally, in the third section ("Pilgrims"), the pilgrimage itself comes into sharper focus, both through discussions with current pilgrims and priests and accounts of past pilgrims such as the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danzo VIII and haiku poet Masaoka Shiki.

And while telling these three stories Statler shares with the reader his own experiences of the thousand-mile journey, a demanding route through deep mountings and along rugged coasts, taking almost two months to walk. All three sections are full of legends, folk stories, anecdotes and miracle tales that perfectly capture the mood and feel of the pilgrimage.

Perhaps to cut back on Japanese names for those not used to the language, Statler calls the 88 temples by number ("Number One," etc.) , but at the back of the book he provides a concordance with the temple names. The author also skips back and forth (without discussing all 88 temples) and doesn't give any practical information - in other words, this is not a guidebook. It is a book about the spirit of the pilgrimage, its history and its culture. You don't even actually have to perform it to enjoy this fine account. But that is a dangerous thought for me - it could make me lazy, for the Pilgrimage is still waiting, on my very doorstep as I now live in Kobe instead of Tokyo...

Remember, the Pilgrimage is circular, and like a circle, it has neither a beginning nor an end; like the quest for Enlightenment, it is unending...
Biography at University of Hawaii website. Bibliography of books on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. For a guide in English, see A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the Eighty-eight Temples on Shikoku, Japan, by Taisen Miyata. A scholarly account is Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku, by Ian Reader. More scholarly articles on the Pilgrimage can be found in No 24:3-4 (Fall 1997) of The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (available online).

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography
Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

April 28, 2017

"The Empty Mirror" by Janwillem van de Wetering (Best Non-Fiction)

This small memoir, that ends on a tone of disillusion, is one of the best accounts of a Westerner coming to terms with Zen and meditation. The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, written by the Dutch adventurer, businessman and author Janwillem van de Wetering, is not perfect (the end is a bit abrupt), but it is an honest and factual account, larded with interesting Zen stories, and on top of that, it is full of humor.
"The empty mirror," he said. "If you could really understand that, there would be nothing left here for you to look for." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
In the past, my own interest in Zen was one of the motivators to study Chinese and Japanese in Leiden (coupled with my fascination for the philosophical Daoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi). At that time I did not yet know Van de Wetering's book - although it had just been published -, but in retrospect, when I read it in the late '80s, I found some truths here I had also sensed myself.

In other words, I realized why, despite my interest in Zen, I have never seriously considered entering a Zen monastery. In the first place a spiritual reason. By nature I am an academic rather than a practitioner. I approach Zen on an intellectual, or philosophical level. Objectively, this may not be the best way, but it is the approach that fits my personality.

The second reason is physical: I was never able to sit in the lotus position, not even the half lotus. I am just too large and too stiff. Janwillem van de Wetering had the same problem, and I feel his pain when he writes about his attempts to fold his legs!

The third reason is that I am too individualistic to fit in the groupist and hierarchic society of a Zen monastery. Van de Wetering had the luck to get his own room as a foreigner - the Japanese monks all slept in the same big dormitory. I don't like to do things at fixed times when others do them. I don't like to lie in awe on the floor in front of a Master, but as an egalitarian Dutchman would rather openly and freely discuss things with him.

The fourth reason is that there is too much beauty (next to the obvious pain) in the ordinary world. I can very much understand Janwillem's escapades from his restricted temple life to have a delicious beer! In my view, it should be possible to find the truth without giving up beauty... I am sure the irreverent and iconoclastic Van de Wetering must in the end have felt the same.
"Try!" the head monk said, "what a word! You mustn't try, you must do it." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
But back to the book. In 1958, Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), appeared at the gate of the Daitokuji Zen Temple in Kyoto, asking to be admitted as a novice monk. The young Dutchman, son of a merchant, had already led an adventurous life, as trader in Cape Town, as member of a motorcycle gang, and next as a student of philosophy in London. Although he was originally interested in existentialism, his professor there suggested that he consider Zen Buddhism. So Van de Wetering was off to Japan, a country of which he neither knew the language nor the culture, and where he had no contacts. He just vaguely knew he wanted to practice Zen. He was one of the first, many would follow...
"Nothing matters, nothing is important, but it does matter and it is important to do whatever you are doing as well as possible." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After promising to stay for at least eight months, Janwillem van de Wetering was miraculously accepted in Daitokuji, where he received guidance from Peter, an American studying there already for a longer time, who was also fluent in Japanese. Van de Wetering would stay for almost two years, struggling to find the meaning of life via Zen, until his money ran out.

The book provides a basic introduction to Zen, often via interesting stories. But more than that, it shows us the daily routine in a Zen monastery, not only the peaceful meditation, but also the arguments, the jokes the monks make, the cigarettes they secretly smoke, and the Master who likes to watch baseball on TV. Human life, in fact, is the same on the inside of Daitokuji's walls, as on the outside. We also see Janwillem struggling with his physical inability to sit for a long time in the lotus position, and with the Japanese language - there are times, he completely misunderstands the Master when Peter is not present to interpret.

Van de Wetering now and then escapes to Kobe to stay with the well-heeled Dutch businessman Leo, where he can drink beer and smoke cigars. Here he also reads his first Judge Dee novels by Van Gulik - much later, in the '80s, Van de Wetering would be active in promoting a rediscovery of these novels in The Netherlands; he also would write a biography about Van Gulik.

When it all ends, Janwillen van de Wetering has not found any big truths. But he has learned the notion of Zen-like acceptance, and how to be detached, even when striving hard. Perhaps that small bit of insight is more important than any broad and sweeping conclusion.
"By leaving here nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After moving away from Japan, Van de Wetering worked in Columbia, Peru and Australia. In Bogota he also married. From 1966 to 1975 Van de Wetering would be active in the textile business in Amsterdam. At the same time he served as a reserve police officer, an experience that gave him the materials for his most famous novels, the fifteen volume crime series about police officers Grijpstra and De Gier. De Gier is modeled on the author and is interested in Zen and jazz. These were the times that hippie culture reigned in Amsterdam, even among the police force - a very different situation from today's more grim climate.

One of the novels, The Japanese Corpse, is situated in Japan. Van de Wetering also wrote a novel about a Japanese detective, Inspector Saito, but this book was less succesful. The early "Grijsptra and De Gier" novels convince because of their authentic atmosphere of the Amsterdam of the non-conformist sixties.

In 1971 Van de Wetering published The Empty Mirror as his first book (in Dutch, the English version followed two years later). In 1975, he wrote a sort of sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, about his sojourn at the Moon Springs Hermitage in Maine. Although he left the Hermitage after four years, he stayed on in Maine - the part of the world where he finally found his home. He also died there - in the summer of 2008, just when I had started reading The Empty Mirror for a second time.
The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering (St. Martin's Griffin, reprint 1999)

Other recommended Zen books by the same author: A Glimpse of Nothingness, AfterZen. Published by St. Martin's Griffin. I you want to try his crime novels, have a look at Hard Rain, The Blond Baboon, The Corpse on the Dike, or The Japanese Corpse.

Update of a post originally written in 2008. 

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

"Daodejing, The Classic Book of the Way and its Power" (Best Non-Fiction)

One of the reasons I decided to study Chinese (a decision that shocked both my parents and my teachers at the Grammar School in the small town where I lived) was my discovery of philosophical Daoism. Not satisfied with what the protestant church my family officially was a member of, was teaching, already from a young age I had started looking for wisdom elsewhere. That was not easy in the pre-internet age (something now inconceivable!) – I only had the local library to rely on and that was not much in a conservative municipality.

Happily, at some time I discovered that a certain publisher at that time was bringing out so-called "esoteric" books, among them small-sized hardcover books with translations of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and Liezi - the three central books of philosophical Daoism.

These translations were not by professional Sinologists, but they served well as a first introduction. I remember I also bought a Dutch version of Wilhelm's The Book of Changes (Yijing) and a direct Dutch translation of the earliest book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing). Unfortunately, I don't have those books anymore; they have fallen by the wayside during my frequent international removals, after I had acquired better and more reliable English translations. But I still can vividly remember the pleasure those small books afforded me... especially the short Daodejing was very intriguing...
The way (Dao) that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;

The name that can be named
is not the constant name.
The Daodejing is a small book (about 5,000 characters in Chinese) of 81 aphorisms. I have re-read it in the version by D.C. Lau (Penguin Classics), which also contains an excellent introduction and other materials. The Daodejing is the principal classic in the Daoist tradition. Traditionally, it has been ascribed to one Laozi, or "Old Master," a so-called contemporary of Confucius, but as the name already indicates, Laozi is most probably a fictional figure - he is also not mentioned in the Daodejing itself. There were probably many "old masters" and their wise, guru-like sayings were compiled into one book somewhere in the 3th c. BCE (around 270 BCE the text became very influential).

This was an age in which many schools of philosophy competed with ideas about the ideal government. As D.C. Lau, the translator, indicates, that is probably also how the Daodejing was originally meant - a treatise on government and personal conduct rather than a mystical treatise (or both, the one doesn't preclude the other). It advances a philosophy of naturalness and meekness as the way to survival in chaotic and disordered times.
"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it."
Although beautiful poetry, the work in fact is quite disordered itself: many of the 81 chapters hang together as loose sand and Lau again subdivides them by numbering certain passages, so coming to a total of 196 aphorisms. The title "Classic of the Way and the Virtue ("The Way and its Power" in the rendering of the famous Sinologist Arthur Waley) has been simply taken from the starting words of the two books into which it has been (arbitrarily) divided.
"One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know."
The Dao precedes and informs all other beings in the universe and is basically indescribable. You can only be in harmony with it by an attitude of naturalness, of passivity and of yielding. This quietistic attitude can also be applied to the ruling of the state: no do-goodism or hyper-active planning, but a certain amount of laissez faire is what is necessary. Or in the words of Michael Puett:
"The Daodejing argues that the universe changes spontaneously, without a conscious will driving it. The goals of the sage should be to act in accordance with these spontaneous changes. [...] In the Daodejing the universe operates through a constant process of generation and decay: things are naturally born and then they naturally die. Everything emerges from oneness and ultimately returns to it. The act of differentiation is a movement away from oneness, from stillness, from emptiness. The goal of the true sage is to become still and empty and thus achieve a state of returning to this oneness. This is called attaining the Dao. A true sage acts without conscious deliberation [...] Moreover he is amoral, for the Dao itself is amoral - morality is an artificial human construct and should thus be opposed." (from The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, Columbia UP, 2001, pp. 76-78).
It is the mystic, rhapsodic tone that makes this book so attractive and has ensured its survival long after its political message lost its relevance. It is subtle, elusive and suggestive and can therefore also be read on a "higher level" as a book of mystical wisdom. It is not for nothing the most translated book from the Chinese, every new translator can find new meanings in it, like an ancient Rorschach test.
"Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful."
But thanks to its transcendental attitude, there are many things in the Daodejing that still can interest us personally. It can very well for the basis for a personal philosophy of life. Although I can not claim I have always followed it, to me personally it is a very inspiring book.

Here are some things we can learn from the Daodejing:
  • Force begets force.
  • Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
  • The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Know when it's time to stop.
By the way, Daoism as a religion (with a different take on the Daodejing) is discussed by Kristofer Schipper in his interesting The Taoist Body.
This post quotes from / is based on: 
Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1976) 
Early Chinese Literature, Burton Watson (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001) 
Also see the page on Laozi in the excellent online "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy."
 This a revision of a post I published years ago on a different site.

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

February 28, 2017

Science & Education: Two Museums in Kyoto

Science and education are the pillars of a modern country. This is demonstrated clearly by the development of Japan since the late 19th century. Two small museums of Kyoto reflect this development in their displays: The Kyoto Museum of School History shows how the citizens of Kyoto tried to shore up the city's economy, damaged by the departure of Emperor and court to Tokyo, by themselves introducing universal education before the national government did so. And the Shimadzu Memorial Hall shows how interest in science and technology, here by a father and son who were both inventors, has created today's advanced industry in Japan.

[Kyoto Museum of School History] 

1. Kyoto Municipal Museum of School History (Kyotoshi Gakko Rekishi Hakubutsukan)
Kyoto was faced with an economic crisis when in 1868 the capital was transferred to Tokyo and the court and aristocracy, which for many centuries had been catered to by Kyoto's numerous artisans, packed up and left. Happily, the citizens of Kyoto were intelligent and wise, and they realized the enormous importance of education for the future. They were also already organized in a form of communal self-governance based on city wards, which made it easier to come into action. So based on donations by almost every family in Kyoto, 64 "bangumi" primary schools were founded in 1869 ("bangumi" are school districts based on wards). In other words, the citizens of Kyoto introduced general compulsory education three years before it was introduced in the whole country.

To commemorate this fact, Kyoto has set up the Kyoto Municipal Museum of School History, which is aptly located in a former Meiji period primary school, south of Shijodori and Gion not far from Bukkoji Temple. It has educational materials and textbooks on display, but also paintings and crafts donated by the graduates of those schools. There are displays on late Edo-period education, about the setting up and history of the "bangumi" schools, and about the education system in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. There is a room with textbooks everyone can read (in copy). A film is also shown about the history of schools in Kyoto. Finally, the Japanese-style paintings in the collection form an extra enticement to visit.

[Shimadzu Memorial Hall]

2. Shimadzu Foundation Memorial Hall (Shimazu Sogyo Kinen Shiryokan)
Shimadzu is a manufacturer of precision measuring, medical, aviation and industrial instruments. It is one of the many companies originally set up in Kyoto, showing that this city was not only bent on tradition but also had (and still has) a strong innovative side, not in the least thanks to its many excellent universities. Shimadzu Corporation was set up by Shimadzu Genzo in 1875 at Kiyamachi in Kyoto, at the northern end of the Takase River (there were more laboratories and industrial facilities in this area in the early Meiji period using the latest technologies from Europe).

The museum is housed in a historical two-story wooden building in which Shimadzu Genzo lived for 45 years and which he used as his head-office. Shimadzu Genzo was the son of a craftsman of Buddhist altars, but as he was interested in science, he studied at the Physics and Chemistry Research Institute in the Nijo district and started manufacturing instruments for physics and chemistry. Although born in traditional Kyoto, he strongly believed Japan should become a world leader in science. In 1882, his catalog of scientific instruments had expanded to 110 items. He was also invited to teach at the Kyoto Prefectural Normal School. Unfortunately, he suddenly passed away in 1894.

His son, Genzo Jr., succeeded him and happily, the son was even more of a science geek than the father. He was a remarkable inventor who earned the nickname "Edison of Japan." In 1896, only a year after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, he succeeded in producing an X-ray image and in 1909 he developed the first medical X-ray device in Japan (exhibited in the museum). Ever since, Shimadzu has remained a pioneer in the field of medical X-ray devices. In 1895, Genzo Jr. also began manufacturing storage batteries, which led to a new business, GS Battery (named after his initials), which now is GS Yuasa Corporation, and one of the world leaders in its field - its batteries are used in electric cars as well as in the space station.

In 1934 Shimadzu developed Japan's first spectograph, entering the field of analytical instruments, which since has remained a core business. Shimadzu's technology really came into its own during the years of rapid economic growth after WWII, and many important products were introduced one after another. The company also expanded abroad.

In 2002, Tanaka Koichi, at that time assistant manager at Shimadzu Corporation's Life Science Research Center, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which drew much attention from around the world.

This interesting history is highlighted in the museum, with a collection of historical and new instruments as well as various related historical reference materials and artifacts. The museum really helps visitors understand how Japan could grow into such an advanced science nation.

[For opening days/hours and location - plus maps - see the English websites of these museums, via the links above in the post]