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

December 29, 2006

The Year of the Boar

In case you were still wondering what zodiac animal will be called into service next year, just look at this shop window in the Otesuji Shopping Arcade in Fushimi (Momoyamagoryo St on the Keihan line in Kyoto) with its collection of eto: it is going to be the year of the boar!

Although the animal zodiac was devised in China, some subtle changes were made after it crossed over to Japan. The Chinese have a year of the pig in 2007, honoring their most delicious farm animal. The Japanese took Buddhism more seriously and never became great meat eaters until the Meiji period. So when this system was introduced in Japan there were wild pigs (boars) in the woods rather than domesticated pigs on the farmstead.

Therefore the character of the year is also different. The pig is shy, but short tempered and a typical family type. The boar is first and for all headstrong, storming on in the same direction even if he is wrong. We can only hope that the character of 2007 will not be like that...

December 26, 2006

Kanji culture

When I studied Chinese characters (kanji) my teacher strongly advised me to practice by writing them. Only after you remembered the strokes with your pen (or pencil or writing brush), he said, could you also remember them with your eyes. I was reminded of my kanji practice of more than thirty years ago by the recent spate of books in Japan on penmanship.

Just like us, the Japanese now all day sit typing behind their computers, converting the text into kanji by a push of the button. It not only means their handwriting is deteriorating, they are also forgetting their kanji.

Even Basho has been called into action to stem this ugly tide. Since the beginning of this year more than 900,000 copies have been sold of a book called Enpitsu de Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road by Pencil). In this book, readers have to trace the lightly printed gray characters of Basho's text by tracing them with a pencil, in fact the same technique as when copying Buddhist sutras.

Even such an easy practice helps people remember the kanji. This would not be Japan if a booming trend had not been born. You can now exercise your penmanship by copying heaps of prepared classical texts and also by buying special drill books where you have to fill in characters from memory.

Remembering kanji is not the only reason for this return to handwriting. "Slow life" in the form of conscious nostalgia also plays a role, as is demonstrated by the 15% rise in sales of fountainpens this year.

A third and perhaps most important reason for penmanship is that writing by hand stimulates the brain. And "brain training" happens to be another important trend in this age of aging populations, as you will see again when you enter any given bookshop. The shelves are not only loaded with brain-practice books, but also games that are supposed to help you exercise your gray matter. So kanji practice packs a double punch and no wonder that it has exploded on the scene like it did in 2006.

November 22, 2006

Tokyo Trips: Autumn in Itabashi

When you travel to Itabashi via the Mita line and see the endless ranges of giant flats on the horizon, you might mistake them for mountains. When the truth dawns upon you, you may start to feel faint at heart and doubt whether you made a good decision to come here. Don't worry: a walk of about 15 minutes from Nishi-Takashimadaira Station will bring you to the Itabashi Art Museum, standing at a quiet pond, Tameike, safe from the onslaught of the danchi.

[Great Buddha of Jorenji]

The Itabashi Art Museum is the oldest of the many art museums set up by Tokyo's wards and cities (vintage 1979). The museum only organizes special exhibitions and has no works on permanent display, so it is not a place to drop by unprepared. Check the schedule at the website, and only come when there is something of interest, because this museum will be the center of your visit to Itabashi. The museum focuses on Edo art and organizes several interesting exhibitions a year on this subject. A few years ago, for example, I saw a fascinating display of Akita Ranga, the paintings with Western ("Dutch") perspective and chiascuro made in Edo-period Akita.

On the opposite side of the pond where rustic anglers may be active, stands the Itabashi Historical Museum, which has some archeological artifacts and folklore items on display. Best is the minka standing at the back of the museum, making this a nice play to drop in for a few minutes as well.

But there is more in this area. A 5 min. walk from the museums lies the Akatsuka Botanical garden, occupying part of the grounds of the long defunct Akatsuka castle. There are more than 600 different plants and trees, as well as a garden with medicinal herbs mentioned in the Manyoshu. We visited in early winter when everything was bare, and only the fallen leaves rustled under our feet, but it was nice to walk through this park that still keeps an image of the wildness of ancient Musashino.

Our last destination was Jorenji temple. Jorenji's founding goes back many centuries, and originally it stood along the Nakasendo highway - until it had to move in 1973 to make way for an expressway. Now it stands in a corner of the old Akatsuka Castle as well, and contrary to what you might expect of a modern temple it has beautiful grounds and buildings and is a pleasure to visit.

Mentioning the Nakasendo, reminds me of the fact that in the Edo-period Itabashi was "Itabashi-juku," a post town on the highway that ran through the mountains of Central Japan to Kyoto. The post town consisted of four parts; one of these, Naka-juku, had an actuall plank bridge that gave the name "Itabashi" to the whole area. There is little post town atmosphere left in present-day Itabashi, which is a bedtown with noisy roads leading into Tokyo, but the area with the museums and botanical garden, called Akatsuka, still retains a whiff of the old flavor.

Jorenji boast several monuments and statues in its garden (such as a good modern Hotei), but it is now above all famous for its Daibutsu, its Big Buddha. Only cast in 1977, to pacify the spirits of the soldiers who died ages ago in the battles around Akatsuka Castle (did they scare the priest?), it is 22 metres high and weighs 22 tons. An Amida Buddha like its big brother in Kamakura, it cannot hold a candle to that older statue when it comes to artistic merit, but it nevertheless impresses by its peaceful countenance. A good conclusion of an autumn afternoon in Itabashi.
Itabashi Art Museum
5-34-27 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3979-3251
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4
15 min walk from Nishi-Takashimadaira St on the Mita line

Itabashi Historical Museum
Tel: 03-5998-0081
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4

In late winter/early spring, the Tameike pond and park are the site of the Ume (plum) festival.

Akatsuka Botanical Garden
(Manyo Yakuyo Garden)
Tel: 03-3975-9127
CL New year
16 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

Jorenji Temple
5-28-3 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
30 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

The temple, botanical garden and historical museum are free. Entrance to the art museum is usually 600 yen, but may depend on the exhibition.

November 11, 2006

Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves

The first Japanese film I ever saw was Rashomon and since that momentous evening I have been hooked on samurai films (and Japanese film in general). This was about 20 years ago, at a time when it was still difficult to find Japanese films. The situation improved after I moved again to Japan in the late eighties - although the DVD did not exist yet, at least I could rent videos. I also used to scour the TV guide for occasional showings of samurai films on Japanese TV. Then the Laser Disc came and with it lots of chambara films, as the Zatoichi and Nemuri Kyoshiro series. In the late nineties, finally, the DVD took the world by storm and with it came the relatively large flow of films we now can choose from.

Compared to the past, we now live in heaven for the samurai film fan! I gradually grew into this field of swashbuckling Ronin and stern Bushido (and there were such useful guides as Alain Silver's The Samurai Film and the book by Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa), but if you are new to it, some more help may come in handy. It is here that Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, The Samurai Film Handbook by Patrick Galloway proves its worth, although even as an "old hand" I greatly enjoyed it.

Galloway is an ardent fan of samurai flicks and his enthusiasm is quite infectious. He discusses 50 films (all available to would-be viewers, most of them even relatively easy) and also provides profiles for 10 directors and actors. In the introduction he gives the necessary cultural background about the samurai and the films that were made about them. His definition of the samurai film neglects Japanese intricacies such as the difference between jidaigeki (historical films) and chambara (sword fight films). In Galloway's definition all films that have samurai and sword fights in it and that are set in the historical period until the start of the Meiji period (1868), are samurai films. A very practical definition with which I fully agree!

Galloway not only discusses classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, but also delves into popular series as Zatoichi, Nemuri Kyoshiro, Miyamoto Musashi and Lone Wolf and Cub. Lady Snowblood is present as well. Sometimes he seeks the boundaries of the genre, as in Kwaidan (rather a horror film) or (on a different level) Daimajin, an old monster film about a giant samurai statue that comes to life. But he also discusses art films as Harakiri and gives a sympathetic account of Twilight Samurai.

Galloway writes in a light and humorous style that is a breeze to read. The book has been beautifully edited and illustrated and is fully up to the high standard we have gotten used to from Stone Bridge Press.

Also read my post on Best Samurai Films.

October 12, 2006

Miyamoto Musashi - Lone samurai or samurai legend?

Why is swordsman Miyamoto Musashi so popular? We know almost nothing about him and what we know with any certainty is not very spectacular. Is it because he is the author of The Book of Five Rings? Or is it thanks to the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji and the films by Inagaki and other directors? It is a real enigma, especially as Musashi was not at all very well known in his own time and only seems to have gathered fame long after his death, the legend accelerating in the 20th c.

That legend then, is that not all there is? I often have the feeling that Miyamoto Musashi is not a real figure, but a blending of the scant facts from several, different persons: the legend of the young, hotheaded swordfighter has grown together with the life of the martial arts teacher of the Hosokawa clan in Kumamoto, and on the way sucked up the works of a painter called Niten. Or am I too skeptical?

Thanks to the Sunday-drama series of the NHK, 2004 was a Miyamoto Musashi year in Japan and Kodansha took that opportunity to ask Japanologist and translator (Hagakure; The Book of Five Rings; Taiko) William Scott Wilson to write a book about the legendary swordfighter: The lone Samurai. The author goes back to the original documents and tries to sort out their conflicting claims, which is no easy job. Too little is known for sure, too much is based on just one source without corroborating evidence. For example, we do not even know on which side the famous Miyamoto Musashi fought in the greatest conflicts of his time, the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and the two campaigns against Osaka Castle and the Toyotomi in 1615.

Wilson basically does a good job, but there is so little to tell about Miyamoto Musashi that he often has to pad his story by in detail relating historical circumstances and informing us about the lives of other people who lived in Musashi's time. This is in itself not bad, as it gives us the full historical and cultural picture, but the author goes too far when he speculates that Takuan, a famous Zen monk of the early 17th c., and Musashi must have known each other. That is not scholarship but fiction - in the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji Takuan figures as the teacher of Musashi.

The detailed discussions of several of Musashi's art works are welcome, but here, too, I have a lingering doubt: if Musashi was not considered as the artist, would these paintings still be discussed in terms of being painted with the "sharp eye of the swordsman?" Isn't that an interpolation from supposed facts?

The part I liked best in the whole book was unfortunately printed in smaller letters than what went before, as if it were less important: an overview of the growth of the Musashi legend, and the development of his story in Yoshikawa Eiji's novel and several films, all the way to a recent manga, Vagabond. Perhaps because I see Musashi as basically an interesting legend and a good story and consider him very problematical as history, to me this section should be the basis of all Musashi books instead of being treated as an appendix.

That being said, I am grateful to Wilson for including this detailed account (Lone Samurai is the only Musashi book that does so) and on the whole can recommend this book to all, newcomers and those who already have a basic knowledge about the subject alike, as an excellent introduction to the Musashi legend.

August 9, 2006

Basho’s haiku in Nagoya: Tumbling in the snow

good-bye now,
I go snow viewing
till tumbling over

iza saraba | yukimi ni korobu | tokoro made


[Osu Kannon Temple, Nagoya]

This charming haiku was composed at a snow viewing party at the house of one Yudo, a bookseller in Nagoya, on December 3, 1687 (January 5, 1688 in our calendar). Basho may have written the poem after the meeting when he was about to leave the house and venture into the deep snow for a real expedience of the white world, instead of only viewing it from the comfort of a warm room. Basho seems almost as excited as a child would be on the prospect of stepping into the fresh snow and slipping.
Haiku Stone: The haiku stone stands in the grounds of the Osu Kannon temple, opposite the Main Hall. The stone was put up by local haiku poets in the early 19th c. On the top the words Kasen-zuka are inscribed, because the back of the stone contains a renga in 36 verses by those local poets.
2-21-47 Osu, Naka-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi-ken. Tel. (052)231-6525
Osu Kannon Station on the Tsurumai Subway Line (Exit 2).
Antique market every 18th & 28th.

June 19, 2006

Classical Film: "Onibaba" by Shindo Kaneto

The film Onibaba (1964) by expressionist director Shindo Kaneto came as a shell shock when I finally saw it last week. It is an aggressive masterwork from the heyday of Japanese cinema that hits you squarely in the face – in a most pleasant way. Just as its contemporary The Woman in the Dunes by Teshigahara is completely dominated by shifting sands, so Onibaba is in the grip of fields of waving long susuki grass.

“I was enslaved by the waving susuki field,” says director Shindo. The grass hides beauty and savagery, terror and death, and supports the attempt at survival in times of war by a few poor peasants.

A mother and her daughter-in-law hide out here to kill stray, wounded samurai and sell their weapons and armor on the black market. The bodies are dumped unceremoniously in a deep hole in the center of the grassy realm.

Then a young man of the village returns and reports the son and husband killed. He and the young woman, now widow, are sexually attracted to each other and meet in scenes of violent eroticism – the grass now becomes the swaying of sexual impulses.

The mother fears she will loose her livelihood if the daughter-in-law leaves her and tries to shock her away from her lover by donning a demon mask she has stolen from a samurai she kills for the purpose.

Thus she becomes the Onibaba, the “Devil Woman,” of the title. But there is a catch: she is not able to remove the mask anymore, and when she finally succeeds with the help of the young woman, after much pulling and wringing, her whole face is disfigured...

The film is shot in fierce contrasts of black and white, extreme close-ups are mixed with long shots, long silences alternate with the thundering sound of drums. It is the kind of minimalist art film that invites thick tomes of commentary, but I would say, see it for yourself...

June 6, 2006

Jellyfish for relaxation in Japan

Healing, iyashi, is much sought after in Japan since the economic crisis.

It has given rise to a whole new culture, which is typically Japanese. People are willing to spend a lot of money on stress relief, sponsoring a $30 billion industry.

Traditional massage and herb therapy are a long passed station. Now you have animal therapy ("rent-a-pup", which is better than buying your own pet which brings stressful chores!), aromatherapy, luxurious "day spas", and exotic "high end" massages.

The Japanese spend six times as much money on these treatments than on acquiring new flatscreen televisions.

The most popular way to relieve stress, as reported by the Washington Post? You would never have guessed: watching jellyfish.

Apparently, it is soothing to see jellyfish slowly sliding through an aquarium. Many people buy their own jellyfish for at home, but that, too, may be stressful.

The Enoshima Aquarium in the vicinity of Tokyo offers the perfect solution. It organizes stay overs in the aquarium, enabling you before retiring for the night to leisurely watch a big tank where jellyfish dance to the sound of New Age music...

P.S. In Kurosawa Kiyoshi's film Bright Future (2002), one of the protagonists also keeps jellyfish - but poisonous ones. When these are in the end released into the canals of Tokyo, they bring about some unexpected results...

P.S.2. There is a lot of "Fake News" going around about "how weird the Japanese are," but the jellyfish story is true...