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

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.