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

July 31, 2008

Japanese Customs: Ten ways to beat "Natsubate," Summer Fatigue

When you have noticed my slow speed of posting these days, you may also have guessed what is the matter: I am fighting Natsubate, "summer fatigue"... My body feels like a piece of lead, and my head is troubled by a persistent cloud of sleepiness...

I am therefore employing several shrewd tricks from the Japanese summer fatigue trick book, and below I would like to share a few that are actually quite effective:
  1. Avoid large temperature changes. Stepping out of a coldly air conditioned room or car into the sweltering summer heat, hits you like a hammer. Such sudden temperature changes are very tiring, as your body needs all energy to adjust. Put the aircon a few degrees lower (in Japan, 28 degrees is now quite common), so that the temperature difference ideally is not more than five degrees...
  2. Sleep cool. The heat makes it difficult to enjoy a good, refreshing sleep. Turn on the aircon before you go to bed to chill your room, and use the timer to stop it after an hour or so.
    Why? Sleeping with a strong aircon on can give you a severe cold - I got one during my first airconditioned summer in Japan, and it took me three weeks to recover.
  3. Drink cool (and frequently). The traditional Japanese summer drink is cold roasted barley tea (mugi-cha), and it is one of my favorites. But there many other types of cold teas as well: cold green tea, cold oolong... the most economical (and tasty) way is to make them yourself in a glass or plastic container in your refrigerator. Another refreshing summer drink is cold sake, especially of the type called nama genshu (undilutued, unblended, rather raw sake which explodes in your mouth like a fireworks). You can also try sake ice!
  4. Eat cool and light. Cold noodles are always excellent in Japanese summers (somen, zaru-soba or reimen), or try the age-old fatigue-killer, the mighty eel (unagi).
    Eel is expensive nowadays, but you don't have to make a full meal of it, a small piece of unagi is a delicious side-dish with cold noodles.
    That being said, king of summer vegetables is the Okinawan bitter gourd goya, full of vitamin C, usually eaten as goya champuru, a stir-fry consisting of slices of the bitter gourd with tofu, egg, pork, and other ingredients.
  5. Enjoy cool fruit. The king of summer fruit in japan is the the juicy suika, water melon. When asked what they like best about summer, many Japanese will mention this fresh fruit. It is also healthy thanks to the minerals it contains. Some special types of melons fetch unbelievable prices, but the normal supermarket variety is exquisitely affordable. My personal fruity favorites, by the way, are the small and sweet Japanese grapes, which in summer become available for a reasonable price.
  6. Dress cool. Do as the Japanese: keep your suit and tie in the office and commute in your shirt. When I give a lecture or training, I must wear a suit, but I carry the jacket and tie in a special bag and only put them on after I arrive.
    At home and in your neighborhood, try a yukata or "retro-chic" Buddhist samue work clothes - they also come with short pants. And don't forget to carry a fan!
  7. Listen to coolness. The sound of coolness is the furin, the windbell made of either metal or glass. Hang it in a window or on your balcony and enjoy its tinkling sound when struck by the slightest breeze.
    Of course, you have to open the window and stop the aircon - which also enables you to enjoy another Japanese summer phenomenon, the semi or cicadas and their all-penetrating, shrieking sound... For me, cicadas are symbolic for summer in Japan. Smell coolness. The Japanese burn spiral-shaped incense coils (katori-senko) in summer to chase away the mosquitoes. It is a very nostalgic smell. Buy a nice stand for your green coil and put it in a corner of your room or on the veranda (it is quite strong, so take care not to inhale too much - you can also extinguish it now and then). By the way, I prefer temple incense for a nice fragrance in my room.
  8. Get the shivers. Traditionally, August is the month to see a ghostly Kabuki play, or watch horror movies. Select a real good shocker that gives you literally the shivers - this is more effective than the strongest aircon! Kwaidan is a good one, as is Yotsuya kaidan - see my post about the Best Japanese Horror Films!
  9. Take it easy. The speed in Japan can sometimes be frenetic, but in summer everyone changes to a lower gear. Is that why I sometimes even like Japanese summers?

July 28, 2008

Literature: Fireworks (Hanabi) and Issa

Summer is the season of fireworks. When I was in Tokyo yesterday, I saw many people clad in colorful yukata, for it was the day of the Sumida River Fireworks. Through August, there will be many firework displays all over Japan. They are usually held at lakes, rivers or at the seaside. This custom of mirroring a fiery display in a body of water already existed several centuries ago, as in this haiku by Issa:
for a while

the whole lake is filled

with fireworks

[shibaraku wa | mizuumi ippai no | hanabi kana]

July 26, 2008

Climbing Skull Mountain (A Fragment by Lafcadio Hearn)

In the process of reading Lafcadio Hearn for my "Canon of 108 best books," I came across this short story Hearn calls "A Fragment" (from In Ghostly Japan). As a Buddhist look at life, it is worth quoting in full:
And it was at the hour of sunset that they came to the foot of the mountain. There was in that place no sign of life,--neither token of water, nor trace of plant, nor shadow of flying bird,-- nothing but desolation rising to desolation. And the summit was lost in heaven.

Then the Bodhisattva said to his young companion:--"What you have asked to see will be shown to you. But the place of the Vision is far; and the way is rude. Follow after me, and do not fear: strength will be given you."

Twilight gloomed about them as they climbed. There was no beaten path, nor any mark of former human visitation; and the way was over an endless heaping of tumbled fragments that rolled or turned beneath the foot. Sometimes a mass dislodged would clatter down with hollow echoings; --sometimes the substance trodden would burst like an empty shell.... Stars pointed and thrilled; and the darkness deepened.

"Do not fear, my son," said the Bodhisattva, guiding: "danger there is none, though the way be grim."

Under the stars they climbed,--fast, fast,--mounting by help of power superhuman. High zones of mist they passed; and they saw below them, ever widening as they climbed, a soundless flood of cloud, like the tide of a milky sea.

Hour after hour they climbed;--and forms invisible yielded to their tread with dull soft crashings;--and faint cold fires lighted and died at every breaking.

And once the pilgrim-youth laid hand on a something smooth that was not stone,--and lifted it,--and dimly saw the cheekless gibe of death.

"Linger not thus, my son!" urged the voice of the teacher;--"the summit that we must gain is very far away!"

On through the dark they climbed,--and felt continually beneath them the soft strange reakings,--and saw the icy fires worm and die,--till the rim of the night turned grey, and the stars began to fail, and the east began to bloom.

Yet still they climbed,--fast, fast,--mounting by help of power superhuman. About them now was frigidness of death,--and silence tremendous....A gold flame kindled in the east.

Then first to the pilgrim's gaze the steeps revealed their nakedness;--and a trembling seized him,--and a ghastly fear. For there was not any ground,--neither beneath him nor about him nor above him,--but a heaping only, monstrous and measureless, of skulls and fragments of skulls and dust of bone,--with a shimmer of shed teeth strown through the drift of it, like the shimmer of scrags of shell in the wrack of a tide.

"Do not fear, my son!" cried the voice of the Bodhisattva;--"only the strong of heart can win to the place of the Vision!"

Behind them the world had vanished. Nothing remained but the clouds beneath, and the sky above, and the heaping of skulls between,--up-slanting out of sight.

Then the sun climbed with the climbers; and there was no warmth in the light of him, but coldness sharp as a sword. And the horror of stupendous height, and the nightmare of stupendous depth, and the terror of silence, ever grew and grew, and weighed upon the pilgrim, and held his feet,--so that suddenly all power departed from him, and he moaned like a sleeper in dreams.

"Hasten, hasten, my son!" cried the Bodhisattva: "the day is brief, and the summit is very far away."

But the pilgrim shrieked,--"I fear! I fear unspeakably!--and the power has departed from me!"

"The power will return, my son," made answer the Bodhisattva.... "Look now below you and above you and about you, and tell me what you see."

"I cannot," cried the pilgrim, trembling and clinging; "I dare not look beneath! Before me and about me there is nothing but skulls of men."

"And yet, my son," said the Bodhisattva, laughing softly,--"and yet you do not know of what this mountain is made."

The other, shuddering, repeated:--"I fear!--unutterably I fear!...there is nothing but skulls of men!"

"A mountain of skulls it is," responded the Bodhisattva. "But know, my son, that all of them ARE YOUR OWN! Each has at some time been the nest of your dreams and delusions and desires. Not even one of them is the skull of any other being. All,--all without exception,--have been yours, in the billions of your former lives."

[From: Project Gutenberg]

July 6, 2008

"The Inland Sea" by Donald Richie

My copy of The Inland Sea, the great travel book by Donald Richie, is dated 1978 (the book was originally published in 1971), a big, sturdy paperback by Weatherhill, a small and excellent publishing firm that unfortunately went under - it was taken over by Shambala in 2004. So I must have bought the book when I was studying in Kyoto in the early eighties. I first read it after my return to Holland a few years later and it filled me with an immense desire to go back to Japan again. I wanted to make the same trip as Richie, like him, I wanted to live and work in Japan.
An intimate view of the "real" Japan and its people by Donald Richie who reflects upon the total Japan experience while sailing "The Inland Sea." (Front cover of the 1978 edition)
Happily, I managed to return to Japan very soon after that, and I did indeed visit many of the places on the beautiful Inland Sea Richie describes so masterfully, although I never had the time to make the whole tour.

Richie toured the Inland Sea already way back in 1962, as he tells in an informative afterword (unfortunately not included in the latest edition by Stone Bridge Press). Rather than a step-by-step account of a real trip, the book is an amalgam of elements from various trips, some also not Inland Sea related (although it is not possible to tell which these are). Besides that, Richie reflects on Japanese culture, in which he sees himself as an perennial outsider, and on his own life (a marriage on the verge of breaking up).
“Wherever one turns there is a wide and restful view, one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next until the last dim outline is lost in the distance.” (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
Richie therefore speaks about "travel fiction," but are not all great travel books like that? A day to day account would only be boring - a great story is a summary of various experiences, a writer has the license to change small details in the pursuit of a greater truth.

What strikes is that even at this early time (seen from my perspective) Richie already laments the loss of the beauty of the Japanese landscape due to modernization. And that, while I always felt jealous of people like Richie who could live in Japan in 1950 or 1960 instead of the 1980s!
"New Japan does not like trees. Its totem is the bulldozer." (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
On the other hand, isn't this nostalgia for a pristine Japan, both landscape and man unsullied by modernity, typical of us, Westerners? Is it because even unconsciously we have an image of an exotic East on our retina? I doubt that Indians or Chinese feel the same sentiment. Or is it that Japan, like a great mirror (as Richie concludes), forces us to question our own culture and ourselves in this way?

Richie travels from Himeji to Hiroshima, crisscrossing the Inland sea and landing at Uno, Onomichi and Kure on Honshu, and Takamatsu, Sakaide and Imabari/Matsuyama on Shikoku. The islands he visits include Iejima, Shodoshima, Naoshima, Omishima, and many smaller ones. His means of transport is the ferryboat, slowly weaving its way between the islands and the port cities.
"I hear they are building a bridge
To the island of Tsu.
Alas...
To what now
Shall I compare myself?"
(old Japanese poem, cited at the start of The Inland Sea)
No, modernity certainly has not passed the Inland Sea by. There are today three bridges linking Shikoku with Honshu via the Inland Sea (happily the ferries also still exist, as they are much cheaper than the toll bridges). Shikoku is no longer far away, Sakaide and Takamatsu, and also Matsuyama are now only a short train or bus trip from Kobe, Okayama or Hiroshima. The islands have been domesticated. And alas, more than in Richie's time, the shores of the sea have been plastered with heavy industry. The area now also shares in the general problem of Japan's countryside: the graying of the population, and the exodus of what remains of young people to the big cities.

And despite all that, the Inland Sea remains one of the most beautiful parts of Japan! Some of these places have become my firm favorites. Onomichi for example, of which Richie only describes the seamy and the touristy aspects. In fact, there is a beautiful temple town, stretching from "National Treasure" temple Jodoji to Senkoji. Onomichi with its many staircases and narrow alleys has a real old-time fascination. I also love Naoshima, where Richie met a beautiful local girl, fantasizing about what the future will have in store for her. Well, perhaps she is now working for the Benesse Group, which has asked Ando Tadao to build two avant-garde art museums on the island. The old village, too, as been transformed - old houses have become art house projects - things can also change for the better in Japan!
"A journey is always something of a flight." (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
Takamatsu is another favorite, with its spacious parks, broad shopping arcades and the sight of beautiful, green Yashima from over the port. Or Tomonoura, which probably still looks as quaint as when Richie visited it. Or Omishima, with its shrine museum, the largest dump of classical arms and armor in Japan, where old suits of armor sit in bleak light, like so many ghostly apparitions...

Richie is the ideal observer, the favorite guide: knowledgeable about Japan (he has already lived there for a long time when he makes the trip), but still curious. He is detached, but also romantically involved, sometimes irritated and lonely, but always honest about himself. When he visits a leper colony on one of the islands he writes with compassion about a girl who has been cured but can never return to cruel Japanese society, because of the stigma that will always cling to her, ruining prospects for her brother's career and marriage, making her an outcast from her own family. And the next moment he will be off on long ruminations about such esoteric subjects as the art of belt buckles or the particular beauty of Japanese skin.
"The mist rose like a curtain, obscured the mountain, revealed the beach, the pier, the three girls. They looked like small children, small on the black pier, the black mountains behind them. The sun lifted itself above the mountains, flying. The rising mist turned gold. The entire island floated large on the sea like a mirror. The girls were gone, swallowed into the morning." (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
Richie's travels do confirm his love for Japan - the landscape, the people. That last facet can even be taken literally, for Richie writes openly about his erotic adventures in this travelogue - such as with a prostitute in Onomichi who keeps reciting Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In this port town he also visits a strip show, but - despite being a historian of Japanese film - writes no word on Ozu, whose Tokyo Story starts and ends here, with beautiful nostalgic shots.

By the way, my edition of the book carries equally nostalgic shots in the form of the black-and-white photography of Midorikawa Yoichi. These pictures somehow reminded me of the film Naked Island by Kaneto Shindo...
"I don't care if I never go home." (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
Richie has written many other books on Japan: his Hundred Years of Japanese Film; The Films of Akira Kurosawa; Ozu, His Life and Films; Japanese Portraits; The Image Factory; his collected reviews of Japanese literature; and his Japan Journals... but The Inland Sea stands out as his sublime masterwork, a pinnacle of travel fiction, a book readers who love Japan will always be coming back to.
Donald Richie, The Inland Sea (Stone Bridge Press, 2002). Original edition 1971.

July 3, 2008

Book Review: "Yokai Attack!" by Yoda & Alt

My first encounter with Japanese terror in the form of a yokai monster came in the early eighties, when I studied in Kyoto. It was a double punch as I more or less simultaneously discovered the manga of Mizuki Shigeru, and the Kwaidan tales of Lafcadio Hearn. Mizuki Shigeru (born in the Tottori town of Sakaiminato, where the streets have since been decorated with bronze statues of his yokai) started writing his famous Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro in 1966. The stories tell about a boy, Kitaro, who is the last offspring of a tribe of yokai. He is helped by an eye on legs, which - of all things - happens to be his own dead father's eye, still watching over him. Kitaro is an ugly-looking but good-natured yokai, who helps humans fight the real baddies in the various stories - these include many of the famous, classical yokai, for example the Child-Crying Old Man.

Lafcadio Hearn wrote numerous ghost stories based on Japanese tales he heard from his Japanese wife or had translated by his pupils. The most famous collection is called Kwaidan. I read all Hearn's books (now partly available on Gutenberg) when I was in Kyoto - they had just been reprinted by Tuttle and were available in the Maruzen store on Kawaramachidori (now, alas, gone..). I enjoyed those stores in the heart of summer, in August, which in Japan is traditionally a time for telling horror stories (or watching horror movies) to get a "natural chill" in the hot, hot weather...

Back in Leiden, in the mid-eighties, I had two more important yokai encounters. One was a yokai exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden (based on the famous collection Von Siebold brought back from Japan). There I could not only admire ukiyo-e by Kuniyoshi as "Mitsukuni defying the skeleton specter," but also saw mummies of yokai. These were apparently preserved in temples, where in the past they must have been taken out of their boxes and shown to the gullible country folk whenever the priest wanted to scare them into belief in higher powers. They were made by stitching together the bones and skulls of small animals as monkeys and birds and adding feathers or skin (or doing intricate things with washi paper). These yokai mummies looked so creepy that they really scared me, more than the prints!

The other encounter was with Kobayashi Masaki's film Kwaidan, based on four Kwaidan stories collected by Hearn. I liked the first one best, about a samurai becoming entangled in the long black hair of his dead wife... (I am kind of fond of hairy horror). I saw the film at Leiden University (courtesy of the Japanese Embassy, which regularly provided classical films to the Japanese Department). When I walked back that night, along the misty and murky canals of the old town of Leiden, somewhere a church bell chimed the the midnight hour and the mist seemed to swirl around me like the Snow Women, another story from the film...

Those memories were brought back by a book published recently by Kodansha International, called Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. Written in a refreshing style by video game and comic book translator team Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the book gives 42 profiles of yokai, usually four pages each. Besides historical information, we get tongue-in-cheek advise about how this particular yokai attacks and how to survive that - if at all possible. Besides perennial favorites as the flatulous Kappa Water Imp, the bewitching Fox Lady and the Naughty Badger with his oversized testicles, we have the Pelagic Phantoms, the deadly Giant Skeleton, the Woman with Two Mouths (one extra in the back of her head, so that she can secretly devour sweets), the Filthlicker (doing you the service of licking your bath tub clean), the Haunted Shoji Screen, and the Haunted Umbrella with his long tongue sticking out, to name a few of the colorful apparitions. And o yes, I forget one of my favorites, the Longnecked Woman, who can throw her head on a meters long anaconda-neck deep into your room... There are also some contemporary yokai, as Hanako, the Little Girl in the Bathroom (of film fame) and the Slit-mouthed Woman (an urban legend, and also a – rather terrible – film).

The book positions itself for the "Japan cool" video game and anime crowd, who have encountered their yokai perhaps in Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War or the anime films of Miyazaki Hayao, - but of course the book has a wider appeal as well. A small unfortunate point is that the authors were restricted by the four-pages-per-yokai format - there is a lot more to say about many of these yokai – the fox for example has had whole volumes dedicated to her alone... At other times, important information is withheld (no space?) - for example about that tantalizing “Nue-barai” (yokai) festival in Shizuoka (when, where?).

Yokai Attack! has alternate pages in color and black and white, until the 32th yokai, after which the color ink apparently ran out. Of course, this whole book should have been in full-color, but the publisher probably had to weigh using more color against the price getting too high. Full-color would also have done more justice to the illustrations of all 42 yokai by Morino Tatsuya, who started out as assistent to Mizuki Shigeru and now is an independent manga artist. His fun illustrations are one of the great assets of this book. The editing, by the way, is playful and quite inventive, making the book symbolically into a yokai file.

The book has a useful list for further reading and internet exploration (there are excellent yokai sites as the Obakemono Project and the (Japanese language) Strange Phenomenon and Yokai Legend Database at the Nichibun Institute). If this charming book helps you delve deeper into the mysterious yokai world, it will have fulfilled an important function!

What about a nice shiver in the coming hot months?

P.S. Another great yokai resource, mentioned in the book, is the Tono Monogatari (“Tales from Tono”) by folklorist Yanagita Kunio. Which publisher is going to pick up the gauntlet and have this important work translated into English?