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

October 6, 2009

Lantern Festival, Nihonmatsu (Japanese Customs)

The "Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri" (Lantern Festival) is one of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan. It is held every year from October 4 to 6.

In fact, it is the annual festival of the Nihonmatsu Shrine, going back for 350 years. But contrary to for example Kyoto's Gion Festival where the daytime parade of floats is the main event, in Nihonmatsu the "yoi-matsuri," the evening previous to the festival on October 4, is considered as the most interesting spectacle.

Seven carts from different wards of the town are decorated with about 400 lanterns, strung in six layers above each other. A sacred flame is brought from the shrine and then all the lanterns are lighted. Next the floats parade through the town to the accompaniment of festive music of the drums and pipes played by people inside the carts. Every float has its own festival music and typical rhythm.

Young people follow the carts energetically dancing and shouting "washo, washo" to the music. The lanterns shine in the dark sky of early autumn and from the many stalls lining the street waft the nostalgic smells of fried squid, soba and octopus balls. The nice thing about this festival is that it is still rooted in the local population. They hold it for their own enjoyment and not just to attract tourists.

September 20, 2009

Sake from Akita Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Akita is lies in the northwestern corner of the main island of Honshu and is a beautiful prefecture of rugged mountains, beech forests and deep lakes. As cold winds blow in from Siberia over the Japan Sea, the severe winters bring heavy snowfall. Tazawako is Japan's deepest lake and Mt Chokai, in the south of the prefecture, has been nicknamed "Dewa Fuji" for its graceful cone. Kakunodate is a historical town with 200-year old samurai houses. In winter, people huddle around the irori, the square open hearth where they enjoy the local dish of kiritanpo, skewers with pounded rice grilled over a charcoal fire and then added to a hotpot stew of vegetables, mushrooms and chicken.

Akita is also a true sake land: it is the second producer of sake in Japan (at 19.2% of the total in 2010) and advertises itself with the slogan "Kingdom of Beautiful Sake." Akita has plenty of good rice, crystal-clear spring water and the cold winters help brewers keep the fermentation under control. But perhaps because of its distance from urban centers, it was only in the Taisho-period, in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 20th c. that brewing in Akita took off, thanks to modern transport. Now (2015) there are 38 breweries. Breweries here started early on with ginjo production. There is a small but fine group of local toji, the Sannai toji.

The prefecture is also very active. In 1990, it has developed its own strain of yeast, AK-1 (also known as Association Yeast No. 15), which produces very fragrant sake but also calls for fermenting at low temperatures for a long time. A large harvest of medals at the National Competition for New Sake the next year was the result. This yeast has greatly contributed to the distinctive style of Akita sake, called "Akita-ryu," Akita's school of brewing.

Akita Prefecture is also one of only two prefectures in Japan that have their own Institute for Brewing Technology. And although Akita still grows a lot of Miyama Nishiki, it has also developed its own types of special sake rice such as Gin no Sei. Akita's brewers are actively looking for customers abroad, by sending missions to the U.S. and E.U. via the Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC).

Akita's sake is rich but delicate, with a detailed construction. It is also somewhat on the sweet side, due to the mostly soft quality of the water in the prefecture. Akita people are also known as the greatest sake drinkers in Japan (the prefecture has the highest consumption rate in the country), so 90% of Akita's sake is enjoyed by Akita itself.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Ama no To ("Heaven's Door" - from an old song that reads "Quietly open the door to heaven, and let the sunlight shine upon the green leaves of cedar trees in the holy mountain"; Asamai Shuzo in Yokote City). Founded in 1917 by Kikazaki Soko. Only uses local rice (Miyama Nishiki, Gin no Sei and Kame no O, but no Yamada Nishiki!) and has formed a rice study group with its contract farmers - is established in an important rice growing area in Asamai (Hiraka) just outside Yokote. Has won five consecutive gold medals in the National Sake tasting competition using Akita rice and AK-1 yeast. Brewery visit possible upon advance application (located 15 min. by taxi from Yokote St.).
  • Aramasa ("New Administration" - a name used by the Meiji government; Aramasa Shuzo in Akita City). Founded in 1852 by Sato Uhee. Became famous in the late 1920s and 1930s, at which time it won many awards in tasting competitions. In 1935, the oldest association yeast that is still in use, Association Yeast No. 6, was isolated from a prize-winning sake of Aramasa. The brewery also developed advanced rice polishing and slow fermentation at low temperatures. In this way, it played an important part in the modernization of sake. Uses very soft water from the Ou Mountain range and Akita Sake Komachi as sake rice.
  • Dewatsuru ("Crane of Dewa"; Dewatsuru Syuzo Corporation (Akita Seishu) in Daisen City). Located on the Senboku Plain. Founded in 1865 by the Ito family as Yamato Brewery with as brand name "Matsu no Tomo." In 1913, the brewery moved to its present location in Nangai village and its name was changed to Dewatsuru Brewery in 1955. The name goes back to the words of a former brew master who said: "May this sake that I brew with all my spirit be like a crane in its caliber and mellowness." Also brews sake with organically grown rice "Tamaki." Sannai toji.  
  • Hideyoshi ("Hideyoshi" is the name of the famous 16th c. unifier of Japan and also a play on the words "excellent and good"; General Partnership Company Suzukisyuzo in Daisen City). Founded in 1689 by a brewer who moved here from Ise. The sake was enjoyed by the local feudal clan, the Satake, who gave it the name "Hideyoshi" after the brewery won a tasting competition in the fief in 1849. All hand brewed, more than 60% is premium sake. Was one of the earliest breweries to start marketing ginjo just after WWII. Brewery visit possible on advance application. There are also small museum with historical items (incl. ancient documents such as precious brewing diaries) and a shop.  (10 min by taxi from Kakunodate St. on the Akita Shinkansen line, or 10 min walk from Ugonagano St on the JR Tazawako Line).
  • Hiraizumi ("Flying Good Spring"; Hiraizumi Honpu in Kaho City). In contrast to the relative youth of most breweries in Akita, Hiraizumi's history goes back to the 15th c. (1487 to be exact), making it the 3rd longest history of any brewery in Japan. The brewery was set up by a shipping company from southern Osaka, from an area called "Izumi," and it combined its original wholesaler's name of "Izumiya" with the name of its Akita location, Hirasawa ("Hirasawa Izumi no Sake" which became "Hiraizumi"). Originally, sake brewing was just a side business, but in the early Meiji period, it became the main occupation. Different from other Akita sake is the fact that Hiraizumi brews with very hard water, resulting in a dense sake high in acidity. Makes all its sake with the yamahai method, which in addition creates sake with a robust body. The current buildings date from 1883.
  • Kariho ("Cut Rice Stalks"; Kariho Syuzo Corporation (Akita Seishu) in Daisen City). Formed in 1913 as a sister company to Dewatsuru. The name of the brewery cites a famous poem by Emperor Tenchi, part of "One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets:" "Because of the coarseness of the rush mat in this temporary hut in the rice paddy in autumn, my cuffs are becoming wet by the dew on the cut rice stalks." Uses relatively hard water which results in a dry sake with "body." Uses only traditional fune presses, no yabuta type hydraulic ones. Makes sake with the yamahai method. Has won many awards in tasting competitions over the years. 
  • Mansaku no Hana ("Flower of Mansaku", the first tree to bloom in spring; Hinomaru Shuzo in Yokote City). Established in 1689 in Masudamachi, Yokote. The Hinomaru Brewery takes its name from the family crest of the ruling Satake clan: a folding fan with a hinomaru (sun) design. Uses subsoil water from Mt Kurikoma from its five wells. One of the smallest breweries in Akita. Most of the sake is aged in the bottle. 90% of its sake is premium sake. Brews with the kimoto-method and makes only ginjo class sake. Brewery tours are not possible, but visitors are welcome to see the old warehouse (the Uchi Gura, a magnificent inner hall decorated with lacquered panels and woodwork) and shop during office hours. Call in advance to be sure the company is open.  
  • Ryozeki ("Both Ozeki," to indicate that this sake is strong both in the East and in the West of Japan; Ryouzeki Syouzo Corporation in Yuzawa City). Founded in 1874 by Ito Niemon. Won the top award in the first national sake tasting competition in 1907, the first company "east of Kyoto" to achieve this. Since then many more awards of honor have been won, elevating the appreciation for Akita sake in general. The company also was a pioneer in the use of low temperature, slow fermentation methods and is still a leader in high-quality sake. Does not use outside toji, but trains its own staff to become toji. Welcomes visitors to its historical kura (incl. tasting and a shop), but reservations are necessary at least three days in advance. (20 min. on foot from JR Yuzawa St.)
  • Taiheizan ("Taiheizan" is the name of a sacred mountain east of Akita City; Kodama Jozo Corporation in Katagami City). Started as a manufacturer of miso in 1879. Sake brewing began in 1913 and in 1934 the company received top honors in the national sake tasting competition. That year it also became the first company to sell chilled sake. Uses abundant quantities of clean well water and superior quality rice. Known for its use of the traditional kimoto-method ("Akita School Kimoto"). Three times a day there is tour of its Meiji-period brewing facilities, incl. those for miso and soy sauce. Call in advance to be sure the company is open. 
  • Takashimizu ("Pure water from on High" - a place on a hill where the Japanese court many centuries ago established a local seat of government; Akita Shurui Seizo in Akita City). Founded through the merger of 12 small breweries just after WWII. A brewing powerhouse that has one of the highest production volumes in north-eastern Japan. Understandably, much of that is ordinary "table sake," but the brand also has a few good premium sakes. It takes its water from a famous well that was used by the reigning feudal clan. Brewery visit possible upon advance application. 
  • Tenju ("Heavenly Long Life"; Tenju Shuzo in Yurihonjo City). Founded 140 years ago (1874), this brewery located in Yashima village uses melted snow water from Mt. Chokai. Regards "sake making as rice making" and has set up the Tenju Sake Rice Research Association for studying the organic cultivation of rice. Makes a Junmai Daiginjo with the brand name Chokaisan (made with Miyama Nishiki sake rice). 
  • Yuki no Bousha ("Cabin in the Snow"; Saiya Shuzoten in Yurihonjo City). Founded in 1902 by Saito Yataro and still uses many of its historical buildings, such as the Nobori-kura, a kura that climbs up to the hillside. Brews with water that has been filtered down through Mt Shinzan, at the foot of Mt Chokai. The water is semi-soft. The brewery is shaded by a huge keyaki-tree, providing a stable temperature inside the kura. Only brews in small batches as it believes large tanks lead to a bland taste. The brewery primarily uses indigenous Akita Komachi and Gin No Sei sake rice, but also Yamadanishiki from Hyogo for some daiginjos. In 2001, it became the first sake brewery in Japan to be certified as an organic sake brewer. Uses a unique method called "Sannai Jozo," which is not only a pun on the fact that Yukinobosha employs a toji from the Sannai guild, but which also means that the fermentation with its proprietary yeast is so strong that no mixing with paddles is necessary, no adding of water and no filtering. Brewery visit possible upon advance application. 
Akita Sake Brewers Association (English)
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.

September 16, 2009

Whisky from Rikyu's water - the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery is the oldest whisky plant in Japan. It was set up in 1923 by Torii Shinjiro, the founder of Suntory which until then had been only manufacturing the extremely sweet Akadama port wine. While Akadama for obvious reasons never has won any hearts outside of Japan, Suntory's malt whisky has been another story - it has gathered many international prizes.

[The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery]

Mr Torii selected a great place for his distillery: a bamboo grove at the foot of Mt Tennozan, in green Yamazaki between Osaka and Kyoto. It is an area where three rivers, the Katsura, Uji and Kizu rivers, merge, creating mists and fog conducive to good whisky (it keeps the wooden casks used for aging wet so that they don't loose moisture). On top of that, it has excellent water that wells up from underground - so good and pure that famous Tea Master Sen Rikyu built his Taian teahouse in this area. And, last but not least, the location is also conveniently close to the large population centers of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Whisky is made by first germinating barley, a process which is called malting. The malt is dried in kilns with a little peat. Next, it is ground and put into a mashtun with warm water (the flavor and quality of the water is very important here!). The enzymes which are the result of the malting change the starch into sugar. When the saccharification is finished, the mash is filtered to obtain a clear wort. That is next transferred to wooden vats called washbacks for the fermentation process. Yeast is added to that purpose. The wooden washbacks are more difficult to operate (temperature control) than stainless steel vats, but they give the whisky a richer flavor.

[Array of pot stills]

Next, direct-fired pot stills are used to distill the fermented liquid and obtain a higher alcohol percentage. Distillation is conducted twice. The right timing of this process by the stillman, the artisan in charge of distillation, is central to obtaining a well-balanced flavor.

The distillery operates many different stills ("straight-head stills, bulge stills and lantern-head stills"), crouching in a huge hall like so many primeval monsters, to get various types of whisky for blending. The top blended whisky by Suntory is Hibiki.

The final stage of whisky production is the all-important aging in oak casks. The oak imparts color and flavor to the whisky. Aging takes place in a large storehouse where a huge variety of oak casks has been lined up, with such interesting names as "hogsheads," "puncheons" and "sherry butts," besides normal barrels.

The Yamazaki Distillery also became the location where Japan's first single malt whisky was distilled, Yamazaki 12, which came to market in 1984. Today Suntory offers single malts of 10, 12, 18 and 25 years old.

[Oak casks for aging the whisky]

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is open to the public. From 10:00 to 15:00 guided tours are held which pass through the factory (the three stages of malting/mashing/fermentation, the hall with the huge pot stills, and the large storehouse with the casks for aging), after which a tasting is offered. The whole process takes about one hour. Afterwards visitors can freely explore the Yamazaki Whisky Museum and the Distillery Shop. The tasting consists of Yamazaki Single Malt which has a clear and crisp flavor plus the more smoky Hakushu which is made at the foot of Mt Komagatake in Yamanashi Prefecture.
The guided tour must be booked in advance by calling (0)75-962-1423. The tour is in Japanese, but English audio guides are available. There is also an English pamphlet. The tour and tasting are free. The distillery is only a 10 min walk from Yamazaki Station on the JR line between Osaka and Kyoto (or Oyamazaki Station on the Hankyu Line).

July 19, 2009

Gion Festival Dictionary (Japanese Customs)

The Gion Festival held in Kyoto from July 1 to July 29 originates in a ceremony organized in the 9th c. in the Shinsenen Pond, then part of the Imperial Palace. Halberds were carried here and dipped in the water as supplication to the gods to end an infectious disease. The festival was annually repeated and grew in size - in due time the citizens of Kyoto took it over from the court. The famous floats first appeared in the Middle Ages, to please the gods with music, dance and spectacle. The lead float, Naginata Boko, still carries a halberd on the roof as reference to the origin of the festival. It is also the only one that still has a child (Chigo) as representation of the god. There are 32 hoko (carts) and yama (floats) built and maintained for centuries by local associations of merchants in central Kyoto. They are decorated with fabulous carvings and ancient Gobelin tapestries and other drapery. All floats tell a story from Chinese legend or Japanese myth.
  • Chigo: "Celestial Child", a kid who rides on the hoko as a representation of the deity. Now only one chigo is left, on the Naginata Float which opens the procession. It is his task to cut the rope hanging across the street with a sword at the beginning of the Grand Parade on July 17. The chigo wears a distinctive costume and headdress. Some Chigo of other floats walk along in the procession.
  • Chigo Shasan: on July 13 the Chigo ("Celestial Child") who rides on the Naginata float is taken on horseback to the Yasaka Shrine to receive the blessings of the deity. Wearing a tall court headdresses and traditional robe, at the shrine he receives the fifth court rank.
  • Chimaki: a glutinous rice cake wrapped in a bamboo leaf and tied with straw. In the Gion Matsuri the rice is left out and the "packaging" only is sold to be tied above the front door of your house as a talisman. A popular souvenir of the festival, sold for example during Yoi-Matsuri by the groups who attend to the floats.
[Gion Bayashi musicians on the hoko cart.]
  • Gion Bayashi: the festival music played by flute, drums and bells by musicians sitting on the second floor of the floats. The basic rhythm is kon-chiki-chin, on which countless variations are improvised. Has origins in Noh music.
  • Goryo-e"Assembly of Resentful Spirits," the origin of the Gion Festival is a ceremony sponsored by Emperor Seiwa to drive out an epidemic in 869. Goryo-e was held in the Shinsenen Pond, then part of the Imperial Palace. Halberds were carried here and dipped in the water as supplication to the gods to end an infectious disease. Goryo were ghostly beings that brought on disaster and infectuous diseases. They could be the spirits of people who died with unresolved resentment or otherwise a sort of "plague kami" who caused epidemics. Goryo-e rituals were held to appease goryo or to send them away in order to prevent disease.
  • Hanagasa Procession: 10 large umbrellas attended by geisha are paraded through the streets on July 24. Leaves at 10:00 from in front of the City Hall at Oike, then proceeds via Teramachi and Shijo to the Yasaka Shrine where it arrives at 11:30 for the Sagi-Mai (Heron Dance). Comes in place of a second Float Parade originally held on this day with 9 floats to celebrate the return of the omikoshi with the deity from the temporary shrine (otabisho) to the Yasaka Shrine. This second float procession was for practical reasons discontinued in 1965 and merged with the float procession on July 17 (which originally only consisted of about 20 floats). NOTE: Things change... the second Float Parade (Ato Matsuri) has again been reinstated since 2014.
  • Hoko: Hoko floats are massive two-storied carts pulled by teams of up to fifty persons. They can weigh 10 tons. Upstairs 18 musicians play Gion Bayashi music. The hoko have a roof on top of which stands a long, mast-like pole. The branches attached to it are symbolic resting places for the deities.

    [Hoko cart]
  • Hoko Hikihajime (Yama kakizome): Trial pull of the cart-type floats from 12 to 15 July by the children of each township. At this time the Gion Bayashi music also starts up.
  • Hoko Tate (Yama Tate): The 32 floats are assembled in the various localities using traditional methods from 10 to 13 July. Instead of nails, rope lashings are employed. First the frame is assembled and then the float is decorated with brocades and tapestries. In the case of the large Hoko carts, a gangway is made to the second floor of the nearby house.
  • Imetake Tate: On July 15 two bamboo poles with a sacred rope strung between them are set up on Shijodori near Fuyacho. Cutting the rope on July 17 heralds the start of the float procession.
  • Jinjisumi Hokokusai: on July 29 the Gion Festival concludes with a rite of reporting to the kami
  • Kippu-iri: Between July 1 and July 5 a meeting is held to determine and arrange the rites and rituals for the festival, as well as discuss duties and procedures.
  • Kuji-tori: on July 2 priests from the Yasaka Shrine and city officials draw lots to determine the order of the floats in the parade. Eight floats, including the Naginata Boko which always rides first, have fixed positions so they are not included.
  • Mikoshi: the Yasaka shrine possesses three mikoshi, for its three deities: the main one (Nakagoza) dedicated to Susano-o no Mikoto, the next one to his wife Kushi-Inada Hime no Mikoto (Higashigoza) and the third one to his sons, collectively called Yahashira no Mikogami (Nishigoza).
  • Mikoshi-arai: on July 10 a Cleansing Ceremony of the mikoshi of the Yasaka Shrine is held. Priests carry the main mikoshi (Susano-o no Mikoto) to the Shijo Bridge where they purify it by pouring water from the Kamo River on it using sacred sakaki branches. The mikoshi leaves the Yasaka Shrine at 19:00, arrives at the bridge at 20:00 and returns at the shrine at 20:45. On July 28, at the end of the festival, the mikoshi is again purified in the Kamo River before being put in storage at the shrine.
  • Nagoshi-sai: on July 31 a large ring made of various grasses is set up in the grounds of the Yasaka Shrine and people pass through it to cleanse their spirit and receive protection from illness. See my post on Nagoshi no harae.
  • Oide (Mikoshi Matsuri): A sacred procession (shinko) of the three mikoshi of the Yasaka Shrine is held in the evening of the 17th. Start is at about 18:00. They follow somewhat different routes (generally via Shijo, Kiyamachi, Sanjo, Oike, Teramachi and Kawaramachi) to the Otabisho (which they reach between 21:00 and 21:30) on Shijodori where they will stay for a week.
  • Okaeri (Kankosai): the mirror procession of Oide, in which the three mikoshi return on July 24 from the Otabisho at Shijodori to the Yasaka Shrine. Leaving at 17:00, they weave their way through the parishioner's wards and return after 21:00 to the Yasaka Shrine.
  • Omukae Chochin: on July 10 men dressed in formal kimono carrying bamboo poles with lanterns leave the Yasaka Shrine at 16:30. They arrive at the City hall on Oikedori at 17:30 where children perform various dances. The procession which now contains people in various costumes as well as geisha loops back through town to the Yasaka Shrine to meet the mikoshi returning from its purification at 20:45 (see Mikoshi-arai). This is a modern addition to the festival.
  • Otabisho: the Yasaka Shrine stands outside what used to be Kyoto proper, on the east bank of the Kamo River. During the festival the deities of the shrine were welcomed to the city center where also the ujiko, the parishioners, lived. Therefore "temporary abodes" were set up. Today there is one Otabisho on Shijodori just east of Teramachi - near a busy bus stop.
  • Sagimai: "Heron Dance." Held on July 16 at 18:00 in the courtyard of the Yasaka Shrine.
  • Tsujimawashi: The huge carts have no steering mechanism so turning corners is a major operation called Tsujimawashi. The front wheels are bound tight so that they jam, after which the cart is pulled sideways over wet bamboo slats. This a time-consuming and presumably dangerous operation.
  • Yama: Yama floats were once carried but are so heavy that they now move on hidden wheels. They are decorated with scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology. They often bear a pine tree, a shrine, and large dolls.
[A "yama" float]
  • Yamaboko Junko: the highlight of the Gion festival is the Float Procession which starts at 9:00 on July 17 when the Naginata Float starts moving. At Fuyacho Street the Chigo cuts the sacred rope. The other floats join in the predetermined order from the places in their communities where they have been built up. A total of 32 floats make a tour around the neighborhood, through Shijodori, Kawaramachidori, Oikedori and back through the narrower Shinmachidori. The route is modern and has been determined based on traffic problems and the enormous number of spectators.
  • Yasaka Shrine: Shrine (and in the past, also Buddhist temple complex) dedicated to Susanoo no Mikoto, the wild younger brother of the Sun Goddess who became a healing kami, and his avatar, the Indian guardian deity Gozutenno. Gozutenno was the guardian of Gion Shoja (the Jetavana monastery) which led to the name "Gion" for shrine and festival. The shrine/temple complex originated in either the 9th or 10th c. In 926 an ascetic monk set up a Tenjin hall here. Gion's Goryo-e (a ceremony driving out vengeful spirits) date back to the latter half of the 10th c. They attracted such a fervent following among Kyoto residents that it soon became the "unique festival" (reisai) of the shrine. They were also sponsored by the court. The custom of using floats where people dressed up in costumes, played music and danced, was characteristic of the festival. Originally meant to please and appease the kami, later it became a spectacle for the enjoyment of the viewers. In the Muromachi Period, the festival was adopted by the residents (machishu) of Kyoto's commercial districts. When the Meiji government instituted its "kami and Buddha separation" (shinbutsu bunri) policy, the shrine-temple complex Gion Kanjinin was renamed "Yasaka Jinja."
  • Yoi-Yama: From 14-16 July the Yoi-Matsuri is held. Gion-bayashi music fills the air. Families in the localities where the carts and floats stand, open their houses and shops to show of heirlooms (therefore Yoi-Matsuri is also called "Screen Festival, " Byobu Matsuri"). The floats are decorated with lanterns, human figures and other ornaments, and children sell amulets such as chimaki. The festival if the 15th is called Yoi-Yoi-Yama and that of the 14th Yoi-Yoi-Yoi-Yama.
Reference materials: Kyoto Gion Matsuri Te-cho (Kawara Shoten, 2007); Encyclopedia of Shinto; Kyoto Visitor's Guide, July 1990; Kyoto Shinbun.

July 13, 2009

Japanese Customs: Evading the bad years

Thanks to the Yin and Yang calculations brought from China, Shinto has adopted a system of yakudoshi, or inauspicious years. In the past, mysterious calculations were necessary, but now the priests have decided that all women have their most inauspicious year when they are 33 years of age, and men when they are 42. People of these ages visit their shrine for a ceremony or at least buy a protective amulet (omamori).

Below is a photo of a sign in the Fujinomori Shrine asking attention for the bad years. These are counted as kazuedoshi, that is in the old system where you were already one year old at birth (meaning you have to add one year to all these figures - 33 is in fact 34, and 42 is 43, etc.). As people are not used to this system anymore, the years of birth are written behind them.

The inauspicious years are in red; also the year before and after that age is "bad." In addition, for men 25 and 61 are weak years, and for women 19 and 37.

It is all totally unscientific, and I don't know how many people still fall for it. Sometimes Japanese just like to take part for the fun of it without asking themselves such difficult questions. My Japanese family strongly disliked it. But when a religious institution finds a way of making money from the gullible, it will cling to it for ever!

Japanese Customs: Summer cleansing of the spirit

Nagoshi no Harae refers to the "great purification" (oharae) that used to be performed on the last day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar. This goes back to a custom at the imperial court, but it in later ages it became especially popular among Kyoto's townspeople.

[Chinowa in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto]

For this rite, large rings made of miscanthus reed (chinowa) are set up in the grounds of shrines. By passing through the reed gate (the summer ring) worshipers are purified and get rid of any defilement (kegare). Thus they are protected from misfortune. The custom also existed of passing the defilement on to a paper or straw puppet and throwing this away in a river or the sea.

The rite was originally also held at the end of December, but that one has been given up long ago, perhaps because there are already other purification ceremonies at the New Year. In contrast, the Nagoshi no Harae that is held in summer has become bigger and nowadays most shrines put up the chinowa for the whole month of June.

Fujinomori Shrine (Kyoto Guide)

The Fujinomori Shrine in the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto is associated with horses and horse racing - its main festival on May 5 features kake-uma (showing military arts on horseback). The deities are militant gods and therefore Fujinomori was in the past popular with warriors.

[Shrine grounds, Fujinomori Jinja]

The shrine rather naively claims a history of 1,800 years, all the way back to Empress Jingu who is one of its present deities. Empress Jingu was a rather belligerent female, who led a naval expedition to attack Korea, but unfortunately for the shrine, she never existed. Her story is all pure myth, as are the banners and weapons she is supposed to have buried here after her victorious return from the continent.

Historical evidence shows rather that the Fujinomori Shrine was established in the 15th c. by the merger of a few local shrines in this area. About those original shrines, nothing is known, but if they had been famous, they would have figured in the 10th century Engishiki list of important shrines. So it is safe to assume this shrine was born from medieval warrior society, and that fits its character.

[Statue of sinister samurai, Fujinomori Jinja]

The grounds are spacious, but there are no historical buildings except the Main Hall which dates from 1712 and was apparently moved here from the Palace. The shrine is known for its hydrangeas, which flower in June in two gardens attached to the shrine.
A 5-minute walk from JR Fujinomori Station on the JR Nara Line, or a 7-minute walk from Sumizome Station on the Keihan Line

Hydrangea in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto (Photo Moment)

In June, ajisai (hydrangeas) pop up everywhere in Japan: standing defiant along the roadside, peeping out of small private gardens, clustering in temple courtyards and parks.

[Hydrangeas like splashes of purple on the green leaves]

This year, at the end of June, I went to the Fujinomori Shrine in the Fushimi ward in Kyoto, a lesser-known spot as ajisai watching goes. But there was nothing wrong with it. Although the shrine stands in a busy residential district, Fukakusa, the grounds are extensive. There are two hydrangea gardens, one to the left of the approach to the shrine, the other at the back.

[White ghosts]

Narrow paths lead through these gardens and the flowers are so high that you can't see other viewers, let alone be disturbed by the houses and parking lots around the shrine.

[Lace cap variety hydrangea in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto. In Japanese lace caps are called Gaku Ajisai or "picture frame hydrangeas."]

The hydrangea gardens are open in June and July; in the middle of June there is also the Hydrangea Festival, but I avoided this for fear of crowds. It would only have meant some additional koto (Japanese zither) music, anyway. There were still enough beautiful hydrangea to make the visit a rewarding experience.
A 5-minute walk from JR Fujinomori Station on the JR Nara Line, or a 7-minute walk from Sumizome Station on the Keihan Line

June 26, 2009

"Sushi and Beyond" by Micheal Booth

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by travel writer and journalist Michael Booth is a funny and easily digestible book. Booth's interest in Japanese food starts when a Japanese friend after an argument about the quality of Japanese cuisine, hands him the classic Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Tsuji Shizuo. Booth becomes hooked on Japanese food and to take the culinary pulse of the island nation, decides to travel to Japan. Taking his wife and two young sons with him, for several months he eats his way through the length of the country, staying in Tokyo, Sapporo, Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa.

The resulting book is above all funny. Booth writes a racy and humorous style and I was reminded of Dave Barry Does Japan. This also has a negative side for it unfortunately means that the rather hackneyed "Westerner meets exotic Japan" newbie theme gets a lot of space. We have the obligatory sumo stable and chanko nabe, weird crawling things in Tsukiji market, a seafood lunch with female abalone hunters, drinking coffee in a dog cafe, feeding cows beer and of course viewing the giant tapeworm in the Meguro Parasitological Museum. And not only that, we also get treated to Japan as the height of freakishness: eating snake stew in Okinawa, enjoying cod sperm, whale ice cream and other unspeakable things the Japanese ingest almost daily (do they?).

But is it a good book about Japanese cuisine?

I am afraid not. Booth is new to Japan, so he remains stuck in the old exoticism rut. He has prepared himself admirably about Japanese food by reading the above mentioned book by Tsuji Shizuo and a couple of others, but he is no specialist in Japanese culture and makes some major errors there (for example what he says about Shinto). And above all, he does not speak or read Japanese so has to rely on the kindness of others or on the English abilities of his informants, which in this domestic sector are not large.

This shuts him effectively out - he is treated as an honored guest, and that is what he remains throughout the book, a visitor dipping into chanko-nabe and ramen, tako-yaki and yudofu, and enjoying the heights of kaiseki. There are visits too, to a kelp processing plant, a farm growing wasabi, a cattle farm, a miso factory. There are also a sort of interviews, with such food luminaries as Mr Hattori and Mr Tsuji, heads of the largest competing culinary academies, one in Tokyo, the other in Osaka. That these important persons go out of their way to entertain Booth shows he had some good introductions. He pays them back by writing episodes about them that read like PR brochures. Because he is not able to speak Japanese, he only gets standard answers and the standard polite treatment for foreigners.

I was hoping for some deeper insights into Japanese food, but there are no new ideas here, it is all superficial reportage, a series of humorous accounts of the different meals Booth enjoys.

That I still enjoyed this book has one reason: Booth writes very well and is funny and sympathetic. But don't expect anything new or insightful when you are past the newbie stage yourself. And for food, first read Tsuji Shizuo's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art or that other good introduction, Lonely Planet World Food: Japan (Lonely Planet World Food Guides).

June 8, 2009

Japanese Customs: Temple Manners in Japan

Can you wear shorts in a temple or shrine in Japan? What about a short-sleeved T-shirt? Funny socks? Are there any other rules?

Most Japanese have a relaxed attitude towards religion, so there are not many strict rules.

Here are a few pointers to Japanese temple manners:

Don't be noisy and keep a respectful attitude - as you would in a museum. But you don't have to start whispering! Not all Japanese keep to this rule, though, you will see Japanese tourists who can be quite boisterous, not to speak of all the chattering school tours filing through major temples.

You usually have to take off your shoes when entering a temple hall and either leave them outside or carry them with you in a plastic bag. This is not for religious reasons, but for the very practical reason that temples have wooden floors and these would be damaged by all those tourists tramping through on heavy boots... The same rules exists in other wooden buildings, as Nijo Castle.

No other clothing rules - shorts and short skirts are OK. So are T-shirts etc. No color rules either, also your socks can have all the colors of the rainbow (and bare feet are in order as well)! You also can wear a cap or hat, but it is polite to take it off when paying your respects inside the main temple hall.

No photography inside temple halls - this rule is always clearly indicated on signs and very strictly reinforced (for example, in Sanjusangendo in Kyoto). I think it is more about image rights than about religion, though... Outside, in the gardens etc usually photography is O.K. although tripods are normally forbidden (for the same "image rights" reason a few famous gardens as Samboin in Daigoji, Kyoto, forbid all photography). It is polite not to aggressively take pictures of people praying, etc., but again, in Japan you won't find an angry mob against you if you transgress. P.S. A temple where you can take photos inside, even of the Buddhist images, is Todaiji in Nara.

Taking part in religious rituals at temples or shrines or not is totally up to you! You can just go and visit as you would any place of cultural significance, or if you prefer you can take part in small rituals as: ritually washing hands at the basin at the entrance to a shrine, clapping hands and bowing at the main hall of a shrine, lighting candles and/or incense in a temple. and saying a silent prayer in both. You don't have to be a Buddhist or Shintoist in order to take part in this, in Japan religion is more about daily practice and ritual than about belief. And, if you don't want to take part, that is perfectly O.K. as well!

A visit to a temple or shrine in Japan can be a very relaxing experience!

May 25, 2009

Phantoms of Temples in Okazaki Park (Kyoto, Temples)

Once upon a time, Okazaki Park, now known for its museums and zoo, as well as of course the Heian Shrine and its garden, was filled to the brim with with the most beautiful temples of the land...

No, there is nothing left of them, the Six Temples or Rokushoji of late Heian times - history has been at its most cruel here. Shirakawa, the first politically active Retired Emperor (In), began building the first of the six in 1075, in the Shirakawa district of Kyoto, northeast of the Imperial palace - where we now find Okazaki park.

[Heian Shrine]

In the next century, six huge temples and two residences were built here by the successive emperors Toba, Sutoku and Konoe. As these so-called Retired Emperors had replaced the Fujiwara regents as the "power behind the throne" (with a young child emperor) the temples were also centers of government.

As a sign of the times, they all carried the Chinese character "sho" or "katsu," victory, in their names. The temples were not simply established as acts of piety, but rather as ways of protecting income from imperial estates and a certain way of life, as John W. Hall says in Medieval Japan. The building of these large temples served as a way to extract support from aristocratic families as well as to justify to use of public taxes for the imperial house.

[Heian Shrine]

In historical order, the six temples were:

Hosshoji, officially dedicated after two years of building activities in 1077, by Emperor Shirakawa. At Hosshoji, the main hall opened on a lake and consisted of a large center chapel flanked on each side by corridors of many bays - a bit like Byodoin. The main image here was a 9.5 meter tall Vairocana Buddha as in Nara's Todaiji. The Lecture Hall housed a Shaka Trinity, the Godaison Hall statues of the esoteric Five Kings of Light.

On the opposite side of the pond was an Amida Hall with nine Amida statues as in Joruriji. Later a Yakushi Hall was added and on an islet in the pond a spectacular octagonal pagoda soared nine stories skyward. There was also a sutra repository containing a copy of the complete Buddhist canon.

Hosshoji stood at the location of the present Kyoto Zoo and the school grounds north of it. Initially, the temple flourished greatly as the family temple of the Imperial House. The downturn began in 1208, when a thunderstorm caused a fire. This was followed by the weakening of the Imperial power after the Jokyu Disturbance of 1219. The Onin War added the finishing touch, leaving no trace of the wonderful architecture and marvelous statues and other art treasures.

Sonshoji, in 1102 by Emperor Horikawa. Sonshoji was laid out on a plan similar to Nara's Kofukuji. It stood in Okazaki Park at the location of the present Kyoto Kaikan. This was the second largest of the six, after Hosshoji. Besides a Golden Hall, Kodo and Middle Gate there were a Kannon hall, a Yakushi hall and a Godai Hall (again dedicated to the Five Kings of Light). Like Hosshoji, this temple started weakening in the middle Kamakura period.

Saishoji, in 1118 by Emperor Toba. Characterized by the presence of three pagodas, besides the usual Golden Hall, Yakushi Hall and Godai Hall. Stood along the road to the present Heian Shrine. This temple was destroyed by fire in 1219.

Enshoji, 1126 by Taikenmonin, the wife of Emperor Toba. This temple also had three pagodas - a five-storied pagoda flanked by two three-storied pagodas on an east-west axis. The Main Hall was dedicated to the Five Buddhas, there was a Yakushi Hall and a Godai Hall. Stood where now the Kyoto Municipal Museum is. The temple's fortunes weakened from the mid-Kamakura period.

Seishoji, 1139 by Emperor Sutoku. The details about this temple are vague, although there were at least a Golden hall, Lecture Hall, sutra repository and bell tower. The temple was destroyed by fire in 1219.

Enshoji, 1149 by Emperor Konoe. This temple counted a Golden hall, pagoda and Ichijikinrin Hall (One Syllable Golden Wheel was an esoteric Buddhist deity). In 1163 a hall with nine Amida statues was added. The pagoda and Golden hall burned in 1219, the whole temple was lost in 1225.

Try to dream up Okazaki Park in the late 12th century: six huge temples with in total at least eight soaring pagodas, halls with magnificent statues, of the quality of Byodoin and Joruriji... A Buddhist art paradise... and nothing whatsoever is left of it. Why? The temple's power in the politics of the day was too prominent, they were bound up with the fate of the system of government by Retired Emperors that was replaced by shogunal rule in the Kamakura period. To destroy a political system also its symbols had to be destroyed...

April 21, 2009

Review: What I Talk about when I Talk about Running (Murakami)

Murakami Haruki has written several bookshelves full of non-fiction works, usually still available as "bunkobon" (pocket books) in Japan, but none had appeared in English so far. That was not surprising: Murakami writes a sort of "light essays" that share the colloquial "talking to myself" style with his novels, but on a level of much less tension, not to say artistry. In fact, his non-fiction is mostly rather trivial. What about this first non-fiction work to be translated?

I am afraid it is not so different from his other light essays. Of course, Murakami remains the pleasant narrator he always is - the kind of guy to whose soliloquies we could listen for hours after meeting him in a bar. Sometimes there are interesting observations, such as the body count of dead dogs and cats when he is running in Greece from Athens to Marathon.

But more often his observations are extremely banal. When overtaken by pretty girls with bouncing ponytails running on the boards of the Charles River in Boston, he ruminates that "new generations overtake the old." He is not running for competition, he says elsewhere, and occasionally losing doesn't matter because “On the highway of life, you can’t always be in the fast lane.” Does anyone want more of such wisdom gems?

If Murakami had written up such banalities as the thoughts of one of his protagonists in his fiction, we would praise him for aptly catching the emptiness of our present time. Unfortunately, these are his own thoughts... this book is like a hole through which he reveals his own emptiness, there is not a deeper thought about writing or running or whatever in the whole book. Or perhaps I should say Murakami reveals his ordinariness: for isn't he trying to be just another, nice simple guy, really one of us?

Murakami started running when he started writing seriously, to keep in good condition. He runs a marathon every year and tries to practice almost daily. Running is a logical sport to take up for a writer, he says, because both running and writing are solitary endeavors. They both require inner motivation and consistent effort. (But as the commentator in the German newspaper Die Zeit points out, constantly running is not the best training for a marathon - interval training gives better results.)

Murakami compares running to writing: also writing, in his view, is something he has to push himself to daily for 4 hours. Consistency, endurance, plodding on. But does that always lead to great literature? Especially in Kafka on the Shore I felt Murakami was pushing himself to keep writing, in order to fill the large framework he had designed, without having much to say. Most of the book is boring - some great parts as the episode of the sardines raining from the sky, excluded. Isn't Murakami basically a writer of short forms who pushes himself too much to write large novels? His early stories are still his best work.

This is not a great book about running. This is not a great book about writing. This is not a book that gives new information about Murakami Haruki (nothing that was not already included in Jay Rubin's Murakami Haruki and the Music of Words), let alone any deeper insights... Perhaps Murakami Haruki should stop being a nice guy. He should stop being an easy and popular author. He should get angry and finally write something great.

[By the way, the title of the book is a riff on a title by Raymond Carver, an author translated by Murakami, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love]

March 22, 2009

Enlightenment Guaranteed (Film review)

Enlightenment Guaranteed (Erleuchtung garantiert) is a German film from 1999 by Doris Dörrie about the tribulations of two middle-aged brothers staying in a Japanese Zen monastery. The brothers are played very naturally by Uwe Ochsenknecht and Gustav-Peter Wöhler.

The story is has a deep human touch, but is also light and humoristic - as light as the swinging movement of the hand-held cameras and the improvised street scenes. The first part of the film, situated in a town in Germany, is full of snappy comedy. One brother, Uwe, is a smart kitchen salesman who thinks he is doing very well, but is so engrossed in himself that he does not notice how much he is neglecting his wife and kids. So they suddenly leave him which makes him tumble into a psychological black hole.

The other brother, Gustav, is a rather vague Fengshui consultant who in his free time practices Zen meditation. He has booked a trip to the Monzen monastery on the beautiful Noto Peninsula in rural Japan for a few weeks of intense meditation practice and like his brother he is so lost in his quest for enlightenment that he doesn't notice the needs of his wife.

After he suddenly finds himself alone, Uwe begs Gustav to take him along on the trip to Japan. After some hesitation on the part of Gustav, who considers his non-Buddhist brother as pure ballast, they leave together and their first stop is Tokyo.

On their first night in Tokyo, while going into town for a snack, they get lost and can't find their hotel where their passports and luggage are anymore. The brothers spend their last money on a taxi ride in the wrong direction and their credit cards are swallowed by the difficult-to-understand Japanese cash machines.

They really are at Point Zero in their lives and even have to sleep on the streets. This is Lost in Translation to the nth degree! In Buddhism you have to go back to nothingness and discard all earthly possessions, but the situation is forced upon them rather suddenly!

First they sleep in cardboard boxes in a park, among Tokyo's homeless, but Uwe, whose practicality now comes in handy, "fixes" a modern tent. Later they meet several interesting people, such as a German woman who helps them find a job in a Bavarian-type beer-hall where they work as waiters to earn the money for the long trip to Monzen.

Next follows their stay in Sojiji, the famous Soto Zen temple in Monzen, Ishikawa Prefecture, which is like we know all stays in Zen temples to be: cold, hard, little sleep, little food. Clean the floor to cleanse your heart. Sweep the garden to sweep your mind. This part is filmed in a more traditional way, with nice impressions of the Buddhist service (this is a very special ceremony where the monks walk as if in a Noh play - joining this service alone is worth the trip to the Noto Peninsula). The temple scenes are interspersed by commentary from the brothers on Uwe's video camera, as a sort of video journal.

Surprisingly, it is Uwe who excels not only in running along the floors with a cloth to clean (Gustav is rather corpulent) but who also bests his brother in meditation practice. In a reversal of roles, he really gets the hang of it, although Gustav also struggles bravely on.

The time to leave the temple finally comes - the brothers have not reached anything like enlightenment (impossible in such a short time!) but they are both a bit wiser and have learned to accept life as it comes. Thus spiritually fortified, they return to the world.

March 21, 2009

"Tokyo Fiancée" by Amelie Nothomb (Book review)

It is a mystery why publishers can't keep their hands off titles in translation. The English title of this book, the rather bland Tokyo Fiancée is in the original French Ni d'Ève Ni d'Adam, "Neither of Eve, nor of Adam" as used in the expression "Ne connaitre ni d'Ève Ni d'Adam" which means "to be totally in the dark about something."

The author must be talking about the intercultural misunderstandings that are central to this highly funny and engaging novel.

The author Amelie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents - her father served as consul and later ambassador. After a paradisaical five years in Japan as a small child (described in The Character of Rain, another book with a different title in English) duty calls Amelie's father to China, and later Belgium. It is only after her university study that as a young woman she again returns to Japan, full of hope to renew the acquaintance with the country of which she has such beautiful memories. How the hope of a career at one of Japan's foremost companies was crushed, is described in an earlier novel, Fear and Trembling.

Tokyo Fiancée takes place mostly before she enters corporate life, when she is studying Japanese in Tokyo for a year. "The most efficient way to study Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French" the protagonist of the novel, Amelie correctly observes. Her first and only pupil is a nice young man trying not so hard to study French, Rinri. It is 1989, the height of the Bubble Period and they meet in an upscale cafe in Omotesando. Rinri, it appears, has rich parents, a white Mercedes and for the rest just floats through life, "playing" as he calls it ("Playing what?" asks Amelie, until a friend tells her that the Japanese asobu is a description for the state of not being engaged in work or study.)

Although Amelie and Rinri become friends and lovers, this is not a love story: the temperature is tepid at most, and the relationship is hampered by intercultural misunderstandings - as the later office work would be.

A funny misunderstanding also occurs in her Japanese class, where she has the habit of raising her hand and asking the teacher all kinds of questions, almost causing heart attacks:
"One must not ask questions of the Sensei," scolded the teacher.
"But-if I do not understand?"
"You understand!"
I now knew why language instruction in Japan was so wobbly.
It is indeed true that children in Japanese schools are sometimes taught not to ask questions.

But back to the relationship of Amelie and Rinri. It struck me how large the role played by food is in their friendship. When at the beginning of the story Rinri invites her to dinner at the home of a friend, he cooks okonomiyaki (with Hiroshima sauce), the favorite dish of Amelie who spent her early youth in the Kansai.
"The aroma of cabbage, shrimp and ginger sizzling together carried me sixteen years into the past, to the era when my gentle governess Nishio-san would concoct the same treat for me, and which I have not tasted since."
Prey to a deep emotion, Amelie looses her veneer of civilization and devours her okonomiyaki, "with eyes glazed over, and uttering faint little cries of delight."

Other dishes also mark her amorous relation with Rinri. At Rinri's place, both indulge themselves with Swiss-cheese fondue, made in a sort of high-tech contraption that gives the cheese the taste of molten plastic. At a certain moment Amelie playfully dips her hands into the fondue so that a thick layer of fake cheese gives her gloves. As she can't wash her yellow mittens off, she tries to scrape the cheese away with a kitchen knife, cutting her palm. "The boy" (as she class Rinri) then gets down on his knees and delicately uses his teeth to scrape the polystyrene from Amelie's hands.
"Never in my life had I been so confounded by gallantry. [...] The episode had been a catharsis for him. He took me in his arms and kept me there."
This could well have heralded the start of a deeper relation, but Amelie feels only "koi" and no "ai" for Rinri. When they climb Mt Fuji together she races to the top, while he follows as a panting wreck, something which seems symbolical of their relationship.

Another food event seals the beginning of the end of their relation. On a winter trip to the island of Sado, they have little octopuses for dinner, kept alive until the final moment so that they are still as fresh as possible.
"It would be impolite to refuse the dish. [...] I shoved it into my mouth and tried to plant my teeth into it. Then the most dreadful thing happened: the octopus's nerves, still alive, fastened into my tongue with all its tentacles. And would not let go. I was screaming as loudly as you can scream when you have had your tongue swallowed whole by an octopus. I tried to detach the beast with my fingers: impossible, the suction cups were firmly stuck."
Later that dinner, Rinri proposes marriage. Futile, of course, although Amelie doesn't not want to hurt his feelings and for many months puts off giving a clear answer. But the sticky octopus was an unfortunate prelude - needless to say that there is no happy marriage in their future.

January 8, 2009

Himukai Daijingu - Hatsumode 2009

Hatsumode, the New Year's visit to a Shinto shrine, this year took us to the Himukai Daijingu shrine in Kyoto. It was my first visit to this shrine. I had seen pointers to it during visits to the nearby Incline near Nanzenji, but actually never followed the path into the hills above Keage.

Visiting on the fourth of January, Himukai was a great surprise - even after so many years, Kyoto still has a lot of discoveries to offer! It is a beautiful and pure spot in the hills, seemingly far-away from the dusty world of haste. Hiking paths start here to Daimonji in the one direction, and to Bishamondo in Yamashina in the other.

The shrines are simplicity itself, in the Shinmei style of Ise, and likewise dedicated to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.

The shrine legend which claims a founding of about 1,500 years ago, when a sacred stone was brought from Mt Takachiho in Kyushu, is unreliable. The first documented existence of the shrine is actually only in the middle of the 15th century. In the ensuing Edo-period the relatively new shrine grew in importance as it stood at the place where the Tokaido Highway enters Kyoto. The Edo-period was also the time that Ise itself developed into a shrine of the people instead only of the imperial clan.

In the grounds is a grotto called Ama no Iwado, recalling the legend of the hiding in the cave of the Sun Goddess.

But the shrine is beautiful as it is, a place of natural purity, and we do not need any false histories to forcibly hook it up into the network of Japan's mythology.

[The way to the Himukai Shrine passes the Lake Biwa Canal]

10 min walk from Keage Station on the Tozai subway line in Kyoto. Take the exit for Nanzenji, turn left into the street and left again into the hills when you see a large torii-gate. Grounds free.

January 7, 2009

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling is the imposing, almost Biblical title of a small novel (originally published in 1999) in which Amélie Nothomb describes the experiences of a young Belgian woman who works for a year in a large Japanese office in Tokyo. The protagonist, who is also called Amélie, is a well-intentioned and eager person, who was originally born in Japan - like the author, who is the daughter of a former Belgian ambassador to Japan. Working at the giant (fictional) Yumimoto Corporation, which seems to manufacture, import and export just about everything, on the 44th floor of a skyscraper, is a dream come true for her. Because she speaks Japanese, Amélie looks forward to an opportunity to use her language skills. Until cultures start clashing.

This is the 8th novel in a large oeuvre and not a documentary. So what follows is fiction and often caricature, and should not be taken too literally. All the same, there is insight and truth in the book as well, and some descriptions though seemingly exaggerated, are not far from the reality of Japanese corporate life as it was in the early nineties (the book is situated in 1990) - especially when you are a woman and a foreigner on top of that.

The strict corporate hierarchy is still firmly in existence, though - and that is the main cultural theme of the book. "Fear and Trembling" is the attitude with which to approach your superior in such a highly hierarchical society. At the start of the book, Amélie puts it like this:
"Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one."
Amélie, too, has to observe the intricate, rigorous codes that govern corporate life and especially the relations between employees and their superiors in Japan and from the first day she stumbles. It already starts when she first admires the view over Tokyo from a high window instead of immediately announcing herself at the reception desk.

Also typical for Japanese companies, certainly up to the nineties (and depending on the company, even today) is the fact that she does not have a job description. Nobody tells her what her responsibilities are. Initially, she has nothing to do. So, eager to find a role, Amélie begins to distribute the mail... only to find she is usurping the job of the mailman. Indeed, in Japan you can fill your formless job to a certain extent with own initiatives, but you should in all cases consult your boss... beforehand.

She next starts updating every calendar in the office but is told to stop because it is a distraction. As a punishment Mr Saito (the boss of her boss) fills her time with useless and even sadistic assignments. She has to write a certain letter on his behalf, but he tears up every new draft without even looking at it. Next she has to photocopy the thousand page rulebook of his golf club, a truly Sisyphean task, but he discards every new version (to the detriment of Japan's forests) as the text is not absolutely parallel to the edge of the page. He even forbids her to use the automatic feeder.
Where's the problem?" He smiled. "You didn't have enough to do as it was.
Another funny episode is where she has to serve tea when Mr Omochi (the boss of the boss of the boss) has important guests. She thinks she does it to perfection, uttering the correct phrases in polite Japanese. But she ends up making both Mr Omochi and Mr Saito furious:
"How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese."
But the main theme of this novel are not the cultural clashes. It is the relation between Amélie and her immediate superior, another woman. When Amélie first arrives at Yumimoto, she is fascinated by Miss Mori, whom she initially regards as a friend and protector. Miss Mori  also is an immaculate beauty:
She was ravishingly svelte and graceful despite the stiffness to which she, like all Japanese women, had to sacrifice herself. But what transfixed me was the splendor of her face. [...] She had the most beautiful nose in the world, a Japanese nose, an inimitable nose, whose delicate nostrils would be recognized among a thousand others.
Miss Mori is the highest female in the company. Relations with her quickly go awry, however, especially after Amélie takes on an assignment from the manager of another division, Mr Tenshi. She is asked to write a marketing report about low-fat butter in Belgium and does it to the perfect satisfaction of Mr Tenshi and herself. It is the only meaningful task she has in a whole year of working at Yumimoto, although it was a job above her status. But Mr Omochi is livid and accuses her of sabotaging the company. He is explodes even louder after she, a Westerner and - the hight of injury - individualist, dares talk back to him.
The content was incredibly insulting. [...] I would have been capable of anything to stop the hideous screaming - invade Manchuria, persecute millions of Chinese, commit suicide for the Emperor, hurl my plane into an American battleship, perhaps even work for two Yumimoto Corporations.
But the most shocking thing is that she has been denounced to Mr Omochi by the beautiful Ms Mori, whom she so admired. As Mr Tenshi puts it:
"Miss Mori struggled for years to get the job she has now. She probably found it unbearable for you to get that sort of promotion after being with the company only ten weeks."
By the way, this is something I have observed myself in Japanese surroundings: you sometimes come across small-minded superiors who refuse to give their staff any meaningful work until they prove their loyalty by just sitting at their desk for a number of years. Much human and other capital is wasted in this way. Another thing I have noticed in certain Japanese work environments is that office politics play such a large role - much more than in Holland. Perhaps that is because of the hierarchy and the fact that there is little mobility. This can lead to bitter competition between colleagues, envy, and suspicion. Japanese employees are also quick to build factions.

Amélie tries to talk it out with Miss Mori, but as Miss Mori only asks for an apology which Amélie of course refuses, their relations are on a downward slope from this moment on. Things collapse completely when Amélie makes another "well-intentioned" blunder. At a certain moment it is Miss Mori's turn to get the dressing down of the century from Mr Omochi. All colleagues can hear the terrible shouting of The Obese One and the small whimpering voice of Miss Mori imploring the boss of her boss not to be angry with her. Afterward, Amélie follows Miss Mori to the toilet room, to console her... where she catches her crying. Miss Mori almost kills her, because she has been seen in her moment of weakness and shame.

The story then seems to turn into caricature as Miss Mori puts Amélie through a terrible series of torments and degradations. Amélie herself makes mistakes too - she can't handle numbers and botches a simple accounting task. She thinks that the German abbreviation GmbH (Co., Ltd.) is the name of a company... this is all part of the slapstick.

Any normal person would have quit, but Amélie stays on... she wants to sit out her year, she thinks it is a shame to quit... but above all, although it is nowhere said in so many words, she wants to stay close to the beautful Miss Mori.  Amélie firmly settles in a sadomasochistic relation with her boss:

Eventually she literally gets the lowest position possible: she is assigned to clean the toilets and she spends the last months of her life at Yumimoto changing paper in the loo.

Again it should be emphasized: this is a novel, a work of fiction. It is not a true account of the circumstances in a Japanese company, although some facets are true, as the strict hierarchy, the lack of job description, and the prevalence of office politics. But the main theme is not only Japan, it is just as much the sadomasochistic relation of Amélie and Miss Mori.

As such, it is a perfect little jewel, written in a sparse but concentrated language in which not a word could be changed - in the best tradition of the French novel.
Fear and Trembling was filmed by Alain Corneau with Sylvie Testud as Amélie and Tsuji Kaori as Miss Mori.

January 3, 2009

Legends of Tono (Best Non-Fiction)

It is almost 100 years ago that Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) wrote his famous "Legends of Tono" (Tono Monogatari) and to celebrate this the 1975 translation by Ronald A. Morse has now been republished in a beautiful expanded version. It is an excellent translation that captures the terseness and realism of the original. In addition, there are several introductions: a new one by the translator, and previous ones by him and Richard Dorson about the author, the book and its significance. There is also an extensive new bibliography and the text has been enhanced with some well-chosen photographs.

Yanagita Kunio was one of those privileged persons who married a well-to-do partner and could spend most of his life dabbling in his hobbies: literature and (increasingly as a real vocation) folklore studies. The early (1910) Legends of Tono stands on the borderline of these two activities: it is excellent literature but also a precious record of peasant life in the rural Tono area.

I would not in the first place call it legends, though - as Dorson says in his introduction, many of the 119 short pieces are rather "memorates," i.e. "remarkable and extraordinary experiences told in the first person." Although two fairy tales have been included as well, many of the records are not even stories, but flimsy pieces of things heard or seen. That makes the book all the more interesting as a real account of the world of Tono - both things seen and unseen... much space is taken up by the fear for the supernatural.

We find the mountain god and deities who guard the home, such as oshira-sama; goblin's like kappa and tengu; weird behavior by monkeys and wolves; cases of kamikakushi, strange disappearances of people; and the superstition that whoever gets rich, the choja, must have had supernatural assistance. But there is also a story of a son who murdered his mother, a real and shocking happening.

We also can see Yanagita's fascination with mountain folk religion start in this book. The "memorates" were told to Yanagita by Sakai Kizen, a young native of Tono whom he met in Tokyo. Subsequently, Yanagita also visited the area, riding on horseback through the villages.

Countless memorates like the above must have existed, but they have been wiped out with the brains that contained them. Thanks to the record Yanagita Kunio so carefully took only those about this small northern group of villages and market town of Tono have survived. It is no surprise that Legends of Tono is by far the most popular among the hundreds of scholarly books Yanagita wrote. The town of Tono now lives off these legends - it has based its tourist industry on them.

Article on Yanagita Kunio from the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.
Translation of Japanese Folktales, assembled by Yanagita Kunio, translated by Fanny Hagin Mayer.
Richard Dorson is himself the author of Folk Legends of Japan
Japanese homepage of Tono City.

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography

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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.