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

July 31, 2011

Japanese Gardens: Shinjuku Gyoen Park, Tokyo

English lawns, French roses and Japanese cherries, that is what you will find in Shinjuku Gyoen, making it a good example of an early 20th c. "multicultural garden."

With its 53 hectares, Shinjuku Gyoen is such a large oasis of green in the heart of the city that it is almost unbelievable. Although the high-rises are advancing, there are enough trees and shrubs to provide shade, and there is enough space to dim the distant traffic noise. Shinjuku Gyoen is the former site of the mansion of the Naitos, a daimyo family that controlled this strategic area, the first post station just out of Edo. The estate was made into an imperial garden in 1906 and became a public park after WWII.

[Sketching at the pond of Shinjuku Gyoen. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

There are three different types of gardens in Shinjuku Gyoen. By far the largest is the Japanese garden, centered on a pond that runs through the whole breadth of the garden. There are tea houses here and stone lanterns, wooden bridges and small streams, as well as a Chinese-style pavilion, all items necessary in a Japanese garden. One also finds azalea bushes, irises and hydrangeas; in summer the pond is covered with lotus flowers. Then there is an English landscape garden, mainly consisting of grassy undulating hills popular with picnickers. And finally, there is a French formal garden with an avenue of plane trees and rose beds. This exotic, Western garden must have been the pride of the park when it carried the designation 'imperial' in the first half of the 20th century.

Among the flowers, I have not yet made mention of the cherry blossoms, of which there are many, both weeping cherries, flowering at the end of March, and a late-flowering variety. Thus, for many weeks the gardens are decked out in spring colors. Autumn shows with chrysanthemums are held in the first two weeks of November. And, to round things off, for winter visits there is a large greenhouse containing tropical and subtropical plants, especially famous for its orchids. It truly is an all-year garden.
Address: 11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Tel. 03-3350-0151

Access: Shinjuku Gate: 5-min. walk Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line; or same distance from Shinjuku Sanchome Station on the Shinjuku Subway Line; Okido Gate: also 5-min. from Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line; Sendagaya Gate: 5-min. walk from Sendagaya Station on the JR Line.

Hours: 9:00-16:30. CL Mondays (except when Monday is a National Holiday, then the garden is closed the next day), year-end and New Year period.

July 26, 2011

Japanese Gardens: Sorakuen, Kobe

The best Japanese-style garden in Kobe is Sorakuen, established by a former mayor of the city, Mr Kodera. It is a typical stroll garden with a central pond, but characteristic and not wholly traditional are the huge sotetsu trees standing along the path that leads into the garden - sotetsu are tropical trees, in English called Sago Palms. There are also several large open spaces typical of Western gardens.

[Sorakuen, Kobe]

The Kodera Mansion was destroyed during the war, and now only the stables remain to give an impression of original grandeur.

To fill in the empty space, the Hassam House from 1902, the residence of an Anglo-Indian trader was moved here from Kitano-cho - a fine example of neo-colonial architecture. Note the huge chimney lying upside down in front of the house - this heavy piece of bricks came crashing down during the Kobe Quake of 1995.
[Sorakuen, Kobe]

Another building moved to the garden is the Funayakata, a houseboat originally belonging to the Himeji daimyo and built around 1700. It is impressive for its decorative lacquer.
Access: 10 min walk north of Sannomiya or Motomachi
Hours: 9:00-17:00. CL Thurs, NY
The park is especially known for its azaleas in early May and its chrysanthemums and red leaves in autumn. Unfortunately, there are no ume or sakura!

July 25, 2011

Haiku Stones: Narita City (Mitsuhashi Takajo)

Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899-1972) is one of the most well-known Japanese women haiku poets.

Takajo was born in Narita, in the family of a government official who also wrote tanka. In 1922 she married a dentist and started writing haiku because her husband was fond of that genre. Takajo is often mentioned together with three other women poets of the same generation: Nakamura Teijo, Hoshino Tatsuko and Hashimoto Takako.

[Statue of Mitsuhashi Takajo, Narita City]

if I climb up this tree
I will become a she-devil
red leaves in the evening 
kono ki noboraba | kijo to narubeshi | yuumomiji 
The she-devil is probably a reference to the apparition from the Noh play Momijigari.  
Read more haiku by Mitsuhashi Takajo in Far Beyond the Field, Haiku by Japanese Women, by Makoto Ueda (New York, 2003). 
The statue stands in a mini-park along the road between the station and Shinshoji. The haiku is written on a stone at the foot of the statue.

Haiku Stones: Shinshoji, Narita (Basho and Kyoshi)

Joroku Buddha statue
heat haze high
above the stone

joroku ni | kagero takashi | ishi no ue

I have already written about Narita Shinshoji Temple, and also introduced the museums in the temple grounds in Narita museums. Now I visit the haiku stones in the temple and first come to a kuhi by Basho, standing in green grass. By the way, this haiku was not written in Narita, but when Basho traveled in Western Japan.

[The haiku stone in Narita Park]

By chance, the meteorological circumstances of my visit are the same as those expressed in the haiku. The summer heat is severe, so much that the hot air reverberates and creates a mirage above a flat stone: Basho imagines the stone is the pedestal of a large Buddha statue and in the hot air seems to discern its figure... Joroku is a measure for Buddhist sculpture, one jo and six roku, which corresponds roughly to 4.8 meters. So it is a huge statue that looms up before Basho's eyes in the steaming heat, a veritable mirage...
under the moon
Danzo the Seventh

sugokarishi | tsuki no Danzo | nanadaime

Shinshoji Temple in Narita has a long and deep relation with the Ichikawa family of Kabuki actors. This goes back to Ichikawa Danjuro I, who apparently prayed to the Fudo deity of the temple for offspring. Thanks to the patronage of the famous Kabuki actor, the temple also became a popular pilgrimage destination for the people of Edo and was therefore in the 18th c. able to rebuild many of its structures, such as the pagoda.

[The modern Tahoto pagoda of Shinshoji Temple]

In the park of the temple we find a stone pedestal on which in 1910 the bronze statues of two Kabuki actors were erected, Ichikawa Danjuro VII and his father, Danzo VI. This was the first statue ever to be set up for actors in Japan, but unfortunately it was destroyed in WWII when Japan suffered from a lack of resources and used all the bronze it could get to make weapons. The present haiku stone by modern haiku master Kyoshi was in 1953 put up on the empty stone base by Danzo VIII to honor the memory of Danzo VII, his predecessor. Danzo VII had often visited the Narita temple and was an acquaintance of Kyoshi as well. The haiku stone is a fitting memorial to the long and deep relation between the Ichikawa clan of actors and Narita Shinshoji Temple.

Temples: Sogo Memorial Hall (Narita, Chiba)

As temples and museum go, there is more in the vicinity of Narita than only jumbojets. After the museums in the grounds of the Narita temple, take the bus for a short ride to the Sogo Treasure Hall and Sogo Memorial Hall, both located in the grounds of a temple called Sogo Reido, standing in the outskirts of Narita. The Treasure Hall was already established in 1935, the memorial hall 32 years later.This temple and its museum are dedicated to the sad story of a village headman, Sogoro Kiuchi, who sacrificed his life for his people.

[Sogo Reido Temple]

In the middle of the 17th century, his village in the neighborhood of Narita was suffering under the heavy taxes imposed by the local daimyo, the Hottas from Sakura. Sogoro took a petition for relief directly to the shogun in Edo. Such an act was considered as insubordination in feudal Japan, something Sogoro knew very well. The shogun recognized his complaint and granted the farmers relief of the oppressive taxes, but he also ordered the execution of Sogoro according to the law of the times. In 1653, Sogoro was crucified and his four children were decapitated.

[Sogo Reido Temple]

The Treasure Hall preserves memento’s of Sogoro’s life, mixed with other historical stuff donated by people from the neighborhood, but unconnected with the tragedy at hand. That tragedy takes center stage in the Memorial Hall at the back of the temple grounds where the story is shown with life-sized mannequins, in thirteen scenes all the way from the frivolous life of the lord of Sakura to Sogoro’s end on the execution ground. The diorama may sound a bit tacky, but it provides an interesting window on this particular aspect of Edo history. The temple itself was later dedicated to Sogoro’s memory by the grateful villagers.
Tel: 0476-27-3131

Hrs: 8:30 – 16:00 (Sat & Sun: 16:30), no holiday

Access: 10 min. on foot from Keisei Sogo Sando Station (this station is 5 min. by Keisei local train from Keisei Narita). Walk straight ahead from the station along a quiet road with a footpath; turn right at the T-junction. This is Route 464, a very busy and also narrow road, where you are almost flattened against the houses by the passing trucks. The temple is on your left after passing a side road. There is also a bus from Keisei Narita, which drops you off right in front of the temple gate, and thus is a better option.

Japanese Gardens: Furukawa Gardens, Tokyo

The Furukawa Gardens were laid out in 1914 by the head of the Furukawa Zaibatsu, one of Japan's earliest business groups. The British architect, Josiah Conder (1852-1920), was asked to design a Western-style house and garden in front of it; the Japanese garden was designed by the prominent Kyoto garden architect Ogawa Jihei.

[Furukawa Gardens and Western-style Residence, Tokyo]

The house - a classic brick structure, with dark slate walls - seems to have been transplanted lock, stock and barrel from the English country side and looks strangely exotic in Tokyo. The same is true for the terrace garden with banks of roses in front of the mansion.

In fact, house and garden are is just as much culturally out of place as if an English businessman would have built a Japanese style house with tatami mats and tokonoma in London, featuring a Japanese pond garden in front of it!

That being said, Conder was an excellent architect who built many Western houses and halls (such as the defunct Rokumeikan) in Tokyo, and the present house still serves as a testimony to that bygone age.

A Japanese pond garden is also part of the Furukawa Gardens - occupying the lower part of the estate, behind a group of large azalea hedges that forms the border between the two gardens. The pond has a gracefully curving shoreline, a virtual waterfall (with stones) drops down into it, a large lantern and elegant tea house stand at its shore.

Unfortunately, the beauty of this garden is damaged by an apartment building standing right next to it. The people living in those flats have a nice view of the garden, but the integrity of the garden has been harmed by this ungainly construction. Going around the pond, one tries to keep the gaze low, in order not to see it. It is a pity, all the more because Ogawa Jihei was one of Japan's great gardeners - he was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine.
Address: 1-27-39 Nishigahara, Kita-ku, Tokyo. Tel. 03-3910-0394

Access: 7-min. walk from Nishigahara Station on the Nanboku Subway Line; 12-min. walk from Komagome Station on the JR Yamanote Line; 7-min. walk from Kami-Nakazato Station on the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line.

Hours: 9:00-17:00. CL Year-end and New Year period.

July 23, 2011

Kite Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

The Kite Museum in Tokyo is a small, quirky, but surprisingly interesting museum.

The former owner of the Taimeikan restaurant in Nihonbashi, the late Mr. Modegi Shingo, was a kite enthusiast who founded this museum on the 5th floor of the restaurant building. The rather confined space is literally crammed with kites of all sorts and descriptions, resulting in a riot of color. The total collection comprises 3,000 pieces. Rather than only children's toys, kites in Japan were often flown by young men in religious festivals and can be appreciated as an interesting folk craft. Japanese kites (tako) are made from paper painted in bold motifs and attached to a bamboo frame and come in all imaginable sizes.

The kite was invented in China and may originally have had a military purpose. In Japan, too, kites may have been used as military signals, but an added function was a religious one, as kites also served as prayers or offerings to Shinto deities. It was in the Edo-period that kite flying became a popular form of amusement. We often find kite flying festivals (and even kite battles) depicted in ukiyo-e prints, of which the museum has several on view. The most typical traditional kite, 'Nishiki-E Dako,' has something of an ukiyo-e in its brilliant colors, bold lines and characteristic motifs.

The same style and motifs have been continued without much change in modern kites. There are for example: warriors, as Minamoto no Yoshitsune, or legendary heroes as Kintaro or Oniwakamaru; folk images as Daruma dolls, the Seven Deities of Good Fortune and comic Okame masks; birds and insects, such as the centipede kites, formed of joint sections; and Chinese characters, as the giant kanji for Ryu, dragon. Besides Japanese kites, the museum also owns kites from other Asian countries, especially China; an example is a whole case full of kites in insect shapes. Besides the large kites, there is also a case filled with miniature ones. In a corner of the room, the workshop of Edo's last kite maker, Hashimoto Teizo, has been reproduced.

The cultural lesson of this museum: in Japan, kites were not toys for kids, but in the first place they had a ritual and military function. Even now, large kites during the kite festivals are flown by grown-ups.
Address: Taimeiken restaurant 5F, 1-12-10 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0027. Tel. 03-3271-2465

Access: 3-min on foot from the C5 exit of Nihonbashi St on the Ginza and Hanzomon subway lines, on the 5th floor of the Taimeikan Bldg.

Hours: 11:00-17:00. CL Sun, NH.

July 20, 2011

Haiku Stones: Kurobane (Basho)

For haiku fans, the quiet former castle town of Kurobane in northern Tochigi is an important pilgrimage place, as Basho spent two weeks here in 1689 on his way to the Deep North. It is indeed a great place for a leisurely walk, there is a fabulous temple (Unganji) and a Basho museum... and the soba is also delicious! So why not head out to Kurobane this summer?

[Gate to Unganji Temple]

The steward of the castle of Kurobane had been Basho's student in Edo and invited the haiku master to stay over in his house. Basho ended up sojourning here for a full two weeks, his longest stay on the journey to the north (Oku no Hosomichi). Besides the warm hospitality of Joboji Tosetsu, the castle steward, and his younger brother Tosui, the opportunity to hold renga sessions together as well as the rainy weather may have been elements behind the decision to delay his further travels for such a considerable time. Basho was also guided by his eager hosts to all the sites in the town and its vicinity.

Kurobane is encircled by paddies and during my visit the new rice was standing tall. The fresh green of the stalks was almost dazzling. The small town sits on the bank of the river Naka and nature is never far away. I start by touring the haiku monuments of Kurobane, first walking through the fields on the west side of the town, later strolling through the park on the north side, where I also find a Basho Museum, built entirely from still fragrant wood. Here at the edge of town stands Daioji, an old Zen temple with impressive thatched roofs and a courtyard enclosed by a wooden gallery. Inside the yard plants and trees are rioting. Azaleas and lilies are still in bloom. Finally, I make may way to the clean and solemn Unganji Temple, a 20 min taxi ride out of town, one of the highlights of Basho's visit as it was the site of the meditation hut of his Zen teacher Bucho. Kurobane is a great small town, a glimpse of the good old Japan still relatively untainted by the excesses of our consumer society and a day spent here is unforgettable.

Here are the haiku Basho wrote in Kurobane.

[Basho on horseback, statue in front of Basho Museum, Kurobane]

must be another name
for "Eightfold Pink"

kasane to wa | yaenadeshiko no | na narubeshi
On the way to Kurobane from Nikko, Basho and his companion Sora took a road through the wild fields and somehow ended up getting lost. As a result they had to spend the night in a farmer's cottage on the moor. The next morning they borrowed a horse, so that Basho could ride. They probably also hoped that the horse would instinctively know the right way. Two small children ran behind them as they set out. One of them was a small girl, and when the travelers asked her same, she said she was called "Kasane."

According to Oku no Hosomichi, this name inspired Sora to the above haiku (in reality the haiku was probably written by Basho - there are many fictional elements in the travel dairy).Nadeshiko is a small plant known as 'pink,' usually associated with girls. As 'Kasane' means ''layers' or 'double,' Basho made a wordplay by adding the prefix 'yae-' (literally 'eightfold') to 'nadeshiko.' A flower called 'Double Pink' does not exist. The haiku means something like: "This child has the name Kasane (Layers); compared with a flower, she would certainly be a Yae-nadeshiko (Double Pink)." This kind of wordplay is the desperation of translators.
The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Saikyoji, a small temple west of Kurobane (30 min walk from the Kurobane Bus Terminal). There are 2 more stones with this haiku in the greater Nasuno area. There is no connection between Basho and Saikyoji.

[Site of Joboji's house]

hill and garden
both moving in -
summer room

yama mo niwa mo | ugoki-iruru ya | natsu-zashiki

In Kurobane, Basho lodged from April 4 till April 11 with his pupil Joboji Tosetsu who - although only 28 at the time - acted as the steward for the daimyo Ozeki Masatsune, meaning he was in charge of the administration of the fief. Basho writes that Joboji was delighted with the unexpected visit and that they kept on talking day and night.

Of course, a haiku master and his student do not stop at talking. Poetry was constantly written, and a renga (linked verse) session was also convened. The above haiku (not included in Oku no Hosomichi, but recorded by Sora) was written by Basho as homage to his host: he praises the location of Joboji's house - sitting in the warm summer room, the garden in front of it and the hills in the distance are so close they seem to be with you in the room.

Joboji lived on a small hill to the south of Kurobane Castle. Nowadays, nearby stands the Nasu-Kurobane Pension, that apparently is still run by descendants of Joboji. Below the hill flows the River Matsuba, and a cool wind blows through the tree tops. Even today, it is a peaceful bower where summer comes to visit.
The haiku stone stands at the site of Joboji's house, a 30-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Main Hall of Unganji]

even woodpeckers
don't damage this hut
summer grove

kitsutsuki mo | iyo wa yaburazu | natsu kodachi

Among the Kurobane sights was one place Basho himself very much wanted to see: Unganji Temple, 12 kilometers outside the town in the mountains. In this Zen establishment, Basho's Zen teacher, the priest Butcho, had once lived and trained. As soon as possible, already on the second day of his stay, Basho set out for Unganji. The road, which I followed by taxi, winds steeply into the mountains, crosses a pass, and then descends into the secluded valley where the temple stands. Basho walked all the way, leaning on a stick. Sora, his companion on the long journey, was of course with him, as were a number of people from Joboji's house. It was apparently a merry company and they reached Unganji before realizing they had already covered such a large distance. Basho describes the mountain behind the temple as covered with dark cedars and pines, and writes that the banks along the narrow road were covered with dripping moss. Nowadays, there are still many trees, but the overall impression is rather bright.

The temple stands on the slope of a hill covered with tall trees. In front of the hill is a small stream, the river Mumo, that is crossed by a vermilion bridge. I am not sure that bridge already existed in Basho's time, although it now dominates the scenery: the red bridge, behind that the steep stone staircase leading up to the formidable Sanmon gate. It is a scene like a postcard. On the other hand, the venerable Sanmon itself was certainly seen by Basho, as this is the oldest surviving part of Unganji. Behind the gate is an old, simple Zen hall, and another precipitous, stone staircase leads up the hill, to where the main hall stands. The mountain setting is a steep as the practice of Zen.

Unganji was founded in 1283 by the Zen master Bukkoku Kokushi at the behest of the Kamakura regent, Hojo Tokimune. Bukkoku (Koho Kennichi, 1241-1316) was a son of emperor Gosaga. His background was Tendai Buddhism, and his teaching apparently contained a liberal admixture of the esoteric. By his founding of Unganji in Nasu (as the area is called) he made a large contribution to Zen in the eastern provinces. His most famous disciple was Muso Soseki (known as the founder of Tenryuji in Kyoto and a famous garden designer). Bukkoku selected this spot for his temple as it lies at the foot of Mt. Yamizo, an area where yamabushi, ascetic mountain priests were active.

The temple flourished in the Muromachi period, when among its many buildings even a nine-storied pagoda was counted. This good fortune ended in 1590 when the local Nasu lord fled to the temple when he was under attack by the army of Hideyoshi. Except the Sanmon gate, the whole temple was destroyed in the ensuing fighting and looting. Now most buildings are from the mid-nineteenth century, and all blend perfectly into the woodland. The main hall, the Sanbutsudo, is dedicated to the founder Bukkoku, his teacher Bukko and one of his disciples, Butsuo. All three had the element 'Butsu,' Buddha, in their name, originating in the name 'Hall of the Three Buddhas.' They must indeed have been holy men. Bukkoku's tomb also lies in the grounds but is not accessible.

Unganji's silence is profound. The atmosphere of severe asceticism and meditation initiated by the 'three Buddhas' still lingers on. Basho came in search of the hermitage of his Zen master Butcho, a fourth Buddha. Butcho was Basho's Zen master and used to live in a temple close to Basho's hut in Fukagawa. Basho found the hut, where his teacher Butcho had trained, still intact at the back of the temple. It stood on top of a boulder and was nothing but a small shelter built in front of a cave. Butcho did not live there anymore at the time and the rough cottage was deserted. In an obvious tribute to his teacher Basho composed the above haiku.

Woodpeckers were irreverently hammering away on the trees around him, but they avoided Butcho's shelter, as if out of respect for the Zen master. It is not possible to check whether that hut still exists today, as the path to the site has been closed off because it is now considered too steep and dangerous.

Unganji does not cater to visitors. It tolerates them in its courtyard, it allows them to peep into the Zen hall and worship building, but nothing more. Stern signs have been put up to warn that this is a living Zen temple. One is admonished to be quiet, but in fact such an exhortation is superfluous. Unganji is the perfect location for meditation, for feeling one with nature. Buildings and grounds are perfectly kept, there is a natural feeling of discipline. The atmosphere of Unganji makes one feel just as reverend as the woodpeckers.
The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Unganji Temple, to the left of the Main Hall. It dates from the Meiji period and also contains the text of the tanka by Butcho cited above. There is another stone (from 1989) with part the the Oku no Hosomichi text and this haiku near the entrance of the temple.
Unganji Temple stands in the hills outside Kurobane, about 12 kilometers from the town center. From the Kurobane Bus Terminal, there are a few buses a day to the temple; a taxi takes 20 min.

[Road through the fields of Nasuno]

in the summer hills
praying to clogs
the start of my journey!

natsuyama ni | ashida wo ogamu | kadode kana

After Basho's timely visit to Unganji, the rains kept falling for several days. From the 6th to the 8th, he was not able to leave Choboji's house. On the 9th, however, he decided to go out in the rain and was taken to Komyoji, a shugendo temple in the fields on the east side of the town. This temple was famous for its Gyoja Hall, a hall dedicated to En no Gyoja, the legendary founder of the ascetic mountain Buddhism.

The 'ashida' mentioned in the poem (here translated as clogs) are a special kind of high geta, worn by those monks when practicing austerities. To make walking difficult, these geta had only one support instead of the normal two. The temple probably housed a statue of En no Gyoja wearing such high clogs.

Basho prays in front of them, wishing for strong feet and legs himself at the start of his long journey. Unfortunately, Komyoji was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji period. The haiku stone stands forlorn in the high grass.
The haiku stone stands on the road leading out of town from the Kurobane Bus terminal and is a 20-min walk.

[Gravestones near the site of Suito's house]

man carrying hay
a marker
in the summer field!

magusa ou | hito wo shiori no | natsu-no kana

On the 12th, Basho was taken by his host Choboji on a tour to the eastern part of Kurobane, such as the Tamaso shrine. They stayed in the house of Suito, the younger brother, who lived in the area. The weather was fine this day. The next day, Choboji again came by, carrying lunch boxes, and they spent the day holding a renga session. It is surmised that the present hokku was the opening verse of that renga.

The general meaning is: in the grassy summer fields, a man was walking carrying hay he had cut as fodder for his horse. I was walking some way behind him, and the straws that fell from the pack on his back, acted as road marks for me; that is how I found your house.

The pastoral scene, the fact that the poet finds such a natural guide, these motifs are all elements of praise. After all, it was usual to start a renga by praising the person who acted as host for the session, and Basho never fails to keep this tradition.
The Haiku stone stands in the grounds of the Tamaso Inari Shrine, a small shrine to the west of Kurobane and was installed by the Kurobane Tourist Association. 35 min on foot from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Myooji Temple in Kurobane where the haiku stone stands]
today again
praying to the morning sun
on top of the stone

kyo mo mata | asahi wo ogamu | ishi no ue

On his trip to the north, Basho held 13 renga sessions. The first one was in the house of Choboji; the second one in the house of the younger brother Tosui - the haiku Basho wrote then has been introduced above.

It is generally surmised that the present haiku formed part of that first renga. Central participants in the session were of course Choboji himself and his younger brother Tosui. The above haiku is not the opening, but sits somewhere further in the chain. Before it comes a verse about an exile cutting grass in the autumn wind. Basho deftly changes the scene to a gyoja, an ascetic priest as the En no Gyoja to whose clogs he had prayed in an earlier Kurobane haiku. The priest usually meditates on top of a stone, and today also stands on it to pray to the morning sun.
The Haiku stone was installed by Myooji Temple. The temple stands in the town, a 15-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Paddies in Kurobane ]
paddies and barley
and especially
the summer cuckoo

ta ya mugi ya | naka nimo natsu no | hototogisu

This haiku was written down by Sora. There is no direct link with Oku no Hosomichi, but the scenery fits Kurobane well.

Sora has added the comment that the poem describes no such great scenery as the Barrier at Shirakawa, where the priest Noin had written a famous tanka about the autumn wind. There is only the green of the young rice plants and the fresh barley, among which the farmers are busily working. This type of scenery is not very special (I disagree - but then, in Basho time there was a lot more of nature left and paddies must indeed have been a very common sight!).

But, concludes Sora, standing in that ordinary landscape and then suddenly hearing the voice of the cuckoo - that makes one realize that summer has come - therefore out of an ordinary landscape still a deep seasonal feeling can be born.
The Haiku stone stands at the site of Kurobane Castle and was put up by Kurobane.
30-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal or 5 min. from the Basho no Yakata.

[Basho and Sora setting out]

across the field
pull the horse towards you

no wo yoko ni | uma hikimukeyo | hototogisu

Finally the time has come for Basho and Sora to leave Kurobane's hospitality behind. After taking leave from Joboji on the 14th, they go to the house of Suito, the younger brother, for another leave-taking. He kindly provides Basho with a horse, so that the haiku master leaves in the same state as when he arrived.

An attendant from Suito's household accompanies them, as he has to take the horse back. Suddenly this attendant asks: "Can you write a haiku for me on a slip of paper?"

Basho is touched by the interest a (presumably uneducated) stable boy has in poetry - that must be special to Suito's household. (I rather assume that - as much in Oku no Hosomichi - it was pure fiction; then it would be another way of praising the elegance of Suito, Joboji and the people of Kurobane).

Basho writes the above haiku down. In the wide, wide plain of Nasuno, suddenly the voice of a cuckoo could be heard. Cuckoo, go on crying and pull the head of the horse in your direction!

[Daioji Temple in Kurobane]

The Haiku stone dates from the Edo period and stands in the grounds of Jonenji temple in the town proper.
10-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.
How to get to Kurobane:
From Nishi-Nasuno Station on the Tohoku Main Line (for fast access, take the Shinkansen to Nasu-Shiobara and then backtrack one station on the ordinary line), take a bus to the Kurobane Bus Terminal (a 35 min ride). All haiku stones except the one in Unganji temple are within walking distance from this terminal. It is a good idea to contact the Machi Yakuba (Town hall) of Kurobane in advance of a visit (tel. 0287-54-1117); they will send a set of pamphlets and maps on which all the haiku stones have been indicated (only in Japanese). The Basho no Yakata also sells a (Japanese) booklet about the haiku stones in the area.

Museums: Currency Museum, Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but some good things are free. One of these is squarely connected with money…

Just north of Nihonbashi we find the solemn edifice of the Bank of Japan. The office building next to bank's main building houses the Currency Museum, which was set up by the Bank of Japan (its Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies, to be precise) and provides a very complete overview of money in Japan.

Most of the museum space is taken up by this historical display, the 'History of Japanese Currency.' Further, there is a small area for thematic displays and a special exhibition area where usually various types of currency from other countries are shown. It is a pity that the detailed Japanese explanations have not been translated, but the illustrated English pamphlet visitors receive at the entrance partly makes up for that deficiency.

[The Bank of Japan]

The display starts with 'commodity money' such as arrowheads or rice and the beginning of coinage in China in the 3rd c. BC. These earliest coins still had the shape of commodities such as spades and daggers, but soon the typical circular coins with a square hole in the middle appear.

Influenced by China, the Yamato court in Japan started producing coins of that shape in 708 (called Wado Kaichin).

In the 10th c., however, coinage by the government was suspended and from the 12th to the 17th c. imported Chinese coins would be widely used in Japan. On display is a pot from Kyushu in which 7,700 Chinese coins were found.

The unification of the country by Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu also brought a new currency system. In 1588, Hideyoshi ordered the minting of Tensho Oban gold coins - these are the largest gold coins ever produced in the world. In 1601 Ieyasu has Keicho gold and silver coins minted.

Around 1600 the first paper money was introduced by merchants from the Ise area, called Yamada Hagaki (China knew paper money since the 10th c. - when it was used in Sichuan - and used it widely since the Yuan Dynasty). Paper money was slow to take off, but in 1661 the Fukui fief issued 'feudal notes,' local paper money, and they were soon imitated by other domains as well.

In 1670 the Kanei Tsusho standardized copper coin was added to the silver and gold ones by the shogunate. This was a monetary system where the value of individual coins was based on the value and volume of the metal from which they were made. At the end of the century, however, the government debased gold and silver coins and this happened several times in the rest of the Edo period.

When the Meiji government took the reigns in 1868, there was monetary confusion at first, but soon a monetary system based on a Western model was introduced. Due to the New Currency Act of 1871, the denomination 'yen' was introduced.

1881 saw the issue of the Empress Jingu Note, the first one to feature a portrait. The Bank of Japan started its operations in 1882 and issued its first note called Daikokusatsu in 1885. In 1897 the gold standard was adopted.

The rest is modern history, with the various types of yen coins and notes issued from that time on display, also the ones from the war period.
Address: Bank of Japan Annex Building, Nihonbashi-Hongokucho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.

Tel. 03-3277-3037

Access: 1 min walk from Mitsukoshi-mae St on the Hanzomon Subway Line (B1 exit); 3 min walk from Mitsukoshi-mae St on the Ginza Subway Line (A5 exit)

Hours: 9:30-16:30. Cl. Mon, NH (except Sat & Sun), 12/29-1/4, between exhibitions. Entrance free.

July 18, 2011

Mame-mochi from Futaba

Futaba in Demachi-yanagi, near the Masugata shopping arcade, is one of the most popular wagashi (Japanese sweets) shops in Kyoto. It was established in 1896 (Meiji 26).

[Futaba, wagashi shop in Demachi-yanagi]

They sell "mame-mochi," rice cakes with a filling of azuki beans (both whole ones and a paste inside) - nothing fancy, a sturdy snack loved by ordinary Kyotoites.

Mamemochi are not too sweet, they have a resilient texture and are at the same time soft and easy to eat. The smell of the beans is also good.


Confectionery shops of Kyoto are divided into two types: Omanya and Kashiya. Omanya are shops selling ohagi, dango and sweets based on mochi as Futaba. Kashiya are the more exclusive shops catering to the tea ceremony.

There are always people lining up in front of Futaba, even in the cold winter.

July 15, 2011

Shogoin Yatsuhashi (Kyoto Guide)

Shogoin, near the temple of the same name, is the place where one Kyoto's most famous sweets originated. The year was 1689 when Genkakudo (“Hall of the Black Crane”) in front of Shogoin Temple began selling a sweet called “yatsuhashi.” This sweet was shaped like the bridge of a koto, the 13-stringed zither, and named after Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685), Japan's most famous koto player and composer, who had died just a few years earlier.

[The modern Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten shop]

Kengyo had spent his last years as a koto teacher in Kyoto and was buried at the cemetery of the Kurodani Temple (officially called Konkaikomyoji), on the hill beyond Shogoin. In fact, the original yatsuhashi shop (there soon were competitors!) alludes with its name to both Kurodani and the zither: “black” is found back in the temple name (“Black valley”) and the sound of the zither was often compared to the singing of a crane – therefore “Hall of the Black Crane.” The name is now Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten.

The sweets were made only with pounded rice, cinnamon (for the particular taste) and sugar. Baked, they are quite hard, like rice crackers, but much thinner. These durable sweets became popular items for tourists to take home and the name “Shogoin yatsuhashi” is now known nationwide. It is a product that easily travels, even if you live abroad - it keeps for three months.

[Shogoin Temple]

That is not true for the other type of yatsuhashi sweet that was developed much later. This is the unbaked variant called “hijiri,” first sold in 1960. The triangular pieces of folded pounded rice usually contain a filling of red bean jam and may be colored green with powdered tea. They are quite delicious and easy on the teeth, but do not keep very long. The name “hijiri” was taken from neighboring Shogoin Temple, which as one of the head temples of the Shugendo sect is the leader of groups of “hijiri” or "holy men," the designation for the so-called "ascetic mountain priests."

Japan Travel: Arima Onsen, Kobe

Although I had been living for a year in Kobe, I had not yet made my way to that part of the city where the hot springs of Arima are located. There was no need to play the tourist, I thought, but last weekend curiosity drove me if not to the baths themselves, at least to the town around them. Here is a guide to what I found.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - the winding streets with old houses]

Arima Onsen proved to be compact, and more interesting than is usually the case with famous onsen. There are narrow lanes with old shops snaking up the hill, there are a few old temples and a nice piece of history to top it off.

Arima is one of the oldest hot spring resorts in Japan and its discovery goes back to the mythological mists of time. Two deities (whose all too long names I will mercifully withhold) were tramping through the mountains when they came across three injured crows bathing in a hot puddle. Apparently, those waters possessed healing properties and the deities also enjoyed a good soak in the hot spring.

After that, in the 7th century came two emperors who stayed in Arima for lengthy periods, both longer than eighty days, the time needed to heal imperial wounds.

In the eight century the ambulant wonder-worker priest Gyoki came here, bringing an old man to the springs to be healed, and when the hot waters proved efficacious (the old man changed into a golden Buddha and flew off on a cloud to the east) he built a temple dedicated to the Healing Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai. Gyoki is a historical person, but the deeds ascribed to him are still very much the stuff of legend - he would need nine lives to found all the temples he is said to have founded.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - visitors enjoying a foot bath]

Arima became a spa town and prospered, but was cruelly wiped off the map by a flood in 1097. It would take a whole century before another priest rebuilt it: Ninsai, who came from Nara and was miraculously guided to the hot spring by the thread of a spider. Ninsai not only rebuilt the Yakushi Temple, but also set up twelve Bo or lodgings for monks, named after the Twelve Generals who usually accompany the Yakushi Buddha. Weary priestly as well as lay bodies would from now on be revived by yuna, bathing girls, in rituals unholy but pleasant enough to keep a constant stream of men coming to the springs.

These men stayed long, too, and even made a sport of it. They would wear white yukata robes in the baths, which thanks to the water with high iron content, gradually would take on a reddish color. They competed to have the reddest robe - after all, the redder the robe, the richer its owner, as only the very wealthy could afford a limitless stay at an expensive resort.

The Arima spa paradise was finally hit by a new string of disasters: in 1528 and again in 1574 the town suffered destruction by fire, and in between a civil war raged here.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe. Taiko no Yudonokan Museum, showing Hideyoshi's bath house]

A new re-builder was necessary. He appeared on stage in the historical person of Hideyoshi who took his first Arima bath in 1583 and from then on was addicted to the healing waters and even started a large-scale reconstruction project. In 1598 heavy rain prevented him from visiting Arima's hot springs - and unhealed, in the same year he died.

The hot springs of Arima prospered in the Edo period. Women came here too, as the iron holding waters, rich in sodium chloride and on top of that carbonated, were believed to enhance fertility. Hideyoshi, desperate for an heir, had brought his wife Nene here to that same purpose.

Later, 20th c. literary giant Tanizaki was a frequent visitor, as he enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the old inns.

The nicest place in Arima is the area around Onsenji Temple, with the Tosen Jingu Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple and Nembutsuji Temple all standing close together. Onsenji is the successor of the Yakushi temple originally built by Gyoki and Ninsai and has a large Yakushi statue on display. Nembutsuji stands at the location of Nene's summer villa, Gokurakuji occupies the site of Hideyoshi's bath. This became clear thanks to another disaster: when the residence of the priest collapsed in the 1995 earthquake, the foundations of the ancient 16th c. baths were discovered and now a museum has been built on top to preserve them, the Taiko no Yudonokan. It is fascinating to see the exact onsen bath that once accommodated the mighty Hideyoshi!

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - Onsenji Temple]

Arima is full of old wooden houses, shops selling crafts as bamboo baskets for the tea ceremony and decorative "doll" brushes. Nibble on a "carbonated" rice cracker baked in spa water and ascend the serpentine slopes at leisure... this all against the serene backdrop of the green Rokko mountains. Kobe seems far-away, too.

See also A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs by Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro (Kodansha International, 1986).
Arima Onsen is only 40 min by bus from Sannomiya (once an hour). Even faster is the subway/train combination (Hokushin Express to Tanigami St, then Shintetsu Arima Sanda Line to Arimaguchi and finally Shintetsu Arima line to Arima Onsen St) from Shinkobe Station, which takes only 30 min.

Festivals: On Jan. 2 the statues of Arima's founders are carried in a procession and washed by women dressed as yuna. On Nov 2 and 3 there is a maple and tea ceremony festival.

The public bathhouses Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu are for a quick "return-trip" soak, for longer stays there are many luxurious hotels.

Read here about the health benefits of the various types of hot springs in Arima.

"Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath" by Eric Talmadge (Best Non-Fiction

Onsen is big business in Japan. I like them, but with some reservations. For one thing, the full onsen experience can be off-puttingly expensive. One night's stay in a classy onsen hotel can easily set you back 30,000 - 50,000 yen per person. This includes two meals, but is still an outrageous price. If like most Japanese this one onsen weekend is all the traveling you do in the whole year, it may still be OK, but it can be a problem if you are traveling two or three weeks around Japan.

Next, not all onsen are that interesting. On the contrary, the large towns with huge hotels that cater to group tours are right-out garish. The high-rise hotels spoil the scenery and the noisy groups spoil your fun if you come as a couple or family. These places are more suitable to tours with colleagues from work than private visits - and that is indeed how most Japanese travel there (although such tours are not so popular anymore and many onsen towns are literally crumbling away).

My advice is therefore to search out the hito, the so-called "hidden hot springs," the smaller and often rustic onsen of only a handful of modest hotels - or even only one single ryokan hidden away in the mountains. Often (but not always!) these hidden hot springs are less expensive - for example, 10,000 a person - , and on top of that, you are not bothered by concrete piles or noisy groups. In these smaller onsen, also the Japanese travel as families or couples.

When I start wondering if Japanese onsen culture is at all any fun, I often have recourse to Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath (Kodansha International, 2006) by Eric Talmadge. Eric Talmadge is Tokyo news editor for the Associated Press who has lived longer in Japan than in his native country. In this book, he combines work and hobby by trying out the whole spectrum of Japanese bathing culture and serving that up in what can only be called an enjoyable read.

There are countless hot springs in Japan. Since very ancient times (say 10,000 years ago), it has been the biggest pleasure and pastime of the Japanese to sit in those sometimes scalding hot waters - provided for free by their extremely volcanic country. Visiting an onsen (as hot springs are called in Japanese) is not only the main idea the Japanese have of a holiday, it is also healthy thanks to the medicinal properties of thermal spring water.

In this enthusiastic account, Talmadge relates his adventures in various onsen around Japan and combines those tales with reflections on bathing-related subjects.

Sitting in the bug-lined tidal pools of far-away Shikine, one of the volcanic Izu islands SE of Tokyo, he studies the science of hot spring bathing and the different kinds of stuff you can find in all those tubs.

During a visit to the popular hot springs of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture he realizes that the Japanese obsession with onsen may have led to a recent scandal where bath owners were caught tampering with the healing properties by mixing in ordinary tap water (for how else can you serve 5 million customers a year?).

Talmadge also ventures into his neighborhood sento (no mean feat, I can assure you, as your nakedness will be stared at by the locals) and survives the shock of a skin-tingling Hertz bath with low voltage electrical stimulation.

Next he joins the dense crowds in the new Disneyesque hot spring theme park in Tokyo Bay, the Oedo Onsen Monogatari (which uses "paleowater" drawn from 1400 meters underground), before contemplating the history of the Japanese bath in more traditional Arima, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

Invited to Kusatsu in the mountains of Gunma (to help promote onsen visits among foreign tourists), he makes the reader hungry by a detailed description of the gorgeous meal served him in an expensive ryokan, courtesy of the Japanese government. His justification: in the onsen experience, food is just as important as hot water.

In Yunessun, Hakone, another hot spring extravaganza where guests wear bathing suits in the mixed bathing area, he ruminates on the subject of nakedness and why Japan has so many onsen where people hop around stark naked, but virtually no nudists.

In Misasa Onsen, Tottori Pref., Talmadge challenges fate by sitting in a radioactive bath, although he could have been warned by the statue of Madame Curie that graces the village. He also describes the fancy for radon products in the Western world in the 1930s (low radiation was thought to be beneficial), which abruptly stopped when the jaw of one of the users of such products literally dropped off.

In one of the final chapters Talmadge adds an experience in one of the numerous Yoshiwara Soaplands to his list of bathing pleasures. The "soap girl" who washes him is a direct descendant of the age-old yuna, or "hot water girls," who for obvious reasons were instrumental in popularizing the bath in feudal times.

Onsen are one of Japan's greatest pleasures. After reading this highly appetizing book, you may be ready to jump right in.

But be warned before you try: Talmadge also lets us know that the number of Japanese who die in the bath each year rivals the number killed in traffic accidents!

So don't forget to read the author's advice on how to take the Perfect Bath and go slow on the alcohol (which can be dangerous in combination with a very hot bath)!

Finally, I7D like to share my three favorite onsen with you:

1. Yunomine Onsen, Wakayama. 
One hour by bus from Shingu in the direction of the Kumano Hongu Shrine, this onsen sits squarely on the Old Kumano Road. It is only one street in a narrow valley, with some 15 ryokan and minshuku. The public tsubo-yu is famous from the legend of Oguri Hangan - as Oguri was nursed back from the dead in this bath, the hot spring must be quite powerful! There is also a nice old temple, Tokoji. I visited last time in September and remember sitting at the open window of our hotel, listening to the singing of the autumn crickets while dusk gathered. Combine with visits to the three Kumano shrines: Hongu near Yunomine (in fact, pilgrims in the past came to Yunomine to cleanse themselves before proceeding to the sacred temple), the Hayatama Shrine in Shingu and the Nachi Shrine at the splendid Nachi waterfall.

2. Bessho Onsen, Nagano. 
Not really a hidden hot spring, but nonetheless a compact small town with no real high-rises, close to nature, and only 30 min. from Ueda which is a stop on the Nagano Shinkansen. Bessho is fun because of the many important temples scattered through the town and its surroundings: Kitamuki Kannon, Anrakuji, Jorakuji and further afield, Zenzanji, Chuzenji and Daihoji. Two of these own beautiful pagodas which have been declared National Treasures. From Zenzanji to Bessho there is a nice hiking route. Combine with Ueda and its Kokubunji Temple, castle ruin and haiku stones by Shirao.

3. Jigokudani, Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano. 
Famous for its monkeys bathing in the snow, but you don't have to join them (in fact, I advise you not to as they are very aggressive). In winter, when the scenery is at its best, the rustic ryokan sitting in the middle of nowhere is usually quiet. Involves a hike of 40 minutes from the nearest bus station or parking lot, but is still only 2.5 hrs from Nagano. We stayed in Februari when we had to plod through a thick layer of snow, but it was worth it. The monkeys were very photogenic!

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography

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



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



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


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

Kyoto Files: Geisha

Together with sakura (cherry blossoms) and Mt. Fuji, there is nothing more typically Japanese than the geisha. Despite this, the institute is surprisingly young: the first geisha (in fact called geiko, 'art person') operated in Tokyo (then Edo) in 1761. In contrast to what is sometimes thought in the West, a geisha is not a prostitute, but a professional entertainer at parties. It is her task to keep parties going, by witty talk and jokes, party games, song, dance and music. Those parties were originally held in the licensed quarters (yukaku), such as the Yoshiwara in Edo/Tokyo and Shimabara in Kyoto (but the prostitutes working in those quarters were called yujo and not geisha!).

[Geisha dance at Miyako Odori]

Geisha do, however, often have a danna, a rich patron, with whom they have an economic and emotional tie. In principle, modern geisha can live from their salary. (In the past they were often sold by poor parents to the geisha house, which then took care of their education. When they started working, the geisha first had to pay back these considerable debts).

The houses where the geisha live are called okiya. In the past, a geisha would start here at a very young age as a shikomi, or maid servant; between 12 and 18 she would become apprentice geisha (called maiko in Kyoto) and spend much of her time learning dance and music, while being trained how to entertain together with an accomplished geisha (her 'Elder Sister') in the evening. Maiko have the most colorful kimono, recognizable by their long sleeves, high clogs or okobo and butterfly-like obi. There are not many maiko left nowadays (the number of geisha has also dwindled to a few thousand for the whole of Japan). The place where the geisha entertains her customers is a special restaurant, called ochaya in Kyoto and ryotei in Tokyo. The most famous of these is the Ichiriki on Shijo Ave. in Kyoto.

A geisha can make her work a lifelong career if she so wishes, she only has to leave the profession when she marries; but when she gets older, she may set up her own okiya or restaurant, often with the help of her danna.

Unless invited by a Japanese business relation, a geisha party is above the means of most foreign visitors or residents. On top of that, one would not be able to enter, as chance customers are not welcome - one has to be invited by one of the steady customers of the teahouse. There is little reason to regret this: if you don't speak fluent Japanese, the conversation and jokes of the geisha are lost on you, and what remains are the rather silly party games. And beware if you are the main guest at a geisha party: their is no age limit to geisha and as in Japanese politics and business, the older the person, the higher the rank.

[House in Gion during Miyako Odori]

Here are some tips for seeing geisha or visit the areas where they live and work:
In the first place, there is the 'Geisha spotting', usually in the Gion area in the late afternoon. This is the time the geisha leave their okiya to go to the ochaya for their work of the evening. A good street is the part of Gion that starts at the Ichiriki restaurant and runs towards the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo (called Hanamikoji). It is full of people carrying cameras at that time of the day. The geisha and maiko are not really charmed by this attention, so they move very fast in their beautiful clothes, or quickly jump into a waiting taxi.

It is interesting to walk around Shimbashi, the part of Gion on the opposite side of Shijodori Ave., where okiya line a canal with drooping willow trees. This can be done in the morning, too. You may hear the sound of shamisen practice from the houses...

Pontocho, the second geisha area of Kyoto is an extremely narrow street running parallel to the River Kamo and also fun to walk in the early evening. There are many high-class ryotei and it is possible to catch a glimpse of maiko here, too.

Pontocho lies on the west bank of the Kamo river and forms a small area of between Sanjo and Shijo avenues, bisected by a narrow lane. This is a lovely little street, only a few feet wide, with its freshly cleaned stone pavement, soft lights and old style houses. In 1670 the riverbank was reinforced with stonework; the name Pontocho may have been derived from the Portuguese word ponto, point, because of the sandbar reclaimed along the west bank. From about the early 18th c., geisha houses, restaurants and tea shops began appearing here. The district reached the peak of its popularity in the late 19th c. - in recent years the number of establishments has declined.

Best days for geisha spotting are the times when there is some event in Gion: August 1 (Hassoku: geisha and maiko visit people who have helped them); November 8; December 13 (Koto-hajime); December 31 (Shigoto-osame).

Finally, the very best chance to see the geisha and their art of song and dance are the dance performances in spring and autumn:

Miyako Odori. In Gion Kobu Kaburenjo. Dance revue by the Gion maiko and Geisha. There is a tea ceremony before the show starts, where famous geisha prepare tea in front of guests. Date: April 1-30. The Gion dances are classical, based on Noh.

[Geisha perform a tea ceremony during Miyako Odori]

Kamogawa Odori. In Pontocho Kaburenjo. Spring and fall dances by the geisha and maiko of the Pontocho district. Date: May 1 - 24 & Oct. 15 - Nov. 7. In contrast to Gion, the Pontocho performances are more innovative. (Here is a recent account of the Kamogawa Odori dances plus photos).

As regards the yukaku or kuruwa, the real licensed quarters, of these the Yoshiwara in Tokyo is most famous. War, quake and fires have, however, wiped it off the face of the earth. Where it once stood is now a somewhat sleazy downtown area with so-called soaplands and pimps hanging around, but nothing is left to call the old quarter to mind. It has been beautifully evocated in the short novels of Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896), the first woman author of Japan's modern age, who lived at the edge of the Yoshiwara, then still in full operation.

Shimabara in Kyoto, just north of Nishi-Honganji Temple, has fared somewhat better. It was set up at its present location in 1641, then a 40,000 sq. m. area, enclosed by walls and a 3 meter wide moat to prevent the prostitutes from escaping. There were only two gates giving access to the whole district (a vestige of the Omon Gate still stands at the end of the Shimabara shopping street. In its heyday, it was packed with brothels. Some buildings in the area still recall the former atmosphere with their lattice work windows. Among these, two are of special interest. The Wachigaiya (marked by a lamp with two interlocked red rings above the entrance) was an okiya, a house where the oiran or high level courtesans lived. From here they would walk to evening appointments decked out in a heavy kimono and carrying a load of dangling ornaments in their coiffure. A characteristic of oiran was that the obi was tied in front (for obvious reasons). The houses where they entertained customers were called ageya. The Sumiya (1787) still stands of this type of building and is even an important cultural asset, thanks to the gorgeous decorations inside. It has a beautiful lattice work front as well. Recently, it has been converted into a museum and the gorgeous rooms inside can now be visited.

July 13, 2011

Sake Files: Sake ice and sake with ice

The hot summer continues to batter us relentlessly in Japan, so here some interesting (and unorthodox) ways to consume cold sake:
  • Samurai Rock: "Sake  on the rocks" with a slice of lime - the sourness of the lime harmonizes well with sake. If it is available, it is best to use genshu, the raw and undiluted sake popular in Japanese summers. The genshu packs so much punch that it easily withstands the dilution with ice. If you have to use another type of sake, make sure you don't dilute it too much!
  • Mizore Sake: "snow sake," instead of ice cubes add shaved ice to the sake like the Japanese kakegori. Also best with genshu.
  • Sake Sherbet: frozen sake. Sold amongst others by Kobe Shushinkan (Fukuju brand) under the name "toketsu-shu." They use Shiboritate genshu for it. You can also make it yourself: just pour sake (genshu again!) in a sturdy glass, wrap it in plastic foil and place it in your freezer. After 4 to 5 hours you should be in the happy possession of a sake sherbet! You can drink it bit by bit as it thaws, but you can also eat it with a spoon like a real sherbet. In that case, pour some honey or syrup over it!
  • "Kan" Rock: "Kan" or "o-kan" is warm sake in Japanese and that is what you add to a glass full of ice cubes. The sake should be quite hot, about 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). When you shake the glass, the sake soon cools down. An interesting way to drink hot sake in summer!

Japan Travel: Nihonmatsu Youth Corps

Everyone in Japan knows the sad story of the Byakkotai, the White Tiger Youth Corps of Aizu-Wakamatsu: during the Boshin War (1868) twenty teenagers of this unit stationed on Iimori Hill mistakenly thought the castle had fallen when they saw smoke rising up from the ramparts and therefore committed suicide (seppuku). A case of too hasty and wasteful loyalty.

[Statues of Nihonmatsu Youth Corps in front of
Nihonmatsu Castle]

The Nihonmatsu Youth Corps did not commit suicide by mistake, but actually perished in battle in the same war. Like Aizu-Wakamatsu, Nihonmatsu was a fief, led by the Niwa clan, that was loyal to the Tokugawa family. It was also a bastion of Confucian ideals and Bushido.

[Minowamon gate of Nihonmatsu Castle (Kasumigajo), after which one of Daishichi's most popular junmai daiginjo sakes is named]

The Youth Corps was led by Kimura Jutaro who had studied in Edo. Interestingly, the corps possessed a Western cannon unit. Ages of the boys were between 12 and 17 - those of 12 and 13 had in fact lied about their real age.

[Graves of the Youth Corps in Dairinji, Nihonmatsu]

In the fierce Battle of Odanguchi, at the western entrance to the castle town, 16 out of 20 teenagers were struck down by the forces of the Meiji government. They now rest in Dairinji, the family temple of the Niwa clan. There are always fresh flowers at the monument near their graves.

Japanese Customs: Ekiben

One of the pleasures of train travel in Japan is the ekiben, the boxed meal sold at stations (eki means station and ben is an abbreviation of bento, a box lunch). The first, consisting of simple rice balls with a pickled plum (umeboshi) inside and wrapped in bamboo leaf, was sold in 1885 in Utsunomiya north of Tokyo. A nice touch was the addition of two slices of takuan, radish pickles. In fact, riding trains and eating soon became a popular pastime in Japan. Stations competed with different kinds of ekiben and tried to promote local delicacies. From their side, passengers looked forward to the discovery of new flavors as an added travel adventure.

Originally ekiben were sold by peddlers walking along the train in an age when trains made longer stops than now and the windows could still be opened. Now you will find them in the station shops, on the platforms and in smaller quantities in the trains themselves. The containers (with small compartments for different types of food) are often very attractive and designed to represent the particular local dish they feature. Ekiben also include disposable chopsticks, a paper napkin and sometimes even a toothpick. They do not come cheap (about 1,000 yen on average), but usually ingredients of high quality are used, making this a convenient way to sample local food.

In fact, these boxed lunches are so popular in Japan that the large department stores in Tokyo sell them during special “Ekiben fairs.” At such times, tens of thousands of ekiben are sold and staff from the restaurants or food factories making the ekiben come to cook in front of the customers. There are in all about 2,000 types.

The most popular ones are:

Ikameshi (Mori Station, Hakodate Main Line, Hokkaido). A whole squid (ika) is stuffed with rice and simmered in a sweet and salty sauce. Each bento contains two or three pieces of squid.

Toge no kamameshi (originally sold on Yokokawa Station on the express line from Tokyo to Nagano, but this station was abolished because of the new Shinkansen line; the bento is now sold in stations along the Nagano Shinkansen line, as Karuizawa or Ueda). Rice cooked in stock and garnished with small pieces of chicken, shiitake, takenoko, gobo, chestnut and an egg. The fun is in the container: a simple earthenware pot.

Masu-no-sushi (Toyama Station, Hokuriku Main Line). Oshizushi (sushi pressed in a mold) made with trout (masu) wrapped in a bamboo leaf and presented in a box made of cedar wood. This is an old recipe from Toyama. But there is much more…

Hamamatsu is famous for its eel (unagi) so here you get unagi meshi; Fukui is known for its spider crab (zuwaigani), resulting in a delicious kani meshi. Another favorite is kakinoha zushi in Nara: oshizushi with various kinds of fish, for example mackerel (saba), wrapped in a persimmon (kaki) leaf, which gives a special flavor to the sushi. And from Yokohama's famous Chinatown hails a shumai bento, containing shumai meat dumplings and other Chinese delicacies.

Sometimes especially the container is interesting, as the Kokeshi shaped lunch box in Morioka, or the Daruma shape in Takasaki (Gunma), a town known for its Daruma festival. In contrast to the above specialty ekiben which are only sold at specific stations, there are also ordinary types of ekiben, with no link to local food.

The most popular here is the Makunouchi bento. Makunouchi is the interval between acts at a Kabuki performance, and in the Edo period people would take this opportunity to have a quick bite. The makunouchi bento contains rice and a wide variety of fish, meat and vegetables.
Here is a site (in Japanese) with an encyclopedic listing of all ekiben. 

Between Cultures: Butter rice or sugar rice?

Even today when some Japanese travel abroad, they lug around an extra suitcase filled with noodles, miso and other goodies from the national diet. They simply don't feel at ease without a bite of Japanese food.

I was reminded of this when reading Donald Keene's Modern Japanese Diaries, in which the great scholar discusses a diary describing the first embassy ever sent abroad in modern times by the Japanese. This was an official trip made in 1860 to ratify the treaty of amity and commerce concluded in 1857 with the United States. Diarist and leader of the embassy was shogunal top-ranking official, Muragaki Norimasa (a somewhat dour figure who continuously berates the Americans for being without manners and decorum, without appreciating their kindliness).

Too long bereft of proper Japanese food, in Philadelphia the Japanese group is overjoyed when a bowl of rice appears on the table. But to their dismay the rice has been cooked in butter. They ask the kitchen to make new rice without butter. New rice appears, but now to their even greater dismay, it has been cooked with sugar! Disappointed at this barbarian way of treating rice, the Japanese delegation eats bread instead. Muragaki comments as follows:
In general customs relating to food are the same throughout the world, but our country's are unique. For this reason, it is impossible to describe adequately in words the hardships we suffer when we travel abroad."
[Donald Keene, Modern Japanese Diaries]

Haiku Stones: Saiganji, Fushimi, Kyoto (Basho)

In Fushimi today we came across a small temple called Saiganji or more popularly Aburakake Jizo. That means "Jizo covered with oil" and there is of course a story behind it.

Saiganji was founded in 1590 by Unkai. Once upon a time, an oil merchant from Yamazaki stumbled in front of the gate of the temple and spilled most of his oil. Giving it up as lost, he sincerely poured the reminder over the Jizo statue as a donation to the deity and paid his respects. Then he went his way. Thereafter, his business prospered enormously and this gave cause to the popular belief that all wishes would be granted if one poured oil over the Jizo statue of Saiganji.

[Basho-zuka in Saiganji]

Today the temple was closed but when standing in front of it, I remembered we visited here many years ago, during the Jizobon festival in summer, when we were kindly invited into the temple hall by the people of the neighborhood. They shared food and drinks with us and together we watched children and grannies passing around a large rosary with wooden beads as large as tennis balls. And indeed, the stone Jizo had a very oily appearance!

Today I also discovered there is a haiku stone in Saiganji with a haiku by Basho on it:
on my silk robe
put a drop
of the peaches of Fushimi

waga kinu ni | Fushimi no momo no | shizuku seyo
Basho wrote this haiku in 1685 for Ninko, the third abbot of Saiganji who was a haiku poet as well. Ninko was 80 at the time and would die the next year. He was a morally very high-standing priest and that is what Basho alludes to. At that time Fushimi was famous for its peaches and the peach therefore stands for Ninko in the poem. Basho reveres Ninko so much that he wants to receive the shower of the holy man's virtue on his own robe - even one drop.
Access: 15 min walk from Momoyamagoryo St on the Keihan line - walk straight through the Otesuji Arcade, turn left at the end into another, narrower arcade, then at the end again right into an ordinary street and you will soon stand in front of the small temple (again on your right). The haiku stone dates from 1805. Note: "Momo no shizuku," "the drop of the peaches" from Basho's haiku, was selected as the name of one of Fushimi's most famous sake brands.

Between Cultures: Japanese commercials, poetry instead of prose

TV commercials are influenced by culture, even the basic way they are made. For one thing, the commercials I am forced to watch when I am in the Netherlands could not be more different than the ones that flashed over my TV screen in Japan.

Interestingly, the one basic difference reminds me of the basic difference in literature (of all things!) between East Asia and the West. Our Western literature is epic, it starts with Homerus and went on to create the 19th century novel. In other words, it always tells a story, even our poetry.

This in sharp contrast to China and Japan. Although both countries do have great novels, their culture is basically lyrical. The literary tradition starts with collections of lyrical poetry, the Shi Jing or Book of Poetry in China, the Manyoshu in Japan. These poems do not tell a story, but sing of the feelings aroused by a particular situation: a mood, a landscape, a personal situation.

Now, this same difference holds for commercials on TV. The ones I see in the Netherlands always try to tell a story. That is difficult in the span of 30 seconds, so most of them fail to be interesting. It is also extremely boring to get the same story on your screen everyday. No, I much prefer the lyrical, almost abstract, sometimes even surreal way of Japanese advertising. Not to say that there are no silly commercials in Japan! But the best ones just set a mood, with beautiful images, after which the product is just shown briefly, almost as an afterthought.

Like so many lyrical poems, they only rely on emotional and visual impact.

Book Review: "Mishima's Sword" by Christopher Ross

Why did Mishima Yukio commit seppuku? And what happened to the sword he used for the deed? Questions Christopher Ross sets out to answer in Mishima’s Sword, Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend. The book is a pleasant read. It nicely hobbles along on its short paragraphs, like an extended but at the same time well laid out mosaic. But it is not easy to answer the many questions surrounding Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s gruesome and anachronistic death by seppuku, ritual suicide during what would now be called an act of terrorism.

On November 25, 1970, with a few members of his private army Mishima entered the Ichigaya headquarters of the Self Defense Forces, hijacked a general and tried to incite the soldiers to insurrection. He was only met with scorn and jeers and then carried out what he had in fact come to do: die a glorious death.

A pity for him that his way of dying would then and now only be seen as the “pathetic act of a very gifted buffoon” – the last stage appearance of a “suicidal dandy” (as Ian Buruma calls it in The Missionary and the Libertine). The story is presented by the author as a quest for the true circumstances of Mishima’s last day.

Christopher Ross comes to Tokyo in 2000 to travel back to the Mishima Incident. He has been in Japan before; he has studied aikido and speaks the language. Ross tries to meet people who knew Mishima, which is no easy thing, because Mishima is still taboo in Japan and most of the inner circle refuse to see the English author. No wonder: Mishima was a darling of the establishment, a Nobel Prize nominee, and his deed caused a huge shock. It was also shameful: Japan was right in the middle of the “economic miracle” and did not want to be reminded of skeletons in the closet. That still holds today. Mishima is too anachronistic and badly behaved to ever become a political role model.

So Ross mainly meets with biographers and critics, not any of the former friends and family. It is a cold trail full of digressions, from the theory of bushido to autobiographical tidbits, from ways to cut up a body with a sword to nosebleeds, from historical suicides as the one by General Nogi to famous acts of terrorism as the "2-2-6 Incident" before the war.

Ross also delves into Mishima’s literature (unfortunately obscured by the author’s all too spectacular death) and gives a detailed account of Mishima’s suicide. Failing the inner circle, next Ross tries to get closer via another path, that of the sword. He establishes the type of sword Mishima has used to commit suicide (in fact, the sword was used to hack off Mishima’s head after he cut his belly; this proved a painful disaster as the assistant in these decidedly non-samurai days could not get a good sweep at Mishima’s head) and how he obtained it.

Ross travels to Seki near Nagoya to see how these traditional swords are still made. He meets a famous sword master. He meets the man who gave the sword to Mishima. He shares a lot of sword lore with us. He even descends into an SM club where he has to wear a fundoshi (loin cloth) to see a Mishima acquaintance who after all is also rather uninformative.

Finally, Ross meets a person who wants to show him a rusty sword. Mishima’s sword, the man claims. Ross is not allowed to take photos. Is that piece of scrap metal indeed Mishima’s sword? The quest ends with a big question mark, but author and readers have gained a lot of philosophical insights along the way.

The most important one: authors should not mix art and fiction with reality. That is a recipe for true disaster. And the cultural lesson: in group society Japan, the person who brings shame on the group will never be forgiven.