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

August 30, 2011

Nishi Honganji (Kyoto Guide)

What is now known as Nishi Honganji was the original Honganji temple built in 1591 under the patronage of Hideyoshi. It traces its origins to the mausoleum set up in 1272 for the founder of the sect, Shinran.

Like its eastern counterpart, the accessible part of Nishi Honganji is characterized by two enormous halls, to the right the Amida Hall and to left the large Goeido or Daishido. "Goei" means "holy image" and this hall is the spiritual center of the temple as it is dedicated to Shinran, whose 85 cm high statue is placed on the altar. It is said to be coated by lacquer through which part of Shinran's ashes were mixed, so it is very sacred.

The Goeido Hall dates from 1636 - in recent years the huge roof was restored, partly with new tiles. The hall is 62 meters wide and 48 deep. Height of the roof is 29 meters. There are in all 227 pillars and the hall can hold 3,000 people.

[Higurashimon of Nishi Honganji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Amida is of course the central Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, but he comes in second place after Shinran as the Honganji originated in a funeral temple dedicated to the sect's founder. The Amida Hall is therefore in both Hongaji temples smaller than the hall dedicated to Shinran. In Nishi Honganji it is 45 meters wide and 42 deep and contains 492 tatami mats. The heavy roof is supported by 132 pillars. It can hold a congregation of 1,500 persons. This building dates from 1760. The position of both halls is switched compared with Higashi Honganji.

While these huge halls are more or less the same as those of the temple's counterpart, Higashi Honganji, Nishi Honganji owns some precious architectural treasures, representative of the showy and gorgeous artistic style of the Momoyama-period. Unfortunately, these are not open to the general public (they were in the past, but apparently the temple's policies have changed).
  1. In the SE corner of the temple grounds is an enclosure hiding the delicate Hiunkaku or Pavilion of Flying Clouds (National Treasure). Its complicated roof style is perhaps a bit mannered, but it can compete in importance with the Golden and Silver Pavilions. It has three stories, the first one with Karahafu / Irimoya roof style, the second one with Karahafu / Yosemune roof style and the third one with Hogyo roof style. The pavilion stands at the Soro Pond and at the time it was built, the only means of access was by boat. On the pond side the pavilion has a Funairi where boats could be moored. The windows of the pavilion, called Katomado, are covered by a fine lattice. 
  2. To the SW of the Goeido Hall stands the Shoin (National Treasure), the largest shoin-style structure in Japan. Lavishly decorated, it consists of two halls: the Taimenjo or Audience Hall, which is 330 square meters large, and has been gorgeously decorated by Hasegawa Tohaku. The room is divided into an upper and a lower part; between the pillars separating these two parts is an openwork screen depicting swans in the clouds (therefore the room is also called Otori no Ma, or Swan Room). Also note the secret chamber (musakakushi) at the back of the upper part, where guards could hide, and the Katomado to the right with behind it an alcove with chigaidana staggered shelves. The Shiro Shoin contains three chambers: Jodan no Ma (the First Room, also called Shimyo no Ma or Purple Room), the Ni no Ma (Second Room) and the San no Ma (Third Room, also called Kujaku no Ma or Peacock Room). Note the coffered ceiling with its sunken panels; the mural on the rear wall depicting legendary Chinese Emperors and the Kugikakushi or carvings designed to conceal nails, often depicting shishi, Chinese lions, or peonies.There is also a classical garden, Kokei no Niwa
  3. Northern Noh Stage (1581, National Treasure)
  4. Kuro Shoin (National Treasure). 
  5. Karamon, also called Higurashimon, as one can keep looking at it for a whole day (National Treasure). This magnificent four-legges gate features a roof in Irimoya style with a Karahafu decorated with brilliantly colored ornamental carvings, depicting persons from Chinese legend and history. On the front of the gate one also sees carvings of Chinese lions (karajishi ). 
The temple possesses other treasures as well, such as the Sanjurokunin-kashu, calligraphy of poetry on decorated paper.

Access: 15 min walk from Kyoto Station. The temple stands to the northwest from the station and faces the broad Horikawa Ave. Or take bus 9. 28 or 75 from Kyoto St to Nishi Hongaji-mae. You can also walk here from Higashi Honganji, through the district selling religious items. Grounds free.  
The mausoleum of Shinran that belongs to Nishi Honganji is called Otani Honbyo and stands at Gojo, next to the entrance to Pottery Slope leading to the Kiyomizu Temple. 
In the vicinity: Shimabara. Also explore the Buddhist shops in Honganji Jinaicho, the area between both Honganji temples.

August 29, 2011

Sake from Hokkaido (Sake by Region)

Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, consists of high mountain ranges but also large plains. There is ample snowfall in winter and therefore a rich supply of fresh natural water.

The climate is very cold in winter and cool in summer. This means the weather is too cool to age the sake deeply. Flavors take longer to ripen and the youthfulness of the sake is preserved longer. Seafood (sea urchin, salmon roe, crab meat, scallops, etc.) is plentiful and eaten in simple ways, uncooked (nama) or grilled in salt. To fit this local food, the sake from Hokkaido is usually clean, delicate, very light and dry.

Hokkaido was only seriously settled by the Japanese in the late 19th century, so sake breweries are seldom more than 130 years old. Their numbers increased with the immigrant population and reached a peak of 50 at the time Hokkaido's coal mines were active in the first half of the 20th century. Since then the number has decreased and now (2015) there are 13, mainly located in the Ishikari Plain.

Hokkaido produces a lot of rice. Sake was originally mainly made with food rice as Hokkaido's "kirara 397 ", but there are now also two popular types of local sake rice: "ginpu" and "hatsushizuku".

Some companies use the special climate of Hokkaido in inventive ways. There is one company using ice from the Sea of Okhotsk as part of the brewing water; another company builds an ice dome in its grounds to ferment the main mash inside.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Chitosetsuru (Nippon Seishu K.K.), Sapporo. "Crane of Chitose" (Chitose is a name for the Sapporo area). Set up in 1872 as Shibata Shuzoten. The only brewery in Sapporo. Used to be one of the larger breweries in the whole country with eight factories in Hokkaido alone; still produces more than 10,000 koku. Also produces wine, miso and mineral water. The adjoining Chitosetsuru Sake Museum offers sake sampling and also operates a shop. 
  • Kitanohomare (Kitanohomare Shuzo K.K.), Otaru. "Pride of the North." Set up in 1901. Operates brewery museum in historical kura "Shusenkan." Produces more than 10,000 koku. 65% of production consists of premium sake, especially junmaishu. Has developed its own yeast for ginjo sake. Welcomes visitors to the Shusenkan museum, also operates a shop and a tasting corner. 10 min. by taxi from JR Otaru St. 
  • Kitanonishiki (Kobayashi Shuzo K.K.), Kuriyama (Yubari). "Brocade of the North." Founded in 1878 by Kobayashi Yonesaburo to cater to the workers in the newly opened coal mines and therefore one of the oldest breweries in Hokkaido. Still uses a beautiful kura built from red bricks (often used as location in TV dramas). Produced about 12,000 koku when the mines were still open, but the volume is now down to about one third. Welcomes visitors to its memorial hall, event hall, restaurant and other facilities in the large brewery; warehouse tour only upon reservation (the grounds contain 13 warehouses and other buildings more than 100 years old and built in Western style from bricks and stone). Ten min. walk from Kuriyama Station. 
  • Kokushimuso (Takasago) (Takasago Shuzo K.K.), Asahikawa. The brand name Kokushimuso means "No Equal in the Land." Established in 1899 as Kohiyama Sake Shop. In 1926 it became the first Hokkaido brewery to win a gold medal at the National New Sake Awards. Took over another brewery after WWII, and started calling itself Takasago Shuzo. The brand name Kokushimuso was introduced in 1975. This is the company using the ice dome mentioned above for its moromi (Asahikawa is one of the coldest places in Hokkaido). Ice storage is also used to age certain sakes. Takasago's traditional brewery, built in 1909, is open to visitors (reservation necessary); there are also a shop and a tasting room. A short walk from JR Asahikawa Station. 
  • Kunimare (Kunimare Shuzo K.K.), Mashike. "Rare in the Land". Mashike lies on the Japan Sea coast in northwestern Hokkaido and used to be a fishing village for herring. The brewery was set up in 1882 by Honma Taizo, who came from Sado Island (Niigata) to cater to the thirsty fishing crews. The herring has disappeared, but the sake remains. The company still occupies the original buildings of stone and wood. It is Japan's northernmost sake brewery. Uses the subsoil water of Mt. Shokanbetsu as brewing water. Operates a small museum, shop and tasting corner. Mashike is a historical town with several interesting old buildings and can be reached in about two and a half hours by train from Sapporo.
  • Otokoyama (Otokoyama K.K.), Asahikawa. Also called "Hokkai Otokoyama" to distinguish it from other "Otokoyama" brands. Otokoyama ("Man Mountain") is a hill just south of Kyoto with the famous Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine. When this brand name became famous in the Edo-period, many breweries adopted it. The present company in fact has officially acquired the brand name from a famous brewery in Itami that used to provide sake to the Tokugawa shoguns, but that went out of business in the middle of the 19th c. The brewing water is drawn from the subsoil flow of the snow of the Daisetsu mountain range. Produces more than 10,000 koku annually. The share of premium sake, especially junmaishu, is 50%. Uses the Kimoto-method and other traditional techniques for some of its sakes. Otokoyama started exports to the U.S. in 1985. The company operates a brewery museum where visitors are welcome; exhibits include ukiyo-e by Utamaro in which the Otokoyama brand is featured. There are also a shop and a tasting corner. Fifteen min. by taxi from Asahikawa St.; there are also buses. 
Hokkaido Sake Brewers Association
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.

August 22, 2011

Shutter Moment: Gion hairdresser

[Kyoto hairdresser - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

This hairdresser in the Gion area of Kyoto has dressed out her modern hairsalon with a traditional inuyarai, a screen of bamboo strips to protect the lower part of buildings from fouling by animals or people. Somehow, it does not fit... on the other hand, this is something you could only come across in Kyoto!

August 21, 2011

Haiku Stones: Saikyoji, Otsu (Basho)

moon, look sad,
as I will tell the story
of Akechi's wife

tsuki sabiyo | Akechi ga tsuma no | hanashisen

[The haiku stone in Saikyoji]

Basho admired the wife of one Yugen of Ise, with whom he once lodged. The haiku master was very well taken care of during his stay and he used this haiku to praise Yugen's wife. The poem refers to another devoted wife, the spouse of Akechi Mitsuhide (1528-82), a 16th c. general who eventually would kill Oda Nobunaga. When still young, Akechi wanted to host a poetry party, but did not have the money to do so. To help him, his wife cut off her long black tresses and sold them.

The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Saikyoji temple, next to the grave of Akechi and his family. Akechi used to be lord of the castle that stood here in Sakamoto, between the foot of Mt Hiei and Lake Biwa. The temple is 25 min on foot from Keihan Sakamoto St. There is a beautiful Momoyama-period palace hall, while an impressive Amida statue adorns the Main Hall.

August 17, 2011

Aquariums in Japan (Museums)

The Japanese are extremely fond of fish, either dead or alive. They eat more fish than almost all other nations, and - what I want to address here - they also have the largest number of (often gorgeous) aquariums on earth.

The earliest aquarium dates from 1882 and was located in the Zoo of Ueno - unfortunately, that aquarium is no more.

The oldest one still in existence (and now much enlarged and refurbished) is the Matsushima Aquarium Marinepia near Sendai, which was established in 1927.

[The glass dome of Tokyo Sea Life Park]

The three largest aquariums in Japan are the Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium, the Toba Aquarium near Ise, and the Tokyo Sea Life Park Aquarium.

The Osaka Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in the world and (based on the "Gaia Hypothesis" by Lovelock) recreates the Pacific Rim volcanic belt and the Pacific Rim life belt. The Toba Aquarium boasts many larger sea creatures as dugongs, otters and porpoise - and besides that 40,000 sea creatures in 700 species, too much to see even in a whole day.

The Tokyo Sea Life Park stands at Tokyo Bay (near Disneyland) and - besides being housed in a beautiful piece of architecture by Taniguchi Yoshio - is famous for its donut-shaped tank where bluefin tunas swim around in endless motion.

Besides that, there are numerous regional aquariums that all have their own specialisms.

The Lake Biwa Museum is dedicated to Japan's largest sweet water collection, and the Chitose Salmon Aquarium specializes in salmon and fresh-water fish of the northern Pacific (and has an observation room built into the river where one can see the live fish through glass).

[Tuna fish in the tank of Tokyo Sea Life Park]

Some aquariums have a special technical prowess, such as the Shimoda Aquarium, which has fish unique to the Izu Peninsula and offers divers the opportunity to swim with dolphins (for a fee). It was also the first aquarium in Japan to be built in the water - it floats on the sea.

The big tank of the Kushimoto Marine Park in Wakayama has a glass roof and faithfully recreates the sealife of the area.

If you don't have either if these qualities, you have to be cunning in the battle for customers.

The Enoshima Aquarium therefore puts on shows of dancing jellyfish where people can go for stress relief.

August 15, 2011

Haiku Stones: Mimurotoji, Uji (Basho)

yellow roses
fragrance of Uji tea
coming from the drier

yamabuki ya | Uji no hoiro no | niou toki


Tea leaves give off a nice fragrance when they are being dried or roasted. Basho is in the tea producing area of Uji and while he looks at some yamabuki roses, the fresh smell of tea on the drier (hoiro) assails his nose. Such driers were used to dry the tea leaves after steaming them. You can sometimes still see them in action in front of traditional tea shops.

The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Mimurotoji Temple in Uji, one of the Kannon pilgrimage temples of the Kansai. There are many flowers in the gardens and park surrounding the temple, which stands in a deep valley. Mimurotoji is a 15 min walk from Mimuroto St on the Uji Keihan line.

August 14, 2011

Haiku Stones: Minami-Mido, Osaka (Basho)

on a journey ailing
my dreams around withered fields
ramble and rove

tabi ni yande | yume wa kareno wo | kakemeguru
Basho died in 1694 while on a trip to the Kansai area. He had been to Iga-Ueno, his native place, then to Nara, and from there he arrived in Osaka on the ninth of the ninth month. He came to the commercial city to settle a dispute between his disciples Shado and Shido, and stayed first in the house of the one, then in that of the other.

[The haiku stone in Mido Temple. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Basho's health had not been up to the journey and the 40 mile walk from Ueno had been a severe struggle. After arrival in Osaka, he developed a persistent fever, with a cold and a headache, but still had to attend receptions held by the rival factions of his school. His health seemed to recover partially after a few weeks. Basho went out on the 26th and wrote several haiku.

However, on the night of the 29th, he became quite ill again. On the fifth day of the tenth month, it was decided to move him to a quieter residence: a room rented from a florist in front of the Minami-Mido Temple (the florist catered to visitors of the graveyard belonging to this large Jodo Shin temple). Here many disciples from Kyoto, Shiga and Mie prefectures gathered around the dying master.

On the tenth, Basho dictated letters in which he distributed his few possessions such as books and manuscripts. He also wrote a short farewell note to his brother. Basho lay down quietly to await death. Around noon of the 12th, he briefly opened his eyes. Gruel was offered him, but he refused and only had his dry lips made wet. He died a few hours later and was buried in the grounds of Gichuji temple in Zeze (Otsu) at lake Biwa (in this temple also stands a stone bearing the present haiku inscription).

The above haiku was dictated by Basho to his disciple Shiko on the eight, four days before his death. It is a very suggestive poem: in his feverish dreams, Basho imagines he is walking around in circles on a bare plain... Or is it an image of his whole life, a life spent wandering, without a place to rest?

The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Minami-Mido, the temple close to the florist where Basho died. This is in central Osaka, on the Midosuji Boulevard. The temple is the Osaka establishment of the Higashi-Honganji temple from Kyoto, belonging to the Jodo Shin denomination. The stone was erected in 1843, at the occasion of the memorial of Basho's death 150 years earlier.

Access: 200 m. S from Exit 8 of Honmachi Station of the Midosuji Subway Line. Minami Mido Namba Betsuin.
Admission: One can freely enter the grounds. The temple is a modern, concrete structure, but was originally founded in 1598 by Kyonyo. The haiku stone stands to left of the main hall, in a small garden. In the middle of the Midosuji Avenue, opposite the temple, stands a stone stele commemorating Basho's death (presumably the flower shop once stood here).

August 13, 2011

Japanese Customs: The Bon Festival

The Bon festival or "Obon" has an interesting history. Folk-Buddhist in origin, it came from China where Buddhism was heavily colored by ancestor worship and Confucianism before it marched on to Japan.

The festival finds its religious justification in the Ullambana Sutra (probably not an original Indian sutra but written in China). This popular sutra exposes how the Lord Buddha instructs his disciple Mokuren (Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit, Mulian in Chinese) how he can release his deceased mother from her low rebirth as a hungry ghost by making annual food offerings to the community of monks on the 15th day of the 7th month.

The sutra propagates filial piety, which is typically Chinese and Confucian rather than Buddhist (the Buddha after all left both his parents and his wife behind when he set off to achieve Enlightenment). The influential sutra gave rise to the East-Asian practice of honoring the souls of the ancestors in a Buddhist summer festival.

"Bon" is a shortened form of Urabonne (Ulambanna in Sanskrit), which means something like "suffering in Hell." The festival's original purpose was to ameliorate the sufferenings of the ancestors in that fiery place and assure them of a better rebirth - note that the Buddhist hell is rather a form of Purgatory, as it is only temporary. Nowadays, Obon is more seen as a family reunion, both of the living members (who return to their hometowns) and the dead ones, who are wlecomed back to their former homes.

The Bon festival is celebrated all over japan from 13 to 16 August (although some regions keep to the traditional date one month earlier), so that it coincides with the summer holidays. Small bonfires are lit (or lanterns - Obon used to be called the Lantern Festival) to show the way home to the ghosts, who are regaled with fruits, sweets, cakes, vegetables and flowers. The house is cleaned and offerings are set out on the Buddhist family altar (butsudan).

[Bon Market near Rokuharamitsuji, Kyoto]

Near Rokuharamitsuji Temple in Kyoto, a special Bon market is held. On the last evening of Obon, the ancestors are sent off again by another bon fire (okuri-bi) and paper lanterns are floated in rivers (toro nagashi - it is a beautiful sight to see the small lights float down the stream), or set up in graveyards, to guide the souls back to the other world.

The huge bonfires of Daimonji in Kyoto and other cities serve the same purpose. During the festival, many neigborhoods in Japan are covered in the smoke of incense. On the flip side, trains, plains and highways are packed and jammed because of all the people traveling at this time.

By the way, Mokuren of course succeeded in releasing his mother from her status as "hungry ghost" and therefore danced for joy. This is the "folklore" origin of the Bon dance, which is an expression of gratitude to one's ancestors and the sacrifices they made. Qua broader style the Bon dance is based on nembutsu dances but there are different varieties all over Japan. Usually a yagura, a dance platform, is set up. The dancers wear yukata and slowly dance in a circle. The most famous example of Bon Odori is the Awa Odori festival of Tokushima, where a long line of participants dances through the streets of the city.

August 12, 2011

Haiku Stones: Sumiyoshi Park, Osaka (Basho)

Just after Basho arrived in Osaka in the autumn of 1694, he fell ill. On Oct. 31, he had been invited to a moon viewing party at the house of the local poet Hasegawa Keishi, but he was unable to attend. The next day he also had to skip a kasen held by the same poet, but he managed to write the present opening verse and send it through a messenger.
a measuring box
changed my mind
about moonviewing 
masu kote | funbetsu kawaru | tsukimi kana
[Entrance to the Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka]

A masu is a square wooden measuring box for rice that can be of various sizes (the smaller ones are sometimes also used for drinking sake). The Sumiyoshi Fair (held at the Sumiyoshi Shrine in southern Osaka) was famous for selling such boxes and other household utensils.

Masu were used both in the home and by merchants. So the haiku could mean that Basho says jokingly he will stop being a haiku master and instead become a merchant now that he has bought a measuring box.

Another interpretation (that I favor) is that Basho means he is enjoying the lively Sumiyoshi market so much, buying a measuring box (and looking for other things as well) that he has lost interest in moonviewing - he prefers to stay among the boisterous crowds instead of silently and lonely gazing at the moon. In reality, of course, Basho felt ill after visiting the market and therefore used this haiku as an elegant excuse for not attending.
The haiku stone stands in Sumiyoshi Park, to the south of the Sumiyoshi Shrine.

Access: A few minutes walk from Sumiyoshi Taisha Station on the Nankai Main Line, or from Sumiyoshi Torii-mae Station on the Hankai Line.
Admission: Free.

August 10, 2011

Honganji History (Kyoto Guide)

There are two huge Honganji temples just north of Kyoto Station, Nishi (West) Honganji facing Horikawa Avenue and Higashi (East) Honganji facing Karasuma Avenue. The history of both these temples goes back to one and the same establishment, a chapel set up to the memory of Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin denomination to which these temples belong.

[The place near the Nishi Otani Cemetary, Higashiyama, Kyoto, where Shinran's body was cremated]

The Teachings of Shinran
Interestingly, Shinran - although now honored in the largest temples of Kyoto - was against temples. Shinran (1173 - 1262) was a disciple of Honen, who was considered a Buddhist radical, as he preached that salvation could be obtained by countless times reciting the Nembutsu, the phrase "Namu Amida Buddha" ("I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida"). One did not need to train for many years in a monastery, one did not need to learn difficult esoteric rites or read piles of sutras. Honen finally brought Buddhism within reach of the daily life of ordinary people. But Shinran proved to be even more radical than his teacher.

Shinran taught that, provided one had sincere faith in the Amida Buddha, one single recitation of the Name was sufficient. Once faith had been established, nothing else was necessary. Amida had made a vow, the Primal Vow (hongan), to save all mankind ("If all beings who sincerely aspire to be born in my land recite my name and fail to be born there, then may I not attain Supreme Enlightenment"). (This is also the origin of the name of the Honganji temples, "Temple of the Original Vow.")

As Amida had become a Buddha, an enlightened being, the contents of his vow had been proven true. Therefore, Shinran said, it was enough to entrust oneself to the inconceivable power of Amida's vow. Then one would be saved and be reborn in the Pure Land. It would be like "being grasped never to be abandoned."

As humans themselves were powerless, all one could do was to rely on the saving power of that other force, Amida. This type of Buddhism is called Tariki, reliance on the Other Power, and contrasts with, for example, the Zen school that is based on Jiriki, one's own efforts.

For Shinran, only faith was necessary. Shinran therefore saw temples as irrelevant. He was a true radical and allowed priests to marry (as he did himself), and eat fish and meat. His followers would gather in dojo, training places in private homes and barns. These contained no rich temple trappings, no images. The only object on the altar was a wooden plaque engraved with the Nembutsu.

It was a simple kind of Buddhism, without difficult practice, without obtuse metaphysics, without the necessity to understand a deep philosophy. It was the type of Buddhism that strongly appealed to the common people. Shinran took the countryside by storm and Jodo Shinshu grew into the largest Buddhist group.

[Site of Honganji Temple, Osaka Castle. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

From Wooden Shed to Buddhist Fortress
Shinran did not found a temple. In true Congregationalist or revivalist spirit, his followers did not need one. But a cult grew up around his tomb at Otani on Higashiyama. In 1272 here the first Honganji Temple was built, a mortuary chapel, established by his daughter Kakushinni and administered by his descendants. Thus Honganji originated in death rites for Shinran. It functioned as a spiritual center for followers all over Japan, who still came together in their local dojo. But Honganji continued to grow, slowly but steadily, against persecution by other Buddhist groups.

The energetic abbot Rennyo (1415-99) dramatically advanced the power of the Honganji, bringing all followers of Shinran, who had been split into several factions, together under its aegis. Too much success, however, attracted disaster: in 1465 Tendai warrior monks from Mt. Hiei completely destroyed the temple. The Shin believers were driven out of Kyoto and they would have to stay in the countryside for 125 years. This disaster also proved a boon: their following again grew enormously among ordinary people, especially in the Hokuriku region.

Afterwards, the Shin sect came back with a vengeance, now to Osaka. There they built an enormous headquarters, Ishiyama Honganji, right on the spot of present-day Osaka Castle. At that time, the sect had grown so strong that even Japan's powerful warlords could not touch it. The temple, which resembled a fortified town, even withstood an eleven year siege by the all-powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga.

In 1591, the sect gave up the Osaka fortress-temple for a piece of land in Kyoto - present-day Nishi Honganji - offered by the wily Hideyoshi. The only way to vanquish the sect was to appease them and lure them back to the capital. Thus Honganji returned to Kyoto with a vast number of followers.

The temple is still in Osaka as well: after giving up the castle, it moved to what is now Midosuji, Osaka's central boulevard, which was even named after the temple: Mido, the Honorable Hall, was the popular name for the Honganji temple (suji means "street").

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo shogun, found another means to reduce the power of the sect. He availed himself of a succession conflict in the temple to offer another piece of land in the vicinity to a brother of the abbot, and so Higashi Honganji was born. The sect was effectively split into two parts, although there were no doctrinal differences.

From now on, radicalism was forgotten and the temples grew into establishments like others, patronized by court, aristocracy and warrior families.

Homepage of Richard St. Clair with many interesting Shin Buddhist links. Also contains links to the Three Pure Land Sutras. 
The writings of Shinran have been translated into English and are available on a site sponsored by Nishi Honganji. 
The Tannisho, written by a disciple of Shinran, is another Shin Buddhist classic and is available on the Living Dharma Website in a translation by Dr. Taitetsu Unno.
The Letters of Rennyo, the restorer of the sect, are available on the Shin Buddhist Resource Center.
Shin Dharma Net is a website by Dr. Alfred Bloom, who also has written many books to make Shin Buddhism accessible. The site contains a "Shin Course."
An excellent study of Shinshu Buddhism, its history and ideas from Shinran to Rennyo, is Jodo Shinshu by James C. Dobbins (Indiana University Press, 1989). 
An interesting essay on Rennyo is "Rennyo and the Shinshu Revival" by Stanley Weinstein in Hall/Takeshi, Japan in the Muromachi Age (University of California Press, 1977) 
D.T. Suzuki is famous for his many books on Zen, but he also wrote Buddha of Infinite Light to propagate Shin Buddhism in the West (reprint Random House, 2002). 
Tariki, Embracing despair, Discovering Peace is a discussion of the power of tariki in contemporary life by a modern novelist, Itsuki Hiroyuki (Kodansha, 2001).

August 9, 2011

Honen's Moonlight (Walking Waka Tracks)

Gojo-dori, one of the most eye-sore heavy-traffic arteries of Kyoto, is not exactly a place where you would expect to find a poem. On an ugly wall behind which lies a small graveyard, Jodo temple Sainenji has put up a board with a beautiful poem by its founder Honen:

[Sainenji on Gojodori Avenue, Kyoto. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Here is my translation:
though the moon shines
all over the land
leaving no corner in darkness
it only purifies the hearts
of those who gaze upon it
tsukigake no | itaranu sato wa | nakeredomo | mitsumuru hito no | kokoro ni zo sumu

August 8, 2011

Literature: Honganji temples in spring rain

The great Honganji temples north of Kyoto Station were already an important landmark in Edo times. "East Honganji" and "West Honganji" together occupied a huge slice of land in the city and were serviced by a "town before the gates" selling statues, frocks, beads, statues and other Buddhist implements, of course all made according to the Jodo Shin tradition.

The haiku poet Natsume Seibi (1749-1816) wrote therefore:
spring rains
both to the west and to the east
Honganji temples 
samidare ya | nishi mo higashi mo | Honganji 

August 6, 2011

Haiku Stones: Miidera, Otsu (Basho)

tempted to knock the gate
of the Temple of the Three August Wells
today's moon

Miidera no | mon tatakabaya | kyo no tsuki

Miidera, the "Temple of the Three August Wells," officially called Onjoji, is a major Tendai temple at the shore of Lake Biwa. Basho loved this area and often stayed here for a longer time - and he was eventually buried in Gichuji Temple not far from the Lake. At the time he wrote this haiku he was recuperating in the Genjuan hut from his long trip to the far North. The appearance of the moon means that the season is autumn.

[Basho haiku stone in Onjoji Temple. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The haiku stone, on the picture above, stands in the grounds of Onjoji, a 10 min walk from Miidera St on the Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto line. The Kannon Hall of Miidera, on a hill above the lake, is part of the Kannon Pilgrimage tour of the Kansai.

August 4, 2011

Location Japan: "One Hot Summer in Kyoto" by John Haylock

Summer in Japan is hot and sticky – after two years of cool (and wet) Dutch summers, I have to face that reality again – and I am not even living in Kyoto at the moment. But nowadays all big city summers in Japan are terrible because of the heat-sink phenomenon, Kyoto is nothing exceptional anymore. So what could be more fitting in all the stickiness than reading a book about Kyoto summers I bought several years ago but which has been sitting unopened on my shelves? I am talking about the novel One Hot Summer in Kyoto by John Haylock, which I rediscovered earlier this month during the ongoing process of unpacking and ordering my removal luggage. It was a great find, an ironic comedy written in polished, economical English.

The story tells about the middle-aged and egocentric (if not arrogant) Peter Meadowes, teacher of English in Tokyo, who borrows the house of an acquaintance to spend the long summer holidays in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Peter is married, but lives apart from his commanding English wife Monika who hates Japan and prefers to stay back home with their children. Peter has a girlfriend in Tokyo, Noriko, who is rather possessive while his own feelings have cooled, so he sees this holiday as a good chance to get away from her as well.

In the Kyoto house he has rented, to his pleasant surprise he encounters an unexpected new woman: the young and seductive Kazumi, who lives there on and off as a sort of unofficial caretaker. He immediately makes advances, but is rebuffed – like water, Kazumi always manages to slip through his hands, although she sometimes also perversely seems to goad him on. She even resorts to flirting with Peter's friend, Bob, another expat professor living in Kyoto – or perhaps she is just pretending to make Peter mad.

Obsessed with Kazumi, Peter's whole Kyoto summer is spent running after her. He doesn't do much else – he is too tired to read (he has brought the collected works of Marquis de Sade) or work on his study about a Chinese Tang poet – he even is too lazy to enjoy the temples and festivals of Kyoto, although we get a good picture of the rhythm of daily life in the ancient capital via the neighborhood sights and sounds that enter the wood-and-paper house. And the descriptions of the steamy hot, wet, sweaty summer are so realistic you don't need a stove when you read this book in winter.

Then the devoted Noriko arrives, Peter cannot escape his love trap, although he even has the boorishness to go on flirting with Kazumi behind her back. But interestingly Noriko also teams up with Kazumi and together they seem to be making fun about Peter in Japanese – a language he still cannot understand despite his long sojourn in the country. After Noriko has returned to Tokyo Peter by chance meets a former student, Miss Goto, a very prim and conservative lady, who is interested in the theater. To make Kazumi jealous, Peter starts going out with Miss Goto and also tries to seduce her.

Then Noriko once again comes to Kyoto, to demonstrate her enduring feelings, and to make things worse, also wife Monika arrives on the scene, on the last leg of a summer tour around the world (she is obviously very wealthy). Monika has a strong personality, is cool and reasoning, totally uninterested in Japanese culture and stands emotionally far above Peter's romantic entanglements.

Things come to a head in a final juggling act and Peter has to make a fundamental choice... The sober end of this "summer farce" will come as no surprise. The pleasure of this novel is in the journey, not the destination.

A Typical Foreigner?
The publisher has written on the book flap: “When making his choice, Peter Meadowes confronts the love-hate relationship that afflicts the typical gaijin - foreigner - in Japan. Remaining in Japan may be impossible, but escaping only creates the desire to return.” One Hot Summer in Kyoto is a delightful comedy, "gloriously ironic" as Richie has called it according to the book cover, but to see Peter Meadowes' predicament as that of "the typical gaijin" goes a bit too far.

Although we should not forget that Haylock has poured his irony into his "hero" as well, Peter Meadowes does not at all look like the "typical gaijin" of today - he is very much of the bygone age of the sixties-to-eigthies (the book was first published in 1980): too stubborn (or lazy) to learn the language, vegetating on a diet of only English newspapers, eating lunches and dinners in foreign hotels, meeting friends in the bars of those hotels, and only "going native" in so far as seeking the "Asian mystique" of Japanese women. Peter physically lives in Japan, but has remained a complete foreigner, sitting on his own island. I am not promoting that people completely give up their own culture, but when you live in a new culture like Japan, you should at least step half-way over the cultural bridge.

What shows in a most telling manner how intensily foreign Peter has remained, is food. Peter has cooking as a hobby, always Western dishes as pastas and goulash, although the results – to judge from the reactions of Kazumi and Noriko, are not that great. We never see him eating Japanese food – also when he visits a restaurant, it is always Western. He likes to drink, but only whiskey, never sake or shochu.

If you cannot eat the delicious food of Japan, you do not belong here, is what he unconsciously seems to tell us.
John Haylock (1918-2006) was a Cambridge University graduate who traveled around the world teaching and writing. He spent fourteen years in Japan, but also lived in the Middle East and Thailand. He wrote about twenty books, of which five are situated in Japan.

Haiku Stones: Taiyuji, Osaka (Basho)

white chrysanthemum
without a stain
the eyes can catch 
shiragiku no / me ni tatete miru / chiri mo nashi
Taiyuji Temple stands rather forlorn between business hotels and offices east of Osaka station. For a temple this location is also uncomfortably close to the Kita Shinchi bar and amusement district. The sturdy wall enclosing the temple seems not strong enough to keep it pure.

[The haiku stone in Taiyuji Temple, Osaka]

Taiyuji was founded by Kukai at the behest of emperor Saga and further enlarged by Saga's his son Minamoto no Toru. Kukai had found a fragrant tree here from which he cut a Jizo and Bishamon statue; Emperor Saga donated a thousand-armed Kannon. Taiyuji grew into a considerably large establishment of Shingon Buddhism and was honored both by courtiers and samurai. It was destroyed in the early 17th c., and again in the middle of the twentieth, both times by the fires of war. The buildings now are all new, concrete contraptions like the surroundings.

The above poem is the hokku (opening verse) of a kasen composed at the house of Shiba Sonome (1664-1726), one of Basho's female students. She lived in Osaka with her husband, a doctor. Sonome had become a disciple of Basho in 1688, and now, in 1694, Basho met her for first time after four and a half years. She was an energetic woman: later in life she moved to Edo were she worked as an eye doctor, and in her final years she became a nun.

The kasen took place in Sonome's house on November 14 (September 27 in the old calendar). The lines of the hokku are based on a waka poem by Saigyo. Basho praises Sonome's purity of heart and elegant taste - it was common to praise the host(ess) of the session in the opening verse of a kasen. The white chrysanthemum may have actually been present in the room or garden, as autumn is the season of these flowers.

Incidentally, this was Basho's last kasen - two weeks later he would be dying in a flower shop in front of the Mido Temple, also in Osaka - perhaps again among spotless white chrysanthemums.
Haiku Stone: The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Taiyuji Temple. It is natural stone 170 cm. high and dates from 1844 (the commemoration of Basho's death 150 years earlier).
Access: 10 min. walk east of Osaka station or 5 min. walk from Higashi-Umeda station on the Tanimachi subway line.
Admission: Grounds free.

August 1, 2011

Singing Strings - Miyagi Michio Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

Miyagi Michio (1894-1956) was a composer and performer of music for the koto. He also crossed cultures, because he made the traditional koto into a modern concert instrument and wrote many pieces for it that fuse the Japanese and Western traditions.

From his childhood, Miyagi Michio had a series of misfortunes, of which the most serious was the loss of his eyesight by age seven. When he was eight, he began to study the koto under Ikuta school master Nakajima Kengyo II. This led to a successful career as composer and as concert and recording artist. In these efforts he was supported by the shakuhachi master Yoshida Seifu (1891-1950), who often played together with him in traditional ensembles.

Miyagi Michio composed in a style that fused elements from Western art music with the Japanese tradition (born in Kobe, he had at an early age been exposed to Western music). His style was modern for the time. Most works are for the koto and other Japanese instruments, although occasionally Western instruments are used as well (in the nineteen thirties he played together with a famous French violinist).

Miyagi also invented larger types of koto to give expression to his orchestral flights of fantasy, such as the 80 stringed koto on display in the museum. His most famous piece is Haru no Umi, the Spring Sea.

[Miyagi Michio Museum]

Miyagi Michio was increasingly sought after as performing artist in the years after the war. In 1956, while on a concert tour, he died after a mysterious fall from a train. Did he fall out by accident (he was after all blind) or was it a premeditated step? His cheerful personality - also evident in the photo's and other displays in the museum - seems to preclude that last circumstance.

The museum exhibits Miyagi's favorite instrument, the koto 'Etenraku;' other instruments he possessed, such as shakuhachi; his braille type writer; examples of the music he wrote in braille (as well as examples of his prose - he was also a noted essayist); his personal effects such as a manual braille punching plate, pocket watch (with the glass removed); walking stick; and a tie pin in the shape of a koto; many photos and a short video, the only one showing Miyagi in actual performance.

In the garden is the "Kengyo no ma," Miyagi's study, a tea house style detached room where he composed and wrote since 1948 (Miyagi lived on the site of the museum during his last years). Miyagi Michio taught many students and the 'Miyagi family tradition' was carried on by his adopted daughter.

Miyagi's music is still being performed. In the end, it is best to let the music speak, either by enjoying the videos and tapes the museum provides in its listening room or by buying a CD of his koto music (besides the items provided in the small museum shop, his koto pieces are normally available in the better CD stores).
Address: 35 Nakamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Tel. 03-3269-0208

Access: 10-min. walk from Kagurazaka Station on the Tozai Subway Line or Iidabashi Station on the Yurakucho Subway Line.

Hours: 10:00-16:30; Cl. Mondays and Tuesdays; 2nd, 4t and 5th Sundays; national holidays; March 25-27; August 1-10; December 25-January 5; occasional special days.