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

April 30, 2012

Tanizaki and Ashiya (Tanizaki Museum)

After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, "Edokko" Tanizaki Junichiro, Japan's foremost 20th century author, moved to the Kansai. Fear of another quake and despair at a quick recovery of the metropolis were certainly factors, but in his literary work Tanizaki also was reaching a stage of maturity where he reached out to Japan's tradition, instead of being inspired by Poe, Baudelaire and Wilde, as in his early works. The Kansai, with the old capital of Kyoto, was the stage where that tradition had been played out and therefore the most suitable place to live.

[Garden of the Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature]

Tanizaki was extremely sensitive to environment - also in the more private sense: he almost continually moved house, seeking the best place for the novel he was writing at that particular time. In the 20 years he lived in the Ashiya-Kobe area, between 1923 and 1943, he moved house more than 10 times! Important not only for his private life, but also for his artistic creativity, was the meeting with Ms Nezu Matsuko, the wife of an Osaka merchant, who divorced her husband to marry Tanizaki.

Matsuko was the second of four sisters of an old family who together became the model for The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki's largest canvas. She has been called the "embodiment of the traditional Kansai culture." Between 1928 and 1935 Tanizaki published several important novellas that all relate to the Kansai or Japan's traditions. The first was Quicksand, written in the Osaka-dialect, about a complex relation between two women; Arrowroot, a nostalgic trip by two friends into the legend-haunted mountains of Yoshino; The Reed Cutter, about a contemporary traveler who dreams of ancient poetry and courtesans; and A Portrait of Shunkin, in which an older attendant blinds himself for the sake of the blind musician he serves so that she is not shamed by her disfigurement.

Tanizaki also made his first version in modern Japanese of the 11th c. novel Tale of Genji while in Ashiya. Like the Makioka Sisters, which he started writing here, the Genji is a novel with many interesting women characters - and not coincidentally: Tanizaki's life in Ashiya was not only shared by his wife Matsuko, but also by her two sisters and her daughter (from her previous marriage), and Tanizaki probably felt like a Prince Genji among all those women.

After Ashiya, Tanizaki moved to Kyoto, where he lived in a beautiful house near the Shimogamo Shrine. This house became the setting of As I Crossed a bridge of Dreams, a dream about two mothers. He spent his final years in coastal spa town of Atami, as the hot summers of the Kansai became too severe for his condition of high blood pressure.

The city of Ashiya has set up the Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature to comemmorate Tanizaki's long sojourn in this area (although he lived most of the time in what is now Kobe rather than in Ashiya).

As is usual for literature museums, exhibits consist solely of photos, first editions, text panels, letters and other paraphernalia, so the better your Japanese, the more interesting the museum - there are no English captions. But it is a "must" for Tanizaki fans and the changing exhibitions are quite interesting - I saw one about Tanizaki and his translation of the Genji Monogatari.

The Tanizaki Museum stands next to the Ashiya City Museum, in a residential area. The museum has a traditional garden that is based on the garden of Tanizaki's Shimogamo residence: a pond with carp, and a good view from the veranda.
Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature, Ashiya. Tel. 0797-23-5852. Address: 12-15 Isecho, Ashiya 659-0052 Hrs: 10:00-17:00; CL Mon (except if NH, then closes Tues), NY, BE Access: 15 min on foot from Ashiya St on the Hanshin line. Exit the station by the exit for the Ashiya City Hall and follow the broad street running along the city hall; keep going straight though a residential district after passing under the highway; finally turn left onto a sort of dyke; after another 5 min you will see the museum on your left, together with the Ashiya Museum of Art and History. (only Japanese)

April 25, 2012

Hiking the Shikoku temple route near Ninnaji in Kyoto

Next to Kyoto's Ninnaji Temple is a nice hiking route: a small-scale copy of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, laid out on Mt Joju. When I first heard about it, I thought it must be something in a park (sometimes a copy of the famous pilgrimage only consists of 88 stones you have to step on!), but reality was more interesting. The "Omura Eighty-eight Temple Pilgrimage" proved to be a rewarding experience, a (almost) two-hour hike up and down Mt Joju with good views of Kyoto thrown in as a bonus.

[The typical "temple hall" on the hiking route]

The route was already set up in 1827 by the then abbot of Ninnaji, Sainin. The link, of course, is Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the object of the pilgrimage - Ninnaji also is a Shingon temple and the memorial hall (Miedo) dedicated to Kobo Daishi in fact stands in the north-western corner of the temple complex, where you will also find a gate leading outside. If you turn right here, you will arrive at temple 88, the end of the route. So instead go straight ahead and at the end of the residential road you will see a sign saying Ichiban, No. 1, pointing to the right. That is the start of your hike - bring something to drink as the mountain is happily free from vending machines.

[The path leads through a deep forest]

The first half of the hike is the most pleasant. First you climb up in a forest of large red pine trees, after that you go up and down over the ridge on top of the mountain. In spring, wild azaleas are blooming here. Now and then you get great views of Kyoto, lying far down at your feet.

At the start the path is paved, higher up you have a sand path or some rocky patches, but it is never difficult. Temple no. 52 (if I remember correctly) stands at the mountain top, at 236 meters.

[View of Kyoto from the mountain]

The temples are just simple, square wooden sheds, with a bell-shaped window behind which sits a small statue. There usually is a hand bell as used on house altars, so you can make your presence known. The first and the last temple and one in between actually had a house attached to them, the rest were unattended. All halls had a small stone pillar in front announcing the name (on the Shikoku pilgrimage), the number and the name of the main image.

[Sometimes stone statues sit along the path]

The path is easy to follow, except one spot after going down from the mountain top. There is a T-junction near the valley, the left fork leading to a construction site. Take the right fork here, although it may seem strange that you have to climb up again - but that is correct, there is another right and again a steep climb and you arrive at the next temple, 52 or 53 (it helps when you can read the Japanese-style numbers).

From now on the hike is up and down along the side of the mountain through a long valley and this part is not so interesting anymore. The atmosphere is a bit damp and dark and there are no views. Although it is good that the route in the end brings you back to Ninnaji again, near where you started, another possibility is to climb to the top of Mt Joju and then track back.

[The path on top of Mt Joju]

I made the hike at the end of the afternoon and only met some residents walking their dogs near the beginning of the path, and health fanatics who were actually running on the mountain top. It can be a bit lonely, so take the usual precautions.

Once a month from spring to autumn stamps are put out at all 88 halls and you can buy a stamp book for 300 yen at the main hall of Ninnaji (9:00-13:00). Check the Japanese website of Ninnaji.
Access: Ninnaji is close to Omuro Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. When coming from central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Line to Shijo-Omiya and there board the Keifuku Arashiyama line; switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. When coming from Osaka or Kobe, take the Hankyu Line to Saiin and change to the Keifuku Arashiyama line at Sai Station (1 min. walk); again switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. The Keifuku Arashiyama line also connects to the Kyoto subway in Tenjingawa Station (Randen/Uzumasa). It sounds more complicated than it is - in any case, the trains are much faster than the option of taking a bus. 
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 from Dec. to Feb.) 
Fee: the grounds are normally free, only during cherry blossom season a fee applies. There is always a fee applicable for the Goten palace buildings, and also one for the museum. The hiking route is always free and open. 
Judith Clancy's Exploring Kyoto gives a good description of this mini-pilgrimage route. 

April 22, 2012

Flowers: Hanami in the Hirano Shrine

The Hirano Shrine (founded 794) in northern Kyoto has been a popular blossom-viewing site since the Edo-period, and is especially famous for its yozakura, sakura after dark enjoyed by lantern light. On top of that, on April 10 it celebrates a Sakura Matsuri, with a small procession consisting of a mikoshi, shrine priests and some young people dressed up as samurai and elegant Heian-period ladies. The nice thing is that in the rather narrow grounds of the shrine you stand shoulder to shoulder with the locals taking part in the procession.

[The torii of the Hirano Shrine among cherry blossoms]

It is rather more difficult to enjoy the blossoms: the park with 400 cherry trees of 50 varieties next to the shrine has been filled up with ugly wooden platforms and other contraptions, which are for rent to groups wanting to get drunk and eat strong-reeking stuff (like my nemesis, burnt squid). Although it also sports a hearty down-town atmosphere, it is too commercialized for any higher feelings among the blossoms.

[The sakura park next to the Hirano Shrine]

In the shrine enclosure itself there stands only one large cherry tree - planted in palace-style with a tachibana or evergreen orange tree in front of the main hall. And there are some cherries peaking out near the torii gate, an area which unfortunately doubles as a parking lot.

[Colorfully dressed participants in the procession of the Sakura Festival]

The Hirano Shrine did only become famous for its blossoms in the Edo-period, when it was incorporated into the culture of Nishijin and other townsmen's districts. Sakura themselves are anyway a relatively recent phenomenon, in the oldest Japanese poetry as the Manyoshu and Kokinshu you find the plum as the most popular early spring blossom rather than the ephemeral cherry. This was also according to Chinese custom.

[Priests and dignataries of the Hirano Shrine]

Saigyo was the first sakura poet, wallowing in blossoms, but interestingly Saigyo did not write about sakura when he sang about the Hirano Shrine. He followed custom (laid down in the utamakura "Hirano") to write a festive, celebratory verse about the pine trees of Hirano.

It goes something like this:
young and greenthe pine trees of Hiranoagain and again put forthon their branchescountless leaves 
[wakaba sasu | Hirano no matsu wa | sara ni mata | eda ni yachiyo no | kazu wo sofuran]
"May the reign of our emperor also flourish like this," is the implication at the end. So here, in the "level field" north of the capital enclosure, grew stately pine trees which were seen as symbolic for the long life and prosperity granted by the shrine deities to the imperial house. Blossoms and squid were still a long way off.
Access: Bus 205 or 50 from Kyoto Station to Kinugasako-mae. Bus 15 from Sanjo Keihan to the same stop. Within walking distance from Ninnaji, Kitano Tenmangu and Kinkakuji. Grounds free.

April 20, 2012

Akutagawa Yasushi (composer)

Akutagawa Yasushi (1925-1989; 芥川也寸志) was a Japanese composer and conductor - and the son of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It is said that his love of music originated in a Stravinsky record left by his father (who died by his own hand in 1927). Akutagawa Yasushi was born in Tokyo and studied with Ifukube Akira and Hashimoto Kunihiko at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music (now Geidai). He graduated in 1949. In 1953, as a young composer he formed a group, the Sannin no kai ("The Group of Three"), with  Mayuzumi Toshiro and Dan Ikuma.

Akutagawa was interested in Soviet music, and in 1954 he took the drastic step of traveling to the Soviet Union to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky - although Japan at that time had no diplomatic relationship with the S.U. He also had his own works performed and published in the S.U. The return trip to Japan was via China and Hong Kong.

That Akutagawa was influenced by Shostakovich appears for example from his Music for Symphony Orchestra (1950). Other influences were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ifukube.

As a conductor Akutagawa was active in introducing composers as Shostakovich to Japan. He only seldom played his own compositions. As an educator, he devoted himself to train an amateur orchestra, Shin Kokyo Gakudan ("The New Symphony Orchestra"), which he established in 1956. He also served as Chairman of the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers.

In 1957 he visited Europe and India. A visit to the Ellora Caves led to his composing the Ellora Symphony (1958).

From 1977-1984 Akutagawa presented a musical program "Ongaku no Hiroba" ("Musical Square") on NHK TV together with Kuroyanagi Tetsuko.

Almost one year after Akutagawa died, in 1990, the Akutagawa composition award was established in his memory.

Akutagawa's compositions are mostly festive and optimistic. He was not only a symphonic composer, but also wrote vocal and instrumental works. Akutagawa was also active as a writer on music.

Some of his best works:
  • Trinita sinfonica for orchestra (1948)
    Strong early work, very rhythmic (Akutagawa had learned from Ifukube's use of ostinato's!). Three parts: Capriccio (allegro) - Ninnerella (andante) - Finale (allegro vivace).
  • Musica per orchestra sinfonica (Music for Symphony Orchestra) (1950)
    His breakthrough work, won NHK prize. Two parts: Andantino (ABA) and Allegro (Rondo).  
  • Triptyque for string orchestra (1953) 
    Again a work that reminds one of Shostakovitch. Performed in New York's Carnegie Hall under conductor Kurt Wöss. Also popular in the S.U. Three parts: allegro - Berceuse (andante) - presto.
  • Prima sinfonia (Symphony No.1) (1954/55)
    Also the first symphony stands strongly under the influence of Shostakovitch and Prokofiev.
  • Ellora Symphony (1958) 
    Primitivistic symphony in the style of Ifukube's Sinfonia Tapkaara. Structured as a sequence of 15 segments. One of Akutagawa's most "experimental" works. 
  • Concerto ostinato for violoncello and orchestra (1969) 
    As a rather somber work, an exception among Akutagawa's compositions. 
Akutagawa also wrote film music, for example for Kinugasa's Gate of Hell, Ichikawa's Nobi and Yukinojohenge, etc. Interesting in this respect is also his Ballad on a Theme of Godzilla for orchestra (1988), which was dedicated to Godzilla-composer and mentor Ifukube.

My top three consists of: (1) Trinita sinfonica for orchestra & Musica per orchestra sinfonica (a shared first place), (2) the Ellora Symphony and (3) Triptyque for string orchestra.

Related Posts about other Japanese composers and musicians:

April 16, 2012

Flowers: Sakura in Ninnaji Temple

Ninnaji is famous for its late blossoming yaezakura. Also called "Omuro-zakura," the trees do not get taller than just two meters and the branches hang low, as if you are wading with your feet through blossom clouds. It is interesting to see the pagoda of the temple rising above these blossoms. They have been compared to Otafuku (Okame), a plain but good-natured folksy women, "who also has a low nose" (= a small nose).

[Ninnaji's pagoda among cherry blossoms]

Usually they are at their best around April 20. As an imperial temple, Ninnaji has a graceful atmosphere and that is also true for the cherry blossom festival.

Here are a few poems written about the temple and its sakura:

[Sakura in front of Ninnaji's Bell Tower]

drowsy spring
starts from
Omuro's blossoms
(Haiku by Buson) 
[nebutasa no | haru wa Omuro no | hana yori zo]

[Ninnaji's inner gate]

Ninnaji -
at my feet
blossom clouds
(Haiku by Shundei)
[Ninnaji ya | ashimoto yori zo |hana no kumo]

[Ninnaji's pagoda]

spring rain -
among the maples
graced by
young green leaves
the gate of Ninnaji
(Tanka by Yosano Akiko)
[harusame ya | aoki mebae no | utsukushiki | kaede no naka no | Ninnaji no mon]
Access: Ninnaji is close to Omuro Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. When coming from central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Line to Shijo-Omiya and there board the Keifuku Arashiyama line; switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. When coming from Osaka or Kobe, take the Hankyu Line to Saiin and change to the Keifuku Arashiyama line; again switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. The Keifuku Arashiyama line also connects to the Kyoto subway in Tenjingawa Station (Randen/Uzumasa). It sounds more complicated than it is - in any case, the trains are much faster than the option of taking a bus.Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 from Dec. to Feb.)Fee: the grounds are normally free, only during cherry blossom season a fee applies. There is always a fee applicable for the Goten palace buildings, and also one for the museum.

April 13, 2012

Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts (Kyoto Guide, Museums)

Right next to the Kyoto Botanical Garden, another prefectural extravaganza has been laid out: a plaza with walls of cascading water, designed by Ando Tadao in his familiar style of smooth concrete. Called Garden of Fine Arts, it has been built below ground level to keep it from obscuring the adjacent Botanical Garden. One could compare this space to a modernist stroll garden, but instead of rocks and plantings one finds eight works of art here.

[Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts]

The art works are copies on ceramic plates and very well done (made by the same company, Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics, as in the Otsuka Museum of Art in Tokushima, but without the high entry fee of that facility). We have water lilies by Monet, suitably on the bottom of a pond; Michelangelo's Last Judgement, a huge work copied life-size; Da Vinci's Last Supper; and Seurat, Van Gogh and Renoir.

[Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts. Michelangelo's Last Judgement consists of 110 plates and is the same size as the original in the Sixtine Chapel of the Vatican]

Chinese art is represented by the long scroll painting Qingming Shanghe Tu ("On the River During the Qingming Festival") and Japan with the humoristic Choju Giga (scroll one and two). You will never see the frolicking monkeys, frogs and rabbits as clearly as here!

The paintings have been transferred to the porcelain plates by photoengraving; after firing the porcelain plates, the brilliant hues match the original work while having the addional advantage of never fading. Here, in the Garden of Fine Arts, they even withstand the elements.

[Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts, Da Vinci's Last Supper]

The Garden of Fine Arts was built in 1994 and incorporates some works on porcelain plates made for the International Greenery exhibition of 1990. More interesting than the copies of the paintings on their own, is the combination with the award-winning architecture of Ando Tadao.
Garden of Fine Arts (Kyoto Furitsu Toban Meiga no Niwa)
Shimogamo Hangicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-0823. Tel. 075-724-2188
Hrs. 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:30). Closed Dec. 28- Jan 4.
100 yen (50 yen in case of combination ticket with Kyoto Botanical Garden)
The fastest way to get here from Kyoto Station or Hankyu Karasuma is to take the subway to Kitayama Station.

April 12, 2012

Flowers: Hanami in the Kyoto Botanical Gardens

The Kyoto Botanical Gardens are perhaps not what first comes to mind when thinking about a hanami spot. After all, they have to compete with the Philosopher's Path, Arashiyama, Daigoji, Gosho, Ninnaji and other luminaries. But I can report they are surprisingly good.

[Sakura in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

Of course there are the sakura - about 500 trees, of the varieties Somei, Yoshino and Shidarezakura. They stand along the paths and in grassy areas and you are allowed to picnic under the trees, although alcohol is forbidden.

But as this is a botanical garden, you have other flowers as well. I particularly liked the combination of the red tulips at the entrance to the gardens with the backdrop of pink cherries. The Conservatory here was rebuilt in 1992 and resembles the Golden Pavilion, with a typical dome-shaped roof. This is your chance to see some carnivorous plants in Kyoto, or even a full-scale mangrove!

[Tulips and sakura in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

The gardens also preserve part of the forest that once stood on the banks of the Kamo River. This is in the north-western part, in the area around the Nakaragi Shrine, a small Shinto temple that was incorporated into the gardens, and that gave its name to the forest. The trees are native to the Yamashiro basin and the forest is surrounded by ponds - a reminder of the regular floods of the Kamo River in past times.The fall foliage is beautiful here, too.

[Cherry blossom tunnel Kyoto Botanical Garden]

The Kyoto Botanical Garden is 24,000 square meters large and was laid out in northern Kyoto on the banks of the Kamo River. That was in 1924, as a belated commemoration of the enthronement of the Taisho Emperor. In the years after the war, the grounds were requisitioned by the U.S. army, and housing was put up in these wide spaces for the Occupation troups. After restoration, the Botanical garden was reopened in 1961.

[Nakaragi no Michi outside Kyoto Botanical Garden, on the banks of the Kamo River]

The lay of the land is beautiful here: to the east the peak of Mt Hiei dominates the skyline, west flow the clear waters of the Kamo River. The gardens stretch all the way from Kitayama-dori (where the northern entrance is) to - almost - Kitaoji-dori and the Main Entrance. There are 120,000 plants, divided over an Ume (Plum) Grove, Camellia Garden, Japanese Iris Garden, Bamboo Garden, but also a European-style garden with a rose garden and a sparkling fountain.

As a bonus, outside the gardens, on the riverbank, runs the Nakaragi no Michi, a path under cherry trees on the high embankment that makes it possible to enjoy the river scenery.
Kyoto Botanical Garden (Kyoto Shokubutsuen)
Address: Hangi-cho Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-0823. Tel. 075-701-0141.
Hrs. 9:00-17:00 (Conservatory: 10:00-16:00). Closed Dec 28-Jan 4.
200 yen (additional 200 yen for Conservatory). 250 yen combination ticket with Garden of Fine Art.
The fastest way to get here from Kyoto Station or Hankyu Karasuma is to take the subway to Kitayama Station - the northern entrance is right next to the station. The Main Entrance is serviced by city bus 1 from Demachi-Yanagi (Keihan).
Post based on a visit made in April, 2009 

April 11, 2012

Sake from Tochigi Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Tochigi Prefecture is home to the famous Nikko temples and the beautiful nature area around Lake Chuzenji and Mt Nantai, the Nasu resort area - both national parks -, and Kinugawa Onsen. Near the capital Utsunomiya (where one-fourth of the 2 million inhabitants of the prefecture live) is a well-known stone quarry, Oya, and Tochigi City is a laid-back town with canals and warehouses. Mashiko is a famous pottery town. The Kinugawa, Nakagawa and Watarase rivers flow through the prefecture.

There are 25 breweries in Tochigi (2015), all small or medium-sized. Areas with concentrations of breweries are the cities of Sano (in the western part of Tochigi) and Otawara (northern Tochigi) as well as along the Kinugawa. Presumably, they originally only brewed for their local area. Due to the salty food in this inland prefecture, sake used to be rather sweet - something also caused by the soft water - but recently the taste of Tochigi's sake has become drier in line with general preferences.

The prefecture has been active in the development of new fragrant yeast types (T-1, based on Association Yeast 9). The southern part of Tochigi is part of the Kanto Plain and here rice is cultivated, such as Hatsuboshi, a local food rice. As sake rice, Gohyakumangoku and Miyama Nishiki are popular and the prefecture is also endeavoring to develop its own types.

Several breweries in Tochigi have built warehouses of the above-mentioned Oya stone, which is excellent for temperature and moisture control.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Azuma Rikishi (Shimazaki Shuzo, Nasu-Karasuyama). Est. 1849. ”Sumo wrestler from Eastern Japan." One of the largest breweries in Tochigi, with a wide assortment of sake (as well as shochu, liqueurs and wine). Famous for its sake aged in cave tunnels - it has various types of koshu on the market, varying between 5 and 15 years in age. The brewery also makes a Daiginjo Usu-nigori, a lightly clouded sake, and is active with various other seasonal products as well. Brewery tours 8also to the cave tunnels) possible upon advance reservation. There is also a shop. Short walk from JR Karasuyama St.
  • Kaika (Daiichi Shuzo, Sano). "Coming into Bloom." Est 1673, the oldest brewery in the prefecture. Surrounded by its own rice paddies where Wakamizu and Omachi rice is cultivated. Only makes sake of Honjozo quality and above. Known for its fragrant Daiginjo. Next to the brewery is a gallery with materials about sake brewing. 
  • Sohomare (Sohomare Sake Brewery, Co., Ltd.,  Kamine, Ichikai-machi, Haga-gun). Small brewery founded in 1872 by the Kono family, located in the Tochigi area. All sake is hand-brewed according to the traditional kimoto method. Uses Yamada Nishiki sake rice. Website also in English and French.
  • Tentaka (Tentaka Shuzo, Otawara). "Hawk in the Heavens." Est. 1914. Relatively new brewery set up by a sake trader who bought a brewery and changed his metier. Uses natural underground springs and cultivates its own Hanafubuki sake rice. Early adopter of jinjo brewing and junmaishu. Now also organic sake.
Tochigi 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.

April 7, 2012

Haiku Stones: Jeopardized by drunkards (Shushiki, Ueno Park)

Ueno was and still is famous for its cherry blossoms. The inhabitants of the city turn out in large numbers at blossom-viewing time, so that a visit to the park has more the character of 'people-viewing.' Groups sit under the trees, showered upon by the falling blossoms. People eat and, especially, drink, and the sake is responsible for quite a hilarious atmosphere.

This despite the fact that in the Edo-period Ueno was the site of solemn Kaneiji, the funerary temple of the Tokugawa. Interestingly, there is a connection between temple and cherry trees: the trees were planted by the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), in commemoration of Tenkai, the priest who had established Kaneiji. The trees were brought from the famous cherry blossom viewing area of Yoshino, in present-day Nara Prefecture.

Jolliness is not always good for tender blossoms and slender trees. This was already noted by Oaki, the 13 year-old daughter of a sweet shop in Nihonbashi, who wrote haiku under the literary name of 'Shushiki.'

The poem, written in the Genroku area (1688-1704), became famous in the whole city. Oaki was a pupil of Kikaku, who in his turn had studied under Basho.

Whether the well on the photo is really Shushiki's original well, is rather questionable - to say nothing about the cherry tree standing at its side. But through the centuries the small poem still speaks to us in all freshness.
[The well in the grounds of the Kiyomizu Hall in Ueno Park ] 
jeopardized by drunkards 
the cherry tree 
at the well  
idobata no | sakura abunashi | sake no yoi  
Location: The haiku stone stands - just as the well - at the back of the Kiyomizu Hall in Ueno Park, behind a fence, and dates from 1940. The present cherry tree was planted in 1978 and is the ninth in line (to answer the above mentioned question).  
Ueno Park is next to Ueno Station on the JR Yamanote Line, and the Ginza and Hibiya Subway Lines. The Keisei Line towards Narita also starts here. The Kiyomizu Hall stands not far from the steps that lead into the park from the main entrance close to Ueno Station (where the statue of Saigo Takamori looks down upon the city). Admission free.

April 6, 2012

Hanami Dictionary

Bashotori: "Securing a place." Groups (colleagues from companies etc.) that meet in the evenings for hanami usually send someone earlier in the day to stretch out sheets of blue plastic and sit there to secure the location until the others arrive. Popular spots under the cherry trees, such as in Ueno Park, already tend to be taken early in the day.

Hana: "Blossoms." Without another signifier since the 13th c. exclusively referring to "cherry blossoms."

Hanabie: "Blossom Cold." The weather can still be cold (about 10 degrees) when the first cherry blossoms appear so that viewers sit shivering under the trees.

Hanafubuki: "Blossom Blizzard." When the blossom petals are scattering and dancing in the air, like a snow storm of pink petals.

Hanakage: "The shade of the blossoms." The area under a flowering cherry tree where one sits to enjoy the sakura.

Hanamatsuri: "Blossom festival." The Buddhist festival to celebrate the birth of the historical Buddha on April 8, just when in Japan the blossoms are all out.

Hanami: "Cherry blossom viewing." More often than not a raucous party with lots of food and drink rather than a quiet contemplation of the beauty of nature.

Hana no kumo: "Blossom Clouds." See this famous haiku by Basho.

Hanazakari: "Blossom Flourishing." The time when the sakura are in full bloom.

Hazukura: "Leafy Blossoms." When many of the blossoms of a tree have fallen (but not all!) and the first young, green leaves appear among them. Signifies the end of hanami.

Konohana Sakuyahime: "Princess Flowering Blossoms." In Japanese mythology the daughter of the Mountain God and later consort of Prince Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. Can also be seen as a flower spirit.

Sakura: "Cherry blossom." In Japan, cherries (Prunus serrulata) do not bear fruit - the fruit-bearing type is an import from the West. "Sakura" exclusively refers to the blossoming cherry tree, or the blossoms themselves. By the way, edible cherries are called sakuranbo.

Sakuranamiki: "Cherry blossom tunnel." Cherry trees planted on both sides of a road or path, and forming a tunnel of blossoms. A good example in Tokyo is the road leading through the Aoyama Cemetery. A good example in the Kansai is the road leading through the Mint in Osaka.

Sakura zensen: "Cherry blossom front." The first blooming cherries appear in February in Okinawa and the "front" reaches Kyoto and Tokyo in early April; northern Japan follows in early May. Forecasts are given on TV, in newspapers and of course on the internet and are closely followed by prospective Hanami participants.

Satozakura: "Village Cherry." General name for the ornamental garden variety of the cherry tree, which blooms later and lasts longer than the Someyoshino. Blossoms range from white and pink to pale yellow, and can be both single and double, hanging down (weeping cherries) or standing tall.

Shidarezakura: "Weeping cherry tree." Tree from which the branches hang down. Mostly of the Edo-higan type (Prunus pendula).

Someyoshino: "Yoshino cherry" (Prunus x yedoensis). Naturally occurring hybrid with fragrant pink flowers, the most ubiquitous cherry tree in Japan.

Yaezakura: "Eight-fold cherry." Prunus Cerasus. Double-flowered blossoms with scores of petals per flower. With yamazakura, one of the oldest types in Japan.

Yamazakura: "Mountain cherry tree." Prunus Jamasakura, the original Japanese cherry tree on which many cultivars are based. Can still be found in the countryside where it naturally crowns hills and mountain sides. Flowers range from white to pale pink.

Yozakura: "Night Sakura," cherry blossom viewing after dark - in many parks and gardens in Japan lanterns are hung out and stalls are set up to cater to the viewers.

April 5, 2012

Haiku Stones: Kannon's tiled roof (Basho, Asakusa)

Sensoji is very rich in haiku stones - so much that there is even one more haiku by Basho about blossom clouds of blooming cherries.

It is a sort of sequel to the "Blossom clouds" haiku, where Basho was only listening, drunk with blossoms. Now he is looking and there, above the clouds of cherry blossoms, he sees the impressive tiled roof of the great Kannon Temple in Asakusa, Sensoji...

This poem has been engraved on a haiku stone standing to the left of the short flight of stairs leading to the Benten Shrine.

[Kannon's tiled roof - Main hall of Sensoji, Asakusa]

Kannon's tiled roof
is seen far away
blossom clouds

Kannon no | iraka miyaritsu | hana no kumo 

Location: Sensoji can be reached by either the Ginza or Asakusa subway line; the temple grounds start at the famous Onarimon, only a few minutes from the exits of both subway stations. When approaching the temple, after walking through the shop-lined Nakamise-dori Street leading from the Onarimon to the temple, one reaches the huge Hozo-mon, or Treasury Gate. Benten-yama is a small hill at the back of grounds to the right of this gate and is crowned by a temple hall dedicated to Benten, the Goddess of Music. Admission free.

April 4, 2012

Haiku Stones: Cloud of blossoms (Basho, Asakusa)

In the Edo-period, temple bells such as the one on the Benten Hill of Sensoji in Asakusa, played an important role in informing the townspeople of the time of day. Those bells were therefore called 'toki no kane,' or Bells of Time. The present bell dates from 1692, when it was cast at the orders of the shogun Tsunayoshi. The bell is more than 2 meters high and measures one and half meter in diameter.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, on the other bank of the River Sumida. In those times, when Fukagawa was in the rural outskirts of the city, he could probably see the roof of the great Kannon temple from his home. Not far from Asakusa was another temple complex, Kaneiji, in what is now Ueno Park. Kaneiji also possessed a Bell of Time, now standing in a forlorn corner of the park.

Basho could hear both temple bells. Sitting on the verandah of his house, among the blossoms of spring, he heard the boom of a bell... and wondered: was it the one of Kaneiji in Ueno or of the Kannon temple in Asakusa?

Basho was so visually drunk with the rioting blossoms that even his sense of direction became confused...

[Temple Bell of Sensoji Temple, Asakusa] 

cloud of blossoms
is that the bell 
from Ueno or Asakusa?
hana no kumo | kane wa Ueno ka | Asakusa ka

Location: The haiku has been reproduced on a wooden board near the bell tower on Benten-yama, in the grounds of Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo. Sensoji can be reached by either the Ginza or Asakusa subway line; the temple grounds start at the famous Onarimon, only a few minutes from the exits of both subway stations. When approaching the temple, after walking through the shop-lined Nakamise-dori Street leading from the Onarimon to the temple, one reaches the huge Hozo-mon, or Treasury Gate. Benten-yama is a small hill at the back of grounds to the right of this gate and is crowned by a temple hall dedicated to Benten, the Goddess of Music. Admission free.

April 3, 2012

Hanami, cherry blossom viewing

As spring finally draws near, the first warm days bring a certain giddiness. And expectation. The great "sakura (cherry blossom) wave" is about to roll over our heads, enveloping us in its pinkish extremeties... sake and sakura, what better combination could there be?

The sakura front is as closely followed as the stock market and certainly more interesting, as there are more peaks. When will these most fickle of flowers bloom? How long will the fragile blossoms last? When should we be stand-by for hanami, the flower viewing?

The history of hanami is very old. The custom is first recorded for the Nara-period (8th c.), but interestingly the blossoms viewed then were not sakura, but plum blossoms (ume). The plum blossom which is strong enough to bloom in the cold season and has a very delicate fragrance was already in ancient China seen as a symbol for the perfect Confucian gentleman, the junzi.

The first time that "hanami" squarely means "cherry blossom viewing" instead of plum viewing, appears in Japans first novel, the Genji Monogatari from the early 11th c. The protagonist, Prince Genji was drunk with all sorts of blossoms, those on trees and those of the flesh.
Towards the end of the Second Month, the festival of the cherry blossoms took place in the Grand Hall. [...] It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear, birds were singing. [...]

Remembering how Genji had danced at the autumn excursion, the crown prince himself presented a sprig of blossoms for his cap and pressed him so hard to dance that he could not refuse. Though he danced only a very brief passage, the quiet waving of his sleeves as he came to the climax was incomparable. [...]

The festivities ended late in the night
But the real interest in sakura would come still later, in the great poetry compilation of the Shinkokinshu, commissioned by the retired mperor Gotoba in 1201. While its predessor, the 9th c. Kokinshu, still contains more poems about ume than sakura, in the Shinkokinshu the tables have been turned. Now countless poems were written praising the delicate flowers, in their ephemerality seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous yet fleeting.

The medieval poet Saigyo (1118-1190) was one of the loudest laudators of sakura, and even wished to die under a blooming tree (a wish that was miraculously fulfilled). One of his most famous sakura poems goes:
switching my path
from the trail I marked last year
on Mt Yoshino
I go searching for blossoms
in directions I've never been

Yoshinoyama | kozo no shiori no | michi kaete | mada minu kata no | hana wo tazune
The sacred mountains of Yoshino were Saigyo's favorite haunt for sakura. This was the territory of the wandering, ascetic monks and Saigyo who did not belong to any fixed temple, was more or less one of them. Here he saw the yamazakura, the wild mountain cherry, which still graces the slopes of Mt Yoshino.

It was from this wild tree that later ornamental garden varieties were developed: our present sakura with double flowers, or the "weeping cherry trees" with their branches hanging down, or the late blooming varieties. Wandering through the mountains, Saigyo was drunk with sakura, as a sort of this-wordly Satori...

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is famous for the extravagant hanami parties he hosted in Yoshino and Kyoto's Daigoji Temple. In the Edo-period, the shogunal house (especially Tokugawa Yoshimune) sponsored cherry blossom viewing among the common people and had several areas planted with cherry trees. Like today, people would cheerfully gather under the blossoms and enjoy sake and food. Farmers likewise would climb nearby hills and have lunch under the cherry trees.

Modern hanami parties often are an excuse for getting drunk and although it can be fun to join the noisy crowds, it is better to find a secluded temple garden for more quiet but deeper enjoyment of sakura, the soul of Japan...
The quote from the Genji Monogatari is from the chapter The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms in the (online) translation by Edward Seidensticker. 
See another translation of Saigyo's poem in 2001 Waka. It has also been translated by Burton Watson in Saigyo, Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia 1991) - my translation follows that of Burton Watson closely, as there is usually no better way to put it than he does. 

April 2, 2012

Miyagi Michio (Musician)

Miyagi Michio (1894 – 1956; 宮城道雄) was a Japanese musician and famous koto player. The koto is a stringed instrument, made of paulownia wood, 6 feet long, usually with 13 strings, somewhat like a zither, but played by plucking the strings with the fingers. It could well be called the national instrument of Japan. The koto goes back to the Chinese zheng and was already introduced into Japan in the 7th or 8th century.

Miyagi Michio was born in Kobe, where he was exposed to Western music. He lost his eye sight in 1902, when he was 8 years old, and that was the time it was decided that he would become a full-time professional koto player. He studied under Ikuta School Master Nakajima Kengyo II. In 1909, he wrote his first composition, Mizu no Hentai and at age 18, in 1913, he became kengyo, the highest rank for a koto player.

He spent part of his youth with his family in Korea, but moved back to Tokyo in 1917. Two years later he gave the first recital featuring his own compositions. This led to a successful career as composer and as concert and recording artist (Miyagi had an exclusive contract with JVC and his recordings were also sold outside of Japan).

Miyagi Michio composed in a style that fused elements from Western art music with the Japanese tradition. He also crossed cultures in the sense that he made the traditional koto into a modern concert instrument.  In these efforts he was supported by shakuhachi master Yoshida Seifu (1891-1950), who often played together with him in traditional ensembles.

Miyagi's 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, Renee Chemet). Miyagi also invented larger types of koto (such as the seventeen-stringed koto) to give expression to his orchestral flights of fantasy.

Among his more than 500 compositions, his most famous piece is Haru no Umi, "Spring Sea," composed in 1929. In 1930 he became lecturer at what is now the Tokyo University of Arts (Geidai), and in 1937 professor.

Michio was increasingly sought after as performing artist in the years after the war. In 1948, he was appointed to the Academy of Arts of Japan. Miyagi was also active as an essayist - he was a good friend of the writer Uchida Hyakken. In 1956, while on a concert tour, he died after a tragic fall from a train.

In Tokyo stands the Miyagi Michio Museum.

Most important works:
  • Mizu no Hentai ("Transformations of Water," 1908)
    Series of six songs in Jiuta style about mist, clouds, rain, snow, hail and dew. In the Tegoto, the instrumental interlude after songs two and five, the koto mimics rain and hail.  For 2 koto and singer.
  • Ochiba no odori ("Dance of Falling Leaves," 1921)
    First piece for the 17-string koto (with shamisen). Autumn leaves falling down in the garden. The 17 string koto has a wider range especially among the lower tones.
  • Sakura Hensokyoku ("Variations on Sakura," 1923)
    Trio for two ordinary koto and a 17-string koto. Variations on the famous "Sakura, sakura" melody, in 8 parts.
  • Seoto (”Rippling waves," 1923)
    A visit to the Tone River near Maebashi suggested this piece to Miyagi. For ordinary koto and 17 string koto.
  • Haru no Umi ("The Sea in Spring," 1929)
    Representative piece of modern Japanese music. For koto and shakuhachi. Meant to evoke a trip over the Inland Sea near Tomonoura: the sound of the waves, seagulls, etc.
  • Kazoe-uta Hensokyoku ("Variations on Kazoe-uta," 1940)
    Variations on the popular song "Kazoe-uta," in 8 parts and for single koto.
  • Sarashifu Tegoto ("Instrumental Interlude in "Sarashi" Style," 1952)
    Follows the pattern of the well-known Jiuta "Sarashi." For a duo of koto's, one in the high and one in the low register.
Miyagi Micho website (Japanese)