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

June 30, 2012

The Tanabata Festival (July 7)

Tanabata is one of Japan's five traditional festivals, the gosekku, celebrated on auspicious calendar days: 1/1, 3/3, 5/5, 7/7 and 9/9. Tanabata's date is 7/7 in the old moon calendar, but as 8/7 is closer to the old date, some Tanabata festivals are held in August rather than July.

As in other cultures, in Japan, too, seven is a lucky figure, so 7/7 makes Tanabata doubly auspicious. Tanabata aptly combines a romantic Chinese folk legend with the native Japanese custom of exorcising contamination.

[Tanabata in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Two stars, the Weaver Star (Vega in the constellation Lyra) and the Cowherd Star (Altair in the constellation Aquila), who are lovers, can only meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. The Vega and Altair stars indeed stand wide apart in the clear summer sky with the whole Milky Way (in Japan seen as a river, the River of Heaven) between them.

Vega was imagined to be a girl working at a loom (and therefore associated with traditional skills for women as weaving and sewing) and the constellation Aquila in which Altair stands was seen as a boy leading two cows. Because their love led them to neglect their respective duties (the lone cows wandering forlorn over the Celestial Pasture), by order of the August Gods, the pair was only allowed to meet on seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies would form a bridge with their bodies and wings they could cross.

But only on clear days: in case of rain, the River of Heaven would rise and make passage impossible so that the lovers would have to wait another whole year...

"But (as Lafcadio Hearn remarks in his version of the legend) their love remains immortally young and eternally patient, and they are happy in their hope of being able to meet on the next seventh night of the next seventh month."

[Tanabata in Fukushima]

In Japan the Weaver Star was fused with the legend of the celestial weaving maiden Tanabatatsume, whose task was to make garments for the Heavenly Deities, working beside the Celestial River.

Her name became the Japanese name of the festival, which was already observed at the Heian court.

The cowherd became a deity, who after visiting the weaving maiden, would the next morning take all evil contamination with him. Therefore he also purifies the world below.

So we have a Chinese legend overlaid with a Japanese one, and a lucky date overlaid with a purification festival.

To further complicate matters, Tanabata also became associated with some of the practices involved in welcoming and seeing off the spirits of the ancestors, since it fell close to the time of the Buddhist Bon Festival.

But there is nothing complicated about today's Tanabata. Since the Edo period, this important festival is just a children's pastime, although a fun one.

A week or so before the festival, bamboo branches decorated with long narrow strips of colored paper and other small ornaments are displayed in front of homes, schools, Shinto shrines, and (increasingly) in shops.

The paper strips (tanzaku) are inscribed with wishes, often of a romantic nature. I once attended a wedding party around this time, where all guests wrote a wish for the newly wedded pair on such a strip and attach it to the bamboo twigs.

The cities of Sendai (on August 7) and Hiratsuka (July 7) are especially known for their elaborate Tanabata festivals.

June 22, 2012

Basho’s Journey: Bleached bones on the Narrow Road (Book Review)

Basho is by far the most popular Japanese author. Strangely enough, there still is no annotated scholarly translation of his complete work. The Narrow Road has been translated tens of times, and a few hundred of his most popular haiku exist in countless versions (there is even a whole book dedicated to different versions of the famous frog haiku), but too much remains neglected.

This is not fair: why, for example, a complete Shakepeare translation in Japanese and only popular anthologies of Basho in English? It is all the more strange as Basho's work is not particularly extensive and easily fits into two volumes in Japanese.

As much as the Narrow Road has received the attention of translators (not always in a positive way, it has been mangled badly by some "translators" who didn't know Japanese), so little attention has been paid to Basho's other prose.

Along comes David Landis Barnhill's Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho (State University of New York Press, 2005). Still not a complete translation of Basho's prose (no letters, for example), but thanks to the high level of the translation and the sensitivity of the translator to Basho's nuances the best we have now.

Barnhill has translated Basho’s five travelogues (Journey of Bleached Bones in a Field, Kashima Journal, Knapsack Notebook, Sarashima Journal and Narrow Road to the Deep North) as well as his only literary diary, the Saga Diary. In addition, there is selection of more than 80 haibun, short poetic prose sketches that often contain a haiku.

In fact, these haibun often relate the circumstances under which a certain haiku was written. Although Basho can sometimes shift the truth a bit for literary effect as he did in the Narrow Road, in principle these pieces are not fiction. One could see the longer travelogues as a series of haibun strung together.

This all goes back to the East-Asian theory and practice of poetry where the lyrical poem (including the haiku) is seen as a sincere response to a situation in which the poet finds himself. This situation can be social, political, or even just a beautiful landscape, but is always grounded in the biography of the author.

This is contrary to modern Western poetical theories, of which there is of course a whole variety, but what they have in common is the separation of poem and poet. In one theory, the poem is a conscious artifact that stands on itself.

Basho’s haibun demonstrate that East-Asian poets themselves (the same tradition exists in China and Korea) saw this differently - and we should take that into consideration when we read their work.

Another point is that much of Basho’s hokku and haibun had a social function, that is they were written as memorials or farewell gifts – in other words, they functioned as occasional poetry.

Haruo Shirane in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho has admirably called our attention to the fact that this is also the case for the hokku, which as opening of a renga session, often were meant to praise the host of the occasion, or the genus loci of the place.

So far my own ruminations, now back to the book.

Barnhill offers the most comprehensive collection of Basho's prose available and the texts have been beautifully translated into English. Therefore they supplant older translations, such as the renderings by Nobuyuki Yuasa in Penguin Books.

There is only one exception: in the case of the Narrow Road I still prefer Hiroaki Sato's Basho's Narrow Road, with its full apparatus of notes.

In the introduction, Barnhill has an interesting discussion of Basho's nature view and the influence of his haibun on American contemporary nature writing and environmental thought.

To conclude, we are grateful that Barnhill has made these important pieces available in excellent and accessible translations, but that scholarly translation of the Complete Works of Basho still remains a dream...

June 21, 2012

Basho’s haiku along the Sumida River (Haiku Stones)

Several of the haiku Basho wrote on the Sumida River have been printed on text boards standing along a path skirting the river in Tokyo's Koto Ward. This is the part of Tokyo where Basho lived since 1680, a fact commemorated in the Basho Museum, which also stands here. Thanks to the Oedo line, access to this area has been dramatically improved and the museum is only a few minutes walk from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa station. Inside the museum, you will find Basho memorabilia, calligraphies of haiku, and haiga or haiku paintings. There is also a small garden with a miniature copy of Basho's cottage. When you exit via the gate in the back wall (normally unlocked when the museum is open) you find yourself on a path along the Sumida River.

[Haiku Board]

Turn right and first follow the path to the next bridge called Shin-Ohashi. You will find several haiku boards in the bushes along the path and even one on the pillar of the bridge! It is a pleasure to walk along the river, although it has been encased in concrete as far as the eye can see. On both sides is a jumble of buildings, roads and even elevated expressways. There is no nature left here, and the scene is completely different from what Basho saw, when this was still countryside on the edge of the city of Edo.

Next, retrace your steps and continue down the path past the backdoor of the museum garden. You will come to a quite street leading away from the river, with a small Inari shrine in the usual vermillion color standing between residences and small warehouses. This shrine marks the spot where (presumably) Basho's cottage used to stand. It is said that a ceramic frog was found here in modern times. Opposite is a staircase leading to a rooftop garden where you will find a nice Basho statue. The haiku master sits pensively staring at the river, probably contemplating the enormous changes that have taken place here. Let us have a look at some of the haiku that the scenery inspired Basho to write.
plantain in autumn blasts
listening all night
to rain in the tub!

basho nowaki shite | tarai ni ame wo | kiku yo kana
In 1681 Basho received a plantain (called basho in Japanese; sometimes also translated as 'banana tree') from one of his pupils. He planted it alongside his cottage in the countrified outskirts of Edo, on the opposite bank of the Sumida River. Basho had started living here the year before in what was almost a self-imposed exile from the bustle of the city. The poet was delighted with the gift. He felt empathy with the plantain because of its small and unobtrusive flowers, exuding a certain loneliness, and the soft leaves that were easily torn in wintry storms. Above all, the tree was of no practical use whatsoever - like the poet himself. Basho perhaps thought of the useless tree in a famous anecdote in the Zhuangzi, which was spared the carpenter's axe, and therefore attained a ripe old age.

At night Basho sat alone in his hut, listening to the wind sounding in the plantain leaves. In stormy nights the tree was pitiful indeed, shaken by the inclement climate of the northern land where it did not feel at home. The roof of the hut leaked and Basho had placed a basin under the hole to catch the rain drops. The dripping went on all night and strangely mingled with the rustling leaves outside.

Perhaps noting the affinity between poet and tree, visitors started to call the hut 'Basho-an,' or Plantain Hut. The name then also stuck to the poet himself and he was happy with it. For the rest of his life, he would call himself Basho and that is how he is known today. The plantain apparently survived the poet: it was incorporated into a samurai mansion built on the spot of Basho's hut and lived until the early Meiji-period (1868-1912), when it finally withered and died. The Koto Ward has honored the poet that used to live in what is now its territory by establishing a Basho museum (called Basho Memorial Hall, 'Basho Kinenkan') not far from where the hut used to stand. Fittingly, a new plantain stands against the wall of the building and greets visitors with its soft green leaves.

[Model of Basho's hut in the garden of the Basho Museum]
plantain leaves
to hang on the pillar
moon in my hut

bashoba wo | hashira ni kaken | io no tsuki
There were in fact three 'Basho huts': the first was one built in 1680, when Basho moved from Nihonbashi in the center of Edo to Fukagawa in the countryside on the opposite bank of the river. This hut was destroyed by a fire in 1682. The second one was built soon after that, but sold in 1689 when Basho went on his long trip to the North. The third hut, finally, was built near the former site in 1692.

The present haiku dates from that year, when Basho's disciples replanted the old plantain to the new hut. Why does the poet hang a leaf of the plantain on the pillar of his hut? Perhaps because it reminds him of moonviewing sessions in his old hut: he enjoys seeing the moon shine through the soft and fragile leaves of the plantain, the tree that he loved so much and from which he took his poetic name. After the long trip to the North, he finally feels at home again. But is not the comfort of worldly possessions or attachment to physical comfort that makes him feel at home: it is moonlight seen through a basho leaf...

[Sumida River]
and here downstream
moonviewing buddies

kawakami to | kono kawashimo ya | tsuki no tomo
Moon viewing is as old as Japanese poetry, and Japan borrowed the custom from China where it is even more ancient. The full moon of the ninth month was the favorite for moon parties, when poets would ascend a hill or pavilion to see the perfect round arc and indulge in verse.

City people, today we rarely see the moon, and we certainly do not go out of our way to view it. Edo was very different from the explosions of electric light that our modern cities are and, on top of that, Basho lived in the river land out of town. Basho's hut must have been a perfect place for moon viewing.

The moonviewing buddy living downstream in the present haiku is Basho himself. Fukagawa was close to the sea. Upstream may refer to the Katsushika ward, but learned commentators are not in unison about who Basho's moon-loving companion may have been.
It does not matter. Let scholars wear out their pens about such a futility. Provided that we as readers are sufficiently sensitive and receptive to haiku, we all can be called Basho's "upstream companions."

[The Onagi River]

full moon -
thrusting against my gate
tidal crests

meigetsu ya | kado ni sashikuru | shiogashira

This is another poem about the bright harvest moon. Full moon is also the time that the tide in Tokyo Bay is highest. As Basho's hut stood on a tip of land near the mouth of the Sumida River, at the point where the Onagi River flowed into it, he was in a good position to observe tidal patterns.

Moon viewing was a social activity in traditional Japan, but Basho apparently is alone this night. Suddenly, visitors arrive: the waves pushing against his gate, as if wanting to enter and join the poet in his appreciation of the bright moon. And why not share nature with nature?

[Basho statue near the Sumida]
call lying down -
on the water

hototogisu | koe yokotau ya | mizu no ue

The cuckoo of this haiku is called hototogisu in Japanese, and does have more positive connotations than its European relatives. The bird has relatively large wings and a long tail, a gray back and a white belly with black stripes. The only bad habit it has in common with the Western cuckoo is that it, too, is a parasitic breeder. But the Japanese 'cuckoo' has a gentle call and is one of the best loved Oriental song birds.

As this bird arrives around May in Japan, it is considered the harbinger of warmer weather. From the time of the first poetry collection, the Manyoshu (8th century), this small bird has inspired many poets. In haiku, it figures as a season word for 'early summer.' As the call of the hototogisu is rather sad, it was also interpreted as expressing the melancholy longing of the soul of a dead person. And as it was believed to sing until it coughed out blood, the modern haiku poet Masaoka Shiki who suffered from tuberculosis took hototogisu in the Chinese pronunciation shiki as his pen name...

Basho describes in this haiku how the call of the cuckoo, even after it has stopped, still reverberates over the river. The poet was especially interested in such 'lingering sounds,' an effect he tried to match in his own haiku. This was also an important effect in ancient Chinese poetic theory: the subtle aftertaste is more important than the original flavor...

["Frog" Shrine near Basho Museum, Tokyo]
in my brushwood gate
raking leaves for tea
the storm!

shiba no to ni | cha wo konoha kaku | arashi kana

The brushwood gate refers to Basho's rustic hut. The leaves being raked are, of course, not the tea leaves themselves, but fallen leaves from trees and shrubs, which are used to make a fire for boiling the tea water. In Japanese, the pun is 'who' does the raking: Basho, or the storm that blows the dead leaves in neat heaps on behalf of the poet. Basho has nobody to help him, but again nature kindly lends a hand.

[Basho contemplating the change in scenery]
first snow -
on the new bridge
almost completed

hatsu yuki ya | kakekakaritaru | hashi no ue

Basho's main connection with Edo was via the bridge spanning the Sumida at Ryogoku, a beautifully arched bridge that appears on many ukiyo-e. This bridge was called Ohashi, the Great Bridge.

In September 1693 construction was started on another bridge much closer to the location of Basho's hut. In fact, it stood almost next to the poet's cottage and he must have had a good view of the construction work. It was called the New Great Bridge, or Shin-Ohashi. Originally it stood further downstream than the present Shin-Ohashi Bridge, in about the same position as the Basho Museum.

The new bridge, which made trips to Edo so much easier for Basho and his disciples, was finished in December 1693. It was 200 meters in length. The present haiku was written when the bridge was half completed, with the frame already standing. That frame in all its newness was crowned by fresh snow - the first of the season. Hatsu, 'first,' speaks of Basho's joy at the new bridge.

Another haiku, written after completion, expresses Basho's gratefulness, which to me again has Buddhist overtones, as it sounds like gratitude towards Tariki, the Other Power in Jodo Shin Buddhism:
everyone goes out
grateful for the bridge
covered with ripe

mina idete | hashi wo itadaku | shimoji kana

Haiku Cluster: Various haiku boards set alongside the Sumida River Promenade close to the Basho Museum. The haiku on those boards are associated with Basho's hut that stood on the riverbank in this area. The last haiku has been reproduced on a metal plaque on one of the pillars of the Shin-Ohashi Bridge.
Access: 5 min. from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on the Oedo line; 7 min. from Morishita Station on the Shinjuku Subway line; 25 min. from Monzen-Nakamachi on the Tozai Subway line; 20 min. from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu line.

June 20, 2012

Peaches of Fushimi (Haiku Stone)

Saiganji in Fushimi, Kyoto, was founded in 1590 by Unkai. It is a temple famous for its "Abura-Jizo," "Oil Jizo" and there is a story about that. 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.

When I came here this time, the temple was closed but I remembered I visited here many years ago, during the Jizobon festival in summer, when I was kindly invited into the temple hall by the people of the neighborhood. They shared food and drinks with me 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 discovered there is a haiku stone in Saiganji with a haiku by Basho on it.

[The haiku stone in Saiganji]

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 highstanding 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.

Basho Museum, Iga-Ueno (Museums)

The Basho Memorial Museum in Iga-Ueno was built in 1959 as a tribute to the haiku master by the town where he was born in 1644 and where he returned several times in later life, both for family visits and to have haikai sessions with local poets. For the haiku enthusiast, it is a small, but fine museum.
Iga Ueno, Basho Museum
[Basho Museum, Iga-Ueno]

In the exhibition room are displays of haiku and haiga, the first in beautiful calligraphies by Basho himself or later followers. Copies of early editions of Basho's printed works are also on display. If one does not read Japanese, only the haiga may be of interest. In fact, to fully enjoy this museum, one must be able to read the haiku, even if only in the modern transcriptions provided on the labels. The museum provides an excellent bilingual pamphlet introducing the many other sites associated with Basho in this atmospheric old town.
Address: 117-13 Maru-no-uchi Ueno-shi, Mie pref. Tel. 0595-21-2219
Admission: 10:00-17:00; Cl. Monday, year-end and New Year period.
Access: 5 min. walk from Iga-Ueno-shi Station on the Kintetsu Line, or the bus center in the Sangyo Kaikan.

June 19, 2012

Mukai Junkichi: Painter of Minka (Museums)

Traditional Japanese houses, or minka, are something I am very fond of. My dream is to live in one in the future! For now, I have to do with open-air museums, and that is not so bad, as there are beautiful traditional houses in parks like the Japan Open-Air Folk-house Museum in Kawasaki, the Shikoku Minka Museum or the Hida Folk Village in Takayama.

Hida Folk Village, Takayama
[Japan Open-Air Folk-house Museum. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Another option for minka lovers who have to still there longing somehow is to look at minka paintings. Here oil painter Mukai Junkichi (1901-1995) comes in. His work is shown in his former studio, which is now an Annex of the Setagaya Museum of Art. The only subject Mukai was interested in during the major part of his career were the traditional thatched-roof farmhouses of Japan.

Before the war, Mukai Junkichi had experimented with a variety of styles and also made a visit to Europe where he copied famous paintings in the Louvre. But he came into his own when after the war he realized that Japan’s folk-houses were a fast disappearing breed, as a result of economic development. Mukai felt sad at the loss of these beautiful structures, and traveled to all parts of the country to catch them on his canvasses.

He painted them standing lonely in the fields, with a background of magnificent snowy mountains, or huddled together in a small hamlet. The changing seasons figure prominently in all his works. Above all, Mukai depicted his thatched-roof houses with realism and vividness. In an age of abstract painting and experimentation, Mukai’s style is very traditional. What makes his paintings interesting are the folk-houses dominating them. They are in fact like living persons, all with their own character.

Since 1933 Mukai Junkichi lived in the area of Tsurumaki in the Setagaya ward, which until about 30 years ago managed to keep its rural character. Mukai’s own traditional house stood on an elevation among the fields.

When you come now, you will find a residential area where the houses have been squashed so closely together that even a blade of grass will not fit between them. The small garden of the Mukai residence with its oak and zelkova is the only spot of nature in the wide surroundings.

Hida Folk Village, Takayama
[Hida Folk Village. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Unfortunately, the original house was destroyed by fire in 1961 (taking with it many drawings, documents, photos and the like) and the house with studio you find now was put up again in 1962. Inside, however, it succeeds in keeping a pleasant folk-art atmosphere. The house was already turned into a museum in 1993, when Mukai was still alive.

The small museum organizes about four exhibitions a year, showing of course the folk house paintings, but also drawings, sketches and photos. You will also find the easels on which Mukai worked, including the small one he carried with him on his travels, now with the paint dried up.

The museum forms an elegant and engaging environment, an temporary escape from the city just as the paintings themselves. Today you will find the real folk-houses only in museums or specially preserved areas, but their spirit lives on in the paintings of Mukai Junkichi.
Tel. 03-5450-9581
Hrs: 10:00-18:00; CL Mon (next day if NH), NY.
Access: 10-min. on foot from W exit of Komazawa Daigaku Station on the Tokyu Denentoshi Line (the route is clearly indicated, also in English); 18-min. walk from Shoin Jinja Station on the Tokyu Setagaya Line; bus 5 from Shibuya Station (bound for Tsurumaki Eigyosho) to Komazawa Chugakko bus stop, then 5-min. on foot. Here is a map.

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History (Museums)

Hyogo’s history museum stands fittingly in Himeji, on a plot of land behind the soaring walls of the castle and close to the Museum of Modern Art. It was designed by Tange Kenzo. On the first floor are two large rooms for the permanent exhibition. The first one is dedicated to the “Primitive Ages” (some interesting items are the bronze mirrors found in the Akura-Takatsu burial mound dating from the 3rd c.), the second one to the “Ancient Ages”, the “Medieval Ages” (about the spread of Buddhism and with models of important temples in Hyogo) and the “Early Modern Ages.” On the second floor is also a gallery dedicated to the “The Modern Age.” Here is also a large room for temporary exhibitions.

[Himeji Castle]

Galleries Four and Five are again for the permanent exhibition and these are perhaps the most interesting part of the museum, as they have displays about Himeji Castle and other castles in Japan. Himeji is one of the only twelve castle keeps (or donjons) that survive in their original state. Others are, for example, Inuyama (built in 1537), Matsumoto (1596), Hikone (1606), Matsue (1611) and Kochi (1745). Himeji castle itself dates from 1609. There is also a model of the now destroyed Edo Castle, which used to be the largest in the country. Most castles were destroyed in a wave of anti-feudal feelings after the start of the Meiji period, and the resulting open spaces were often used for building the new prefectural offices. After seeing all the models, from one of the northern windows of the museum you can get a view of Himeji Castle, majestically rising up like a white heron taking off in flight.
68 Honmachi, Himeji-shi, Hyogo-ken 670-0012
10:00 - 17:00; CL Mon (next day if NH), NY
5 min by Shinki bus (no. 3, 4, 5 or 64) from N side of Himeji St to Bijutsukan-mae bus stop, then walk a few min; or 20 min on foot from Himeji St

Kokoen Garden, Himeji (Gardens)

Kokoen, 'The Garden of Love for Antiquity' is not very antique itself as it was only built in 1992. It is, however, a pleasant group of gardens (in fact there are nine), laid out on the spot where once the Nishi-Oyashiki (the West Mansion) of Himeji Castle stood. The gardens are enclosed in white washed walls and one enters each one via a gate, whereby the fiction of visiting an old mansion is created.

Kokoen, Himeji

The largest and most interesting among the nine gardens is the first one, the Oyashiki no Niwa or Garden of the Lord's House. This is a 9,200 sq. m. large pond garden with a natural spring, located against the background of the trees growing on Himeyama, the hill on which Himeji castle stands. In the southern part of the carp filled pond is a large waterfall and the rushing sound of water (also heard when one enters over a long roofed corridor) is one of the major pleasures of this garden. A restaurant and guest house in traditional style, sitting at the edge of the pond, recreate the fiction of the lord's mansion. There are crooked pine trees, bright red azaleas and a stone bridge, this all against the distant view of the castle.

The Nae no Niwa (Garden of Seedlings) is less interesting, having as the name indicates seedlings in wooden plant beds. Cha no Niwa, a small tea garden with tea house, does not create a spark either, also because the tea house is hermetically closed and can not even be approached. Better again are the Nagare no Niwa, a flat landscape garden intended to recall the countryside; the Natsuki no Niwa or Garden of Summer Trees; the Matsu no Niwa or Garden of Pine Trees (that also contains many large rocks) and the Hana no Niwa, the Garden of Flowers.

Kokoen, Himeji

These are again surpassed by the traditional Tsukiyama Chisen no Niwa or Garden with Hill and Pond (also fitted out with arched bridge and tortoise shaped rock) and the Take no Niwa, a garden containing fifteen varieties of bamboo.

These gardens lie right in the middle of Himeji, but only occasionally, near the outer edges, can the traffic be heard or other buildings be seen. The idea of having differently colored, tiled mud walls enclosing the gardens makes wandering around something of an adventure, as you do not know what will be behind the next wall.

Address: (Himeji Castle Nishi-Oyashiki-ato Garden) Tel. 0792-89-4120 Access: 15-min. walk from Himeji Station; 5-min. walk from Himeji Castle. Admission: 8:00-17:00 (July-August: till 18:00).

Basho Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

In 1680, the haiku poet Basho moved from Nihonbashi - right in the bustling center of Edo - to a small country house in Fukagawa. Here he started new haikai activities. Away from the city with its endless rounds of linked verse (renga) sessions where he acted as referee (which brought a reasonable income), now he was free to concentrate on his art and bring it to new heights. Most famous haiku date from this period.

The same holds true for the poetical name that finally stuck with him: he named himself Basho after the plantain (some call it a banana plant) that disciples had planted in the garden of the cottage. The Koto City Basho Museum was built on what is believed to have been a place very close to Basho's hut.

Basho Museum, Tokyo
[Basho Museum, Tokyo]

The original hut did not survive (in fact, there were three different 'Basho huts,' because fire once took its toll and another time Basho himself moved out on the faraway journey to northern Japan); the area was included in a samurai estate. When in 1917, after a tsunami hit a stone frog was found here that people believed to have been in Basho's possession (I do not know why, except the fact that he wrote a famous frog haiku! The frog stone can be seen in the museum), it was decided that this must have been the location of Basho's hut. Now a small Inari shrine occupies the spot just south of the museum. Opposite the shrine is a small rooftop park with a statue of Basho.

Roof top display near Basho Museum, Tokyo
[Rooftop display near Basho Museum, Tokyo]

The museum's exhibits include calligraphies of Basho's haiku (amongst others by Buson); portraits of the poet; and an example of the clothes he may have worn when traveling, as well as an ingenious small writing brush with ink pot for use on the road. In the garden stand a few haiku stones as well as a miniature copy of Basho's hut. To remain wholly in style, the museum also has plantains growing against its walls.
Address: 1-6-3 Tokiwa, Koto-ku, Tokyo Tel. 03-3631-1448
Access: 7 min. from Morishita Station on the Shinjuku Subway line; 25 min. from Monzen-nakamachi on the Tozai Subway line; 20 min. from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu line.
Admission: 10:00-17:00; Cl. Monday, year-end and New Year period.
Facilities: Counter selling pamphlets (all J); meeting rooms and library; garden; separate roof garden with Basho statue.

June 18, 2012

Irises in the rain (Horikiri Park, Tokyo)

One year in June I wanted to see irises in bloom - Japan's famous shobu, sung about in poetry and depicted in paintings and ukiyo-e. I opted for Horikiri Shobuen in the northern part of Tokyo, in what proved to be an eyesore neighborhood, but when I finally reached the garden, I felt happy seeing irises in the rain...

Horikiri Park, Tokyo
[Horikiri Park, Tokyo]

My first acquaintance with the Horikiri Iris Garden was via the famous blockprint by Hiroshige, in his Hundred Views of Edo, where one large iris, seen from a low perspective, rises up against a wide sky and distant river. I knew reality would be different, but had not foreseen how much.

It was my own fault: on a rainy day in late June, I went by way of Horikiri Station on the Tobu Line, which means you have to walk over a bleak dike, cross the Arakawa River over an interminably long bridge, walk again over an even bleaker dike, and then find your way through the small town of Horikiri.

It was pouring and on the open bridge the wind teased my umbrella. It was pretty useless, anyway. On the opposite side of the river was a huge highway structure, several roads one above the other, rearing its ugly head on high concrete pillars. The distant thunder of rows upon rows of heavy trucks grumbled through the rain.

After the river I passed a canal with murky water, in which the highway pillars rested. A bunch of flowers was attached to a post, usually a sign someone has died in a traffic accident. I surmised somebody had jumped into the murky canal as a way out of all misery. It were that kind of surroundings.

Horikiri Park, Tokyo
[Horikiri Park, Tokyo]

The garden, when I finally found it, was a total contrast. It was beautiful. Of course one had to keep the gaze low to avert the surrounding high-rises and the above mentioned highway (standing between garden and river, in what in Hiroshige's print had been an open landscape). But with that small concession, one could enjoy the pleasures of the small garden. Now I was happy with the rain, especially when it changed into a light drizzle. The light drops stuck to the leaves and flowers and dropped into the pools in which the irises stood, adding to an atmosphere of watery softness.

Irises were cultivated in this area at least since the 17th century and local cultivators strove the improve the flowers. Horikiri has a valuable name in irises. They are still cultivated one by one, by people who make it their vocation. Therefore all flowers have names, written on small boards put next to them. I saw hundreds and hundreds of names, all of a poetical bent, borrowed from literature or history. All these irises were works of love and that showed. I forgot the hideous highway structure and generally ugly surroundings, and just enjoyed the soft and poetical beauty of Horikiri's irises.

Horikiri Park, Tokyo
[Horikiri Park, Tokyo]

There is even a haiku stone in the garden, with a poem by Matsuno Jitoku (1890-1975), a pupil of Takahama Kiyoshi, who seems to have been something of an "iris poet:"
in sunshine
the whiteness of irises
bedazzles me

tenjitsu ni | shobu no hana no | shiro mabushi

Dazzling whiteness, sunshine... that is at least a problem I do not have with my irises in the rain.

Horikiri Park, Tokyo
[Horikiri Park, Tokyo - lots of water and wetness...]
Address: 2-19-1 Horikiri, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo. Tel. 03-3697-5237
Access: A 10-min. walk from Horikiri Shobuen Station on the Keisei Line.
Hours: 9:00-16:30 (in June: 8:00-18:00). Cl. Monday, Tuesday, 4th Sunday of the month, Year-end and New Year period. NOTE: Open every day during June (iris season).

June 17, 2012

Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum, Kyoto

Kyoto is often seen as purely a historical city for tourists. Indeed, when you sit in a quiet Zen garden you tend to forget that it is also a hothouse of advanced research and industry.

That was already so in the past. In the last 30 years of the 19th century, after the capital was transferred to Tokyo, the city was indeed in danger of becoming an oddity for tourists. But despite the loss of economic power and status, Kyoto's citizens fought back and realized a stunning number of modern "firsts." Kyoto became the first city to found a system of modern elementary schools, already in 1869, at the initiative of its citizens (the bangumi schools). In 1891, it realized the first hydroelectric power generation project (remember, the 90s of the 19th c. were still an age of gas lights and candles!) and in 1895 the first electric streetcar of Japan started to run in Kyoto. The first Japanese Nobel Prize was won in 1949 by Yugara Hideki, a physicist of Kyoto University.

[The Biwa Lake Canal coming out of the last tunnel at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

The hydroelectric power project mentioned above is linked to the construction of a canal between Kyoto and Lake Biwa, seven kilometres to the east, to provide waterpower to modernise the city's textile industry, supply drinking water, provide water for fire fighting and irrigation, and, finally, make transport between Lake Biwa and Kyoto easier (mainly for the transport of rice from Shiga and Fukui Prefectures to Kyoto).

Such a canal had already been the dream of leaders as Hideyoshi, but it would take modern technology to realize it in the Meiji-period, on the strong promotion by the then Governor of Kyoto Prefecture, Kitagaki Kunimichi. The canal starts from Lake Biwa and runs through Yamashina and Keage before reaching the eastern part of Kyoto. The most difficult part of the construction was building three tunnels through the mountains - the longest measures 2.4 kilometres. Engineer of this difficult project was the Tanabe Sakuro, a "young genius" who had just graduated in 1883. Starting in 1885, it took five years to complete the whole canal. A second, almost parallel canal purely for drinking water was added in 1912.

[The boat cradle at the place where the boats were loaded unto it - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

One problem was how to bring the flat-bottomed wooden canal boats down the sharp drop of 36 meters at the pass of Keage (near the Westin Miyako Hotel), leading from central Kyoto to the suburb of Yamashina. Finally, an inclined slope with rails was laid out here, over which flat railroad cars moved onto which the boats were hoisted out of the water (and in it again at the other end). These "boat cradles" moved down the slope of half a kilometre in about 15 minutes - one up and one down at the same time, connected by a steel cable.

[The Incline at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Interestingly, these railway carts were moved by electric power - the other innovation introduced by Tanabe Sakuro was building a hydroelectric plant at Keage which could use the same steep drop of 36 metres to direct the canal water through steel pipes and have it drive the wheels of two turbines. Tanabe Sakuro traveled expressly to the United States to see the first hydroelectric power plant built there, in Aspen, Colorado. Later, the electricity generated by the Keage plant was used for Kyoto's first streetcars as well as for streetlamps.

[The "boat cradle" on the Incline at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

It is - by the way - surprising that there was still the need for such a canal for shipping, considering the fact that the first railway line between Kyoto and Otsu had already been opened in 1880!

I do not know when shipping through the canal stopped, but the incline is still there with a boat cradle and model of a flat bottomed boat - and what is more, the canal still brings drinking water to Kyoto and the power plant is also still in operation. It has been joined at Keage by a water purification plant.

The Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto is a free facility set up to commemorate the canal, the Incline and hydroelectric power plant. You will find ample photo's and materials here on the large project, as well as a power generator.

[Statue of Tanabe Sakuro at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

From the courtyard of the museum there is a good view of the Incline, which is now a popular cherry blossom viewing spot (as are parts along the canal in Yamashina). When you follow the incline east from the museum, you come to a small park graced by a statue of Tanabe Sakuro and a memorial to workers who lost there lives when building the canal.

A branch of the canal goes east and north for irrigation purposes and passes through the grounds of Nanzenji temple via a redbrick aqueduct - a modern piece of architecture that blends remarkably well into the temple grounds and is now a popular landmark.

[The aqueduct in the grounds of Nanzenji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]
Museum Tel: 075-752-2530
Museum Hrs: 9:00-17:00 (Dec-Feb: 16:30); CL Mon (next day if NH), NY
Access (both to museum and incline): 5 min walk from Keage St on the Tozai subway line
Materials: There are several interesting articles on the Lake Biwa Canal project on the web:

Shinto cat (Photo Moment)

The greying of Japan is also hitting temples and shrines. Where aged priests (or their wives) used to sit and chat with neighborhood visitors, now an empty window radically demonstrates the dramatic fall in the birthrate and resulting gap in the population.

Shinto cat - Umemiya Jinja
[Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

This shrine in Kyoto has found a solution to the lack of humans and enlisted the services of one of its many cats to sell amulets, a duty taken very seriously as you see...

June 16, 2012

Ema, votive plates (Japanese Customs)

Ema are votive plates dedicated to shrines and temples. Usually, they consist of a flat piece of wood decorated with a picture. People buy them during shrine and temple visits, especially at the New Year, inscribe them with wishes for a prosperous year and hang them on special racks as petitions to the gods. Common images are the animals of the twelve-year oriental zodiac or something related to the legend of the shrine. In February, numerous students offer ema that plead for success in the school examinations. But you can also collect them as a memory to your visit and use the colorful plates to decorate your home.

Tenjinmichi & Kitano Tenmangu
[Large ema in Kitano Tenmangu. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The colorful tablets have a long and rich history. The name "ema" means picture (e) of a horse (ma) - these votive pictures evolved as substitutes for the live horses traditionally donated by powerful parishioners to prestigious Shinto shrines. Although the custom is many centuries older (probably dating back to the Nara period, 8th c.), the earliest ema that can be reliably dated go back only to the end the 14th century.

A century later, we find a vigorous folk art and two types of ema have evolved:
  • works of small size offered by ordinary people as an entreaty to a deity for help or in fulfillment of a vow; here, the picture is always related to the wish or problem in question, for example a nursing mother might donate a picture of a woman squirting milk from her full breasts; the ox symbolized success in business, tigers were believed to prevent cholera and dogs meant an easy birth; those pictures were painted by emashi (ema painters) and hawked at crossroads.

  • large works executed on commission by professional artists usually displayed in a separate open gallery called "emado" in temples or shrines. Here, horses remained a favorite subject, but we also find scenes from famous legends and the exploits of warriors.
Tenjinmichi & Kitano Tenmangu
[Faded ema in Daruma Temple (Horinji). Photo Ad Blankestijn]

You will find some good examples of gorgeous ema in the Annex of the Narita Reikokan Museum, or in the museum of Zenkoji temple. Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto also has a large emado; another good place in Kyoto is the Konpira Ema Museum.

Food from Okinawa

I love food from Okinawa, not only because it is supposed to be very healthy (Okinawa is called the "Land of Longevity"), but in the first place because it tastes so good! Like all culture on these tropical islands, the old Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawan cuisine contains elements of both China and Japan.

My favorite Okinawan vegetable is the goya, a very bitter gourd that looks like a grotesque, extra knobbly cucumber. Goya can be eaten in salads, made into tempura, but the most common way is to use it in a stir-fried dish called goya-champuru. Besides goya, leeks and eggs are used, and lots of tofu. What is bitter, is good for you, so goya is thought to be the secret behind the Okinawans’ famous longevity.


Another favorite is rafuti, tender chunks of pork stewed in a sweet brown sauce made from miso, soy, sugar and awamori.

Awamori is the national drink of Okinawa, a powerful distilled drink with alcohol percentages between 25 and 30. It is very fresh and tasty, too, as it contains a lot of citric acid. It is often drunk mixed with hot or cold water.

The food that really suits awamori is my third Okinawan favorite: tofuyo. This is fermented tofu, super dense and concentrated. It tastes like a strong moldy cheese and is eaten in tiny bites. It marvelously complements the awamori! Okinawan food and awamori have become very popular in Japan and in all the big cities you can find Okinawan eateries and izakaya (bar-restaurants).

Concrete rocks - Review of Tschumi's "Mirei Shigemori"

The modern garden of the Tofukuji Hojo, with its characteristic checkerboard pattern of tiles in deep green moss, has always been one of my favorites and I am not alone in this, as it graces countless books about the Japanese garden. I knew that it had been designed by Shigemori Mirei, but I did not know anything else about the designer, who is also not mentioned in the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan.

That gap in my knowledge has now been filled y a beautiful book, Mirei Shigemori, Modernizing the Japanese Garden by Christian Tschumi. Photography is by Markuz Wernli Saito and the book has been beautifully edited. Mr Tschumi is a landscape architect who studied in Japan and wrote his dissertation about Shigemori Mirei, so we could not have a better guide to this subject.

[Checkerboard pattern in Hojo Garden of Tofukuji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975) was a scholar of Japanese traditional culture, trained in Japanese-style painting (nihonga), flower arranging and the tea ceremony. He became a garden designer after having studied all the traditional gardens of Japan, about which he wrote a massive series of books - he was the first to do so in the years before the war.

Shigemori believed that in the Edo-period garden design had become mired in cliches, a mere copying of famous gardens of the past. In order for an art form to be alive, it has to be vibrantly contemporary, which meant that the "Zen garden" had to go avant-garde. Starting with the gardens of the Tofukuji Hojo in 1939, Shigemori Mirei became a garden designer - the war intervened, but in the last thirty years of his life he created an almost annually increasing number of gardens.

Shigemori's massive rocks are standing boldly upright, he introduced new materials as colored sand and concrete and made use of modern shapes as wave forms. But there is always a philosophy behind his gardens. Sometimes this even harks back to old Japanese notions of stone groupings as iwakura, places where the kami, the deities, would take their abode when visiting this world. Shigemori's gardens have been compared to the "earth sculptures" by Isamu Noguchi, an artist he knew and with whom he cooperated on the Unesco project in Paris.

All gardens have their own fundamental idea: in the garden of Kishiwada-jo Castle (1953) Shigemori built a military encampment as found in Chinese classics; Zuihoin (1961), a subtemple of Daitokuji that was the family temple of the Christian daimyo Otomo Sorin, features a hidden Christian cross in the form of a stone setting; in Sumiyoshi Jinja (1966), a Shinto shrine dedicated to a sea god, he created undulating wave forms of concrete; in Yurin no Niwa (1969), built for an association of kimono manufacturers, he used a noshi, a symbol of good luck that often was woven into kimono, as the central design element. And in the "Prehistoric Garden" of Matsuo Taisha (1975) he used a stone setting alluding to the iwakura that was the origin of this particular shrine.

[Impressive stone setting in Tofukuji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Christian Tschumi's book discusses 10 gardens in detail, and also includes visiting information. It is perfect for a start - and if you want more you can of course turn to his dissertation! There is also an other option I found today when visiting Matsuo Taisha with Tschumi's book in hand - the shrine office was selling another recently published book, bilingual, called Shigemori Mirei, Creator of Spiritual Spaces, the first volume in a series of "Great Masters of the Gardens of Kyoto." It is significant that this series starst with Shigemori Mirei, also in Japan a reevaluation is underway.

Finally this garden master who devised gardens as if making paintings, and insisted on creativity and originality (quite revolutionary in Japan, where it is still the case in traditional crafts that the pupil copies his teacher), is getting the appreciation he deserves. The book just mentioned, introduces several of Shigemori's Kyoto gardens and also includes a list of all his creations.
Mirei Shigemori, Modernizing the Japanese Garden by Christian Tschumi; photography by Markuz Wernli Saito. Stone Bridge Press, 2005.

Shigemori Mirei, Creator of Spiritual Spaces, Photographs by Mizobuchi Hiroshi. Kyoto Tsushinsha Press, 2007.

June 12, 2012

Jizo among hydrangea's - Yatadera Temple, Nara

Yatadera stands high on a wooded hillside outside the town of Yamato Koriyama, the castle town and governmental center of Nara in the Edo-period (before that, Kofukuji Temple served as both religious and worldly authority in the area). Some of that bygone splendor can still be faintly seen in a beautiful park, Sotobori Ryokuchi, (the Outer Moat of the castle), while also the main shopping street of Koriyama sports a nice old-time atmosphere. One of the traditional town houses, the Hakamotokan is open to visitors. The Yanagisawa clan that ruled here for most of the Edo period seems to have been quite cultured - there were for example contacts with painter Ike no Taiga. Literally colorful is also the fact that in the 18th century Koriyama became a center of goldfish and ornamental carp farming, a position it still holds today. The castle grounds themselves are famous for their cherry blossoms.

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statue on the path to Yatadera]

Yatadera temple, offically known as Kongosenji, sits about half an hour (3.5 kilometres) outside Koriyama, on - how could it be otherwise - the Yata Hills. In fact, it stands just north of Ikaruga, the area famous for Horyuji and other ancient temples, on a path that links Ikaruga with Ryosenji in the north and passes several old temples.

In the hydrangea season there are special, direct buses available between Koriyama and the temple. The parking lot where the buses drop of their passengers, is still some way from the temple but the locals make the trek pleasant by setting up stalls selling snacks and products from their vegetable gardens. After that, a broad staircase leads among verdant trees up to the temple proper.

Yatadera, Nara
[Staircase leading to Yatadera]

Yatadera claims to have been founded in 679, after Emperor Tenmu (who is closely connected with Yakushiji temple, elsewhere in Nara) fled here during the Jinshin Disturbance and had prayers said for victory in battle on the mountain. Founding priest was Chitsu, a man who had studied in China and would become the second transmitter of the Hosso School of the Chinese priest Xuanzang in Japan.

Reputedly, the original Yatadera was a large temple, with seven halls and 48 residences for priests. An Eleven-headed Kannon and Kishoten served as its main statues. The temple afterwards fell in ruins and was founded anew in the period 810-823 by the holy priest Manmai and this time a Jizo became the main sculpture.

Jizo is a Bodhisattva entrusted with the task of saving us, helpless human beings, in the endlessly long period until the advent of the next Buddha, Miroku. In Japan, the cult of Jizo was as popular as that of Kannon, especially among the common people.

Yatadera, Nara
[Main Hall of Yatadera]

Jizo was already worshipped in the Nara period (8th c.), but the earliest extant image of him can be found in Koryuji temple in Kyoto, dating from the early 9th c. The "Yata Jizo" holds a gem in his left hand and displays the "mudra for bestowing fearlessness" with his right hand, in contrast to the usual Jizo statues which carry a monk's staff in the right hand. Unfortunately, the altar section of the temple is closed off and the Jizo resides in a closed cabinet, so it is not possible for visitors to see this important statue.

Luckily, there are many stone statues and reliefs of Jizo outside the temple, along the path, and among the hydrangea's. Interestingly, one of these stone Jizo's is also in the above mentioned "Yata style."

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statue on the path to Yatadera]

There is a beautiful story how Jizo became the main object of devotion in Yatadera. Priest Manmai had been invited to the Underworld to give the Boddhisattva Precepts to its Lord, King Enma. Out of gratitude, Enma took him on a tour through hell, proudly showing off his Kingdom of Fear. There Manmai saw innumerable human beings suffering in terrible fires, being cooked in boiling hot water, or pierced with stakes by hideously green devils. But Manmai also saw a priest going around, busy saving humans from the raging flames. That young priest was non other than the Jizo Bodhisattva in disguise.

The Jizo spoke to Manmai and asked him to sculpt an image of him after returning to his temple, so that those still living in the human world might be saved by looking upon him. Manmai returned and dutifully started to execute the Jizo's wish. But the carving of the Jizo statue proved unexpectedly difficult... until Manmai received help from four old sages, who also brought him a large paulownia tree. These four sages were in fact an apparition of the Kasuga deities, from the well-known shrine in Nara... and thanks to their help finally a beatifully Jizo statue was carved.

Jizo looks like a young, smart priest, and he has a friendly, soft smile, so it is no wonder that in the course of history countless generations of women fell in devotion before his feet.

Yatadera, Nara
[Hydrangea's of Yatadera]

Yatadera is known as "Hydrangea Temple," and not for nothing. There are about 10,000 hydrangea's (called "ajisai" in Japanese), in all 60 varieties. They line the path leading to the temple and stand clustered in a garden laid out on a slope to the left of the path. Hydrangea's are not native to Europe and were first described in the 18th c. by European travelers to China. Later, Von Siebold, the famous German doctor who worked on Deshima for the Dutch, would play a large role in introducing the flowers to Europe's gardens.

The hydrangea (also called hortensia) with its soft shades of blue and purple is beautiful in its reticence. It is always subdued, best seen on an overcast day, under the shade of large trees, or even in a light drizzle. Although the flower heads are large, there is nothing ostentatious about them. They are full of quiet, subtle beauty.

Yatadera, Nara
[Hydrangea's of Yatadera]

As the temple mentions on its website, in a survey by the Nikkei Newspaper in 2005, Yatadera was selected as the second best spot to see hydrangea's in western Japan (No 1 was Kobe's Shinrin Botanical Garden, No 3 was Mimurotoji Temple in Uji).

There are many small paths, up and down, leading through bushes and clusters with different kinds of flowers. Walking here is like being immersed in a green aquarium, floating as large goldfish among the colorful flowers and shady leaves.

Yatadera, Nara
[Jizo statues and hydrangea's in Yatadera]

And finally visitors meet Jizo again, squinting from among the leaves, his face just as soft and modest as the hydrangea's...
Yatadera (Kongosenji)
Address: 3549 Yatacho, Koriyama City, Yamato-gun, Nara Prefecture
Tel. 0743-53-1445
Access: 20 min by bus from Koriyama Station on the Kintetsu line. Frequent buses in June (hydrangea season), also from Horyuji station on the JR line. The Hydrangea Garden is open from June 1 to July 10.

June 11, 2012

Ablution poem at the Kamigamo Shrine (Walking Waka Tracks)

The Shimogamo Shrine has Kamo no Chomei as famous resident poet, but also the Kamigamo Shrine with its deep forest and clear streams often was the subject of poetic effusions in former times. In the grounds stands a monument to Poem No 98 of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology that is situated here in the rustling woods, at the murmuring streams...

[Nara Brook in Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto]
in the evening
when the wind stirs the oaks
at the brook of Nara
the ablutions are
the only sign of summer

kaze soyogu | nara no ogawa no | yugure wa | misogi zo natsu no | shirushi narikeru
This poem was written by a courtier called "Ietaka of the Junior Second Rank" (1158-1237), who was quite popular as we find hundreds of his poems in imperial anthologies. A member of Emperor GoToba's poetic circle, he studied with Shunzei and became the son in law of Jakuren, both famous poets in their own right.

The poet walks through the sacred grounds of the Kamigamo Shrine and is surprised at the sudden change of the seasons. The wind that rustles through the leaves of the oak trees is chilly, reminding him of autumn, and the only sign that it is still summer are the people performing ablutions with sacred wands at the river bank. Sacred bathing was a summer custom at both Kamo Shrines and is still ritually enacted at the Shimogamo Shrine in the form of the Mitarashi Festival in late summer.
Kamigamo Shrine
Access: 30 minutes by bus 4 from Demachi-Yanagi Station. Get off at the last stop, Kamigamojinja-mae. Or a 15 minute walk from Kitayama Station on the Karasuma Subway Line. Grounds free.

Japanese Masters: Kayama Yuzo (actor, singer)

Kayama Yuzo (born 1937, 加山雄三) was the son of the likable Uehara Ken, Japan's biggest male star of the 1930s. So father so son: the handsome Kayama Yuzo achieved the same for the 1960s. He became symbolic of postwar Japanese affluence and confidence, most famously in his title role in the 17 "Young Guy" (Wakadaisho) movies he made for Toho.

Kayama Yuzo was born in Yokohama and went to Keio University in Tokyo. After graduation, he joined the Toho studios, like his father before him. He debuted in 1960 in Otoko Tai Otoko ("Man against Man"), a sort of gangster movie with Mifune Toshiro. In 1961, he also started a career as singer-songwriter, and took part in the famous New Year's Eve NHK show Kohaku Uta Gassen. His most famous song, that also features in several of his films, was "Kimi to itsu made mo," ("For Ever With You") - the single sold more than 3 million copies.

Kayama specialized in romantic comedies where he would often sing his own songs. But he was also asked for serious films, such as Kurasawa's Red Beard (Akahige, 1965) in which he played one of the major roles, that of the young doctor Yasumoto Noboru.  He also played in Kurosawa's earlier Sanjuro (1962) as Izaka Iori. Other important serious roles were that of Lord Asano in Inagaki's Chushingura (1962), that of the male protagonist Morita Koji in Naruse's Midareru (opposite Takamine Hideko) and Utsuki Hyoma in Okamoto's Sword of Doom (1966).

But the role with which Kayama Yuzo became identified was that of Wakadaisho, the "Young Guy" (literally, young captain, the team leader of a sports team). Wakadaisho ran from 1961 to 1971 and was one of the four comedy series and money cows of Toho in the 1960s (the others were the Shacho and the Ekimae series with Morishige Hisaya, and the "Crazy" series with Ueki Hitoshi). All films are in color and CinemaScope and feature broadly filmed sports events (it was no coincident that the series started a few years before Japan played host to the Olympics).

The series took its inspiration from a 1933 film by Shimizu Hiroshi, Daigaku no Wakadanna ("The Young Master of the University"). Kayama plays Tanuma Yuichi, the son of a traditional sukiyaki restaurant and at university the leader of a sports club - a different sports in each film. He lives with his father Kyutaro (a rather irascible person, played by Arishima Ichiro) and a cute and comic granny Riki (a great performance by Iida Choko). Tanuma's counterpart at the same university (Kyonan Daigaku) is the "Aodaisho," Ishiyama Shinjiro, played by Tanaka Kunie. "Aodaisho" in fact is the Japanese Rat Snake and in the film is a spoiled rich kid (looking unattractive and funny) with a yacht and a sports car, who uses his money power to compete with the Wakadaisho for girls. But that happens all in a good mood. The roles of the girl friends are usually played by Hoshi Yuriko, Sakai Wakako and Sakaguchi Ryoko. Kayama's father, Uehara Ken, would also have brief roles in various of the films.

The films all follow the same pattern. The Wakadaisho happens to meet a nice young woman and they fall in love. The Aodaisho in some way or another obstructs the course of their courtship, while the fact that Tanuma is very popular with other women, causes the new face to have fits of jealousy. Then Tanuma wins first place in an important sports event as representative of Kyonan University, and the young lovers make up their differences.

The sports featured are: swimming, boxing, marathon running, yacht racing, American football, skiing, soccer, judo, motor sport, fencing, skating, tennis and skydiving. All films have scenes where Kayama Yuzo sings and plays the guitar. Several films were made partly at locations outside Japan, such as Switzerland, New Zealand and Hawai'i.

In the late sixties Kayama got too old to play a student, so in the 12th film ("The Wakadaisho of Rio", 1968) he is allowed to graduate, and from the next film on plays a salaryman. Instead of winning sports events, he now clinches deals for his company.

Kayama has maintained his romantic appeal for nostalgic audiences in Japan and still often appears on the stage and on television.

June 10, 2012

Many words for tea - Review of "A Chanoyu Vocabulary"

The Way of Tea is going global and now a specialized tea dictionary has been published to help, and great are the mysteries it divulges. Did you know that the ashes in the brazier (used for boiling the tea water) must take twelve prescribed forms, neatly arranged, for example playfully depicting a mountain? Did you know that something as simple as the tea scoop, the elongated piece of bamboo used to scoop up powdered tea from the tea container and put it in the tea bowl, has fourteen named parts - just this simple instrument?

Starting with aburahishaku ("oil ladle", a warning not to move as inelegantly as an oil vendor scooping up oil when using the ladle or hishaku to add water to the kettle) to zungiri (a tea or flower container with a flat top), and everything in between, this is the answer to all your tea ceremony questions.

The book also helps with the appreciation of Japanese art, as private collectors often focused on tea art and collected chawan (teabowls), chatsubo (jars for leaf tea), mizusashi (vessels for fresh water), kama (tea kettles) and koro (incense burners). These art objects now can be found in great quantities in museums in Japan. The book also explains types of ceramics used for the tea ceremony, as Shigaraki ware and Bizen ware.

In this single volume you can find out all about the abstruse differences between various types of tea containers as the cha-ire and the natsume, or the seasonal difference between the sunken hearth (ro) and the brazier (furo). And did you know that the shifuku, the cloth pouch for tea caddies, is often made from meibutsugire ("distinguished historical textiles")? If not, you now know where to find it!
Chanoyu Vocabulary, Practical Terns for the Way of Tea, Tankosha 2007. 1642 terms translated by the Urasenke International Association from a Japanese tea encyclopedia issued by the same publisher, Jitsuyo Chado-Yogo Jiten.

A poetic stroll in Gion: Water beneath the pillow (Kyoto Guide)

When you say Kyoto, you say Gion, the traditional pleasure quarter at the foot of the Yasaka Shrine. Although Hanamikoji, the street south of Shijodori starting with the Ichiriki Teahouse, may be most the most famous part of Gion, there is also a nice section north of Shijodori, along the Shirakawa Canal. Here the protruding windows of the two-story houses have lattices on the ground floor and reed screens on the second floor. Bamboo slats called inuyarai keep dogs and people at a safe distance. When you walk through this area, in the daytime you may hear the shamisen being practised and at the beginning of the evening, around fice o'clock, geisha and maiko hurry to their appointments.

[Poetry stone by Yoshii Isamu in Gion Shirakawa area]

The poet, novelist and playwright Yoshii Isamu (1886-1960) was a Bohemian who spent his fortune in the geisha houses of Gion. His favorite teahouse was the artsy Daitomo, where writers used to gather. In WWII, the Daitomo was demolished in order to create a firebrake, but in 1955 on the site at the boards of the Shirakawa, a poetry stone was set up as a memorial. It is graced by the following tanka by Yoshii:
que sera sera...
my love is Gion
where when I sleep
below my pillow
water flows 
kanikaku ni | Gion wa koishi | neru toki mo | makura no shita ni | mizu no nagaruru

"Kanikaku ni"means something like "in any case," or even "que sera sera." The water in the poem is of course the Shirakawa, which flowed under the windows of the Daitomo and now behind the poetry stone.

Because the poem so aptly catches what Gion is all about, a festival is held here annually at November 8. At 11:00 geisha and maiko gather near the poetry stone to offer chrysanthemums and perform a tea ceremony. The festival, called Kanikakuni-sai after the first line of the poem, offers onlookers a good chance to take pictures of the geisha in their gorgeous kimono.

But at other and more quiet times, too, this spot at the Shirakawa is a pleasure to visit. Come in the late morning, listen to the gurgling water, and notice how in the distance, in one of the closed houses, a shamisen starts twanging...

It's raining, let's travel

The rainy season seems to have started here in Western Japan). That is more or less on schedule: it normally starts around June 6 and ends around July 19 in the Kansai area (Tokyo is about the same, from June 8 to July 20). That seems an awful long period for rain, but it is not so bad: usually there are many sunny days as well, and there are even "dry" rainy seasons. And you can always escape to Hokkaido which is the only part of Japan that doesn't have a rainy season.
See my post on "seasonal aspects" of the month of June.
Kokyoji Temple, Kyoto
[Don't forget your umbrella!]

The Japanese term for rainy season is bai-u or tsuyu. Bai-u (plum rain) refers to the plums that are just getting ripe around this time. A term used in haiku is "samidare," "the rains of the Fifth Month" (in the old calendar!).

During the rainy season it slowly heats up towards the summer. After each rainy day the temperature edges up a bit. It is moist and sticky everywhere. Some things to be careful of are mildew in your house (open the windows to air it on sunny days) and spoiled food (keep everything refrigerated and carefully clean the area where you prepare your food). Some people get gloomy because of the overcast skies. Many foreign residents fly back to their home countries around this time.

But that is not necessary. On the contrary, when you take some precautions such as carrying an umbrella and extra clothes on longer trips, it is the perfect time for travel. The weather is warm, so you can travel light - a T-shirt, shorts and sandals plus an umbrella are enough. Even on clear days, the sun doesn't have the unpleasant scorching hotness it develops in August. The green of Japan's temple gardens and countryside is at its deepest and most enticing. Sit on a temple veranda and watch the silent garden in the rain. There will be few other visitors to disturb you. The hortensias (ajisai, also called hydrangeas), my favorite flowers, bloom in soft blue nuances. Hakone has mountainsides full of hortensias and is great in the rain (although you won't see Mt Fuji) as are Nikko's deep forests; Kyoto's temple gardens are wonderful and mostly devoid of other visitors, Kamakura, too, is beautiful.
I hear the sound of plums
falling from the trees
dark days in the Rainy Season

ume no otsuru | oto no suru nari | satsuki-yami

Chomu (1732-96)

June 9, 2012

Brewing Sake (Book review)

If you have been yearning to try your hand at sake brewing, but didn't know how to go about it, now there is an excellent guide: Brewing Sake - Release the Toji Within by William G. Auld (website).

This book, written in clear English, lifts the mysterious veil hanging over the ingredients, equipment and technical know how. It tells you step by step how to make your own sake at home - starting with how to get the necessary ingredients when you are living in the U.S., or which implements to use in order to enable brewing on a home scale.

But it does more than that. It also explains all the processes such as fermentation, and details the chemistry that lies at the bottom of the interplay between koji, yeast and enzymes. So even for non-brewers, this book offers valuable insights into the constitution of the rice, the ideal sort of water, the koji, the moto or yeast starter, and the final fermentation. It is a treasure house of technical knowledge.

And Will Auld is very thorough: he not only describes the Sokujo-moto yeast starter - the most popular one now used in most types of sake - but also the traditional and laborious Kimoto-method (leading to sake with "body") and does not even stop at that, for he also goes into the predecessor of Kimoto, the medieval Bodaimoto method!

As I am living in Japan, I can't start brewing myself - except that I have no space in my apartment, it is still forbidden here. About 130 years ago the Japanese government outlawed all home-brewing, as the state at that time was very much dependent on alcohol taxes (one-third of its total income). This dependency has now changed, but the only alcoholic beverage you are allowed to make at home is Umeshu - just around this time supermarkets are selling plums, shochu liquor and sugar as sets to make your own plum wine.

However, as I said in the above, Brewing Sake is also useful and interesting for the technical basics and I will be often returning to it.

The Japanese Seasons: June

The Sixth Month (Rokugatsu) is also called Minazuki ("No Water Month"), as rice sprouts all take root (mina-tsukitaru) and springs dry up because there is "no water."

That is almost ironical, for June is the month that Tsuyu, the Rainy Season, starts, in the Kansai and Tokyo usually around the 10th of the month. Because the rain falls while the Ume (plums) ripen, it is called Bai-u (Bai is another way to read the character for ume). Another word for these rains is Samidare or Satsuki-ame - literally "Fifth Month Rain," as in the old lunar calendar our June was more or less the Fifth Month. As during the long rains it can be dark even in daytime, one speaks about Satsuki-yami, "darkness of the rainy season."

Coolness (Suzushi) is important, and therefore fans (Uchiwa) and folding fans (Ogi) are taken out and used to cool oneself. For added coolness, people dress in a light Yukata. In traditional houses, in the daytime the sitting room is opened up on all sides by taking away shoji and fusuma and this is called Natsu-zashiki, "a room for summer." In Kyoto along the Kamo River appear Kawadoko (floors set up over the water) meant for Yuka-suzumi (enjoying the evening cool).

Yuka on the Kamo riverbank
[Kawadoko (yuka) along the Kamo River, central Kyoto]

June is also the month for Rice Planting (Ta-ue), the transplanting of the young rice plants (called sanae or wakanae) by Sa-otome (young women doing the rice planting) from a nursery to the rice field. Several shrines celebrate "Rice Planting Festivals," as the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka in June 14 and the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto on June 10. Aota is the name for the green rice fields, caressed by soft breezes.

The new bamboo shoots, which were so delicious only two months before, grow up into fresh green bamboo (Wakatake) and in the Kuramadera Temple on June 20, the Takekiri or Bamboo-cutting Festival is observed.

The Summer Solstice (Geshi) also falls in June, on or around the 22nd. It has the longest daytime and the shortest night time of the year and therefore around this day one speaks of mijika-yo, "short nights."

June is the season that Hotaru, Fireflies, appear - in the past they were hunted and put into cases to enjoy their mysteriously flitting lights. The Cuckoo (Kankodori) sings from the middle of summer until the end of autumn and in the mountains the mysterious Bupposo may be heard.

June is also the month to start enjoying Reishu, Cold Sake, preferably enjoyed from cut glass (Giyaman or Kiriko), which contributes to a feeling of coolness. A suitable sweet is Take-nagashi, a hollowed out piece of bamboo filled with Yokan and served cold. The fresh color of the bamboo enhances the overall feeling of coolness.

Ayu is the primary fresh water fish for summer - the fishing season opens on June 1. The ayu has a brilliantly shining body and its taste has a delicious fragrance. June vegetables are Nasu (eggplant) and Kyuri (cucumbers).

White ghosts, Fujinomori Shrine
[Hydrangea in Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto]

The flower of the rainy season is of course the Ajisai or Hydrangea (Hortensia), glowing in its soft blue or pink in a shaded spot. Several temples and shrines are famous for their hydrangea gardens: Mimurotoji in Uji, Yatadera in Nara and the Fujinomori Shrine in Kyoto. The Fujinomori Shrine also holds an Ajisai Matsuri on June 15.

At the end of the month, on June 30, before the greatest heat sets in, various shrines all over Japan hold Nagoshi no Harae (also called Oharae-shiki), where people pass through a large ring of miscanthus reed to be purified from spiritual defilement. Good places in Kyoto are the Kamigamo Shrine and the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (both 30th). The Kuramazaki Shrine, also in Kyoto, holds this observance the whole month of June.

Japanese seasonal customs according to the months of the year:
January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December

June 6, 2012

Cult Films

In my post about Cult Films at my other blog Splendid Labyrinths, I have included two Japanese movies among my favorites: Audition and Battle Royale.

June 5, 2012

The Three Sen Houses of Tea (Kyoto Guide)

In the vicinity of Honpoji Temple, just east of Horikawadori, one finds the establishments of the Three Sen Houses of Tea. Although none of these is open to the public, they have imposing entrance gates and in the neighborhood one finds several shops selling tea utensils.

When in 1591 Sen Rikyu was killed by Hideyoshi, his heirs dispersed to seek refuge in the provinces. Hideyoshi was however persuaded by his generals to restore the house of Sen Rikyu and the choice fell on son-in-law Sen Shoan (1546-1614), who was allowed to establish himself as teamaster in the Fushinan teahouse of Sen Rikyu.

Next in line came Shoan's son and Rikyu's grandson Sen Sotan (1576-1658), who strongly emphasized the simplicity of the tea ceremony in his way of life and choice of tea implements.

Sen Sotan had four sons and here is where the tradition splits. His two elder sons opted for other professions than tea, so the tradition was inherited by the third son, Sen Sosa (1619-1643). When the youngest son, Sen Soshitsu (1622-1677) became twenty years of age, Sen Sotan retired to the back of his property. He continued to be active in tea and in fact developed a new tradition, the "tradition of his later years," which he transmitted to his youngest son, Soshitsu. As they were living at the rear of the Sen household, it became known as Urasenke, "ura" meaning "rear," and "senke" "Sen household." The original tradition continued by Sosa was from then on called Omotesenke, "omote" meaning "front" as Sosa was living in the front part of the property.

The second son, Sen Soshu (1593-1675), later returned to live in family property on nearby Mushanokoji street and the tradition he developed was called Mushanokojisenke, making it the third Sen House.

To sum up:
Omotesenke - est. by Koshin Sosa - representative teahouse: Fushinan (the original teahouse of Sen Rikyu); current Iemoto 14th generation Sosa, teaname Jimyosai.
Urasenke - est. by Senso Soshitsu - served the Maeda clan of Kaga (Kanazawa) - representative teahouse: the one-and-three-quarter mat Konnichian; current Iemoto Sen Soshitsu XVI (born 1956), teaname Zabosai.
Mushanokojisenke - est. by Ichio Soshu - Soshu served the Matsudaira daimyo of Takamatsu - representative teahouse: Kankyuan; current Iemoto 14th generation Soshu, teaname Futetsusai.

As is often the case with Japanese traditions split along family lines, differences between the three Senke are minimal. Apparently the Omotesenke whisk the tea more than the Urasenke, creating more foam in the powdered green tea. Mushanokojisenke is the least known of the three, also in Japan, but especially abroad.

Urasenke is by far the most active outside Japan (for example via the International Cha Culture Foundation), but also engages in tea promotion in Japan itself, for example by opening its tea library Konnichian Library to the general public, by the exhibitions it organizes in the Chado Research Center Gallery, and via its publishing house, Tankosha.