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

November 16, 2012

Haiku in Ukimido: Floating Hall (Haiku Stones)

The Ukimido or Foating Hall of Katata (Otsu City, near Kyoto) is a temple with a large garden at the boards of Lake Biwa, far enough removed from the town to grant a superb view of the lake. The Floating Hall has been built over the water and indeed, when you sit down on the planks of the veranda on the lakeside, you really seem to float on the water. It is like sitting in a big boat...

Ukimido, Otsu, Shiga
[The Floating Hall]
turn the key
let in the moon
Floating Hall

kagi akete | tsuki sashiire yo | Ukimido


Not surprisingly, Ukimido was popular with writers and artists and also whas been counted as one of the Eight Scenes of Omi (eight beautiful spots on Lake Biwa) as ukiyo-e by Hiroshige and others demonstrate. The scene featuring Ukimido is called Geese Alighting at Katata and usually shows the Floating Hall in the light of the late sun.

The temple is officially called Mangetsuji (Full Moon Temple) and is entered via an impressive "Dragon Gate." Ukimido was originally founded in 995 by the priest Genshin from nearby Mt Hiei. The Thousand-Buddha Hall (all Amida statues) stands at the spot where lake Biwa is at its narrowest and served as prayer for the safety of ships on the Lake - or so it must have started. The present structures are modern.

Ukimido, Otsu, Shiga

connect Mt Hira and Mt Mikami
by snow
bridge of herons

Hira Mikami | yuki sashi watase | sagi no hashi


Bashi was from the winter of 1690 to the spring of the following year in Otsu.

Ukimido, Otsu, Shiga
early summer rains
dripping and dripping
Floating Hall

samidare no | ametare bakari | Ukimido

Awano Seiho


Short Stories by Abe Kobo (Book Review)

Abe Kobo (1924-93) is best known for The Woman in the Dunes and the film based on it by Teshigahara. To me, this superb novel is indeed the crown on his work, but also in other novels, stories and plays Abe has engaged in surreal and nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. The usual comparisons to Kafka (and Beckett) are unavoidable, although, interestingly enough, Japanese commentators in the past used to emphasize the Marxist political dimension of his work - a side which to me is happily invisible. Reducing Abe's work that addresses the general human condition to the mere political is in fact absurd.

Since the 1970s, three collections of English translations of Abe's short stories have seen the light of day, the last one being Beyond the Curve (1991) by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I have also a collection of five stories in a Dutch translation, and it seems there were translations in many other languages as well, although most of that is now out of print. Writers have their seasons and that of Abe Kobo seems a bit past - something which enables us to have a more objective look at his real achievement. So here are first the short stories, like the novels a subtle merging of real and surreal events. An ordinary individual is suddenly placed  into extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances that lead him to question his identity.

Here are remarks on a number of the stories:

"Red Cocoon" (1950; not in Beyond the Curve, but in my Dutch collection; it has also been translated in The Showa Anthology, 1985) is one of Abe's earliest stories which already contains the idea of alienated man that we find in his later fiction. A homeless man is wondering why he has no home. Or does he have a home and has he forgotten it? He happens to pull on a bit of silk thread hanging from his shoe and ends up unraveling his leg, then his whole body. The thread forms a cocoon around him, until his body has completely been unraveled. "I have a house now," says the man, "but there is no one left to come home to it." Alienated man seeking for a place in society has lost himself in the process.

This can also be linked to Abe's own rootlessness. He was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria, while his family came originally from Hokkaido. Abe always felt he had no real place of origin. That could also be the reason his fiction has such an international quality: it is mostly devoid of typical Japaneseness, and not linked to any specific cultural location. In that respect Abe Kobo resembles Murakami Haruki.

In "Dendrocacalia" (1949) a bewildered man called Common discovers he is turning into a rare plant; he eventually ends up in a botanical garden. The director of the Botanical Garden is called K. so it is clear we are in Kafkaen territory here!

Only part of "The Crime of Mr. S. Karma" (1951) has been translated in Beyond the Curve - which is a pity as it is quite interesting: the "crime" is that Mr S. Karma lets his name cards (meishi) get away from him and take over his personality. Without cards he has no name or identity, no self, he is hollow inside - a predicament that shows how much Japanese businessmen rely on their business cards.

"Intruders" (1951) is the only political story: a salaryman living alone in a small apartment is visited by complete strangers, a large family with grown-up sons and a daughter, who take over his apartment and his life. They use his money and he has to wait on them as their servant. They even steal his girlfriend. Although they behave very dictatorially, everything is decided "democratically" by the majority. This is a satire of the American occupation of Japan; in his play "Friends" Abe later would remove the anti-American satire and write a  more general piece about the human condition.

"Beguiled" (1957) is a very clever story. Two man confront each other in the waiting room of a small station, one the pursuer, the other the pursued... but which is which? In the end, one of them is led back to the lunatic asylum from which he escaped.

"The Dream Soldier" (1957) is a moving, straightforward story about an old police officer guarding a village during war time. An army unit is exercising in the snow and a deserter is on the loose. When the villagers find him, he has already committed suicide - it is the son of the old officer. Thanks to the subdued and indirect way of narration, this is a small masterpiece.

In "The Bet" (1960) an architect for a demanding advertising company discovers a bizarre building with doors and stairs that lead not to other spaces but to red lights and slogans. It is a satire on the efficiency of a modern company. The contest is to decide where the President should have his room. The architect finally designs "the path of the president's office as a mathematical function of the System."

In "An Irrelevant Death" (1961), a man returns home from work to find a murdered man he doesn't know in his apartment. He contemplates ways how to get rid of the unexplained and unpleasant body without incurring suspicion, but everything he does seems to implicate him more and more in the crime.

In "Beyond the Curve" (1966) a man with amnesia tries to remember his past, which exists just beyond the curve of his mind - and is symbolized by the fact that he can't remember what is beyond the curve of the road he is walking on. He has no identity, he even has no business cards in his wallet. When a woman working in a coffee restaurant recognizes him, he still fails to remember who he is and he can only try to cover up his ignorance while waiting for his memory to come back.

November 14, 2012

Haiku in Zenkoji (Nagano): Pulled by an ox

Nagano, the capital city of the mountainous prefecture of the same name, is - in contrast to most other prefectural capitals - not a former castle town. Instead of being an administrative center, in the past it was a religious magnet that drew worshippers from the whole of Japan to the famous Zenkoji Temple. The city grew up as a service center catering to the needs of pilgrims and priests. The core of Nagano therefore was Zenkoji and that is still the place where all visitors head to.
to the Unveiling
even sparrows come
with the whole family

Kaicho ni | au ya suzume mo | oyako tsure


Zenkoji Temple, Nagano
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Zenkoji is famous for a secret statue, an Amida Triad, to which various magnificent powers are ascribed. Some of the miracles it wrought in the past can be seen depicted on the ema votive plates in the temple museum. The statue is so secret that it is never shown and even a copy is only displayed once every seven years, in a great ceremony that is called the Unveiling (Gokaicho). Issa, who was born in Kashiwabara north of Nagano and spent the last part of his life again in his hometown, lived about half a day's walking from Zenkoji and must often have visited when there were important ceremonies. He was a Jodo Shin Buddhist who believed in the "Other Power" (Tariki) of the Buddha Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. In this haiku, he comments humourously on the popularity of the Unveiling - not only humans, but even sparrows visit with their children!

Jizo statue in Zenkoji, Nagano
[Photo Ad Blankestijn]

spring wind -
pulled by an ox

haru kaze ya | ushi ni hikarete | Zenkoji

There are many legends about Zenkoji and one of them tells about a stingy woman who refused to believe in the Amida. One day, when she was washing silk at the river, an ox speared one of her precious scarfs on its horns and ran away. The woman went after him, in hot pursuit, running day and night. In the end, she found herself inside Zenkoji Temple where she saw a Kannon statue carrying her scarf... the statue had transformed itself into an ox. This display of religious power so impressed the woman that she became a convert and gave up het stingy way of life. Symbolically, the story shows how the Amida of Zenkoji "pulls" believers from everywhere to the great temple.
Both this haiku and the previous one have been engraved on a stone standing in the park to the right of the temple, on the way to the Shinano Art Museum and beautiful Higashiyama kaii Gallery.

November 13, 2012

Kamakura Museum of Literature: Lawn above the clouds

There is not much to see in literature museums, but in the case of the Kamakura Museum of Literature you come for the great house and spacious garden. A Western-style villa right in the middle of the old warrior capital! The art deco manor was built in 1936 by the Maeda family, who had been the feudal rulers of the rich fief of Kaga, now Ishikawa prefecture with capital Kanazawa.

Many famous politicians used to come here, as prime ministers Eisaku Sato (after retirement he spent his weekends here) and Shigeru Yoshida. The house also figures in Yukio Mishima's novel Spring Snow. It was donated to Kamakura City in 1983 and after renovation became a literature museum.

That is not such a strange choice, as Kamakura has deep ties with Japanese literature. Kamakura already appears in the ancient poetry anthology Manyoshu. It also feautures in the Tale of Heike and other war literature, as well as in travelogues of the Middle Ages. One of the most important Kamakura poets was the Minamoto shogun Sanetomo, whose work has been collected in the Kinkai Wakashu after he was murdered on the stairs of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in 1219.

Modern authors were attracted by the shrines and temples of Kamakura. Some, as Natsume Soseki, came to practice Zen meditation; he also situated his novel Kokoro in Kamakura. The haiku poet Takahama Kyoshi lived in Kamakura as well. Others came here to spend the summer, for recuperation, or to visit the charming vestiges of the old capital.

The most notable modern author who resided in Kamakura is of course Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata also situated important novels as Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain in the historical town. In addition, filmmaker Ozu made several of his postwar films here, marvelously capturing the relaxed residential atmosphere; Ozu is buried in Engakuji Temple (see here for directions).

The display in the beautiful house consists of manuscripts and photographs. Most interesting is perhaps the large garden, which has azaleas, roses and a lawn, that slopes down the hill. When you stand on the terrace of the house, you see the green grass of the lawn and immediately behind that, Yuigahama beach. The town is blotted out. It is as if you live in the clouds, far above the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, like all those Maeda marquises and politicians did.
Tel: 0467-23-3911

Hrs: 9:00-16:00. CL Mon.

Access: 7-min walk from Yuigahama St on the Enoden Line.

November 7, 2012

Shiga Naoya's House in Nara (Museums, Nara Guide)

The author Shiga Naoya (1883-1971) often moved house, but he lived for nine years in Nara, where he designed and built his own house. That house is now a museum and stands in Takabatake, at the foot of Mt Wakakusa and Mt Kasuga. Shiga lived here from 1929 to 1938.

Shiga Naoya's House in Nara
[Shiga Naoya's House]

Shiga was born into an ex-samurai family of Tohoku, but grew up in Tokyo where his father was a banker. His family was so well-off that Shiga always had the security of money, although the fact that he went his own way and became a writer led to a long quarrel with his father.

Shiga Naoya's House in Nara
[The sun room]

Shiga Naoya wrote relatively little: one novel (A Dark Night's Passing), one novella (Reconciliation) and about 60 short stories. For Shiga, writing was a spiritual exercise, and once he acquired the necessary tranquility, he stopped writing. There was also no financial necessity to work, as we have seen.

Shiga Naoya's House in Nara
[View from the bedroom]

Shiga mostly found his subject matter in his autobiography. He disliked plot as "too fabricated" and gives us realistic and psychologically insightful vignettes from daily life. But although nothing seems to happen in his stories, the protagonists always come out of them as transformed persons. Shiga has often been misunderstood by Western commentators who disliked his lack of plot. But in Japan he has always had a very high status: especially the perfection and sincerity of his prose style are highly praised.

Shiga Naoya's House in Nara 
[The garden]

Shiga's Nara residence is in mixed Japanese-Western style, a sprawling structure with a large garden. The front garden is in classical Japanese style, the garden at the back features a large lawn. It is a comfortable house, a house built by someone with taste. What I likes most was the Sun Room, a sort of conservatory, with comfortable chairs and a glass window in the ceiling.
Tel: 0742-26-6490
Hours: 9:30-17:30 (in winter: 16:30)
Entrance Fee: 350 yen
Access: 10 min walk east from the Wari-ishi bus stop on the Nara Shinai Junkan line