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

November 29, 2013

"Villain" (Akunin) by Yoshida Shuichi (Book review)

A few days ago I happened to pick up Yoshida Shuichi's Akunin in the English translation by Philip Gabriel, Villain. I had ignored the book previously, as I thought it was another of those Japanese thrillers that for some obscure reason nowadays are being translated in such large numbers. Think Higashino Keigo (Naoko) or Miyabe Miyuki (Crossfire) with their silly New Age supernatural elements, cardboard characters and improbable plots.

But this was different: Villain is not a thriller, nor a police procedural or a who-done-it (it is never a secret who the murderer is), but a novel about a crime and its effects on the perpetrator and the people around him and as well as those around the victim. The author, Yoshida Shuichi, is not a crime writer either, but a literary author who has written several "crossover" works. He was born in 1968 in Nagasaki, and studied business administration in Tokyo. In 1997 he published his first novel, Saigo no musuko (The Last Son) and in 2002 he obtained the 127th Akutagawa Prize for the novella Park Life. In the same year he received the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize for the novel Parade. That he won both a prize in pure literature and in popular literature in the same year, shows how he straddles the fence between both fields - or perhaps it proves that in our post-postmodern times there are no fences anymore. Villain (2007) received both the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award and the Osaragi Jiro prize and sold more than 2.1 million copies.

Villain is a psychological examination of the lives of a construction worker (Yuichi), the girlfriend he murders (Yoshino, an insurance saleswoman), and the new girlfriend he falls in love with (Mitsuyo, a saleswoman in a jumbo men's clothes store). At first, we see Yuichi as a beast and the first girlfriend, Yoshino, as an innocent victim, but gradually, when we learn more about them, Yoshino is revealed to be loose and shallow, while Yuichi may be hard to fathom, but he takes good care of the grandparents with whom he lives.

Yuichi meets his girlfriends via dating sites. Yoshino uses such dating sites not so much to meet boyfriends, but to make money as she prostitutes herself for a fee (plus travel expenses!) to the men she meets. After the murder, Yuichi meets Michiyo who is getting older and sees her boring life slip by in the provincial town where she lives. They fall desperately in love, but as Yuichi is a wanted murderer, they both realize they have no future.

Villain is a dark novel that paints an ugly picture of contemporary Japan, where loneliness and alienation seem the hallmarks of the nation's youth. The novel concentrates on ordinary, recognizable people, those below the level of the salarymen, and provides a realistic view of their daily lives: the prices of highway tolls and gasoline, what to have for dinner, the struggle for customers by a barber whose style is too old-fashioned, the dates in love hotels and the ubiquity of convenience stores. Even more interesting are the typical Japanese circumstances, such as the public reaction to Yoshino's murder - instead of receiving sympathy, the parents are flooded with obnoxious phone calls and messages telling them their daughter deserved to die because of her sleazy character.

The end of the book is uplifting. Communication is restored between the parents of Yoshino, Yuichi's grandmother who was being extorted out of her savings by gangsters, decides to stand up to them, and even Michiyo's life is transformed. But the greatest change is seen in Yuichi, who redeems himself by an act of altruism, that is all the greater as he hides it from the receiver.

The title should be read with a question mark: is Yuichi really such a villain, or are it rather social and other circumstances that make him so? The author holds no apology for Yuichi, but does ask us to have a more nuanced view.

The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and never descends into melodrama. There are also some chapters in interior monologue, which directly shows us the thoughts of the major characters. The translation is excellent, as we are used to from Philip Gabriel who has an impressive list of translations to his name, including novels by Oe Kenzaburo and Murakami Haruki.

In short, this is a realistic novel, about recognizable people, written in a clear style. Above all, it is an interesting picture of Japanese society, although a bit on the negative side.

P.S. A blurb on the back cover of the translation contains a misleading comparison to Stieg Larsson - happily, this realistic novel has nothing whatsoever in common with the sensational fables of Larsson which are more rooted in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo) than contemporary reality.

October 4, 2013

Graves in Kyoto's shopping arcades (Seiganji)

Kyoto, the old capital, is full of graves. When you walk through Shinkyogoku, the popular shopping street between Shijo and Sanjo that is almost a Harajuku look-alike, you are in the midst of a huge graveyard. Nobody notices, young people are on shopping sprees as if there were no other things in the world.

I learned the truth by looking over walls, and by staying in the business hotels on Kawaramachi Street, where you look down on the many small temples from your room. Then you get a very different view of the area: an endless graveyard with a snake of oblivious youth and abandon slithering through it...

Grave of Izumi Shikibu, Kyoto
[Tomb of Izumi Shikibu in Seishin-in Temple]

One of the most famous graves here is that of Izumi Shikibu, a woman court poet and diarist who lived around the year 1000. Izumi Shikibu lived a life of love and passion that earned her the nickname "The Floating Lady." So she must still feel at home here, in Kyoto's entertainment center and perhaps she likes the sounds of youth passing by. But nobody stops for her anymore and her grave is stone cold.

The major temple in this area is Seiganji, now standing somewhat forlorn in Shinkyogoku, Kyoto's busy shopping street. But the gate and doors of the main hall are always wide open and from the street passersby can greet the large Amida Buddha seated in the hall.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The welcoming entrance of Seiganji]

Although the graves remain, Seiganji has lost most of its land. It used to be a huge temple that even claims to have been founded in the late 7th c. Under the influence of Honen it turned to Pure Land Buddhism, as testified by its Amida statue. It only came to this location in last quarter of the 16th c., due to the redesign of Kyoto by Hideyoshi. One of Hideyoshi's concubines sponsored the temple, which then had many halls and even a pagoda. The area around Seiganji became a “town in front of the temple gate" where boisterous temple markets were held and that is how it spent the Edo-period.

The infamous Temmei fire 1788 claimed most of the temple buildings, including its original main statue, and modernisation did the rest. In the early Meiji-period, Kyoto Governor Makimura Masanao wanted to revitalize the city which had lost the Emperor, and he did this by creating a modern entertainment district with cinemas and theaters. That was Shinkyogoku and Seiganji gradually was dwarfed into oblivion.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[Wishes written on fans]

It is interesting to note that Seiganji did already have a link with entertainment. The most famous abbot of Seiganji was Anrakuan Sakuden (1554 – 1642), the man credited as being the earliest Rakugo comic story teller. His stories have been preserved in the aptly named compilation Sobering Laughter - apparently he started using comic stories while preaching, in order to keep his audience from falling asleep.

Seiganji, Kyoto
[The Fan Grave]

Thanks to the artistic impulse of Sakuden, the temple became popular with performers and artists who wanted to advance in their profession. The Fan Grave was built as a monument to the remembrance of Sakuden - the fan is the only implement used by Rakugo storytellers - and instead of the usual wooden votive planks, at Seiganji people write their wish on fans. And that is a form of elegance that very well fits the area...

September 29, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Kansai (Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama & Yuasa)

The Kansai area boasts many interesting old towns for those fond of strolling through history. Here is a first selection of three, lesser-known places: Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama (both in Hyogo Prefecture) and Yuasa (Wakayama Prefecture).

[Tatsuno - Castle]

1. Tatsuno
Tatsuno is a small former castle town in south-western Hyogo Prefecture, at just 15 kilometers distance from Himeji in the Harima region. Located on the Ibo River, Tatsuno thrived as a center of industry and transport. It is famous for three things: it was (and is) the center for the production of soy sauce in the Kansai (together with Shodoshima and - to a lesser degree - Yuasa below); it was (and is) also the center for the production of somen noodles in Western Japan (another center is Sakurai in Nara Pref.); and it was the birthplace of the poet Miki Rofu who wrote the children's song "Akatombo" ("Red Dragonfly"), which every Japanese knows. The old part of the small town, across the river, still exudes a nice historic atmosphere. You will be pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists.

[Tatsuno - Soy Sauce Museum]

Places to visit:
  • Tatsuno "Usukuchi" Soy Sauce Museum
    Soy sauce developed from miso (it was initially a by-product of miso manufacture) in the 16th century, initially in Yuasa (see below). As a heavy press is necessary for making soy sauce, a real industry developed in contrast to the production of miso which often took place in small shops. Edo-period production centers for soy sauce were Noda, Choshi (both in Chiba Prefecture), Shodoshima and Tatsuno. Soy production in Tatsuno was started in the period 1587-1590 by Maruoya Magozaemon; in 1666 Maruoya Magouemon developed light colored shoyu ("usukuchi shoyu"), which became very popular in the Kansai region, as it adds flavor without coloring the ingredients, something which fits the delicate cuisine of Kyoto. This soy sauce became possible thanks to the water of the Ibo River which is soft, with minimal iron content (the higher the iron content, the darker the sauce sauce; and hard water is less suitable to extract subtle flavors than soft water). Other ingredients are also local, such as the salt from Ako. Tatsuno producers also make use of amazake (a sweet rice drink) to enhance the flavor, aroma and color of their soy sauce. Note, by the way, that despite the lighter color, Usukuchi Shoyu is somewhat saltier than the darker type. Tatsuno soy sauce has flourished through the ages and is still being produced by Higashimaru and others. The museum has been established in a retro building that used to be the office of the Higashimaru soy sauce company and displays soy sauce making tools that were used until the early Showa period. 
  • Site of Tatsuno Castle. The present castle with its white walls and turrets is a reconstruction. The original dates back to 1499 and sat on the top of the mountain; after that, a new castle was built in the present location at the foot of the same mountain in 1672. The castle grounds are a good sakura blossom spot. There is also a reconstruction of the Honmaru palace.
  • In Tatsuno Park stands a monument to the famous children's song "Akatombo (Red Dragonfly)" - it will even play the song for those who have forgotten the melody. 
  • In the small Tatsuno Municipal Museum of the History and Culture (near the castle) you can learn more about this interesting town.
  • Visit the "Somen no Sato" Museum of the Ibonoito company, a 15 min walk from the next JR station, Higashi-Hashisaki, to learn more about tenobe (hand-stretched) somen noodles. These fine wheat noodles have been produced in the area since 1418. The facility features a demonstration and sampling corner, a production site, shops, a diorama of somen making, etc. 
How to get there: The historical area in Tatsuno is a 20-minute walk from JR Hon-Tatsuno Station (across the river); Hon-Tatsuno is 20 minutes by local train on the JR Kishin line from Himeji. 

[Tanba-Sasayama - Tanba Pottery Museum]

2. Tanba-Sasayama
Sasayama in the Tanba area of Hyogo is a small castle town, located on a bucolic plain, that preserves many old buildings around the castle and in its old merchant's quarter. The tourist center of the town is housed in a retro building dating to 1924, called Taisho Romankan; there are also a restaurant inside, and a shop selling local produce, such as kuromame (black soy beans). Despite the long list of museums below, the greatest pleasure of Sasayama is just to stroll through the old town and make your own discoveries. As museums go, the three at the top of the below list are the best.

Places to visit:
  • Tanba Kotokan (Old Tanba Pottery Museum). Museum dedicated to traditional Tanba pottery, housed in a wonderful group of old rice storehouses. Beautiful old pots (ranging from the Kamakura-period to the Edo-period) in a wonderful environment. Tanba-yaki is not made in Tanba-Sasayama, but in the village of Tachikui, where you will find the kilns, and which also is home to the The Museum of Ceramic Art, Hyogo
  • Nohgaku Shiryokan (Noh Museum). Museum dedicated to the Noh Theater, displaying masks, robes, and instruments. A model of a Noh stage shows the large pots (of course, made from Tanba-yaki) placed beneath the wooden floor for acoustical effect. The connection of Tanba-Sasayama with Noh is via the Aoyama castle lords who in 1858 built a Noh stage at the local Kasuga Shrine.
  • Sasayama Rekishi Bijutsukan (Sasayama Historical Art Museum). The museum is housed in Japan's oldest district court building, which was in use from 1890 to 1981. On display are both artworks (often originally belonging to the Aoyama castle lords) and historical objects: screens, maps, the local pottery called Ohjiyama-yaki, lacquerware, porcelain, old armor, etc. 
  • Castle Ruin and Oshoin. Sasayama castle was built in 1609 at the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Oshoin palace building was destroyed by fire in 1944. It has now been reconstructed, using ancient building techniques, and with much attention to detail. 
  • Aoyama History MuseumThe entrance gate is a Nagaya gate from the Edo-period. Exhibits include printing blocks and other artifacts from the Edo-period. 
  • Anma's Historical Museum (Buke-yashiki Samurai House). Anma was a vassal of Aoyama, the feudal lord of Sasayama. In this traditional samurai house some furniture and cooking vessels are on display. 
  • Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum. The Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum explains the origin of the important Tamba Toji master brewers as well as the sake brewing process with displays of old-fashioned tools. There is also a sake brewery in town, the Homei Brewery, which is housed in a nice old building.
How to get there: Take the JR Takarazuka Line rapid service from Amagasaki to Sasayamaguchi, then 15 min bus to the center of the old town. Sasayama Tourism page. 
[Yuasa - the old town]

3. Yuasa
Yuasa, located about half an hour by train south of Wakayama City, is like Tatsuno another old soy town. In fact, it is the oldest soy town in Japan for it was here that soy sauce was discovered as a by-product from the manufacture of miso paste. That miso was called Kinzanji miso and it was made in Kokokuji Temple in nearby Yura. It is still being produced in Yuasa and served in its restaurants - as a pickled side dish, containing small bits of vegetables. Miso was not only used for soups, but was perhaps first and for all a pickling agent. The liquid that dripped out of the miso as it matures is technically known as miso-damari, and is a very thick sort of soy sauce. Yuasa flourished from the 17th to 19th centuries thanks to the production of both soy sauce and Kinzanji miso. In its heyday, there were 92 soy sauce factories, of which now four remain.

Places to visit:
  • The old quarter with historical homes is a 10 min walk from Yuasa station. There are no big destinations here, but Yuasa is just fun to walk around in. You will find a small (free) soy museum where old tools for making soy sauce are on display. In the same street are two old shops, Kadocho making and selling premium soy sauce (since 1841), and Ohta Hisasuke Ginsei making and selling miso. There is also a small (free) historical museum called Jinburo. Among the several temples in town, Jinsenji is probably the most interesting: it has a small dry garden in front of the main hall (dating from 1663) and outside, next to the gate, stands a monument dedicated to the great earthquake and tsunami of 1854. The townscape here has been designated as a special preservation district.
  • Yuasa Soy Sauce. Marushin Honke had retreated from soy sauce manufacturing in 1965, and concentrated on the more profitable Kinzanji Miso. However, in recent years under the name Yuasa Soy Sauce a separate soy sauce company was again set up. Traditional soy making takes place here and the factory is always open to visitors - with large parking lots for tour buses it is a bit commercialised, but the friendly staff gives detailed explanations, making a visit certainly worthwhile. They make various premium kinds of soy sauce - for example with black beans from Tanba - and are active in export. The factory and shop stand along Route 42, on the opposite side from the old town when coming from Yuasa Station. From the station, turn right and follow the road until you reach the large grounds of a school. Here turn right again, and keep going straight on, crossing the railroad, until you reach a busy road (Route 42). Here turn left and you will soon see the signboards of Yuasa Soy Sauce. 
  • Yuasa is part of the municipality of Arida, which thanks to the warm climate is one of the most famous mikan producing areas in Japan. In the season, you will see the mikan-tress on the hillsides when your train approaches Yuasa, and you can buy the fruit everywhere in town.
  • Another local delicacy is shirasu-don, whitebait over rice. You can taste it (together with Kinzanji miso) in Kadoya, a restaurant standing to the left on the opposite side of the street from the station.
How to get there: Yuasa is just over 40 min. from Wakayama City by JR Kinokuni line.  

September 3, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Western Japan (Takahashi, Tomonoura and Onomichi)

There are still several traditional towns in Japan where modernization ("concrete-ization") has been less rampant than in the larger cities. Here are a few of my favorites in Western Japan (Okayama and Hiroshima Prefectures): Bitchu-Takahashi, Tomonoura, and Onomichi. Although I give suggestions for visits to temples and small museums in these towns, in the first place they are all just nice for a relaxed stroll through narrow lanes with old houses...


[Takahashi - Raikyuji's Garden]
1. Bitchu-Takahashi
The tiny former castle town of Takahashi stretches north to south along the Takahashi River. Lying in a mountainous region of great scenic beauty, it has a thriving merchant district of Edo-era buildings near the river and a well-preserved section of samurai homes, still occupied by the descendants of that martial class. Takahashi also features several interesting temples, of which Shorenji and Yakushi-en stand on high stone platforms. The place to visit is, however, Raikyuji, which boasts a fine garden laid out by Kobori Enshu. The samurai houses stand in the Ishibayacho district, just beyond Raikyuji. The castle was built in 1683 and sitting at 420 meters above sea level, is the highest castle in Japan. There is a great view of the surrounding hills from the castle hill (but it is a pain to get there, so you may opt to observe the castle hill from the town!) P.S. "Bitchu" is the name of this region in Okayama; it is added to the name of the town because there are more towns of the name "Takahashi" in Japan.

Places to visit are:
  • The Zen-temple Raikyuji. The renowned garden designer and tea master Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) served as governor of Takahashiand at that time lived in Raikyuji. He designed the present garden in 1604. The shakkei garden is characterized by a bold, wavelike hedge and in its daring design can stand comparison with the best gardens in Kyoto. 
  • Shorenji. This Nichiren temple is noted for its stone-walled terraces, which create an unusual effect.
  • Ishibaiyacho district with samurai houses. Two samurai residences (the Haibara Samurai Residence and the Orii Samurai Residence) are open to the public. 
  • In the merchant quarter near the river, one merchant residence can be visited: the Ikegami Merchant House, a soy sauce producer.
  • There are two small museums in town, the Takahashi Folk Museum (in an atmospheric building) and the Takahashi Historical Museum.
  • Bitchu-Matsuyama-jo. The highest mountain fortress in Japan. It retains the features of a medieval mountain fortress, although the present keep is more modern, from 1683. The castle is little visited as it stands a 20 min taxi ride outside the town. Climbing the hill takes another 15 min.

    Bitchu-Takahashi is 36 min by Yakumo Express from Okayama City, or 55 min by ordinary train via the Hakubi Line.

    Bitchu-Takahashi in Japan Guide (with a handy map). Japan Times article


    P.S. Fukiya, deeper into the mountains, is a copper mining town with old rust-colored houses, but as it is an hour by infrequent bus from Bitchu-Takahashi, it is rather difficult to get to by public transport.

[Tomo no Ura] 

2. Tomonoura
A little gem of a fisher's village with superb views over the Inland Sea, and an interesting place to stroll through the winding, narrow streets. Located on the southern point of the Nunakuma Peninsula, Tomonoura has been a famous scenic spot since the Nara period, when it was eulogized in the Manyoshu poetry collection. It was always a center for Inland Sea trade and many travellers passed through the town - the most important are the Korean embassies which came to Japan in the Edo-period (it was usual for travelers from Kyushu to Edo to travel through the Inland Sea by boat, before landing in Muronotsu in Hyogo Pref. and then - after visiting Osaka and Kyoto - hitting the Tokaido Highway). They would lodge in the Taichoro Pavilion of Fukuzenji Temple from which they could enjoy the view of three small islands in the bay, one adorned with a red pagoda. This Chinese-style landscape would be perfectly framed in the windows of their lodgings. Another visitor to Tomonoura was koto-composer Miyagi Michio (1894–1956), who was here inspired to write his masterwork, "Haru no Umi," or "The Spring Sea." In addition, anime-director Miyazaki Hayao developed his idea for the film Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008) while staying in Tomonoura.

Note: Tomonoura is in some danger of having its scenery spoiled by "development," such as a large bridge which may cut right through the small port town. See this article by WMF (the World Monuments Fund). 

Places to visit are:
  • Fukuzenji and Taichoro (Wave-facing Pavilion), the temple with pavilion where the Korean Embassies lodged, just next to the modern ferry landing. There are several memorabilia from these embassies on view, such as a calligraphy dated 1711 praising the view.
  • The Old Town with rows of fine old houses plus a distillery that makes Homeishu, a traditional medicinal liqueur.
  • The Temple and Shrine quarter in the north-east part of the town. The most interesting temple is Ankokuji, which has a 13th c.  Shaka Hall which is said to be one of the oldest Zen-style halls in Japan; the temple also has an interesting wooden Amida Triad; the Nunakuma Shrine - though itself concrete - has an early 17th c. Noh stage (presumably from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto).
  • Tomonoura Museum of History and Folklore. Local history and folklore museum. Includes a display of tai-ami, the fishing for sea bream (tai) which takes place in May with one large net pulled by a number of small boats. Other displays include a blacksmith's workshop for anchor making, and a koto used by Miyagi Michio.

    Tomonoura is 35 min by Tomotetsu bus from Fukuyama Station on the Shinkansen and Sanyo lines.

    English website of Fukuyama Tourist Information. Japan Times article.


Onomichi
 [Onomichi]

3. Onomichi
Onomichi is a port town on the inland sea, a traditional shipping center. For non-Japanese it is famous thanks to the iconic images at the beginning and end of Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Story, where it is the hometown of the elderly couple. It does not lie on the open sea, but across a channel we find the aptly name Mukai ("opposite") Island, now linked via a bridge. Onomichi lies on a steep hillside, crisscrossed by a warren of narrow slopes. The hills are studded with temples and there are also a few interesting small museums, as well as many literature monuments and film shooting spots. There is also a suitably old-fashioned Shotengai (arcaded shopping street). Onomichi is a starting point for trips to islands in the Inland Sea, either by bus via the new bridge system (Shimanami Kaido) or, as of old, by boat.

Places to visit are:
  • Jodoji Temple, at the eastern end of the town. The temple boasts a Main hall and a Tahoto Pagoda which are both national treasures. Visitors can also view a tea house that purportedly came from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, and an interesting treasure house. Jodoji is a good starting point for a walk along the other temples, as Tenneiji (three-storied pagoda) and Saikokuji (with its gigantic straw sandals). Take a 5-min bus or taxi to Jodoji, and then walk back in a western direction towards the station and the hill with Senkoji.
  • Senkoji Temple can be reached by ropeway and is a sort of tourist trap, but the good thing is the view over the Inland sea from the temple, which is justly celebrated (and you can hike up the hill instead of using the ropeway). There is also a "literature walk" on the hill along stones on which haiku and other works have been carved (but you need some Japanese ability to appreciate this). 
  • The Onomichi Motion Picture Museum - see my previous post on Ozu Museums and Shooting Locations.
  • The Onomichi Literature Museum - comprising the residence of 20th c. writer Shiga Naoya. Another famous author who lived in Onomichi is Hayashi Fumiko (she went to high school here).
  • The Onomichi Museum of Art, designed by Ando Tadao.

    Onomichi has a Shinkansen Station, but that lies rather far from the city center. Coming from the east, it is easier to take an ordinary train on the JR Sanyo Line from Fukuyama - this takes only 18 min.

    Onomichi City English website. Japan Times article. Japan Guide with map.

August 28, 2013

Ozu Yasujiro - Museums and Shooting Locations

Is it possible to visit any places in Japan associated with the famous director Ozu Yasujiro, such as museums or shooting locations?

Let's start with the museums. I have found the following two:
  • There is a small museum in Matsusaka, a historical town in Mie Prefecture, called Ozu Yasujiro Museum "Seishunkan". Ozu was born in downtown Tokyo, but in 1913, at age ten, he was sent to live in his father's hometown Matsusaka. He would stay there until 1924. The museum stands on the spot of the house where Ozu lived, but the house itself has been destroyed by a fire in the 1950s. The museum has been built to resemble on the outside the Kaguraza movie theater (also defunct) that Ozu used to visit in Matsusaka, and inside visitors find a living room, movie room, and commemorative hall. There are videos introducing the director, as well as panels with photos of his work. Note that the small museum is only open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. 
  • Onomichi Motion Picture Museum. Onomichi, a nostalgic port town on the Inland Sea, located in the Eastern part of Hiroshima Prefecture, was and is a favorite shooting location - not only for Ozu who used it in his Tokyo Story. The small Onomichi Picture Museum displays materials and photos connected with film projects that were shot in Onomichi. There is also a tiny theater where visitors can see movies that were filmed in Onomichi. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.

Onomichi
[Onomichi]

Unfortunately, that seems to be about all. Ozu lived in Kamakura, but there is nothing to visit there except his grave. That grave is in the Engakuji Zen temple in North-Kamakura (the temple sits immediately next to North-Kamakura Station). It is crowned by a large stone inscribed with the word "MU," "Nothingness." It is rather difficult to find in the extensive temple grounds, but this website by Kurt Easterwood may be of help.

When in Kamakura, you may also visit the Kamakura Museum of Literature, which - besides being a beautiful spot, a 1936 Western-style villa with an immense lawn - occasionally may have some materials on view about Ozu.

Another film-related place in Kamakura is the Kawakita Film Museum, which organizes exhibitions and film screenings - Kawakita Nagamasa and his wife Kashiko were founders of the Art Theater Guild (ATG, set up in 1961), which imported foreign art films and also supported independent Japanese directors, as the Nouvelle Vague directors Oshima, Yoshida and Shinoda. The museum stands on the location of their Kamakura residence. This is however not connected to Ozu - the ATG was backed financially by Toho, and not by Shochiku.

The Shochiku studios where Ozu worked (first in Kamata, later in Ofuna) have unfortunately been demolished. It is a pity Shochiku has done nothing for Ozu.

While we are talking about film in general, let me also point to the National Film Center in Tokyo, which organizes screenings and also has a gallery where films stills and posters are shown. See the website for the program. There is also a library.

And then the second point: shooting locations of films by Ozu. There is unfortunately no list of these, and, in fact, most of Ozu's films are made in the studio, on sets recreating the inside of houses and offices. And when we look at the locations Ozu used, we have to conclude that many of these have disappeared or changed beyond recognition. That is for example true for his Tokyo locations - such as the sparsely populated Western suburbs of Tokyo in I was Born, But... 

There are two locations that come to mind which are still extant, but then in a generalized way: Onomichi (used in Tokyo Story) and North-Kamakura, used in Late Spring. Onomichi is a beautiful spot, with steep lanes and old temples, looking out over the Inland Sea and an old-fashioned harbor. Just walking around here will allow visitors to imbue the atmosphere of the shots in Tokyo Story. The same is true of Kamakura: away from the main thoroughfares, in the quiet residential areas, there are still long bamboo fences and quiet lanes as shown in Late Spring and other Ozu films.
[Post written in answer to a question from a reader of this blog]

August 15, 2013

Basho’s haiku in Toyama (Haiku Stones): Ariso no Umi

It is on the the last leg of his Narrow Road travels that Basho enters Toyama from Niigata.

Fresh rice plants in Hokuriku.
[Fresh rice plants. Photo Ad Blankestijn]


fragrance of rice
wading into it
on my right the Rough Sea

wase no ka ya | wakeiru migi wa | Ariso Umi
Basho 

This is the only haiku Basho wrote in Toyama. Ariso no Umi, the Rough Sea, is is an utamakura ('pillow word') for the area around Fukishi harbor near the present city of Takaoka (home to the great Zuiryuji Temple). From here one has the famous view of the Tateyama mountains over Toyama Bay: a long row of white peaks above, the waves of the sea below, and only a haze in between.

Basho does not write about this scenery. He had a very tough day, crossing "forty-eight streams and countless rivers" as he writes in Oku no Hosomichi. That morning, August 27 (July 13 on our calendar) he had left Ichiburi. The streams he had to cross were the Kurobe River and its tributaries, all swollen by long rains. At such places he and Sora had to hire porters to carry them across. Next day he traveled on to Nako no Ura.


Hojozu Hachiman Shrine in Shin-Minato, Takaoka
[Hojozu Hachiman Shrine in Shin-Minato, Takaoka. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Basho's haiku is a eulogy on the new country he is entering: the domain of Kaga. This was one of the most affluent parts of Japan and the daimyo family, the Maeda, had an income of over one million koku (or 5 million bushels) of rice. So it is fitting that Basho writes about the wase, the fresh young rice standing in endless fields, as far as the eye can see. The fragrance of the new rice greets him when he enters Kaga and while he wades through the rich fields, on his right side he sees the famous Nako no Ura, Bay of Nako and the Araiso, the Rough Sea. Thus he pays his respects to the genie of the country he is entering.
Stone: The haiku stone stands in the grounds of the Hojozu Hachiman Shrine in Shin-Minato. There is also a kahi, a tanka stone, by Otomo no Iemochi, a Manyoshi poet who lived for 4 years in this area and left many poems (from 746 CE). The shrine is pleasant, but Shin-Minato is rather ugly. Some say the kuhi should have been placed in Fushiki, on the other side of the bay.
Access: 25 min. by the Manyo Line of the Kaetsuno Tetsudo to Naka-Shin-minato, then a 15-min. walk.

August 11, 2013

Names of the months in Japan

Every first-year student of Japanese knows the names of the months: ichi-gatsu, ni-gatsu, san-gatsu etc... it could not be simpler, just the counters from one to twelve plus "month." It is also a bit boring. Happily, there is a more poetic way of naming the months in Japan - but less easy to remember:
1. Mutsuki 睦月 or "social month / month of affection" - the time that family and friends join to celebrate the New Year

2. Kisaragi 如月 or "put on more clothes against the cold" - the coldest season of the year

3. Yayoi 弥生 or "renewed growth" - as plants start growing in this season

4. Uzuki 卯月 or "month of the U-flowers (deutzia)" 
5. Satsuki 皐月 or "month of planting rice shoots"

6. Minazuki 水無月 or "the waterless month" - possibly corrupted for "full-water month"

7. Fuzuki (Fumizuki) 文月 or "the month in which the rice ears swell (month for writing poetry)

8. Hazuki 葉月 or "month of falling leaves"

9. Nagatsuki 長月 or "month of long nights" - famous for the beautiful autumn moon

10. Kannazuki 神無月 or "godless month" - as the gods from all over Japan are said to travel to the Izumo shrine and so are away from home

11. Shimotsuki 霜月 or "month of frost"

12. Shiwasu 師走 or "month of busy priests" - who run around all day for religious services as the year draws to an end.
These poetic names are never used for dates, but only in poetry, such as haiku, or on old-fashioned calendars.


August 8, 2013

Haiku in Manpukuji, Uji: Songs of tea pickers (Haiku stones)

leaving the Temple Gate
there is Japan!
songs of tea pickers

sanmon wo dereba | Nippon zo! | chatsumi uta

By Kikushani (1753-1826)

Manpukuji Temple in Uji, Kyoto, belongs to a Chinese Zen school that was brought to Japan by Ingen, who fled China for the Manchu invaders in the mid-17th c. The Obaku-sect temple was a true Chinese cultural enclave in Kyoto: the layout of the temple was Chinese: with small temples for typical Chinese deities as Mazu, there were Chinese-style Buddhist statues, the sutras were read in Chinese, the meals were Chinese "fucha" vegetarian meals... All first 13 abbots were also emigres from China, they wrote a particular kind of Chinese-style calligraphy and entertained guests with a "sencha" tea ceremony. The temple was a center of Chinese culture in Kyoto and often visited by Japanese literati.


Gate of Manpukji, Uji, Kyoto
[The gate of Manpukiji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

When the haiku poetess Kikushani has visited Manpukuji and steps out of the Sanmon, the temple gate, she has the feeling that she has made a trip to China and only now returned to Japan.

What makes her so sure she is back in Japan? The songs of the tea pickers she hears - Uji was the oldest and most famous tea producing area in Japan.
The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Obakusan Manpukuji Temple in Uji, Kyoto, 5 min walk from Obaku St. and 20 min walk from Uji St. 
Kikushani (1753-1826) became a poetess and a nun after losing her husband when she was only in her mid-twenties. The haiku dates from 1788.

August 5, 2013

Shochu mimai: Well-wishing in the hot weather

The hot and humid summer in Japan tends to wear people out. It is therefore custom to inquire after the health of friends and acquaintances during the greatest heat, which lasts somewhere from July 20 to the first week of August. Since the Taisho period, this is done by sending a special postcard which is called shochu mimai ("asking after a person’s health in the hot weather”).

shochumimai
[Shochu mimai cards]

The postcards are usually decorated with seasonal images and those issued by the post office have lottery numbers printed at the bottom, just like the cards used at New Year. If you miss sending your cards before August 8, don’t worry: just change the greeting in Japanese to zansho mimai, to ask after your friend’s health in the “lingering heat."

August 2, 2013

Issa’s haiku in Nagano: In Jizo’s lap (Haiku Stones)

The haiku-poet Kobayashi Issa was born in Kashiwabara, in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, and after a life as wandering poet, he lived there again during his last years. As a devout Pure Land Buddhist Issa often visited Zenkoji, and he wrote numerous poems in which the temple figures. The City of Nagano has honored him by putting up scores of stones with his haiku along the streets in the vicinity of Zenkoji Temple. Below is a selection from the haiku I found on those stones.

Jizo statue in Zenkoji, Nagano
[Jizo statue in the grounds of Zenkoji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
ricecakes -
also in Jizo's lap
the spring wind

botamochi ya | Jizo no hiza mo | haru no kaze
The "ricecakes" in my translation are in fact "botamochi," literally "peony cakes," a term for rice cakes covered with bean jam and made during the vernal equinox. The same cakes are called ohagi (after the bushclover that blooms in September) when made during the autumnal equinox (see my post about ohagi in Japanese Food Dictionary). Jizo is a popular Bodhisattva, helper of all humans but especially children. He also guides those who have died through the Underworld.


Street leading to Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, in winter.
[Street leading to Zenkoji Temple in winter. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
in the autumn wind
escaping on foot
the firefly

akikaze ni | aruitenigeru | hotaru kana
A single firefly (hotaru) has survived into autumn, but when the cold wind blows it tries to get away - on foot, as it has already lost the power to fly. This haiku is a good example of Issa's minute attention to small creatures as insects.


Haiku Stone along the road in Nagano City
[Haiku stone along the road in Nagano. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
beyond
my outstretched legs
clouds like mountains

nagedashita | ashi no saki ni | kumo no mine
This haiku is simplicity itself. The picture shows the haiku stone by the roadside.


Gate of Zenkoji, Nagano
[Gate of Zenkoji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
how beautiful
the Milky Way
seen through a hole in the shoji

utsukushi ya | shoji no ana no | Ama no Kawa
The Milky Way is in Japan called Heaven's River. It seems all the more impressive when glimpsed through a tiny hole. A shoji is a wooden frame covered with translucent rice paper. Shoji could serve as doors, windows, or partitioning screens. That there is a hole in the paper, points at a poor house - usually such holes would be quickly repaired. But Issa enjoys the hole in the paper screen, for now he can see the Milky Way through it.

Main Hall of Zenkoji Temple, Nagano
[Main Hall of Zenkoji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
even sparrows
bring their children
Zenkoji

suzumera mo | oyakotsure nite | Zenkoji
As in the haiku on the firefly, Issa is a keen observer of nature. But there is more: the Amida Trinity of Zenkoji promises to save all sentient beings and that includes sparrows as well.

Also see my other post, "Pulled by an Ox,"  on haiku stones with poems by Issa.
Note: A great resource on Issa, containing more than 7300 translations of his haiku, is Haiku of Kobayashi Issa by David G. Lanoue.

August 1, 2013

Osaka and Conveyor Belt Sushi (Kaiten-sushi)

Osaka often seems to be playing second fiddle to Big Brother Tokyo, but it actually is a city of many firsts. Pocket calculators were invented here in 1964, the first automatic ticket gates appeared in Osaka earlier than elsewhere in 1967, vacuum packed foods as curry were introduced in this food-conscious city in 1968, and the famous cup noodles made their first appearance in 1971 - before going on to conquer the world. And of course we should not forget "conveyor belt sushi" (Kaiten-sushi), which greeted the rising sun in 1958. The first revolving sushi restaurant in the world, called Mawaru Genroku Sushi, opened its doors in April 1958 in Fuse, in what is now Higashi-Osaka.

Fuse is just a few minutes by Nara-bound Kintetsu train from Tsuruhashi on the Osaka loop line and the sushi restaurant sits almost in front of the station (on the block of shops to the right when you stand in front of the south exit of Fuse station). This is an old downtown neighborhood with impressive classical shopping arcades and shops and other establishments that are pleasantly old-fashioned.

[Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Fuse, Osaka]

In a Kaiten-sushi restaurant the plates with the sushi are placed on a rotating belt that winds around the counter where the cooks work, and moves past every seat. Customers pick their selections from a steady stream of fresh sushi snaking by in front of their eyes. A great invention from the city of Kuidaore, "eating until you drop down," and symbolic for the Osaka mentality of "value for money."

As the Daily Yomiuri writes:
Operator Yoshiaki Shiraishi equipped a sushi restaurant counter with a revolving belt after seeing a conveyer belt at a beer factory and thinking that it could reduce the work of waitstaff. At the time, a bowl of ramen noodles cost about 40 yen, and one plate of four sushi pieces was priced at 50 yen.

Sushi-go-rounds, as they are sometimes called, became known across the nation after one opened near the 1970 Osaka Expo venue.
Mr Shiraishi did his invention due to staffing problems. And indeed, besides the sushi chef(s) behind the counter, there is often only one waiter or waitress who seats you and handles the cash register and besides that, at most takes care of special drink orders as beer. The rest is available at your table: from soy sauce to wasabi and chopsticks. Interestingly, there is even a hot water faucet, so that customers can make their own tea.

[Kaiten sushi - note the white hot water faucets for making tea]

The belt moves at 8 cm per second, clockwise, and is constantly replenished. In some shops, it is also possible to ask the chef for special types of sushi that are on the menu on the wall, but not on the conveyor. The belt also carries things as deserts. In Genroku Sushi a second belt has been built on top of the first one, carrying such things as cups, ash trays, paper napkins and other accessories. Besides offering traditional fish (tuna, salmon etc.) and shellfish, Genroku Sushi goes along with the times in providing sushi with raw meat, calbee, chicken, and sausages - and mayonnaise as a flavoring. The Japanese names of the plates are indicated with little flags, but there is also an English picture menu.

In Kaiten Sushi restaurants the bill is calculated based on the number and type of color-coded plates the customer has amassed and is never an unpleasant surprise. There are even sushi shops where every plate is priced at a fixed price, say 130 yen. Kaiten Sushi made sushi, until then a luxury food, available to ordinary people. Sushi shops became family restaurants. When I visited Genroku Sushi, in the early evening of an ordinary weekday, the other visitors were mainly locals who would eat a few plates and then go back home again. By the way, considering that conveyer belt sushi was originally started to reduce staff, a surprisingly large number of staff was on duty, to seat the customers, count the plates, and keep everything running smoothly. The chefs were also working at high speed to keep up with the pace of consumption.

There are about 3000 Kaiten Sushi shops in Japan and the industry is still going strong. Many belong to chains as Akindo Sushiro, Atom Boy, Genki Sushi, Kappa Sushi, etc. Of the original inventor chain, Mawaru Genroku Sushi, there are still 11 shops in the Kansai.


July 30, 2013

Asuka Historical Museum, Nara (museum reviews)

Fourteen hundred years ago, Asuka (now a quiet village) was the cultural and political center of Japan. Here for the first time a unified state was established, based on the introduction of the more advanced culture, technology and administrative systems of China and Korea. Buddhism was introduced as well and the first temples were built.

The landscape of Asuka is still dotted with the sites of palaces and temples, ancient tumulus graves, and quaint stone figures, - those last ones probably statues from the old palace gardens.

Osaka Museums
[Asuka Historical Museum]

You will find copies of those statues in the Asuka Historical Museum, both outside in the landscaped grounds and in the exhibition hall. The museum was established to display the rich archeological harvest of this area. As excavations continue, the museum collection is regularly bolstered by new discoveries, such as the ongoing excavation of the Kitora Tumulus.

The exhibition presents a historical overview, organized around the six themes of palaces, temples, tumuli graves, the Takamatsu Tumulus, stone figures and the Manyoshu poetry collection. The display consists of excavated items, models and panels with text and photos - for some visitors unfortunately only in Japanese.

Asuka Historical Museum, Nara Pref.
[Asuka Historical Museum]

The most impressive exhibit is the restored gallery of the lost Yamadadera Temple in the second exhibition hall. Here the excavated parts of the original lattice windows have been used, which predate Horyuji, the oldest existing wooden building in Japan, by fifty years. You will also find samples of the votive objects buried under the central pillar of the pagoda of Asukadera, as well as clay plaques with Buddhist figures in relief.

The most famous gravemound in Asuka is the Takamatsu Tumulus, which was excavated in 1972. The museum displays objects found in the grave chamber, such as a beautiful mirror with a pattern of vines and sea horses. And to come back to the stones, finally, besides all the copies, the museum houses the original “Sumeru stone,” an artifact in the shape of a mythical mountain, which originally formed part of a fountain.
Tel: 0744- 54-3561
601 Okuyama, Asuka-mura, Takaichi-gun, Nara-ken 634-0102
Hours: 9:00 - 16:30; CL Mon (next day if NH), NY
Access: From Kashihara-Jingumae St on the Kintetsu line take a bus bound for Okadera and get off at Asuka Daibutsu-mae; then 10 min on foot; from Sakurai St on the Kintetsu and JR lines take a bus bound for Okadera and get off at Asuka Shiryokan. A taxi from Kashihara-Jingumae St is also convenient. 
Combine a visit to this museum with a walking or cycling tour through Asuka.Website

In the Takamatsu-zuka Wall-paintings Hall, also in the Asuka area, you will find a complete replica of the famous tomb paintings (0744-54-3340; 9:00-17:00; CL NY: 15 min walk from Asuka St on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line).

July 27, 2013

The Legend of Octopus Buddha (Tako Yakushi Temple, central Kyoto)

In Kyoto, you find small temples in the most unexpected nooks and crannies. A very interesting one is Tako Yakushi (officially called Eifukuji), sitting right in the middle of youth paradise Shinkyogoku, in the center of the city.

[Tako Yakushi Temple in Shinkyogoku street - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The temple originally stood in Nijo Muromachi and was founded in 1181. The engi, retold in the temple's pamphlet, informs believers about the miraculous origins of the temple. Here it is in my free translation:
In the Muromachi ward of Kyoto lived a rich man who shaved his head and sought his refuge in the Yakushi Buddha of Enryakuji on Mt Hiei. Year after year, he made monthly pilgrimages to this Buddha. But as the years went by, he became old and weak, and one day, he spoke in front of the Yakushi Buddha:

"I am getting too old to continue my practice of monthly pilgrimages. Please let me have your image to place in my home, Lord Yakushi!"

After uttering this wish, the devout believer descended from Mt Hiei. That night, the Yakushi Buddha appeared to him in a dream and spoke: "In a certain place, a stone Yakushi statue carved by St Dengyo [i.e. Saigyo, the founder of Enryakuji and Tendai Buddhism] himself has been buried. You can take that home."

Full of joy, the next day the wealthy man climbed the mountain and when he dug in the indicated spot he indeed found a holy image hewn from stone that emitted a wondrous light.

He took this image home and built a hall of six by four bays for it. This temple was called Eifukuji, or Temple of Eternal Bliss, and it greatly flourished and yound and old, men and women, flocked in great numbers to the temple to pay their respects.

In the Kencho period of Emperor Gofukakusa (1249-56) there lived a monk called Zenko in this temple. It happened at one time that his mother fell ill. Although he took good care of her, she did not recover and spoke from her bed to Zenko: "If only I could eat some octopus (tako), I like that so much from since I was young, that my illness might get better!"

Zenko was not allowed to buy octopus, a living being, for a meal because he was a Buddhist monk and therefore he was greatly distressed. Still, the thought of his sick mother was stronger than his awe for the precepts, so he took a wooden box in his arms and went to the market to find an octopus.

When he walked back, some people became suspicious that he, a monk, had bought a living creature for food and they followed him all the way to the gate of his temple, pressing him to show what was in the box. Zenko could not refuse and prayed with all his heart to the Lord Buddha: "I have only bought this octopus to help my mother recover from her illness. Lord Yakushi, please help me out of this difficulty!"

When he opened the box, the eight-legged octopus had been transformed into a set of eight sutra scrolls and a light shone from them in all four directions.

The people who saw this all pressed their hands together in prayer and sang the praises of the Lord Yakushi, the Buddha of the Lapis Lazuli Paradise.

Strangely enough, the scriptures turned again into an octopus who then jumped into the pond in front of the temple where he changed into the form of the Yakushi Buddha. He emitted a green Lapis Lazuli light and when this struck the head of Zenko's mother her illness was immediately healed. She rose from her bed and in a loud voice sang the praises of the Lapis Lazuli Buddha, over and over again.

Thus the temple came to be known as Octopus Yakushi. From then on, when people visited and prayed for relief from illness, they immediately were healed; when women prayed for children, they were blessed with offspring; and all difficulties and problems were eliminated.

This reached the ears of His Majesty the Emperor and in 1441 the temple received an Imperial License. Since then prayers have been said here for bountiful harvests, the Emperor's long life, and the peace of the nation. When one prays ardently for divine protection, no wish is left unfulfilled: in the present world the seven ills are immediately dispelled and the seven blessings immediately granted.

July 25, 2013

Basho’s haiku on Horaizan: Wintry blasts (Basho, haiku)

Horaizan or Paradise Mountain lies here on earth, close to Hon-Nagashino on the Iida line out of Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture. It is an an old temple mountain of the shugendo cult. Although there is not much of the temples left, the mountain is steep, craggy and still immersed in a mystic atmosphere. An endless array of stone staircases leads to the top and, hopefully, some better insight.

Basho visited Horaizan in 1691, after his long trek to northern Japan and his subsequent stay in Shiga Prefecture to recuperate. As usual, he was accompanied by a group of local haiku enthusiasts, led by one Hakusetsu. At noon they reached the hamlet of Kadoya at the foot of the mountain, so that after lunch the climb started in earnest. Just under the Niomon Gate, Basho took a rest and observed the split rock face visible there between the giant cedars. The winter storm blowing strongly against the rocks seemed to make their corners even sharper. The haiku Basho composed about this scene, has been cut in stone on the very spot where it was written.


Horaizan, Aichi
[The path on Mt. Horai]

by wintry blasts
the rocks are sharpened
through the cedars

kogarashi ni | iwa fukitogaru | sugima kana

Basho
Due to the blasts of the north wind, it was a cold day. Basho was troubled by his usual illness, stomach ache, and was not able to climb all the way to the top. He may already have turned back after composing his haiku at the Niomon Gate. On top of that, it happened to be the day of the temple's festival and Basho found that all inns at the foot of the mountain were occupied. With difficulty, he managed to secure a small room in a dingy place. There was no proper bedding, and Basho felt cold and miserable. Hakusetsu ran up the mountain again to one of the subtemples to borrow a padded kimono for the haiku master to keep warm during the night. This inspired Basho to the second haiku of that day:
a padded kimono
received by prayer
sleeping on my journey

yogi hitotsu | inori-idashite | tabine kana

Haiku Stone: The haiku stones (an old one and a modern one) stand near the Niomon Gate, about 10 min. and 222 steps from the start of the staircase.
Access: 15 min. by bus from Hon-Nagashino Station on the Iida Line (Hon-Nagashino is a 50 min. ride from Toyohashi) and then a walk of about 1 hour over a 1,400 steps high staircase ascending through the forest. The bus station lies a few minutes from the station, in the direction of the main road.
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July 24, 2013

Another way to use a Shinto gate (Kyoto Streets)

Torii gates are symbols of Shinto shrines and mark their sacred space from the mundane world. The basic structure consists of two pillars with a top rail and a little below that a second horizontal rail piercing both columns, providing stability to the structure.

The greatest orgy of torii gates can be seen on the mountain behind the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, where companies and individuals have donated thousands and thousands of vermilion torii gates that have been set so closely together that they form tunnels leading up to the mountain.


Vermilion tunnel
[Torii gates forming tunnels on he mountain behind Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

In the shops in the street in front of the Fushimi Shrine also minature models of those red torii gates are for sale. You can buy one together with two ceramic foxes (the messenger of the deity of the shrine) to decorate in your home, in the same way as you see them used in small shrines on the mountain.


Fushimi Inari, Kyoto
[Miniature torii gates on a shrine in Fushimi Inari, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But on this wall of a ryokan in central Kyoto I saw another way to use these small wooden copies of the sacred gate.


Kyoto
[Miniature torii gates affixed to the wall of a ryokan in central Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

No, this is no decoration and it also does not signify that the persons living here are fervid parishioners of the Fushimi shrine!

The truth is more down to earth. The symbolic torii functions in the same way as the inuyarai lattice boards you see on traditional Kyoto houses, that is to say: to prevent passersby from soiling the wall, throwing away garbage and letting their dog use the spot as a toilet.

Even inebriated gentlemen seem to be so sensitive to this sacred symbol that they go and pass their water elsewhere.

June 26, 2013

Japan's shrine guardians - Stone lion-dogs or "Komainu"

Everyone who has visited a shrine in Japan has made their acquaintance, often with a smile: the pairs of funny stone guardians that are a cross between a lion and a dog and that often stand at the entrance to the sacred precincts.

Koma-inu, Sudo Shrine, Kyoto
[The right lion-dog in the Sudo Shrine in northwestern Kyoto (with the mouth open) - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

"Komainu" they are called in Japanese, literally "Korean dogs," a pointer to their origin on the Asian mainland. As they entered Japan via Korea in the Heian-period, their name "Koma" is derived from the designation for the Korean kingdom of Koguryo, although the actual origin may be sought as faraway as Egypt or Iran.

The function of these mythical beasts is to repel evil. In the style of Buddhist temple guardians one lion-dog usually has its mouth open (agyo) and the other has it closed (ungyo) - for the rest, they look the same. Koma-inu are usually made from stone, although examples of bronze and ceramics also exist; wooden komainu are always kept inside the shrine and can now mainly be found in shrine museums, retired from active duty.

According to JAANUS, in case of the earliest komainu (dating from the 9th c.) the two statues were different: one was clearly a lion (shishi), the other a dog (komainu) - this last one also sometimes sported a horn on his head. Gradually, however, their shapes fused together, except for the open and closed mouth.


Koma-inu, Sudo Shrine, Kyoto
[The left lion-dog in the Sudo Shrine in northwestern Kyoto (with the mouth closed) - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

As JAANUS also informs us, in the Heian period komainu were used as weights for curtains or screens in the imperial palace. These have not been preserved as far as I know, famous examples from the shrine and temple variety include the 10th c. wooden komainu kept by Yakushiji Temple, or the numerous sets in the Itsukushima Shrine (12th-14th c.).

If you are interested in the ceramic lion-dog variety, the Aichi Prefectural Ceramics Museum in Seto owns a large and variegated collection, dating from the 14th to the early 20th centuries, and from various regions.

Lion-dogs are great fun: some look more like raccoons or badgers and their expressions are invariably humorous.

June 10, 2013

Temple of the Bubbling Spring - Sennyuji, Kyoto

Located at the foot of Mt. Tsukinowa, almost due east of Kyoto Station, Sennyuji - the Temple of the Bubbling Spring - surprises by its tranquility and refined beauty. It is almost unbelievable to find a temple so quiet in such proximity to the bustling city center. Not only that, there are five more things which make Sennyuji decidedly different.

1. Looking Down Instead of Looking Up.

Sennyuji Temple, Kyoto

Normally, Japanese temples stand in high places, on hills and mountains, and more often than not you have to climb a stone staircase to reach the sacred halls. Of course, there are also temples standing on level ground, but Sennyuji is the only temple I know where you actually descend the path to go to its main hall - from the Daimon Gate where the ticket office is, you look down upon the Butsuden and other halls - the massive tiled roof of the Butsuden is exactly on eye level!

2. A Failed Zen Temple?

Sennyuji Temple, Kyoto

Sennyuji now belongs to esoteric Shingon Buddhism, but when you enter its main hall, the beautiful Butsuden, you could easily mistake it for the Lecture Hall of a Zen temple. For one thing, there is the in Zen temples obligatory dragon painting on the ceiling, here ascribed to the famous Kano Tan'yu. Next, you will find nothing of esoteric Buddhism in this hall, no Dainichi Nyorai statues or fierce-looking Fudo Myo-o with flames at their back. Instead, on the altar sits a sedate trinity of Amida, Shaka and Miroku, or the Buddhas of the Past, the Present and the Future. They have been ascribed to the renowned Unkei, but false ascriptions to famous artists are as frequent in Japanese temples as mould in the Rainy Season.

The combination of these three Buddhas is in fact rare in Japan and was probably inspired by the Southern Song dynasty in China - Tsukinowa Shunjo, who built Sennyuji in 1218, had studied in China and - here we have the Zen connection - he built a temple in Chinese style in which he synthesized the four major Buddhist denominations of his time, Shingon, Tendai, Zen and Ritsu. So that is why we have a Zen Hall in a Shingon temple! By the way, this Chinese-style hall was (re-) built in 1668 by the then Tokugawa shogun, Ietsuna. At the back of the altar is a painting of the White-robed Kannon and - in a large wooden box - a picture of the parinirvana (nehan) of the historical Buddha (shown every year from March 14 to 16). And finally, the bell-shaped windows of this hall (and the Shariden or Relic Hall standing behind it) are also typical of the Zen style.

3. An Imperial Concubine from China as Kannon Bosatsu.

Sennyuji Temple, Kyoto

The small and unassuming Kannon hall houses a miraculous image of the Goddess of Mercy which is said to be a portrait of the famous Chinese imperial concubine Yang Guifei. A woman of exquisite beauty - the most beautiful woman in the long history of China - Yang Guifei was favored by the eighth century Emperor Xuanzong, to such a degree that he severely neglected his affairs of state. Eventually, a rebellion occurred in which the concubine was killed by uproarious soldiers. Her tragic fate was versified by the poet Bai Juyi in the famous poem Song of Everlasting Grief.

The present statue is said to have been made on behest of the grieving emperor after the death of Yang Guifei. It was brought to Japan in the middle of the thirteenth century by Sennyuji's second abbot, Rankai, who twice visited China for study and for the collecting of sutras, statues and paintings. It is a beautiful statue: the seated Kannon, carrying a lotus flower with a long stem, smiles down on you with compassion. The colors are still vivid, thanks to the fact that the statue was kept in a cabinet and only revealed once every hundred years in the past.

4. Imperial Funeral Temple.

Sennyuji Temple, Kyoto

Adding to Sennyuji's gentility are its old connections to the Imperial House - several emperors and their consorts have been buried at the back of the temple grounds. The connection with the imperial family started already soon after the founding, in 1242, when the mausoleum of Emperor Shijo was erected here. Other imperial tombs are those of the Emperors Gohorikawa (r. 1221-32) and Gomizunoo (r. 1611-29). Including those of consorts and other family members, in all there are some thirty tombs. But Sennyuji is a quiet and reserved temple that has never boasted of its imperial connections. The imperial graves can be observed from what is called the Gohaisho, in the rear and to the right of the temple grounds (the access is half-hidden behind the Reimeiden and easy to miss).

Another imperial connection is the Gozasho, a building that was actually donated from the imperial palace, decorated with beautiful screens, impressive in their sober simplicity. It also feautures a throne room that is actually still used by the present Emperor, who came here several times during his reign, for example to visit the graves of his ancestors and inform them of his accession to the throne. The Gozasho also has a beautiful garden and a visit is recommended (seperate entrance fee).

Finally there are two buildings which are usually closed, the Reimeiden where the imperial ancestral spirits are enshrined and another building enshrining Buddhist statues that once belonged to the imperial family. The halls stand in their own, closed compound and are covered with cypress bark roofs, reminding one of the old imperial palace, Gosho.

5. Where are the Bubbles?

Sennyuji Temple, Kyoto

Coming out of the Butsuden, to the side of the grounds you will find a small wooden structure protecting a well. This is the "bubbling spring" that gave the temple its name. Peeping inside, however, you will only see dry moss. The spring apparently has succumbed to the hot weather - or has become the victim of diminishing groundwater levels in modern cities.

Address: 27 Sennyu-ji Yamauchi-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. Tel. 075-561-1551

Access: Take the JR or Keihan Line to Tofukuji Station and walk 20 min. along Higashioji Street.

Hours: 9:00-16:30, in winter 16:00.

Note: Along the access road lined with stately trees inside the temple grounds, you will find several interesting sub-temples. My favorite is Kaikoji with its huge Shaka image. Here also stands Imakumano Kannonji, one of the temples of the Kannon Pilgrimage Route of Western Japan.

May 26, 2013

Tokyo's Mountain Shrine - Mitake Shrine (Tokyo, Shrines)

The Mitake Shrine which sits on the top of Mt Mitake (929 m) west of Tokyo, just inside the Chichibu and Tama National Park, traces its origins to an unbelievable antiquity that never was, except in myths. The mythical hero Yamato Takeru visited here and buried a cache of arms. The country around it was therefore called Musashi (written with characters meaning "military storehouse"). The next visitor was not mythical, but highly legendary: the peripatetic priest Gyoki, who is credited with setting up a statue of Zao Gongen here in 736. What this shows is that the shrine was a syncretic establishment (both Shinto and Buddhist, with the latter element perhaps even stronger) of the shugendo priests, ascetic priests who practiced in the mountains.

Watching over the wide plain, Mitake Jinja
[Lion-dog statue watching out over the Musashi plain]

This shrine of the mountain cult was supported with gifts by various shoguns. Later, the shrine came to be regarded as a patron deity of the Edo/Tokyo area. In Meiji, when gods and Buddhas were split by the new government, the syncretic establishment was turned into a Shinto shrine. The Haiden (Prayer Hall) was donated in 1700 by the Tokugawa shogunate and is in the ornate Gongen-style of the Nikko shrines.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[The Shrine Hall on the mountain top]

That the shrine was highly regarded by those in power is attested to by the many gifts they donated. Part of these are on view in the two-story Treasure Hall. The shrine owns two national treasures: a piece of gorgeous armor (yoroi) with lacing of red thread (12th c.) and a saddle decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay with a design of circles (13th c.). The armor is counted among the three best pieces of armor in Japan and was donated to the shrine in 1191 by the military man sitting on horseback (and in bronze) in front of the museum: Hatakeyama Shigetada. The saddle is regarded as an exemplary item of horse gear from the Kamakura period.

Other items in the museum include a portable shrine (mikoshi) from 1700; a metal plate with an effigy of Zao Gongen on it (these plates called kakebotoke were hung on the walls of temples); and a set of large cups to toast with before going into battle. In short, this is a cache of armor and Buddhist art worth to climb the mountain for.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[Shrine Museum with statue of Hatakeyama Shigetada]

The most interesting way to visit is to hike from Mitake Station. Cross the bridge over the river and go up a steep road under a red torii. Skip the cable car and instead take the footpath leading away to the left. This is the original pilgrim's path and recommended if you want to get a taste of the ancient atmosphere. The wide path zigzags up the mountain slope under enormous cedar trees. It will be quiet - almost all other people take the cable car. After about an hour the path merges with a paved road and you will suddenly be joined by the crowds who have been carried up by cable car.
Where: Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku and transfer 
in Tachikawa to the Ome Line to Mitake Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). If you don't feel like walking, take a bus from the car park opposite Mitake Station to Takimoto at the foot of Mt. Mitake, where the cable car starts. 
How much: Grounds free. Museum 300 yen, 9:30-16:00.

May 14, 2013

Quietude of Zen - Myoshinji Temple (Temples, Kyoto)

Myoshinji ("Temple of the Wondrous Mind") is one Kyoto's major Zen temples. Its 13.5 hectare large grounds lie in the northern part of the city, and like those of Daitokuji, are always open to residents who want to take a pleasant shortcut home. The area is called Hanazono or "Flower Garden," and was the country residence of the abdicated Emperor of the same name. In 1337 the Emperor wanted to turn his villa into a temple and asked his teacher, the Zen master Shuho Myocho (1282-1337), to suggest a suitable first abbot. Shuho recommended his disciple Kanzan Egen (1277–1360). After Shuho's death, the Emperor continued his Zen practice under Kanzan.

Colors of Buddhism
[Curtains under the roof of the Hojo - colors of Buddhism]

After Kanzan's death, the temple went into decline, and in 1467, during the Onin Wars, nearly all buildings were destroyed. The temple was rebuilt by the 6th head, Sekko-Soshin Zenji (1408-86) and received the patronage of the powerful Hosokawa family and later also from the Toyotomi and Tokugawa, ensuring its continued prosperity. Most buildings we see today were built from the late 15th through early 17th centuries. The temple expanded over the centuries into a labyrinth of sub temples, of which there are now 47, concealed behind their earthen walls.

Quietude of Zen
[The quiet precincts]

The first abbot Kanzan was renowned for the simplicity and austerity of his lifestyle, and that is perhaps the reason that unlike Daitokuji, Myoshinji does not recognize worldly pursuits as the tea ceremony. It also stood outside the Gozan system. As a consequence, it does not possess the many exquisite tea houses and roji gardens found at Daitokuji. All the same, there are many paintings, hanging scrolls, sliding screens and other art treasures in the possession of Myoshinji and its sub temples. Myoshinji belongs to the Rinzai Zen school, of which it is the largest branch, as big as all others together - nationwide it has more than 3,000 affiliated temples and 19 monasteries. It also operates Hanazono University, set up in 1872.

Making waves
[Zen in the sand (from the dry garden of Taizoin)]

The garan with its formal array of seven buildings on a north-south axis is found at the southern end of the precincts. Starting from the south, these are the Sanmon (Mountain Gate), Butsuden (Buddha Hall), Hatto (Dharma Hall), and Hojo (Abbot’s Quarters); to the east of this axis stand the Yokushitsu (Bath House) and the Kyozo (Sutra Library) and to the west the Sodo (Monk's Hall). Many of the buildings in Myoshin-ji are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Near the main temple one also finds some gorgeous black pines (kuromatsu).

The ceiling of the Lecture Hall (Hatto) boasts a painting of a dragon by Kano Tan'yu, whose eyes follow you all around the hall. It is one of the best dragon paintings in the country, made around 1661. The dragon is not only a symbol of the life force of nature, but also as a water animal a magical protection against fire. The temple bell preserved here dates from 698, making it the oldest documented one in Japan and a National Treasure. Obviously, originally it belonged to another temple. It won't ring anymore - it has been fatally cracked, but it possessed a beautiful tone, as old records tell us, the sound of impermanence itself. Of interest is also the Bath House (Yokushitsu), a steam bath built in 1656 by the uncle of Nobunaga's assassin Akechi Mitsuhide. It was not so bad to be a monk here!

Bathing for Satori
[Myoshinji's bath house]

Visitors find the sub temples by venturing into the warren of winding paths. The major one is Taizoin (founded in 1404), standing conveniently west of the Sanmon Gate, famous for its two gardens: a traditional dry garden attributed to the painter Kano Motonobu, who once lived here, depicting a stream flowing between cliffs, and a modern garden with a pond, rocks and luxurious plantings such as azaleas blooming gorgeously in May, designed by renowned garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the mid-1960s.

Oasis
[The modern garden of Taizoin]

Keishunin was founded in 1632 and contains three small gardens, including a rare tea arbor; Daishinin (1492) has a modern garden again designed by Nakane Kinsaku. This finishes the list of sub temples that are normally open to visitors. Three more are of interest, but usually closed - you have to wait for a special opening around Culture Day etc. These are: Shunkoin, which owns the church bell of a Jesuit church built in the 16th c. in Kyoto and a garden of boulders based on the Ise Shrine (Shunkoin also hosts meditation classes); Reiunin featuring the oldest shoin structure in Japan, an Imperial Visit Room (Goko no Ma) dating from around 1543, as well as a fine dry garden; and Tenkyuin possessing rooms decorated with gorgeous screens by Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu.
Where: Myoshinji's South Gate (Sanmon) is a short walk north of Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano line; the North Gate is a short walk from Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Kitano line. 
When: From 9:00 to 15:40 there are tours of the Garan (Hatto and Yokushitsu) with 20 min intervals, except around lunch time. Closed April 1 and April 8-12. 500 yen. 
Taizoin: 9:00-17:00, 500 yen. 
Daishinin: 9:00-17:00, 300 yen. 
Keishunin: 9:00-16:30, 400 yen.