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

August 31, 2014

Issa’s haiku in Obuse (Nagano): Chestnuts

Obuse is a small, attractive town with enough places to visit to warrant a day excursion from Nagano. Thanks to rows of old warehouses, it preserves a classical atmosphere and is nice to wander around in - everything can be seen on foot from the station.

Nowadays, Obuse is perhaps most famous for the Hokusai Museum, which displays about 40 scrolls and screens painted by the master (rather than his ukiyo-e) as well as two large festival floats he decorated. Hokusai's connection with Obuse came about later in his long life, when the prosperous Obuse-merchant Takai Kozan invited him to come and stay. Nearby the Hokusai Museum is also the house of Kozan, with Hokusai's studio and also paintings of demons on display by Kozan himzelf. A third museum in the town is the modern Obuse Museum, which has a wing dedicated to modern Japanese-style painter Nakajima Chinami, who is famous for his meticulous renderings of cherry blossoms and cherry trees. And, finally, a fourth one is the Japanese Lamp Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of lighting devices from the past.

[Hokusai painting on the ceiling of Ganshoji Temple in Obuse - Photo Wikipedia]

The other thing Obuse is famous for is rather sweet: chestnut cakes and chestnut candies. You will find factories in old storehouses and shops throughout the town. Two famous names are Chikufudo and Obusedo. Chestnuts are intimately linked to Obuse's history, as it was the Muromachi-period warlord Ogino Jorin who brought chestnut tress from Tanba and planted them in the Mabukawa Delta, a place with acid soil and therefore perfectly suited for this purpose. These chestnuts were so good that they were sent as presents to the shogun.

Haiku poet Issa, whose hometown was Kashiwabara, not far from Obuse, wrote the following "chestnut haiku:"

nobody picks it up
a wonderful chestnut
so big 
hirowarenu | kuri no migoto yo | okisa yo
Issa 


This haiku stone stands in front of Obuse Station. 

August 24, 2014

"The Gate" by Natsume Soseki (Book review)

The Gate (Mon), published in 1910, is one of Natsume Soseki's most delightful novels, thanks to the warm-hearted portrait of the happy love for each other of a married couple. There are countless novels in world literature about adultery and broken marriages, but how many are there of couples who are simply happy together?

No that the life of this couple, Sosuke and Oyone, is easy. They live in a sort of gentile poverty, Sosuke earns just enough as a low-ranking civil servant to make both ends meet. They rent a rather dark and cheerless house in Tokyo, and have no contact with family, no friends or acquaintances. Their solitary existence is wholly uneventful. You could almost say that they live as recluses in the big city, their gate always closed.

Engakuji, Kamakura
[Gate of Engakuji Temple in Kamakura - as Soseki had connections with Engakuji, this is probably the temple that plays a role in The Gate - see below]

This seclusion has been caused by a dark spot in their lives. When he was a promising student at Kyoto University, Sosuke had a good friend, Yasui. One year after the summer holidays, this Yasui suddenly set up house with a quiet young woman - the author does not make clear whether she was his wife or his girlfriend - and Sosuke also got to know her gradually. This young woman was Oyone. She and Sosuke fell in love and she broke with Yasui to marry Sosuke. This caused a scandal in the university town - these were strict times in which students were supposed to be models of society - and Sosuke was forced to leave university, ending his prospects for a flourishing career. He was also ostracized by his family and, to get away from scandalous rumors, moved with Oyone to Western Japan. Yasui voluntarily left the university to establish himself as a sort of adventurer-business man in Mongolia. Only after several hard years could Sosuke get his present government job and return to Tokyo, the city where he and Oyone were born.

The joint betrayal of Yasui has left both Sosuke and Oyone with a feeling of guilt. They have remained childless, although they would have liked children. Oyone has had three miscarriages, and they ascribe this fate to the "wrongdoing" which was involved in bringing them together. But their shared feeling of guilt also forms a strong bond and they are happy with each other. Their love is the one abiding element in their lives.

Natsume Soseki gives detailed descriptions of their daily life, the halting conversations they have together, and the Tokyo scenery of the late Meiji-period. The atmosphere of their almost featureless days is unfailingly conveyed, but never gets boring thanks to the superior writing. Of course, readers who are looking for dramatic plots are at the wrong address, Japanese literature is not about plot but about atmosphere. That being said, drama is smoldering quietly below the surface of this novel, all connected to the betrayal that has connected Sosuke and Oyone. For example, after the event Sosuke has become sluggish and a procrastinator - he has even allowed his uncle to strip him of part of his inheritance without speaking up. His younger brother, Koroku, who is still at university, used to be financially supported by that uncle, but the money now stops and Koroku comes to live with Sosuke and Oyone, disturbing their quiet routine. Again, it takes time until a solution is found. On a positive note, the solitary Sosuke has come to know their wealthy landlord, Sakai, an extroverted and generous person, who lives on the hill behind their house and has a large family. Sosuke is often invited for a talk by this landlord and that leads to a small drama: Sakai invites him to a dinner where also a man called Yasui, recently returned from Mongolia, will be present...

Sosuke is completely shaken by this news and to avoid the dinner runs off to a Zen monastery in Kamakura, hoping by meditation to find some way out of his anguish. But already in the early 20th century, Zen was so far from the daily lives of ordinary Japanese, that Sosuke had no idea what was waiting for him in the temple. After struggling for ten days in vain with a koan, on a meager diet, he again leaves in despair. He has been unable to open the symbolical three gates of enlightenment (Sangedatsumon), those of emptiness, formlessness and inaction.

But although enlightenment is not waiting for him, nor the worldly success of his neighbor Sakai, he is happy to be quietly home again. Miraculously, most problems, small as they were, have evaporated as non-occurrences: Yasui has returned to Mongolia without causing trouble, a solution has been found for Koroku (who becomes a shosei, a student lodger in the house of the landlord) and although a restructuring is undertaken in the ministry, Sosuke's job is spared and he even gets a small rise.

In the final pages of the novel Sosuke is back with Oyone and settles down again in a quiet vein behind their own gate. Spring is in the air, Sosuke who has just been to the hairdresser, tells Oyone that other customers were talking about hearing the first bush warbler of the year.
Gazing through the glass shoji at the sparkling light, Oyone's face brightened. "What a sight for sore eyes. Spring at last!"
Sosuke had stepped out on the veranda and was trimming his fingernails, which had grown quite long.
"True, but then it will be winter again before you know it," he said, head lowered, as he snipped away with the scissors.
This is a novel without illusions, but filled with a gentle compassion.

Read The Gate in the excellent new translation by William F. Sibley, published by New York Review Books (and replacing the older translation by Francis Mathy in Tuttle Books). Of the Japanese original many editions exist, and it is also available as a free etext at Aozora.  

August 22, 2014

Hyakumanben, Kyoto

"Hyakumanben" is the crossing between Imadegawa and Higashi-oji streets, near Kyoto University, and there couldn't be a stranger name: "one million times."

In fact, the name belongs to the temple standing in the northeastern corner of the crossing: Chionji, and that means the "one million times" has a religious intent. In 1331 a plague struck Kyoto and all supernatural means to stop it were ineffective, until the priest Kuen of Chionji chanted the "Namu Amida Butsu" incantation one million times... Emperor Godaigo afterwards gave that name to the temple and now it is the designation of the whole neighborhood.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The spacious grounds of Hyakumanben Chionji]

"Namu Amida Butsu" means "I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida" and chanting this brief prayer, with faith, was essential to ensure rebirth in the paradise of the Buddha Amida. This was the religious revolution caused by Honen, who considered modern people to be too decadent to be able to reach enlightenment by meditation or other forms of hard practice. In Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism, believers have to chant this so-called "Nembutsu" as many times as possible, the more the better - thus the one million times to stem the plague. Honen's disciple Shinran further simplified the practice, by posing that one recitation in one's lifetime, if done with faith, was sufficient - that is now common in Jodo Shin Buddhism, the New Pure Land sect.

The temple came only to this spot long after the "hyakumanben" event - it was moved here in 1661 from its original location north of the imperial palace - it seems to have been a jinguji, a temple of the Kamo Shrines. The link with Pure Land Buddhism was made because Honen once stayed there when in the capital for missionary work.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The giant prayer beads]

Chionji is a relaxed temple that makes its spacious grounds often available for secondhand book markets or handicraft markets (on the 15th of every month). There are no great statues or gardens here, but it is a nice place for a casual visit. The main hall is interesting for the huge prayer beads (juzu) hanging along the walls, all around the large building. They are used for the memorial services for Honen.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[Shinshindo]

Being close to Kyoto's major university, Hyakumanben is a nice area with small student cafes and bookshops. My favorite place is Shinshindo ("Notre Pain Quotidien"), a bakery and student cafe where you sit on simple benches at long and heavy wooden tables, scarred by years of use. It is a favorite student haunt, a nice place to write or study. Lots of space to spread out books and newspapers, although now you see most professors and students staring at the screen of their smartphone or tablet. There is also a small shady garden at the back where visitors can take their coffee. The menu is simple and you have to order your coffee with or without milk - they put it in for you (no customizing here), but the atmosphere is nicely nostalgic.

The cafe was founded in 1930 by Tsuzuki Hitoshi, the first Japanese to study for two years authentic French baking in Paris. Do not confuse this academic cafe with the chain of Shinshindo coffee shops you find all over central Kyoto - these are nothing special, although they apparently share the same founder.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The entrance of Kyoto University close to Hyakumanben]

(Revision of a post that has briefly appeared some years ago on a previous version of Japan Navigator)

August 8, 2014

To the Heart of Daimonji (Daimonjiyama, Kyoto)

Daimonji is the mountain in eastern Kyoto boasting the huge character for "Dai", "Big" that plays the central role during the "Gozan Okuribi" festival on August 16 when it goes up in a huge blaze at eight o'clock sharp. During that festival five huge bonfires are lit in the evening on Kyoto's eastern and northern hills. In mid-August the spirits of the deceased return to the earth for a brief visit. They are welcomed with offerings on the Buddhist home altars, but on the 16th they must depart again and the fires are meant to guide them back to the other world. The 446 m. high mountain looms up behind the Silver Pavilion, but you don't have to be satisfied with looking at it from groundlevel. It is relatively easy to climb and, standing in the heart of the "Dai," you will have a magnificent view of the old capital.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[View of Kyoto from Daimonjiyama. The green patch in front is Mt Yoshida with Shinnyodo, the one behind that Gosho, the old palace; the narrow one on the right is the Shimogamo Shrine]

I had been there before, many years ago, so long that I could not remember the path up the mountain anymore, nor the stone steps near the top. And in my memory the "Dai" was a grassy field, while in present-day reality it appeared to be rather overgrown and the face of the hill much steeper than I thought.

At the point where I stood was an altar dedicated to Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and perhaps the most famous Buddhist cleric Japan has known. He is credited with all kinds of inventions and too numerous temple foundings to be true and to my surprise also with establishing the custom of the Daimonji fires. Apparently he had a vision of the Amida statue of Jodoji (the temple that stood here before Ginkakuji was built) flying up into the air with a flash of light, so he started lighting the annual send-off fires in commemoration. This is clearly nothing more than a pious legend, but Daimonji still starts every year at 19:00 by lighting lanterns and chanting sutras at the Kobodaishi Hall. The light from the lanterns is then used to light the fires on the mountain.


Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[The center of Daimonji with the altar of Kobo Daishi]

There are in fact two more explanations of the origins of the Daimonji bonfires. The second explanation also smacks of the legendary, if only because an important historical figure is involved, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the founder of Ginkakuji. Yoshimasa reputedly started the custom to commerate the death of his son, who was killed in battle in 1489. He had one of his retainers engrave the character Dai on the hillface behind Ginkakuji and set it ablaze in August 16 to send off the soul of his son. It is true that you have a great view of Mt Daimonji from the area north of the old Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho), where the Ashikaga shoguns had their "Palace of Flowers", but Yoshimasa was at that time already living in his Higashiyama mansion, now Ginkakuji, directly below the hill from where he could not see the Dai shape. Moreover, this would be only a one time event and does not explain how the bon fire came to be celebrated annually by the whole city, not only here, but also by fires in various other shapes on Kyoto's hills.

Thus we turn to the third explanation, that the Daimonji Okuribi festival was in fact started by the townspeople of Kyoto. Even here an Imperial Prince, Konoe, makes his appearance as calligrapher of the character Dai. Japan is a hierarchical society where apparently everything has to be linked to someone of importance in order to be important enough to consider. But we do not need princes or priests to understand Daimonji. This third explanation is the right one: Daimonji and the other bonfires on Kyoto's hills originated among commoners, among ordinary townfolk. A supporting fact is, that there is no official account of its origin, despite that the court chronicled all other seasonal activities.

Of course, the Gozan Okuribi is part of the Bon festivities which cover a week in mid-August and which were first recorded for the 16th century. This is the time the souls of the ancestors are welcomed back to the earth, to be regaled with food and incense. In the end, they are sent off again with small bonfires in the streets and by hanging out countless lanterns. So O-bon has always been a Festival of Light, of Ten-thousand Lamps (Manto-e). The step to lighting large bonfires on the hills, where all could see them, instead of small ones in the city itself, seems a natural one - it was also made possible by the rise of neighborhood associations who would built those fires together. This blowing up of the Festival of Light may also have been motivated by fear of angry spirits due to the many wars in the Muromachi period, such as the devastating Onin War in the late 15th. c.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[The fires are built on these stones]

The first mention of Daimonji comes from a diary dating from 1603. In the mid of the 17th c., when Japan was at peace and tourism became a popular pastime, the large bonfires on the hills of Kyoto became famous - but by then the origin had already been forgotten. This is also the period the theory about Ashikaga Yoshimasa first appeared.

Another mystery is the character Dai, "large." Why this character? Is it a human with outstretched hands? Or the halo of the Buddha Amida? The answer can be found in Rokuharamitsuji, a beautiful old temple in central Kyoto, where during O-bon many small lights in the Dai-shape are lighted. According to this temple, the Dai represents the four elements Earth, Fire, Water and Wind, plus a fifth one, Air, and so stands for all of Nature, for respect for the ancestors and fear for of the natural forces around us.

The character Dai that has been encrusted on the hill face is huge. The horizontal stroke measures 80 meters across, the longer vertical stroke is a full 160 meters. This is the first fire to be lit during the festival, exactly at 20:00. In the past the fires would be built in pits, now the wood is carefully piled up on stone foundations. It takes 600 piles of firewood, 100 piles of pine tree leaves and 100 piles of straw to light Daimonji. Mixed in are gomagi, pieces of wood on which people write a wish - you can buy a gomagi in the morning and afternoon of the festival in front of Jodoji Temple, next to Ginkakuji.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[View of Kyoto against the setting sun]

Daimonji has found its way into the hearts of the people of Kyoto, as is shown by several beliefs that have come up concerning it. For one thing, you should try to catch the reflection of the bonfire in your sake cup and then make a wish - that wish will certainly come true. Another belief is that the remnants of the fires, small pieces of charred wood, become powerful amulets. Many people therefore climb up Daimonji to find them on the day after the festival.

Dusk is falling, I have to hurry to get down the mountain... I start walking after one last look at the city, peaceful in the rays of the setting sun...
Mt Daimonji can be freely climbed, except on the day of the festival. The path starts at the back of Ginkakuji. In front of Ginkakuji, facing the hill, turn left; take the first right; and the first right again; you are now at the back of Ginkakuji. Where the valley ends, a path to the right leads up the mountain. The steps can be quite steep; the last section is a stone staircase. Wear good shoes and don't go when the path is too wet and slippery.

Best places for viewing the Daimonji bonfire are from the northern part of Kyoto, for example along the Shimogamo River, near the Shimogamo Shrine, etc.

The other bonfires are: the charachter Myo on Mt Mantoro and the character Ho on Mt Daikokuten - together these form the words "Wonderful Law," pointing to the Buddhism of the Nichiren sect; a ship sailing with souls towards the Pure Land of the Buddha on Mt Funayama; a smaller character for Dai on Mt Okita; and the shape of a torii-gate on Mt Mandara, symbolizing the Atago Shrine in northwest Kyoto.

August 6, 2014

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho)

From 794, when Kyoto was founded as Heian-kyo, to 1869, the Emperor of Japan lived in Kyoto, encircled by not only his household and courtiers, but also a whole government apparatus. What is now an almost empty green zone, used to be the busy economic, political and ritual focus of the city. It is amazing that so little is left of it, the wooden structures without heavy foundations just have faded away, together with the people who lived and worked here. Another surprise are the frailty of the defenses - just a simple wall - demonstrating how little contested the imperial position was during Japan's long history. There has been only one attack, in 1864, on the Hamagurimon outside the palace proper, and that was not aimed at the emperor as the assailants only wanted to offer him a petition.

Gosho, Kyoto
[The Shishinden, seen through the vermillion corridor]

Despite those peaceful circumstances, the present palace is not the original one. Fires and earthquakes took their repeated toll and the original 9th c. palace, which stood two kilometres to the west (a stone monument points incongruously at its location in what is now the busy Senbondori shopping street) was definitely abandoned in the mid-14th century. As that original palace was for a long time already in bad shape, provisional palaces (satodairi) had sprung up all over the city, as living and ceremonial quarters for the homeless court, and the present Imperial Palace was one of those, called Tsuchimikado-Higashinotoin-dono. Originally a residence of the Fujiwara family, close relatives of the imperial family, it became the one and only palace at the ascension to the throne of Emperor Kogon in 1331.

That does not mean we are now looking at the original 14th c. structures, far from it. Fires continued consuming wooden structures, the palace underwent numerous reconstructions. The last great fire raged in 1854 and almost all present buildings date from 1855.

Gosho, Kyoto
[Shin-Kuruma-yose, a porch built in 1914 for the Emperor's car]

There are a great number of structures inside the long earthen wall that encloses the palace proper. In the first place there are six gates in the wall, it depended on your status where you could enter. The imposing main gate, Kenreimon, in the south wall was only for the Emperor himself. Kenshunmon on the lower east side was originally for imperial messengers, the Gishumon on the east side was for ministers, court nobles and close family members of the emperor, the Seishomon also on the east side for children of the royal family but it also served as a sort of service entrance. The final two gates, on the upper east and north sides gave entry to the residence of the empress.

Inside the precincts, the building order is one of increasing privacy from south to north. In other words, we first have the hall of state for official receptions, then the living quarters of the emperor himself, and at the back the residences of his empresses and concubines.

Gosho, Kyoto
[In line in front of the Shishinden]

The main official structure and most imposing building of the palace is called Shishinden. Here annual rituals were held and it was also used for enthronement ceremonies - lastly so for the Showa Emperor. Behind the thrones are panels with illustrations of Chinese sages. It stands turned toward the south, the direction in which emperors and rulers always faced in China. The hall has a thatched roof made of very thick layers of cypress bark. The Dantei, the South garden in front of the Shishinden was also used for ceremonies and is a solemn expanse of white gravel with a cherry tree to the right and an orange tree to the left of the hall.

The Shodaibu-no-ma is a series of three waiting rooms, in which visitors were divided according to rank - the lowest had to be content with the Room of Cherry Trees, while those of top rank were allowed to feed their self-esteem in the Room of Tigers.

The Seiryoden faces east instead of south and although this used to be the emperor's residence in Heian times (still visible because of the sliding doors that could partition the room into private spaces), later it came to be used for ceremonies. In the center of this hall a throne has been placed as well. The Kogosho was a ceremonial hall for the use of the crown prince - it dates from only 1958 as the old one burned down due to a piece of fireworks that landed here by mistake from outside the palace.

Gosho, Kyoto
[Shishinden]

Ogakumonjo is a study room, also used for poetry parties, and the Otsune-goten, finally, was the emperor's residence, containing fifteen rooms and thus quite spacious. Like the Seiryoden, this building faces east, towards the rising sun, the land of Amaterasu, in mythology the imperial ancestor.

Farther north of this are the quarters of the empress and her court ladies, but these are never shown to the public.

Gosho, Kyoto
[The classical garden]

In front of the Kogosho and Otsune-goten stretches a large, classical landscape garden (Oike-niwa), with a pond and stone bridges and shady pine trees. Apparently, the Meiji Emperor missed this garden most of all after the move to what had been the shogun's castle in Tokyo.

Although situated right in the middle of the busy city, the palace is extremely quiet and peaceful and visitors take home a whiff of the solemnity that still imparts it.
Access: Kyoto Gosho is administered by the Imperial Household Agency and open to the public in the form of guided tours. Written permission has to be obtained in advance - see here for the procedure. In addition, Gosho is open to the general public for five days in spring and in autumn - at that time no permits are required. Get there by the Kyoto subway, Imadegawa or Marutamachi St.