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

November 30, 2014

Two Shishigatani Temples: Reikanji and Anrakuji

Shishigatani is the area between the small Shirakawa River and the thickly wooded slopes of Higashiyama, just south of Ginkakuji. For centuries this shallow valley was farmer's land, interrupted only occasionally by a small temple or a country villa. But then, after WWII, the city started expanding and a wave of stucco houses swept also over Shishigatani. But with the Philosopher's path and the little, almost hidden temples - and despite the unpleasant rise in numbers of tourists - Shishigatani is still one of my favorite Kyoto haunts.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Reikanji temple halls on the hill slope]

Reikanji and Anrakuji both form part of this string of secluded, little temples that cling to the hillside where the slope of Higashiyama begins to get steep. They are usually closed and only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring and autumn.

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Reikanji or "Sacred Mirror Temple" is a nunnery of the Rinzai school of Zen. It was established in 1654 for the 10th daughter of the retired Emperor Gomuzinoo, Johosshinin no Miya Socho. The new temple took over as main image the Nyoirin Kannon statue (as well as sacred mirror) of a temple in the area that had been closed.

Until the Meiji Restoration, Reikanji served as a monzeki monastery that always had an imperial princess for its abbess. The Shoin, the first building one passes, possesses screens by Kano Motonobu. Opposite is a small moss-covered rock garden with old stone lanterns and a pond which used to contain water, but now stands dry. On a somewhat higher level and connected via a corridor, stands the main hall housing the small Kannon statue.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Maple leaves at Reikanji]

The garden spreads out over the hill and the one-way path leads first steeply up, and later again down, through flowering bushes and trees. The flowering trees in the northern part of the garden include red and white camellias, plums and cherries. It is a fine, though small, garden. One exits via a path that leads under the corridor between the two temple buildings and finally can enter the Shoin, where usually some treasures of the temple are exhibited. These include fine makie lacquer work, and infallibly one also finds some of the marvelous dolls the princesses owned (like the Imperial nuns of Hokyoji). The temple is only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring (early April), when the cherry trees are in full bloom, and autumn (late November) when the maple trees are on fire.

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Anrakuji is a Jodo (Pure Land) temple that legend has firmly linked to Honen (1133-1212), the founder of that school, and two of his disciples, Anraku and Juren. It was probably founded around 1211-1212, to the memory of both these priests, although it was only named after one of them. It stands about one kilometer from the spot where Anraku and Juren had set up their cottage called "Shishigatani Soan." Both priests were experts in shomyo, Buddhist chanting, and their beautiful singsong had attracted many followers. Among them were also two court ladies of Emperor Gotoba, Matsumushi-hime (Pine Beetle) and Suzumushi-hime (Bell Cricket). They were so entranced by the teachings of the musical priests that they fled the palace and became nuns. Legend adds as spicy elements that the Emperor was especially fond of them and that the other palace ladies had become extremely jealous.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Main Hall of Anrakuji]

So the rumor machine worked at full speed, suggesting that the intentions of Anraku and Juren were not honorable. The handsome priests were accused of having a love affair with the beautiful palace ladies. As a result, Emperor Gotoba - who had already for a long time been pronged by the traditional schools to put a stop to the teachings of Honen - became furious and exiled the aged Honen. Anraku and Juren were hit by a harder fate, for they were executed on the bank of the Kamo River on a charge of immorality. The grounds of Anrakuji contain the small graves of Anraku and Juren, and - chastely in a different spot - those of the palace ladies, who became nuns and died at a later time.

The grounds of Anrakuji are well-planted and have fine camellia trees. The graves are to the right (Anraku/Juren) and far right (at the back) of the entrance path; the path leading to the main hall, standing to the left, crosses this at a right angle. Both sets of graves are surrounded by low fences.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Anrakuji - The graves of the two court ladies]

The present main hall dates from the late 16th century. The central trinity in this hall of Amida, Kannon and Seishi, has been ascribed to Eshin (942-1017). The altar also contains an ancient Jizo statue. To the left of the main altar stands a smaller altar with a statue of Honen and his most important follower, Shinran. Here one also finds a walking stick and hat said to have belonged to Shinran, but both look suspiciously newer. A right-hand altar contains the images of Anraku, Juren, Matsumushi-hime and Suzumushi-hime. The court ladies are depicted as nuns.

Connected to the main hall is a shoin type building, which has a nice garden with azalea bushes on its east side, against the green background of the Higashiyama hills. One can sit down here and relax. Anrakuji is filled with peace.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto
[Anrakuji - the Shoin garden with clipped azalea bushes]



November 26, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (2): Okochi Sanso

Okichi Sanso is a mountain villa, laid out on the sides and top of a steep hill next to Kameyama Park in Arashiyama. It affords grand views over both the city of Kyoto (towards the Higashiyama range) and over the gorge of the Hozu River. There are evergreen pine trees, but also maple trees and cherry trees which dress the garden in the color of the season. There are also several buildings, such as a shrine, a tea house and a private residence in traditional style, but these are not open to the public.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the lawn in front of the main house with a gorgeous Ginkgo tree]

Okochi Sanso is named after the man who constructed house and garden: Okochi Denjiro (real name Obe Masuo; 1898-1962), one of Japan's most famous film actors. Okochi's career started in 1926 with silent films, and he mostly - though not exclusively - acted in period films (jidaigeki). He worked with directors as Kurosawa Akira, Ito Daisuke, Yamanaka Sadao, Kinugasa Teinosuke, Inagaki Hiroshi and Makino Masahiro, and played next to famous stars as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Shimura Takashi and Hara Setsuko.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the main house called Daijokaku]

Among Okochi's famous films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo), a jidaigeki comedy made in 1935 by Yamanaka Sadao; and Sugata Sanshiro (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi, 1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946), all by Kurosawa Akira. His most famous genre roles in period film were that of the wandering gambler Kunisada Chuji and the nihilistic ronin Tange Sazen, who has lost his right eye and right arm due to betrayal. In non-period films (made during the Occupation after WWII, when jidaigeki were forbidden), he usually depicts a traditional, overbearing father.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - Mossy garden next to the Tekisuian tea house]

The 20 thousand square meter garden was constructed over a period of 30 years. The main structures, such as the Daijokaku main house and Tekisuian tea house were built in the 1930s and 1940s; only the Jibutsudo Buddhist shrine dates from the Meiji period and was brought here from elsewhere. This unique garden has only few flat spaces - the largest one is in front of the main house, where visitors can sit down on benches and enjoy the view over Kyoto. Another one is close to the entrance, where there is a restaurant serving the cup of green tea and a sweet included in the (somewhat higher than usual) entrance fee. There is also a mossy garden next to the exquisite Tekisuian tea house. But for the rest this garden consists of narrow paths running steeply up or down the hill, all with one-way traffic - to see the garden, one has to do quite a lot of climbing. At the top of the hill is a viewpoint affording a view of the Hozu River gorge and Daihikaku Temple on the opposite hillside - but the view over the same river gorge from nearby Kameyama Park is better, as that allows a broader and more open view of the valley.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto
[Okochi Sanso - the view towards Kyoto]

As a bonus there is a small outdoor museum with pictures of Okochi Denjiro in various film roles; but unfortunately for foreign visitors, no effort at translation has been made here. The garden is open around the year and although one has to do some effort to see it, the reward for that is a rich seasonal feeling.

November 24, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (1): Hogonin

A few weeks ago, when the leafs on the trees were just starting to show some color, I visited two beautiful gardens in Kyoto's Arashiyama: the garden of Hogonin temple and the garden of the Okochi Sanso (Mountain Villa). Here follows first Hogonin.

Hogonin is one of the subtemples of Tenryuji, the Rinzai Zen temple that sits in a central position in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Hogonin was originally founded in the 15th century in central Kyoto, suffered several times destruction, then was restored in the grounds of Kogenji, another subtemple of Tenryuji, before being set up in the present independent location - a spot where originally another subtemple of Tenryuji had stood which was closed down. After that, during a spat of fighting with rebellious Satsuma forces in 1877, Hogonin's buildings were again destroyed, together with those of Tenryuji. In other words, the present buildings of the temple were all reconstructed in the 20th century, and you come here not for the architecture, but for the garden.

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Hogonin garden with large rock shaped like a Shishi lion]

That garden, which predates Hogonin, is ascribed to a disciple of Muso Soseki, the famous priest credited with the creation of the great Tenryuji garden. But as far as I can see, there is no proof for that ascription. We only know for certain that the garden did exist in the Edo-period, as it is mentioned in travelogues of the 18th century (such as the Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zukan or Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako dating from 1799). The name of the garden is "Shishiku," which means "Lion's Roar" - an image of the preaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (in modern Japanese it also means "making an impassioned speech").

The garden is usually described as a "shakkei kaiyushiki teien," a "circuit stroll garden (often centered on a pond, but not here) that incorporates the surrounding scenery into its design." This is also called "borrowed scenery" (shakkei), but gardens with borrowed scenery usually have a framing device through which the borrowed scenery is viewed - as Mt Hiei seen through a frame of strategically placed trees in the case of the Entsuji garden. That is not the case here and as the Arashiyama hill serves more as a diffuse background and continuation of the tall trees in the Hogonin garden itself, I doubt whether it formally could be called a "borrowed scenery garden."

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Arashiyama seen through the trees of Hogonin]

That does not make the garden less interesting, on the contrary: this is an enclosed "forest garden" (my term, not a traditional one!) with tall Japanese maple trees (iroha momiji), various varieties of moss, and several colossal rocks. In one place, a pine tree grows from a rock, having split the stone in two. The garden almost seems to be natural, but of course is carefully tended. The moss is so beautiful that Hogonin is a good alternative to the so-called Moss Garden Temple (Kokedera) elsewhere in Arashiyama, which restricts visitors by a super-high entrance fee and compulsory sutra copying. The rocks in Hogonin must have been eroded in the past by the nearby Oi River - thanks to the human "Rorschach fallacy," one of them looks indeed like the Shishi lion that gives the garden its name.

What makes this garden interesting is the natural atmosphere - the murmuring of a small stream that flows through it, the bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, these are all like "wordless preaching." There are some benches where visitors can sit down to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Adding to the rustic character are several interesting bamboo fences, one made with bamboo branches (not poles) packed tightly together (takeho-gaki); there is also an unusual hanging bamboo gate as used in tea ceremony gardens, made from strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern (shiorido). Although these elements are newly made by the gardeners, they wonderfully fit the garden. The only element that I could do without is the small "themed garden" that has been laid out near the entrance and that shows the Buddhist River Styx (made with large, round stones), with a boat-stone to pass to the "other side (higan) where three large upright stones symbolizing the Amida trinity wait - this is just too artificial.

Hogonin, Kyoto
[Maple leaf on the moss]

For an extra fee, one can have matcha in the tea house in the garden; and for another extra fee it is also possible to enter the main hall and see the screens by contemporary painter Tamura Noriko - but for me, the garden with its beginning autumn colors was more than sufficient. As an added bonus there is a cute set of arhats (rakan) called the "Arashiyama Rakan" sitting outside, opposite the gate of Hogonji. It is good this fine temple is nowadays open (something which only started recently), if only for a few weeks in spring and in autumn.



November 4, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: November

November is traditionally called Shimotsuki, or “Month of Frost.” It is the time that temperatures get lower and days shorter - one week into November the seasonal turning point of Ritto comes along and actual winter is deemed to start.

But November is in fact a most beautiful month as it is the time of momiji (maple leaves). Although less well-known outside Japan than cherry blossoms, in Japan the koyo or colored leaves of autumn are just as big an event. Like hanami or blossom viewing, momijigari ("hunting for colored maple leaves") draws huge crowds. Not only the famed "sakura zensen," but also the "koyo zensen" or "front map of autumn colors" is heavily reported, from TV to magazines and internet. Based on the information given by the media, people plan day trips or short holidays to enjoy the fall colors. In the past, the beauty of autumn leaves was eulogized in poems and paintings. In the Heian-period, aristocrats would enjoy lavish banquets under the autumn leaves, gathering the fallen leaves, and writing poetry.


November is also characterized by several interesting public holidays and other events. November 3 is Culture day, when the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. There are also many art festivals and cultural activities nationwide. Museums have special exhibitions, such as the annual Shosoin Exhibition of priceless treasures and household goods once belonging to the 8th century Emperor Shomu held around this time at the Nara National Museum. There are also special temple openings in Kyoto, which are normally closed to the public, such as of subtemples of Daitokuji (these seasonal openings are nowadays held - depending on the temple - somewhere between late October and early December).

November 15 is a good day to visit a Shinto Shrine, as this is Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine Visiting Day), the "seven-five-three" festival when parents with boys of five, girls of seven and either boys and girls of three dress their children in gay clothes and take them to shrines where they pray for their children's future. These three numbers were chosen since odd numbers are considered lucky and also go back to old dress customs.

Tori-no-ichi or "Cock Market" is held in the Otori Shrine in the Taito Ward of Tokyo on the two or three days of the cock falling in November according to the old calendar. It is nowadays held for success in business and among the lucky items for sale are kumade or bamboo rakes, to rake in good fortune.

On November 22 and 23 (a public holiday as this is Labor Thanksgiving Day) at the Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka the annual Shinnosai is held. This small shrine in the pharmaceutical district is dedicated to the Chinese and Japanese gods of Medicine and on the festival days it is customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) as a prayer for good health (see my post about the Sukunahiko Shrine and Doshomachi).

Although the weather in November is generally good, in early November (or sometimes already in late October) a cold wintry wind coming from the northwest called Kogarashi blows - “Kogarashi” is literally the wind that sears the leaves of the trees. The first such withering blast is called “Kogarashi Ichigo.” Early and mid-winter are also the season of Shigure, rain showers. These showers occur after the sky suddenly clouds over, but they pass quickly. Shimoyo is the name for nights when the stars are bright in the sky and there is a blanket of frost on the ground. November actually knows also many beautiful, clear days and these are known as Koharu(-bi), or “Little Spring” as the weather can be quite balmy.

As foods go, November is the season that kaki or oysters come to market, which are cultivated on a large scale, for example in Hiroshima. They are eaten raw, fried, cooked in hotpot or mixed through rice (kakimeshi). Another wintry seafood that starts being sold in November are large crabs from the coast of the Sea of Japan called zuwaigani. They are served in various forms, as sashimi and tempura, or just with some vinegar. It is also the season of ginnan or gingko nuts, from the prehistoric Gingko tree, which have a subtle taste and are eaten skewered, grilled or in chawan mushi.

As fruit goes, in November the season of kaki or persimmons starts. This autumn fruit rich in Vitamin C is either eaten raw or dried (hoshigaki); persimmons in Japan are usually sweet but there are also astringent varieties. Dried persimmons also form part of the New Year decoration. The orange kaki fruits hanging on the trees or after plucking strung under the eaves of farm houses are a beautiful sight in the Japanese countryside.

In the tea ceremony, finally, from November starts the use of the sunken hearth (ro), instead of the portable stove which is used in summer.

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

November 2, 2014

Why Murakami Will (Probably) Never Win the Nobel Prize

This year even Japanese television, NHK, was excited. Perhaps they really thought that, after the triple Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Japan would also get the Nobel in Literature in the person of popular author Murakami Haruki. The result was, of course, disappointment among Murakami's worldwide fan base. What surprised me, however, was not that Murakami again missed this prestigious prize. I was instead amazed that so many readers seriously believed Murakami could ever win the Nobel. That has nothing to do with whether Murakami is a good writer or not (although in my view he doesn't measure up to true Japanese giants as Soseki, Ogai, Akutagawa, Kafu, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Abe and Oe), - there are after all many excellent authors who never received the Nobel - it is simply for the objective reason that he doesn't fit the profile for the coveted prize.

Before we look at that profile, we first have to realize that the Nobel Prizes for Literature, Economics and Peace are very different from the Nobels for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. While those last three are "hard" sciences, where one can determine rather objectively how important a certain discovery has been (for example, because it has given rise to a whole new field of subsequent research), the prizes for literature, economics and peace are determined by ideology, by ideas. Should a market economy be controlled by a strict market master or should it be completely free? Should a country always invest in times of economic downturn, even if it already has a large debt, or should it be frugal and first clear-up that debt? These are all ideological choices, not science based facts. Even more so in the case of literature, where there are many different tastes and ideas about what constitutes great literature. So according to what general standard does the Nobel Committee make its literary choices? What is the profile of winning authors?

In accordance with the wishes of the founder of the prize, the Nobel Prize Committee makes its selection from a certain standard about what great literature should be. The standard has varied a bit since the prize was first awarded in 1901, but since WWII it is - just like the dominant culture in Europe - basically liberal and humanist, affirming the value of human life, emphasizing originality and autonomy, as well as addressing moral ambiguities and individual struggles with conscience. It is often engaged with the larger issues of society, without getting too overtly political; and it may be geared a little towards the left, again as is normal among European intellectuals. But the choice is always for individual human beings and their freedom, and not for ideology. As regards style, prizewinning authors are generally characterized by a complex and mature literary expression, without becoming too consciously artistic or turning into modernist fireworks.

By its selection, the prestigious Nobel institution sets up a standard of what according to them constitutes great, serious literature and then propagates that as the universal standard. In doing so, they often put the spotlight on authors who have unjustly remained somewhat in the shadows. This means of course that the Nobel Committee is not at all interested in how many fans a certain author has or who stands highest in the betting pools. The Nobel prize is not a popularity contest, but an informed and deliberate choice.

It will be clear this is not a profile into which Murakami Haruki easily fits. Take his contents, which are often said to have a rather narrow focus (with as possible exception his best novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), being mostly centered on the boredom and loneliness of young persons or others who seem to have never matured out of adolescence. He mixes in a generous amount of magic-realist elements, which is not wrong in itself (see Nobel winner Garcia Marquez) as long as it stays playful and ironic - Murakami's problem seems to be that, at least since Kafka on the Shore, he has started taking these supernatural intrusions too seriously. On the other hand, we don't find any struggles with conscience or moral problems in his novels - this in sharp contrast to this year's Nobel winner, Patrick Modiano, who writes about "the tyranny of memory of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation"and received the prize for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

It is also often said that Murakami is not improving with the years, on the contrary: a recent novel as 1Q84 is mostly judged as rather superficial and two-dimensional. So there seems to be a general down-ward trend in his work since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

And as regards the style of writing, Murakami's prose is rather bland and wooden - something which is not the fault of his translators, for it is the same in Japanese. Although that alone should not be an obstacle to getting the Nobel, it doesn't help, either.

But what does it all matter? Why would Murakami need a Nobel prize, except for reasons of (national) prestige or fan-base self-satisfaction? He is already a million seller. Countless readers are enjoying his books and - Nobel or no Nobel - will continue doing so... are prizes really relevant?

P.S.1 I like Murakami's early novels as A Wild Sheep Chase and especially his short stories best - I believe that is where his talent mainly lies. 
P.S.2 It is often stated that the Nobel Prize in the course of the 20th c., and especially at its beginning, missed a lot of great authors. That is true, but it is not the intention of the Nobel Committee to include all great authors from the world (that is over-estimating the value of the Nobel Prize!) - it would also be impossible with only one prize a year. What they want to do is much more modest: just ask attention for some of the authors who match their standard about what great literature should be. And of course everyone is free to disagree with that standard...
P.S.3 And who knows, next year the Nobel Committee changes its standard and Murakami wins after all. In that case I will be glad I put the word "probably" in my title...